Review: ‘Desperados,’ starring Nasim Pedrad, Lamorne Morris, Anna Camp, Sarah Burns, Robbie Amell and Heather Graham

July 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sarah Burns, Nasim Pedrad and Anna Camp in “Desperados” (Photo by Cate Cameron/Netflix)

“Desperados”

Directed by LP

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and Mexico, the romantic comedy “Desperados” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A desperate-to-married woman is convinced her new boyfriend will break up with her after sending him a hateful email over a misunderstanding, so she enlists two of her female friends to go with her to Mexico, where he’s on vacation, in order to delete the email before he sees it.

Culture Audience: “Desperados” will appeal primarily to people who like predictable and often unrealistic romantic comedies.

Nasim Pedrad and Lamorne Morris  in “Desperados” (Photo by Cate Cameron/Netflix)

As long as the messy and very fake reality TV franchise “The Bachelor” continues to attract millions of viewers, there will always be a big-enough audience for messy and very fake romantic comedies like “Desperados.” This movie is as formulaic and predictable as you might expect. But worst of all, “Desperados” wants to pretend that it’s feminist and edgy, when it’s really not. “Desperados”—directed by LP (the work alias for Lauren Palmigiano) and written by Ellen Rapaport—might have all the appearances of a contemporary film. But at its core, the film’s message about how women should act and how women should be rewarded when looking for love is as old-fashioned as a Doris Day movie.

In “Desperados,” the central character is Wesley “Wes” Darya (played by Nasim Pedrad), a divorced, childless woman in her late 30s who’s living in Los Angeles and experiencing an early mid-life crisis. After ditching a career in corporate finance, Wes has decided to become a high-school guidance counselor. She’s been struggling to find a job (mostly because she ruins her interviews by being a vulgar motormouth), and she’s having a hard time paying her bills. Things have gotten so bad for Wes that when she gets an occasional babysitting job from a friend, she steals food from the family’s refrigerator.

Wes’ love life isn’t going so well either, since she isn’t seeing anyone special, and her recent dates have been duds. Wes also has a serious case of social-media envy, since she’s obsessed with comparing her life to the seemingly wonderful lives of her friends and other peers. Wes is also starting to feel her biological clock ticking, since she’s contemplating freezing her eggs when she has the money to do that procedure.

Wes’ two best friends—Brooke Barnes (played by Anna Camp) and Kaylie Mills (played by Sarah Burns)—are the same age as Wes. Brooke and her husband have a baby son together. Kaylie and her husband have been unsuccessfully trying to conceive a child. Wes envies Brooke and Kaylie, just because they’re married and don’t seem to have any money problems.

One day, while Wes and Kaylie are over at Brooke’s place, Wes begins complaining about her life. They advise her that it’s not healthy to compare her life to other people’s lives on social media, because people always hide their problems. Brooke tells Wes that marriage isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, while Kaylie says that infertility can put a big strain on a relationship where two people desperately want to have a child. But Wes doesn’t want to hear about how her two best friends feel about their marriages, because in Wes’ mind, she’s gotten the rawest deal out of the three of them, because she has no man, no job and no children.

Something that sets Wes over the edge while she wallows in self-pity is getting a voicemail message from her ex-husband Erik, who tells her he’s gotten engaged. And by the way, as Erik says in his message, he and his fiancée are featured in a romantic photo spread in the latest issue of Brides magazine. Of course, Wes rushes to a magazine stand to look at the article, and her jealousy goes into overdrive when she finds out that Erik’s fiancée is younger, prettier and more accomplished than Wes is.

Wes is even more desperate to find a new man, now that she knows her ex-husband is getting married. Wes goes on a blind date that was set up by a mutual friend. The friend (whose name is Tad and who’s never seen in the movie) has set Wes up with a widower named Sean McGuire (played by Lamorne Morris), who texts and calls her in a friendly conversation before the date. (Jason Mitchell was originally cast in the Sean McGuire role, before he was fired in 2019 over a #MeToo scandal on the Showtime series “The Chi,” and he lost other jobs as a result.) Sean and Wes agree that if their blind date goes badly for either of them, they should use the code word “no” to end the date right there, with no hard feelings.

Wes’ date with Sean at a casual restaurant starts off pretty well—until she starts blabbering about how all of her friends have great jobs and great relationships and that her ex-husband is getting married. At this point in her life, Wes is old enough to know that sounding like a whiny and jealous shrew is not the way to make a good impression on a first date. But she’s so self-absorbed that she doesn’t realize that she’s turning off Sean, until he tells her the code word “no.”

At first, Wes doesn’t understand that Sean wants to end the date. But when she finally realizes that he’s done with the date and wants to leave, she rips into him about how hard her life is and how hard it is to find a good man in Los Angeles. Okay, well that rant is just going to confirm that he made the right decision to end the date. Sean is a gentleman, and he lets Wes leave in a huff.

As an angry Wes storms out of the restaurant, she trips on one of the steps and falls flat on her face. And lo and behold, she’s helped up by a handsome stranger named Jared Sterling (played by Robbie Amell), who invites her over to his place that night. And when Wes gets a look at Jared’s home, it’s obvious that Jared is doing very well financially.

Wes is flustered, partly because Jared seems like her dream man, but also because her fall outside the restaurant has left her a little dazed. She half-jokingly tells Jared that her brain might not be working correctly because of the fall. And he responds by telling that it’s okay, because he doesn’t want her to think too hard—as in, he doesn’t want her to be too smart for him. This demeaning comment would be a red flag to any self-respecting person, but Wes is too dazzled by Jared’s good looks and apparent wealth to notice that he wants a dumb, submissive girlfriend who’ll go along with whatever he wants.

Wes makes the same mistake that many women do in banal romantic comedies like this one: She pretends to be someone she’s not in order to “get the guy.” Wes pretends to like the same things that Jared does, which is shown in a montage that’s kind of cringeworthy and not very funny. Wes and Jared eventually become lovers, and the first time they have sex together, she’s already imagining them married with children.

Shortly after they’ve started sleeping together, Jared suddenly “ghosts” Wes. And, of course, after she calls and texts and still doesn’t hear from Jared, she assumes that this is his way of breaking up with her. Once again, Wes goes on a “poor me” diatribe about her love life when she’s hanging out with Brooke and Kaylie. In a drunken rage, Wes decides to send a hateful email to Jared from her laptop, by calling him all kinds of names and even mentioning his dead father as a way to hurt Jared. Brooke and Kaylie get caught up in it too, and they help Wes write some other things in the hate mail.

Wes has been stealing Wi-Fi service from a neighbor, so sending the email takes longer than expected. While Brooke and Kaylie oversee the laptop to send the email, Wes gets a phone call and takes the call in another room. The caller is Wes, and it turns out he’s been in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where he got into a terrible car accident and was in a coma for several days.

When she realizes that this is the reason why she didn’t hear from Jared, Wes frantically tries to stop Brooke and Kaylie from sending the email before it’s too late. But, of course, it is too late. The email was already sent.

Wes is terrified that Jared will read the email and break up with her. She rejects the idea of sending a follow-up apology email, because she doesn’t want Jared  to get any hint that she’s a psycho you-know-what. And so, because Jared mentioned that because of the car accident, all of his belongings (including his phone) are still at his hotel in Cabo San Lucas, Wes comes up with the extremely dumb idea of going to Mexico to find Jared’s cell phone, hack into it, and delete the email before he sees it.

Brooke, who is the most cautious and level-headed of the three friends, thinks it’s a bad idea. Kaylie, who’s the type of friend who believes that a Mexican shaman can help her become fertile, thinks it’s a great idea. Ultimately, Brooke is convinced to go on the trip because she thinks it’s good excuse to go on a vacation to Mexico.

And so, off the three friends go with no real plan to find and hack into Jared’s phone, except for Wes’ vague notion that they can walk around the resort where he’s staying and keep calling his phone, in the hope that they’ll hear his ringtone somewhere in this big resort. Never mind that they have no idea what room he’s staying at in the resort. (Hotels don’t give out that information for privacy reasons.)

You know exactly how this movie is going to end as soon as (surprise, surprise) Wes sees that Sean is staying at the exact same resort too. In between the inevitable, there are some repetitive pedophilia jokes involving an adolescent boy named Nolan Ryan Phillippe (played by Toby Grey), who’s about 12 or 13 years old, and staying with his protective mother Debbie (played by Jessica Chaffin) at the resort. Nolan develops a crush on Wes, who (through a series of slapstick circumstances to get to Jared’s room) ends up in the same room as Nolan wearing nothing but a towel, and Debbie catches Wes with her precious little boy.

It doesn’t help that Debbie’s horrified first impression of Wes was when Wes arrived at the resort, and Wes’ vibrator accidentally dropped out of her purse in front of Nolan. Of course, Nolan picked up the vibrator and asked his mother what kind of toy it is. This type of vibrator joke has been done before in so many other movies (such as in 2019’s “Good Boys”) that it’s an example of how unoriginal and uninspired “Desperados” is in when it comes to sight gags.

Heather Graham has a small role in the movie as Angel de la Paz, the “healer” whom Kaylie has hired to give her guidance about her fertility issues. The way this scene ends is very predictable, considering that Angel makes it obvious with her touchy-feely ways that she’s more interested in spending time with Brooke than she is with Kaylie. And the resort’s native Mexican workers Ramon (played by Rodrigo Franco) and Quintano (played by Izzy Diaz) are vaguely written characters that are treated as gullible idiots by the self-centered Wes when she needs to con or trick them into doing something for her.

Although Pedrad is a charismatic comedian in other projects, she’s saddled with playing a loathsome, less-than-smart character in “Desperados.” The uninspired and derivative screenwriting is difficult to overcome for any actors looking to do something unique with their roles in this movie. Morris’ Sean character is literally the straight man to Wes’ insufferable antics, and he doesn’t have much to do, except to play the “good guy,” who’s a lot more patient with Wes than he should be. (Pedrad and Morris played love interests in the sitcom “New Girl,” so at least they look comfortable working together.) The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles, with no particular standouts.

The main character in a romantic comedy doesn’t have to be “likable,” but audiences should expect the character to be believable. The reason why Wes (and most of this movie) is a big emotional fraud is because she tries to act like she’s an independent woman who can think and do things for herself, when the whole story revolves around her thinking that her life will be “ruined,” based on one angry email that she wrote to a boyfriend. This is how teenagers feel, not emotionally mature women in their 30s.

In fact, almost everything that Wes does is based on what she wants other people to think about her, not what will actually make her happy. Later in the film, Sean does a big favor for Wes that causes a significant change in her life, but she couldn’t even accomplish that change on her own. The essential message of “Desperados” is that Wes needs a man to “rescue” her. It’s a very outdated mindset for a movie that tries to pass itself off as “modern” or “feminist.”

“Desperados” throws in a lot of cursing and raunchy humor to make it look like it isn’t mawkish and sentimental. But in the end, this often-dull movie is just as sappy and unrealistic as the trite romantic comedies that are on the Hallmark Channel.

Netflix premiered “Desperados” on July 3, 2020

Carl Reiner dead at 98; comedic icon was father to actor/filmmaker Rob Reiner

June 30, 2020

by Jeffrey Peterson

On June 29, 2020, Carl Reiner, the comedic actor, writer,  producer and director who created and co-starred in the CBS comedy series “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” died of natural causes in his home in Beverly Hills, California. He was 98. His assistant Judy Nagy confirmed the death, which was first reported by TMZ, according to the Associated Press.

“The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which was on the air from 1961 to 1966, starred Dick Van Dyke as a TV writer and Mary Tyler Moore as his wife. The comedy series was inspired by Reiner’s real-life experiences working on Sid Caesar’s comedy series “Caesar’s Hour” from 1954 to 1957. Later in his career, Reiner was a frequent collaborator with Mel Brooks and Steve Martin.

In addition to acting in “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and numerous other TV shows, Reiner co-starred several movies, including 1963’s “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World,” 1966’s “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” and 1978’s “The Jerk.” His last film role was as the voice of Carl Reineroceros in 2019’s Oscar-winning animated film “Toy Story 4.”

He was directed several movies, including 1979’s “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” 1978’s “The Jerk” and 1977’s “Oh, God!” The last movie that Carl Reiner directed was 1997’s “That Old Feeling,” starring Bette Midler and Dennis Farina.

Carl Reiner was the father of Rob Reiner, who started out as an actor (best known for his co-starring role in “All in the Family”), but Rob eventually became a director too. Rob Reiner’s directorial film credits include 1984’s “This Is Spinal Tap,” 1987’s “The Princess Bride,” 1989’s “When Harry Met Sally,” 1990’s Misery” and 1992’s “A Few Good Men.”

Carl Reiner and is wife Estelle were married from 1943 until she died in 2008.. Car Reiner is survived by his children Rob, Lucas (who is a film director) and Sylvia, who is a psychoanalyst and author.

Review: ‘Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga,’ starring Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

Culture Representation: Taking place in Iceland and Scotland, the musical comedy “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An Icelandic male/female pop-music duo called Fire Saga aspire to on the annual Eurovision Song Contest, but they come up against naysayers in their home country as well as competitors from other countries.

Culture Audience: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” will appeal primarily to fans of stars Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams, as well as to people who like good-natured satires of fame seekers and hokey TV talent contests.

Dan Stevens in “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (Photo by John Wilson/Netflix)

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is an entertaining parody of the famous annual Eurovision Song Contest that feels retro and contemporary at the same time. The contest, which began in 1956 and is televised in numerous countries, has singers (usually performing pop music) competing from different countries around the world, as a sort of an Olympics for aspiring music stars. Will Ferrell and Rachel McAdams portray the earnest but naïve Lars Erickssong and Sigrit Ericksdottir, a musical duo from Iceland who perform under the stage name Fire Saga. Ferrell, who co-wrote the original screenplay with Andrew Steele, is one of the producers of this comedy. And it’s one of Ferrell’s best movies in years.

Although “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” (directed by David Dobkin) takes place in the present day, a lot of the musical sensibilities and costumes seem to be stuck in a previous decade, especially the 1980s or 1990s. The movie’s running joke, although not explicitly stated, is that certain parts of Europe are “behind the times” in pop music, because these countries rarely produce groundbreaking pop superstars on a worldwide level. Therefore, the performers who represent these countries at Eurovision are often ridiculed by Eurovision haters for looking and sounding outdated.

The trailer for “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” already shows that Fire Saga made it to the contest. Therefore, the first third of this 123-minute movie has no suspense, since it’s all about the obstacles that Fire Saga encounters in the quest to make it to Eurovision. Iceland has never had a Eurovision winner, so that immediately makes Fire Saga the ultimate underdog act.

The movie begins in Húsavík, Iceland, on April 6, 1974, when a pre-teen Lars (played by Alfie Melia), his stern widower father Erick (played by Pierce Brosnan) and other members of the family are watching Eurovision in the living room. The Swedish pop group ABBA is performing “Waterloo,” and Lars is transfixed. (ABBA won Eurovision that year and has remained Eurovision’s most famous winning act.)

As Lars dances along to ABBA performing on TV, he announces to his family that someday, he’s going to be a contestant on Eurovision. Several people scoff at the idea, including Erick, who says he’d rather be dead than to have his son sing and dance on Eurovision. Well, you know what that means.

About 45 years later, Lars is still living with his father, who makes a living as a fisherman, while Lars has a job giving parking tickets. Lars and his musical partner Sigrit (who is a music teacher) are longtime friends. They are singers and multi-instrumentalists, but they’ve been floundering in the dead-end local music scene. Fire Saga’s music “career” consists of rehearsing in the basement of Erick’s house and performing at a small local bar.

A running joke in the movie is that the patrons of this bar don’t want to hear any Fire Saga original songs (such as the trash-tastic “Volcano Man”) and would rather hear Fire Saga perform a very childish, nonsensical tune called “Jaja Ding Dong.” The audience is so fanatical about “Jaja Ding Dong” that they will often demand that Fire Saga perform it more than once in a single set. Is it any wonder that Lars and Sigrit think Eurovision will be their ticket out of this backwards town?

Erick isn’t the only one who thinks Lars is a loser and that it’s a delusional lost cause for Fire Saga to be on Eurovision. Sigrit’s single mother Helka (played by Elin Petersdottir) vehemently disapproves of Sigrit chasing this dream and tells Sigrit that she’s wasting her time with Lars. Although it’s not shown in the movie, it’s mentioned that Sigrit used to be mute as a child, until she met Lars and he helped her find her voice through music. And Lars and Sigrit have been friends ever since.

But now that they’re adults, Sigrit wants to be more than friends with Lars, because she’s secretly in love with him. Lars has the maturity level of a teenager (like most characters Farrell tends to play), so Lars is completely oblivious to Sigrit’s true feelings for him. As if to make the point that Lars and Sigrit don’t exude sexual chemistry with each other, throughout the movie, people who meet Lars and Sigrit for the first time mistakenly assume that Lars and Sigrit are brother and sister. Later in the story, when Sigrit and Lars almost kiss romantically, he stops it from happening because he says they can’t ruin their work relationship with a romance, and they have to stay focused on winning Eurovision.

But getting to Eurovision won’t be so easy. First, Fire Saga has to win the Icelandic Song Contest. Neils Brongus (played by Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), the president of Icelandic Public Television, leads a committee in charge of deciding who will be contestants in the Icelandic Song Contest. And he already has a favorite to win: Katiana Lindsdottir (played by Demi Lovato), from Kefalvik, a ready-made pop star with a powerful singing voice.

Neils tells his assembled team after watching Katiana’s audition video: “Without being dramatic, I think it might be the best audition tape we ever had in the history of the Icelandic Song Contest.”  (In the movie, Lovato sings the original song “In the Mirror.”) Compared to Katiana, Fire Saga looks like a bad joke.

Meanwhile, Victor Karlsson (played by Mikael Persbrandt), governor of Central Bank of Iceland, is worried about a contestant from Iceland winning Eurovision, which has a tradition of the winning contestant’s country hosting the contest in the following year. Victor fears that Iceland doesn’t have the infrastructure to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who would come to Iceland for Eurovision. And  he thinks that all those visitors during a short period of time could bankrupt Iceland.

Therefore, Victor is not enthusiastic about Katiana or anyone from Iceland winning Eurovision. When Victor expresses his concerns to Neils and the team at Icelandic Public Television, the rest of the group immediately shoots down Victor’s pessimistic prediction, because they think Eurovision coming to Iceland would be great for the Icelandic economy.

Lars’ dream of wining Eurovision becomes even more desperate when he finds himself homeless. His father Erick is having serious financial problems and has a choice to sell his house or sell his boat. Since Erick needs his boat for his fisherman income, he decides to sell the house.

Meanwhile, Sigrit has a quirk that Lars finds a little irritating: She believes in elves and thinks that elves can grant wishes. A recurring joke in the movie is that she visits a group of tiny houses built for elves and offers food and other gifts to the unseen creatures, as a way to entice them to grant her wishes. Two of her biggest wishes are to win Eurovision and to get together with Lars and start a family with him.

Through a series of unpredictable events, Fire Saga ends up representing Iceland at Eurovision, which is being held in Edinburgh, Scotland. How the usually hapless Fire Saga got to Eurovision wasn’t necessarily because Fire Saga was voted the best act, so Iceland’s support is lukewarm at best. Still, Iceland has given Fire Saga enough support that the country has hired a creative team to help Fire Saga win with Fire Saga’s chosen song “Double Trouble.”

The artistic director of this creative team is the very fussy and flamboyant Kevin Swain (played by Jamie Demetriou, in a scene-stealing performance), who sometimes clashes with the creative vision that Lars and Sigrit have for Fire Saga. During Eurovision rehearsals, Lars and Sirgit also meet another flamboyant character: Russian contestant Alexander Lemtov (played by Dan Stevens), a singer who flaunts his wealth and gives the impression that he will sleep with anyone to get them to do what he wants. Alexander’s Eurovision song is called “Lion of Love,” and his bombastic performance of the song includes a homoerotic choreography with male backup dancers wearing skintight gold lamé pants.

Alexander (whose frosted 1980s hairdo is reminiscent of George Michael in his Wham! days) immediately sets his sights on Sigrit to target as a sexual conquest. Meanwhile, Lars attracts the amorous attention of Greek contestant Mita Xenakis (played by Melissanthi Mahut), a singer who’s like a cross between Ariana Grande and Cher. Not surprisingly, some jealousy situations ensue.

In between all of the backstage drama and hilariously tacky performances, the movie has a standout musical ensemble number that takes place at a contestant party thrown by Alexander. In this scene, numerous contestants (including Lars, Sigrit, Alexander and Mita) do an extravagant medley of Cher’s “Believe,” Madonna’s “Ray of Light,” ABBA’s “Waterloo” and the Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling.”

Savan Kotecha, the musical director for this movie, assembled the team that wrote the film’s original songs that were deliberately kitschy. His background in writing and producing hits for real-life pop stars serves this movie very well. Among the hits that Kotecha co-written and co-produced include The Weeknd’s “Can’t Feel My Face,” Grande’s “God Is a Woman,” One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” and Lovato’s “Confident.” The musical score by Atli Örvarsson complements the pop tunes without being overbearing.

The movie’s Eurovision performance scenes, which includes footage from real Eurovision arena shows, are among the comedic highlights of the film. Just when you think an act couldn’t get campier or more pompous, another one comes along to surpass it. Graham Norton (portraying himself) adds an element of satirical realism with his cameo as the sardonic TV commentator for Eurovision.

For “Eurovision Song Contest,” McAdams and Ferrell have reunited with their “Wedding Crashers” director Dobkin, whose previous experience as a music-video director is an asset for this musical movie. As for the singing in the movie, Lovato and Mahut are professional singers in real life, so they did their own vocals. Adams’ vocals were either her own or a combination of McAdams and those of Swedish singer Molly Sandé. Alexander’s operatic singing vocals were provided by Erik Mjönes.

“Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” has plenty of lowbrow jokes that are actually laugh-out-loud funny. For example, there are several penis jokes and jokes about naked men in the movie. The jokes are crude but not offensive. In one scene, Lars comments: “I think of my penis like a Volvo—solid, sturdy, dependable, but not going to turn any heads.” Comedy is all about delivery, and Ferrell delivers the line in such a good natured, self-deprecating way, that it will make people laugh.

The movie doesn’t just poke fun at tacky aspiring pop stars from Europe. Americans are also the butt of many jokes in the film. During the course of the movie, Lars and Sigrit keep encountering the same group of college-age American tourists. Lars makes it known that he dislikes Americans, by taunting the tourists with the worst “ugly American” stereotypes. His insults aren’t too far off from how many non-Americans perceive Americans.

Make no mistake: “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” is by no means an Oscar-worthy movie. (Ferrell has never starred in that type of movie anyway.) But it is a cut above some of the stinkers that Ferrell has been headlining in recent years. At its heart, “Eurovision Song Contest” has a sentimentality to it that just might win people over in the way that Fire Saga earnestly tries to charm audiences—not by being the most talented but by being their unapologetically corny selves.

Netflix premiered “Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga” on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘My Spy,’ starring Dave Bautista, Chloe Coleman, Kristen Schaal and Ken Jeong

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chloe Coleman and Dave Bautista in “My Spy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“My Spy” 

Directed by Peter Segal

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago and Virginia, the action comedy “My Spy” has a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A bumbling CIA operative is “blackmailed” by a 9-year-old girl to teach her how to become a spy.

Culture Audience: “My Spy” will appeal mostly to people who like dumb, cartoonishly violent comedies that are entirely predictable.

Chloe Coleman, Parisa Fitz-Henley and Dave Bautista in “My Spy” (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)

“My Spy” (directed by Peter Segal) is one of those comedies that people know will be mindless from beginning to end. There’s hardly anything funny to be found in the movie’s trailer, which is an indication of how bad the movie is if the trailer can’t even highlight any good scenes. But what might really disappoint people is how boring this action comedy really is. Dave Bautista (the movie’s “tough guy” title character) is outshone in many scenes by his co-stars, including Chloe Coleman and Parisa Fitz-Henley, who play the daughter and mother who inevitably warm this dimwitted lug’s heart.

“My Spy” was written by brothers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber, a screenwriting duo whose previous credits include 2018’s “The Meg” and 2012’s “Battleship.” In other words, their specialty seems to be writing dumb action movies. But a dumb action movie can be entertaining if there’s plenty of action. “My Spy” falls very short of that expectation, as the movie’s pace gets dragged down when the main character starts dating a single mom and starts acting like a domesticated stepfather.

In “My Spy,” Bautista plays lovable dolt Jason “JJ” Jones, a CIA operative who keeps messing up his missions. JJ (who’s an ex-Special Forces agent) does it in the film’s opening scene, which takes place at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Pripyat, Ukraine. There’s a big fight sequence that ends with explosions, the bad guys defeated, and JJ in possession of a plutonium pit that has the power to save or destroy the world. (Don’t they all, in movies like this?)

JJ drives off in his Jeep, listening to Britney Spears’ “Baby One More Time,” as he basks in his victory. When he arrives at CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, he is greeted with a standing ovation by his co-workers. But JJ’s glory is short-lived when he’s informed by his boss David Kim (played by Ken Jeong, playing yet another in his long list of “cranky” characters) that there were actually two plutonium pits, and one of the bad guys named Azar Ahmad (played by Ali Hassan), who got away at the nuclear power plant has the other plutonium pit.

Meanwhile, David tells his team about an elusive criminal named Victor Marquez (played by Greg Bryk), an illegal arms trader who has recently been dealing in nuclear arms. Victor is so ruthless that he murdered his brother David because they were feuding with each other. Victor is believed to be working with a terrorist named Hasan (played by Basel Daoud), and the CIA thinks that the plutonium pit will find its way to Victor, who will probably sell it to Hasan.

JJ is excited about being assigned the mission to track down Victor. But his hopes are dashed because his boss David is fed up with JJ’s bungling and doesn’t want to give JJ a chance to correct his mistakes. David humiliates JJ in a group meeting by giving this coveted Victor Marquez assignment to JJ’s colleague Christina (played by Nicola Correia-Damude), and assigns JJ to “demotion” surveillance duty in Chicago. (It’s the equivalent of a homicide cop being assigned to traffic duty.)

JJ won’t be alone for this grunt work. His partner is Roberta “Bobbi” Ulf (played by Kristen Schaal, playing yet another goofy-but-nice character), who is very by-the-book. In other words, she’s more responsible than JJ. Bobbi and JJ go to Chicago, where (to JJ’s disappointment), they find out that they have to spy on a widow named Kate (played by Fitz-Henley) and her precocious 9-year-old daughter Sophie (played by Coleman), who live in a modest apartment.

JJ and Bobbie, who are doing surveillance duty in a nearby apartment on the same floor, are puzzled over why they have the boring task of spying on this innocent mother and daughter. However, it’s pretty obvious to viewers that Kate (who’s an emergency-room nurse) and Sophie aren’t just random characters in this story, especially when it’s revealed that they recently moved to Chicago to start a new life after Sophie’s father died.

Sophie is smart but she’s an outcast at school. One day, Sophie finds some of the surveillance equipment in her apartment discovers that JJ and Bobbi are CIA agents who are responsible for the spying. And Sophie has the evidence on video that she recorded on her phone.

JJ and Bobbi are terrified that this kid will blow their cover, so they let Sophie “blackmail” them. She tells them that she won’t release the video if JJ will teach her how to be a spy. It’s clear within the first few minutes of JJ and Sophie’s interaction with each other that what Sophie really wants is a father figure and a protector, since she’s lonely and having a hard time making friends at school.

The action comes to a screeching halt when long stretches of the movie consist of JJ hanging out with Sophie, and JJ and Kate developing a romance. Bobbi disapproves of this breach of protocol, but she’s more afraid of being exposed as a spy by Sophie than whatever ethics policies that JJ is breaking. Of course, this movie is so stupid that it wants viewers to believe that even though JJ is considered to be an untrustworthy screw-up by his boss, no one from the CIA bothered to check up on JJ in Chicago.

Therefore, when JJ hangs out with Sophie or Kate in public, he’s not exactly “undercover.” Although Fitz-Henley and Coleman have convincing chemistry together as mother and daughter, the “romance” chemistry between JJ and Kate isn’t very convincing. Coleman’s Sophie is both charming and bratty, but the movie’s script is so poorly written that the character barely rises above the generic “smart aleck” kid that’s been seen in many other movies.

And since JJ is supposed to be “tough on the outside and tender on the inside,” he’s socially awkward when it comes to dating. It just so happens there are two apartment neighbors in the building who come to JJ’s rescue to help him with grooming, wardrobe and romance advice: gay live-in boyfriends Carlos (played by Devere Rogers) and Todd (played by Noah Dalton Danby). A running joke in the film is that Carlos is the sassy motormouth, while Todd is the type who doesn’t like to talk. Todd literally does nothing but grunt in the movie, but this gag gets old very quickly.

The action scenes in “My Spy” are also cringeworthy, especially those involving explosions. Characters walk too close to explosions, which look like cheap visual effects. In real life, these people would be knocked down or severely burned if they walked that close to an explosion, not to mention the damage to their lungs from inhaling all that noxious smoke.

STX Entertainment was originally going to release “My Spy” in theaters, but the company dumped the movie by selling it to Amazon Prime Video. It’s easy to see why this dud isn’t worth the price of a movie ticket. With long spans of the film bogged down in the would-be “stepdad” subplot, “My Spy” fails to deliver a suspense-filled action story. In that regard, the movie is very much like JJ—a lot of witless talk with a lot of bungling along the way.

Amazon Prime Video premiered “My Spy” on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘Irresistible’ (2020), starring Steve Carell, Chris Cooper, Mackenzie Davis and Rose Byrne

June 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chris Cooper, Brent Sexton and Steve Carell in “Irresistible” (Photo by Daniel McFadden/ Focus Features)

“Irresistible” 

Directed by Jon Stewart

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the fictional working-class town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin, the political comedy “Irresistible” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high-profile and experienced Democrat National Committee strategist arrives in Deerlaken because he thinks he can groom a future Democratic presidential candidate by getting him elected a Democrat mayor of Deerlaken, but this mayoral campaign faces stiff competition from the campaign of the Republican incumbent.

Culture Audience: “Irresistible” will appeal mostly to fans of Steve Carell and political comedies, but the movie is nothing more than a series of lazy stereotypes.

Rose Byrne and Steve Carell in “Irresistible” (Photo by Daniel McFadden/Focus Features)

Contrary to what it looks like in the trailer for the political comedy “Irresistible,” this smug and annoying movie is not centered on a possible romance between Democrat National Committee strategist Gary Zimmer (played by Steve Carell) and Republican National Committee strategist Faith Brewster (played by Rose Byrne), as they’re pitted against each other in a mayoral campaign battle in the fictional working-class town of Deerlaken, Wisconsin. Byrne’s Faith Brewster character isn’t in the movie every much, even though photos and images of Byrne in the movie’s marketing materials make it appear is if she’s a co-lead actor in the movie. She’s not. She has a small supporting role.

Instead, “Irresistible” (written and directed by Jon Stewart) is very much enamored with making the condescending, posturing “liberal” Gary Zimmer the center of the story. It’s at least commendable that “Irresistible” did not try to completely copy the “love/hate/we know they’re going to get together” relationship of political opposites that was on display in director Ron Underwood’s critically panned 1994 comedy flop “Speechless.” Geena Davis and Michael Keaton starred in “Speechless” as political speechwriters working on rival campaigns—a story inspired by the real-life romance of James Carville and Mary Matalin, except that in “Speechless,” the woman was the Democrat and the man was the Republican.

In “Irresistible,” Gary is the worst kind of liberal: He thinks he’s open-minded and progressive, but he has the same old-fashioned stereotypical beliefs about women and people of color as the conservatives he says he despises. It’s unclear if writer/director Stewart (who is an outspoken liberal in real life) intentionally set out to do a satire of this type of self-congratulatory liberal, but the end result is a comedy film that takes itself way too seriously.

And, quite frankly, the screenwriting for “Irresistible” isn’t very good at all. Just because Stewart wrote a lot of jokes and won several Emmys when he hosted “The Daily Show” from 1999 to 2015, that doesn’t mean he’s a talented screenwriter for movies. “Irresistible” (not to be confused with the 2006 “Irresistible” love-triangle drama, starring Susan Sarandon, Sam Neill and Emily Blunt) is also an odd name for a political satire/comedy, since many people find politics to be the opposite of irresistible and actually quite repellent—much like how the competing political strategists in this movie are repulsive characters.

“Irresistible” starts off with a montage of photos of U.S. presidential campaigns from various Republican and Democrat nominees, from 1968 to 2016. The movie then shows Gary and Faith experiencing Election Day for the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign. Faith is reveling in the victory of Donald Trump, while Gary is crushed by Hillary Clinton’s loss.

The rest of the story then pivots to Gary’s point of view, as Faith only pops up here and there for the rest of the movie. Gary comes across a viral video of a former Marine-turned-farmer in Deerlaken (pronounced “Deer-locken”), giving a passionate pro-immigration speech at a town council meeting about undocumented workers. That farmer is Jack Hastings (played by Chris Cooper, in one of his long list of “folksy, salt-of-the-earth” roles), a widower who tells an anti-immigration city official in front of the assembled crowd: “I’m not saying you’re a bad person. I think you’re scared.”

Gary tells his assembled team at his headquarters in Washington, D.C., that this farmer could be a promising candidate to win a future U.S. presidential election because Frank is a hero ex-Marine who looks conservative but talks progressive. As far as Gary can tell, Jack is not affiliated with any political party and has no political aspirations, but Gary thinks he’s come up with a brilliant idea to groom Jack into a Democrat: Gary wants to go to Deerlaken to help Jack run for mayor.

“He’s a Democrat but just doesn’t know it,” Gary says arrogantly about Jack. Gary also crudely describes Jack to his team as “a man who makes Joe the Plumber look like [1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael] Dukakis in mom jeans and a fucking Easter bonnet.” This “joke” only works with people who know about U.S. presidential campaigns from the late 1980s and early 1990s.

When Gary tells his team that he wants to get Frank elected, it’s a problematic scene that reduces the few people of color in the scene (three Latino men and one black woman) as tokens who only speak up when Gary talks about needing representation from their racial groups. He condescendingly tells them that Hillary Clinton lost the election because not enough black people and Latinos showed up to vote for her. (Gary conveniently forgets to mention all the white citizens who voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, but didn’t vote for Clinton in 2016, even though Obama campaigned for her.)

Debra Messing has a brief, uncredited cameo in the scene as another “liberal” DNC staffer who thinks she knows best, by saying the best strategy for Democrats to win the next presidential election is to get more black and Latino citizens to vote. The Latino men in the meeting agree, and join hands with the Debra Messing character, while shutting out the black woman sitting in between them. The men utter something in Spanish in solidarity.

The only black DNC staffer (played by Denise Moyé) in the meeting speaks up, by saying that she agrees with Gary’s idea of expanding the Democrats’ base and not taking votes for granted. The Debra Messing character (who also doesn’t have a name in the movie) sheepishly agrees.

It’s a cringeworthy, pandering and poorly written/depicted scene. The one thing that’s fairly accurate is how Gary, like a lot of people in power, think they can speak for all racial groups on their team, without actually checking to see how the team members from different racial groups actually feel about those topics.

At any rate, by the time Gary and his nearly all-white team head to the nearly all-white Deerlaken, his massive ego thinks that he can roll into town and tell these people what to do because he’s a big-city intellectual liberal who’s a big-shot strategist from the DNC. Of course, the movie’s biggest credibility plot hole is that in real life, a political strategist with this amount of clout would not waste all this time to get a small-town mayor elected. Why? There’s not enough money in it for the strategist.

Gary convinces Frank to run for mayor as a Democrat by saying things like: “I know you don’t think of yourself as a Democrat, but after hearing your speech, I can assure you, you are. And I would like to offer you my company services to do so … Democrats are getting our asses kicked because guys like me don’t know how to talk to guys like you.”

Faith finds out that Gary is in this small town for this campaign, so she shows up in Deerlaken to be the strategist for the Republican incumbent Mayor Braun (played by Brent Sexton), because apparently she has nothing better to do with her time either. Faith and Mayor Braun don’t get nearly as much screen time in the movie as Gary and Frank do, but these sparsely written Republican characters are also written as stereotypes. Faith could easily pass for a Fox News anchor, while Mayor Braun uses Republican tropes in his campaign, such as the love of God, guns and country folks.

Multiple times in the movie, “Irresistible” makes a heavy-handed point about campaign finances and how money can corrupt politicians. Gary is obviously in politics for the money and power. Therefore, it doesn’t ring true that someone like him would get so caught up in a small-time mayoral campaign. It seems like this common sense was thrown out the window when Stewart was writing the screenplay, whose only purpose seems to be portraying people in the political process as broad clichés.

When Gary arrives in Deerlaken, all the predictable stereotypes are on display.  (Although Deerlaken is supposed to be in Wisconsin, the movie’s Deerlaken scenes were actually filmed in Rockmart, Georgia.) The only thing that Stewart didn’t do to add to the condescending stereotypes of Midwestern rural people is have anyone chew on hayseed.

The volunteers for Frank’s campaign aren’t very smart, which is the movie’s way of saying that people in this area are very uneducated. When the volunteers start calling people on their phone lists, they find out they’re accidentally calling each other at campaign headquarters instead of voters, because the volunteers mistook the office phone list for the voters phone list. And it takes Gary to point out this mistake to them. That’s how “dumb” these locals are.

Gary is staying a motel where the motel bar is also the “front desk.” It’s a bar where men wear flannel shirts and have names like Big Mike (played by Will Sasso) and Little Mike (played by Will McLaughlin) and don’t seem to have an education past high school. The motel and the town are so “behind the times” that they don’t even have Wi-Fi or broadband service throughout most of the town. They mostly access the Internet through dial-up service. The annoying screech of a dial-up modem connection is a running “joke” in the film.

And there’s a badly written scene of Gary and some of the men on his team parked in a car outside the town’s high school, one of the few places with Wi-Fi access. Gary and his team are asked to leave, but they refuse, so they get kicked out of the parking lot because the school’s security people think it’s a car full of possible sexual predators.

Even when Gary gives a lustful stare when he first sees Frank’s 28-year-old daughter Diana (played by Mackenzie Davis) at Frank’s farm, that lust turns to some disgust when he sees that she’s got her hand up the rear end of a cow. For most of the movie, Gary and his team underestimate Diana’s intelligence because they think she’s as an ignorant farmer’s daughter who doesn’t know much about politics. It still doesn’t stop Gary from flirting with Diana, but he’s mostly focused on winning the campaign for Frank.

Some of the people on Gary’s team include nerdy pollster Kurt (played by Topher Grace) and abrasive digital analytics strategist Tina (played by Natasha Lyonne), who clash with each over about how they think their respective voter analysis is better. Tina huffs when she dismisses Kurt’s polling numbers by saying that people’s computer usage is a more accurate picture of who voters are: “A digital footprint is your true self.”

When Kurt and Tina get into a little verbal tiff during a campaign meeting, Diana speaks up and says to Tina, “Surely, people are more complete than their online transactions.” Tina snaps back, “Says the woman with three cats and intense [Internet] search history of the herpes virus.” This is what’s supposed to pass as humor in this movie.

In fact, there’s very little humor to be found in “Irresistible,” which is a waste of this talented cast. Faith and Gary have some obvious sexual tension with each other, but it’s written in such an off-putting way that it’s just not as funny as Stewart probably thought it was when he wrote the script.

For example, there’s one scene where Faith calls Gary “fat,” and then she gives him a long lick on his face like it’s an ice cream cone. In another scene, Gary and Faith have an argument and then say that whichever of them loses the election will have to perform oral sex on the other for an hour. This oral sex “dare” is described in much cruder terms in the movie.

By the end of “Irresistible,” there’s kind of a dumb plot twist that reiterates some of the preachy messages of the film. But this plot twist doesn’t matter too much, because the entire plot of a strategist like Gary being in a small town like Deerlaken was an ill-conceived idea in the first place. And “Irresistible” also has an unnecessary gimmick of showing three different epilogues (the last epilogue in the film is supposed to be the “real” one), even going as far as having the end credits start to roll during each epilogue, just to trick/confuse viewers over which epilogue is “real.”

With so many U.S. citizens in real life who are already cynical or apathetic about politics, “Irresistible” isn’t going to make people feel good about participating in the political process. And although “Irresistible” is obviously influenced by “The Candidate” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” it definitely won’t be considered a classic like those films.

Focus Features released “Irresistible” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD.

Review: ‘Daddy Issues’ (2020) starring Kimberley Datnow, Tanner Ritterhouse, Alice Carroll Johnson and Francis Lloyd Corby

June 23, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kimberley Datnow in “Daddy Issues” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Daddy Issues” (2020)

Directed by Laura Holliday

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and briefly in England, the comedy “Daddy Issues” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: After her estranged businessman father dies, a British aspiring stand-up comedian follows his dying wish for her to move to Los Angeles and take over his company, but she gets distracted by her attempts to find love.

Culture Audience: “Daddy Issues” will appeal to people who don’t mind watching dull, unimaginative romantic comedies.

Kimberley Datnow and Tanner Ritterhouse in “Daddy Issues” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Since 2018, there have been several feature-length movies with the title “Daddy Issues” (including director Amara Cash’s “Daddy Issues,” also released by Gravitas Ventures), so it’s safe to say that this title has been overused. However, even if the movie had a different title, the 2020 version of “Daddy Issues” (written and directed by Laura Holliday) is so tedious and derivative that it won’t stand out from the pack of low-budget indie flicks that are hopelessly amateurish in concept and execution.

Worst of all, the movie wastes a potentially great opportunity to do a hilarious “fish out of water” story about a British aspiring stand-up comedian who finds herself having to lead an American corporate business. That’s supposed to be the premise for “Daddy Issues,” which stars Kimberley Datnow (who’s also the movie’s producer) as irresponsible slacker Henrietta “Henri” Norton Phillips.

At the behest of her late father’s dying wishes, Henri has to move from England to Los Angeles to take over his company.  Instead, the movie largely abandons this concept to focus on Henri’s pathetic attempts to find love by tracking down and trying to cling to ex-boyfriends she used to have when she lived in Los Angeles during her college years.

The movie opens with Henri (who is in her late 20s) in England, sitting on her apartment bed with a date. She’s more interested in looking at a replay of her stand-up comedy act on her laptop than making out with this guy. She knows so little about him that she can’t even remember that his name is Charlie.

They spend the night together, but before he goes, Henri makes Charlie do a Zoom conference call with her mother and siblings and other family members. Without giving him any time to think about it, right before the call connects, she tells Charlie that he has to pretend that he’s her boyfriend. And there’s another catch: Henri is doing this video conference call while the family is at her father’s graveside during his funeral.  Can you saw “awkward” and “tacky”?

This scene (which isn’t very funny) is meant to show that Henri is kind of crazy and that she has “daddy issues.” When her relatives at the funeral ask her why she isn’t there in person, Henri answers, “As if Dad would’ve cared anyway.”

Henri might not have cared much for her father, but apparently he thought enough about her to saddle her with a big responsibility: Move to Los Angeles and take over his corporate company (which is called Norton Phillips) after he dies. (The movie’s screenwriting is so lazy that it’s never made clear what type of business industry that Norton Phillips is supposed to represent.)

Henri finds out that she has to completely upend her life when she discovers a letter that her father had written to her not long before he passed away. In the letter, he says he wants Henri to take over the business so that she can have a “real” job, instead of pursuing stand-up comedy, which her father calls a “hobby.” (Henri’s father is not seen in the movie, but he can be heard in voiceover.)

So off Henri goes to Los Angeles, a city she’s familiar with because she split her childhood time between living in London and Los Angeles because of her parents’ divorce. Henri also went to college in Los Angeles, so she reconnects with her old pals (three women and one openly gay man) who still live in the area by inviting them over to her Los Angeles house, which was previously owned by her father. Henri’s family seems to be fairly well-off, but she’s no country club kid, and they’re definitely not very rich, based on the basic L.A. house that she has in this story.

Henri hasn’t seen her Los Angeles friends for about five years. All of them seem to be living responsible adult lives, except for Henri, who still wants to party like a college kid. There are several scenes in the movie of Henri guzzling wine and other alcoholic drinks in order to get drunk.

While going through some of her possessions from her teenage years, Henri comes across her Boy Box, where she kept mementos and contact information of all the guys she dated back then. Henri and her friends have a laugh over what’s in the box, including angst-ridden love notes that Henri used to write.

Henri also finds something else in the house: a “meet cute” moment with an unexpected tenant. A guy named Nolan (played by Tanner Ritterhouse) surprises Henri when he comes out of the bathroom. When Henri asks who he is and what he’s doing there, Nolan replies that he’s an employee of her father’s company. Nolan also says that he’s been renting a room in the house while he remodels the house deck. And how long has he been living there? Four or five years.

Instead of kicking him out, Henri lets Nolan stay and makes a snide remark that technically she’s his boss now and could fire him. (You can immediately see where this movie is going as soon as she makes the decision to let Nolan stay in the house.) Henri has been an inactive board member of her father’s company, but she plans to let everyone know that she’s now in charge.

This concept of Henri taking over the business isn’t too far-fetched, since there are plenty of real-life examples of inexperienced people taking leadership roles due to nepotism. Henri’s big boss moment doesn’t happen in quite the way that she expects. When she has her first boardroom meeting with the company’s senior executives (who are all men), she gives what she thinks is a great pep talk.

The executives react with boredom and disrespect. When Henri reminds them that she’s an executive vice-president of the board, one of the executives replies dismissively, “Some titles don’t require responsibility,” before he and the rest of the suits rudely file out of the room.

Henri’s immaturity is on cringeworthy display when she gets to know a company employee named Terrance (played by Max Crandall), a nebbish type who’s been trying to start a side business of handmade wooden figurines. When Terrance mentions to Henri that her father contributed to his Kickstarter campaign for the business, Henri bursts into tears and wails to Terrance: “How come my father supported your nerdy hobby and not mine?”

Then the movie goes off on a tangent by having an entire subplot about Henri’s lesbian friend Alice (played by Alice Carroll Johnson), who’s pretending to Henri and other friends that she’s a hotshot agent at a talent agency. In reality, Alice has a very low-paying job at the agency and she’s drowning in personal debt.

Alice is in a committed relationship with a girlfriend, but that doesn’t stop Alice from coming up with the desperate idea to try to find a “sugar daddy” on the website Seeking Arrangement. That leads to a series of dates, which won’t be described here, because this subplot really doesn’t fit with the rest of the story. Actually, the idea of a young, good-looking lesbian using her physical appearance to hook older men for money should have been its own movie.

Nolan also gets his own subplot, because he’s dating a single mother named Grace (played by Martha Hamilton), who doesn’t want to introduce Nolan to her 4-year-old daughter unless it’s a serious relationship. Therefore, Nolan is having his own “daddy issues” because he’s in that gray zone of dating a single mother without knowing her child. The relationship has also made him wonder if he’s ready to take on the responsibility of being a “stepfather” figure if he’s eventually going to be introduced to Grace’s daughter.

Meanwhile, Henri goes through her Boy Box and starts calling her ex-boyfriends to see which ones are available. There’s a montage of her doing this cold-calling that’s supposed to be funny, but it’s very poorly acted and badly written. Henri finds more than one ex-boyfriend who’s available, including a neat freak named Hunter (Francis Lloyd Corby). And let’s just say that she turns into an irrationally jealous stalker.

It’s kind of puzzling that writer/director Holliday and lead actor/producer Datnow would make this Henri character so repulsive when people are supposed to root for the protagonist in romantic comedies. That doesn’t mean that the protagonist has to be “sweet,” “passive” or even “likable” (see Amy Schumer in the 2015 hit comedy “Trainwreck”), but it’s about the protagonist being “relatable” to audiences in some way. Most people just can’t relate to Henri being such a relentlessly miserable and selfish brat who takes pleasure in hurting people when things don’t go her way.

And it’s easy to see why Henri’s stand-up comedy career is going nowhere: She’s awful and boring. Here’s an example of one of the lines she says in her stand-up act: “Internet service is a lot like my father: It doesn’t do what it promises and then dies.”

It’s not a good sign that the stand-up comedy scenes in “Daddy Issues” also use pre-recorded laugh tracks. And much of the pacing in this “comedy” is off-kilter—and not in a good way. The actors lack chemistry with each other and there are many scenes where the acting looks stilted and uncomfortable.

In the production notes for “Daddy Issues,” Datnow says that she was influenced by classic female-oriented comedies of the 1990s and 2000s, such as “Clueless” and “Mean Girls.” There are some definite influences from both movies that are seen in “Daddy Issues.” The Boy Box is a nod to the Burn Book in “Mean Girls.” And the ending of “Daddy Issues” is completely predictable to anyone who’s seen “Clueless.”

The casting for “Daddy Issues” is also stuck in a previous decade, since this movie is supposed to take place in Los Angeles (which has a very large Latino population), but there are no Latino people in sight in this “Daddy Issues” movie. Even if the casting choices were more racially diverse, it wouldn’t necessarily solve the movie’s biggest problems: the substandard screenplay and annoying performance from Datnow. Unfortunately, this “Daddy’s Issues” movie fails to live up to its potential.

Gravitas Ventures released “Daddy Issues” on digital and VOD on June 23, 2020.

Review: ‘Sometimes Always Never,’ starring Bill Nighy, Sam Riley, Jenny Agutter, Tim McInnerny and Alice Lowe

June 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Riley and Bill Nighy in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Sometimes Always Never”

Directed by Carl Hunter

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in England, the comedy drama “Sometimes Always Never” has almost all white cast (with one biracial/black character) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A tailor and his adult son have emotional tensions with each other, stemming from the childhood disappearance of the tailor’s other son.

Culture Audience: “Sometimes Always Never” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Bill Nighy and dry British humor.

Jenny McGutter and Tim McInnerny in “Sometimes Always Never” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

Bill Nighy tends to play a lot of characters with a droll sense of humor, so the dark comedy/drama “Sometimes Always Never” is right up his alley. This quirky film, which takes place in suburban England, won’t appeal to everyone, but viewers who enjoy “Sometimes Always Never” will probably like the film more for the actors’ performances than for the movie’s somewhat thin plot.

Directed by Carl Hunter and written by Frank Cottrell Boyce, “Sometimes Always Never” focuses mainly on the tension-filled relationship between a widowed tailor named Alan Mellor (played by Nighy) and his son Peter (played by Sam Riley), who can’t go a day together without bickering with each other. The reason they don’t seem to particularly get along is because years ago, when Peter was a boy, his brother Michael disappeared after storming out of their home during an argument while Michael was playing Scrabble with Peter and Alan. Michael has remained missing all these years later.

The mystery of Michael’s disappearance has affected both men in different ways, even though they both have similar unspoken resentment and guilt over the disappearance. Alan thinks Michael might still be alive, while Peter is convinced that Michael is probably dead.

Alan has become obsessed with Scrabble and finds any way he can to conjure up theories that he can somehow find Michael again by playing Scrabble. He plays Scrabble online and tells Peter about on online rapport he’s developed with a Scrabble gamer who goes by the name Skinny Thesaurus. Peter says he hates Scrabble and expresses his distaste over Alan’s far-fetched theories and continued obsession with this word game.

Alan is so stuck in the past over Michael’s disappearance that he still hands out a missing-person photo of Michael to strangers, even though the photo is of Michael as a child. It’s one of the first things that viewers see Alan doing in the movie’s opening scene, which takes place at an almost deserted beach.

Peter meets Alan at the beach to pick him up in his car, so they can go on a solemn journey together. The reason for this out-of-town trip? A body has been found that could be Michael. Alan and Peter have to travel to the morgue to identify the body.

During the trip, the father and son trade verbal barbs at each other, including their ongoing debates about synonyms and what words can legitimately be used in a Scrabble game. Peter is impatient about this trip and tells Alan that he’s got to go back as soon as possible to his wife, Sue (played by Alice Lowe), who’s a chemical scientist. Alan says to Peter, “I’m sure I’m going deaf. I don’t hear half of what you say.”

When Alan and Peter check into their hotel, the bickering continues. In the hotel lounge, they meet a married couple named Arthur (played by Tim McInnerny) and Margaret (played by Jenny Agutter) and make some small talk. The conversation inevitably turns to Scrabble, and it isn’t long before Alan, Margaret and Arthur start playing Scrabble together in the lounge, while Peter has left to go to his hotel room.

While Arthur takes a restroom break, Margaret confides in Alan that her husband used to be a singer who would record albums of cover songs for record companies looking to cash in on hits that were popular at the time. One of the cover songs he recorded is Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s a Heartache,” which is heard later in the story. Margaret also tells Alan that the reason why she and Arthur are in town is because they have to identify the body of their son who went missing when he was a child.

During the Scrabble game, Alan doesn’t tell Margaret and Arthur that he’s in town for the same reason. Arthur and Margaret find out the next day when they see Alan and Peter at the morgue at the same time. (It’s revealed in the movie if the child at the morgue is from either family.)

Peter gets very upset when he find out that Alan was a fierce competitor with Arthur during the Scrabble game, and Alan ended up winning £200 from Arthur. Peter offers to pay back the money to Arthur and Margaret, but they politely decline. Peter scolds Alan for taking advantage of the couple, knowing that they are going through the same trauma of identifying the body. Alan just shrugs and says that he couldn’t help himself.

During the trip, Alan stays with Peter and his family, which includes Peter and Susie’s teenage son Jack (played by Louis Healy), a loner who spends most of his free time playing online video games. When Alan tells Peter that he’s concerned about Frank spending so much time on the computer, Peter replies: “Why would that be a worry? He’s at home. He’s not on the streets. He hasn’t gone missing.” Ouch.

As the story unfolds, there are other things that Peter brings up from the past when he argues with Alan. Peter hated that Alan had a habit of giving Peter cheap toys and games that were knock-offs of the originals. And because Peter’s mother died when he was a child (it isn’t specified when she passed away), Peter still feels resentment that he was raised by a father who focused a lot of energy on finding Michael.

There’s a minor subplot of the dynamics between Frank and his adult relatives. Frank and Alan form somewhat of a kinship when Alan becomes fascinated with Frank’s online computer games. Meanwhile, Sue has a habit of embarrassing Frank at bus stops, where he meticulously plans to be at the same time as a teenage girl named Rachel (played by Ella-Grace Gregoire), whom Frank has had a crush on for a while.

As for the movie’s title of “Sometimes Always Never,” that comes from a scene in the film where Alan is showing Frank some tailoring tips for suits. Alan tells Frank that when it comes to a suit jacket’s first three buttons, the first one should “sometimes” be buttoned, the second one should “always” be button, and the third should “never” be buttoned.

Alan has his own tailor shop (called Mellors Tailors) but the movie shows him doing very little work in his chosen profession. There’s that grandfather-grandson scene with Alan and Frank. And there’s another scene where Alan is shown alone at the shop, as if business is slow. Alan’s line of work actually isn’t that necessary for the plot, and the only real purpose is seemingly because the button advice he gave Frank ended up being used as the movie’s title.

There’s a scene in the movie where Alan, Sue, Frank and Rachel are playing a Scrabble board game together. Peter is watching nearby. Alan questions Sue’s use of a scientific word, while Peter tells Alan not to question his wife’s scientific knowledge. Alan persists anyway and looks up the validity of the word in a dictionary. Peter explodes with anger.

It’s clear that what Peter is angry about is really not about Alan questioning Sue’s word knowledge but about feeling like an outsider in his own household. And perhaps there’s some jealousy that Alan is forming a closer bond to Frank than Peter even had with Alan. And things get even more tense when Alan becomes convinced that an anonymous online Scrabble gamer is really the missing Michael who’s sending clues about his whereabouts.

“Sometimes Always Never” frequently uses a technique of having a particular word and its definition shown before each of the movie’s three acts. The movie has the look and feel of a stage play, not just because there’s a small number of people in the cast but also because of the lo-fi production design by Tim Dickel and art direction by Guto Humphreys. (The driving scenes in the car were obviously done in front of a green or blue screen.)

The visual look of the movie (from cinematographer Richard Stoddard) is kind modern yet retro, with copious use of low lighting for the interior scenes. Almost all of the buildings in the film have interior walls painted green, blue and red. These bright colors for walls in houses or a hotel are not very common for suburban England. It seems as if the filmmakers wanted to give the impression that this is a more whimsical England, compared to what’s normally seen in movies.

Although the acting from Nighy and Riley is very good, and the movie does a convincing flipping of traditional parent-child roles (Alan is impulsive and slightly rebellious, while Peter is more cautious and scolding), “Sometimes Always Never” has pacing that’s a little too sluggish at times. People will enjoy this movie best if they’ve got about 90 minutes to spare and aren’t expecting a lot of fast-paced action, loads of suspense or obvious jokes.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Sometimes Always Never” in select U.S. virtual cinemas on June 12, 2020. The film’s U.S. digital and VOD release is on July 10, 2020. “Sometimes Always Never” was originally released in the United Kingdom and several other countries in 2019.

Review: ‘The King of Staten Island,’ starring Pete Davidson, Marisa Tomei, Bill Burr, Bel Powley, Maude Apatow and Steve Buscemi

June 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Marisa Tomei and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)

“The King of Staten Island”

Directed by Judd Apatow

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly on New York City’s Staten Island, the comedy/drama “The King of Staten Island” has a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Latinos and one Native American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 24-year-old ambitionless stoner has conflicts with family members and his widowed mother’s new boyfriend about where his life is headed.

Culture Audience: “The King of Staten Island” will appeal primarily to fans of star Pete Davidson and director Judd Apatow, but the movie follows a lot of predictable tropes that they’ve done before in other films.

Bill Burr and Pete Davidson in “The King of Staten Island” (Photo by Mary Cybulski/Universal Pictures)

Here we go again. Pete Davidson is portraying another irresponsible stoner who doesn’t want to grow up but has to face the reality that eventually he has to figure out what he wants to do with his life. If that plot sounds familiar, it’s because Davidson played the exact same type of character in his starring role in the comedy/drama “Big Time Adolescence,” released in March 2020, just three months before comedy/drama “The King of Staten Island” was released.

Judd Apatow directed and co-wrote “The King of Staten Island,” which in some ways is a better movie than “Big Time Adolescence” and in some ways is not. First, what doesn’t work about “The King of Staten Island”: The total running time for “The King of Staten Island” (two hours and 17 minutes) is too long for this type of movie. Because of this long running time, parts of the movie tend to lose focus and have the rambling quality of some cobbled-together improv sketches. And although Davidson has a few moments where his Scott Carlin character shows some emotional depth (especially toward the end of the film), it’s too little, too late, since Davidson is recycling the same dimwit act that he keeps doing in his movies, whether it’s a leading or supporting role.

What does work well about “The King of Staten Island” is that the movie is elevated by the terrific supporting performances of Marisa Tomei (who plays Scott’s widowed mother Margie, who’s a nurse); Bill Burr (who plays Ray Bishop, Margie’s firefighter boyfriend); Bel Powley (who plays Kelsey, Scott’s “friend with benefits”); and Steve Buscemi (who plays Papa, Ray’s father who works as a firefighter at the same station). Their authentic portrayals make “The King of Staten Island” look like it has real people in it, instead of caricatures.

The movie is called “The King of Staten Island,” but Scott really isn’t the king of anything. He’s a frequently unemployed, 24-year-old high-school dropout who still lives with his mother in the New York City borough of Staten Island, a community that’s more politically conservative and less racially diverse than New York City’s other boroughs. Scott spends his days and nights getting drunk or stoned (mostly on marijuana, sometimes on stronger drugs) with his other unemployed friends Oscar (played by Ricky Velez), Igor (played by Moises Arias) and Richie (played by Lou Wilson).

Also in this group of partiers are Kelsey (who’s known Scott since they were kids) and Kelsey’s friend Tara (played by Carly Aquilino). Scott and his friends are in various ways active participants or complicit in the small-time drug dealing they’re involved with to make extra money. Kelsey is proud to be from Staten Island (unlike the rest of the people in the group), and she’s at least trying to do something with her life by applying for a New York City government job. Oscar is the most reckless out of all of them, since it’s his idea later in the story for the guys to rob a pharmacy.

Scott and Kelsey are secretly having sex with each other. He wants to keep their sexual relationship casual, and he doesn’t want anyone else to know about it because Scott tells Kelsey that if they go public about it, it will ruin their friendship. But Kelsey wants more validation for this relationship, and the secrecy is starting to bother her. She tells Scott that she wants more of a respectful commitment from him and wants him to include her in more of his family activities, but he keeps brushing off her concerns.

Scott’s firefighter father (who’s never seen in the movie) died in a hotel fire when Scott was 7 years old. Viewers are supposed to feel sympathetic for Scott because he uses his father’s death as a trauma that keeps holding him back in life. Why do we know this? Because Scott keeps bringing up his father’s death as an excuse for his emotional arrested development.

Scott also has some health issues that affect his outlook on life, such as Crohn’s disease, depression and attention deficit disorder. Davidson is a Staten Island native whose firefighter father also died in real life when Davidson was a child. Davidson has been open about his struggles with substance abuse and mental illness. The problem is that even with these real-life parallels, Davidson’s performance in “The King of Staten Island” is still fairly shallow and repetitive until near the end of the film.

Meanwhile, Scott’s mother Margie has tolerated Scott’s laziness and his refusal to get his own place, perhaps because she’s lonely and hasn’t had a serious romantic relationship since her husband died. Scott’s younger sister Claire (played by Maude Apatow, Judd Apatow’s real-life elder daughter), who has graduated from high school and is headed to college, has a combination of a loving and resentful attitude toward Scott.

Because Scott is the irresponsible sibling, Claire feels like she always has to worry about him. She tells Scott that it’s unfair that she bear this emotional burden, because Scott as the older sibling should be looking out for her. Claire also tells Scott that she resents that Scott’s tendency to get into trouble causes their mother to focus a lot of energy on Scott, while Claire often feels ignored.

The beginning of the movie shows how Claire doesn’t really want Scott to come to the joint graduation party that she’s having with her best friend Joanne (played Pauline Chalamet), because Claire is afraid that Scott might embarrass her. Scott doesn’t really feel like going to the party because he doesn’t want to wear a suit. There’s some back-and-forth arguing, until their mother Margie forces Scott to go to the party and tells him to behave himself while he’s there. This family drama over the party takes up a little too much time in the movie and could have benefited from some tighter editing.

Does Scott have any dreams he wants to fulfill? Yes. He wants to be a tattoo artist. And he has an idea to eventually start his own tattoo parlor restaurant, which he’d like to call Ruby Tattuesdays. Scott thinks it’s a brilliant idea, but the idea is ridiculed by his friends. Colson Baker (also known as rapper Machine Gun Kelly) has a cameo in “The King of Staten Island” as a tattoo artist who basically laughs Scott out of his shop when Scott tries to get an apprenticeship at the shop. (Baker, who’s a close friend of Davidson’s in real life, played one of the stoner buddies in “Big Time Adolescence.”)

To hone his tattooing skills, Scott gives his friends free tattoos. The results are … Well, let’s just say that Scott isn’t ready for the big leagues in the tattoo world. One day, Scott and his male friends are hanging around outside when a 9-year-old boy named Harold (played by Luke David Blumm) randomly comes over and starts talking to them. The guys are amused by this kid, and when Scott asks Harold if he wants Scott to give him a tattoo, Harold eagerly says yes and tells Scott that he wants a tattoo of The Punisher on his arm.

Scott ignores concerns from his friends that it would be illegal to tattoo Harold because Harold is under the age of 18. Within less than a minute of Scott tattooing Harold, the boy reels away in pain and tells Scott to stop, before running away. It isn’t long before Harold’s divorced father Ray angrily shows up with Harold at Margie’s door to demand why Scott was trying to tattoo a 9-year-old boy.

Margie smooths things over by offering to pay for the laser treatment to correct the tattoo scar, and she becomes furious with Scott, who gives some very dumb excuses for why he did this illegal tattooing of a child. Later, Ray comes back to visit Margie to apologize for yelling at her so harshly, and he ends up asking her out on a date. Their romance becomes serious (they end up living together), which doesn’t sit too well with Scott, since Ray and Scott don’t really like each other.

Besides the fact that Ray doesn’t respect Scott and thinks he’s a lazy bum, their relationship is also tense because Scott hates that his mother is dating a firefighter. Scott thinks it’s somewhat disrespectful to the memory of Scott’s father, whom Scott has put on a pedestal in his childhood memories of his dad. Ray knew Scott’s father, but only as a passing acquaintance. In a pivotal scene in the movie, Ray’s father Papa gives Scott some background information on Scott’s father that helps Scott view his dad as more like a human instead of a god.

Even though Scott and Ray don’t really like each other, Ray trusts Scott enough to let Scott sometimes take care of Ray’s children—Harold and 7-year-old daughter Kelly (played by Alexis Rae Forlenza)—who like being around Scott. It’s while babysitting the kids that Scott starts to show some signs that he’s capable of being a responsible adult. Scott also finds an ally with Ray’s ex-wife Gina (played by Pamela Adlon), who also despises Ray.

Judd Apatow and Davidson co-wrote “The King of Staten Island” screenplay with Dave Sirus, who has a background in stand-up comedy. The movie’s dialogue is hit or miss, as some scenes play like a comedy sketch, while other scenes play as if the film is based more in realism. One of the “comedy sketch” scenes that falls flat is when Scott, who’s gotten a waiter job at his cousin’s restaurant, finds out that the restaurant’s waiters have a strange tradition of boxing each other at the end of a shift, and the winner gets everyone else’ waiter tips. Needless to say, Scott doesn’t last long at that job.

An example of the type of “humorous” lines from Scott is a scene when he and his friends talk about how Staten Island compares to other parts of the Tri-State area. Scott says about Staten Island: “We’re the only place New Jersey looks down on. You can see the garbage dump from space. This place is never going to change.”

The funniest scene in the movie doesn’t come from any of the main characters, but from a cameo by Action Bronson, who plays a very stoned man who walks up to a very stoned Scott while Scott is sitting outside. The man, who’s nameless in the film, has a bleeding wound in his abdomen. And what happens next in that scene includes some genuine laugh-out-loud moments.

Judd Apatow’s best-known movies (such as “The 40 Year-Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” or “Trainwreck”) tend to be about immature adults who eventually have some kind of emotional metamorphosis. Therefore, “The King of Staten Island” is really not doing anything groundbreaking or particularly innovative for Apatow. As for Davidson, if he wants to be considered one of his generation’s greatest comedians who can act, he needs to show audiences that he can do more than the same type of empty-headed “loser” persona that can put him in typecast hell.

Universal Pictures released “The King of Staten Island” on digital and VOD on June 12, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Raising Buchanan,’ starring Amanda Melby, René Auberjonois, Cathy Shim, Terence Bernie Hines and M. Emmet Walsh

June 8, 2020

by Carla Hay

René Auberjonois and Amanda Melby in “Raising Buchanan” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Raising Buchanan”

Directed by Bruce Dellis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed suburb of Phoenix, the comedy “Raising Buchanan” has a racially diverse (white, African American and Asian) cast of characters representing the middle-class and the wealthy.

Culture Clash: A financially desperate woman steals the corpse of U.S. president James Buchanan and hopes to sell it to wherever she can get the most money for it.

Culture Audience: “Raising Buchanan” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky comedies and movies that make references to Civil War-era American history.

Cathy Shim, Jennifer Pfalzgraff and Amanda Melby in “Raising Buchanan” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Although the comedy film “Raising Buchanan” is about using a corpse as a commodity, the movie isn’t at all a “Weekend at Bernie’s” (another comedy film about a dead body) type of slapstick film. Instead of relying on physical gags, the quirky humor of “Raising Buchanan” is more of a commentary on shameful moments in American history (such as legal slavery) and how many of America’s sociopolitical issues from the slavery days still exist today. “Raising Buchanan” (the feature-film debut from writer/director Bruce Dellis) has some interesting and unique elements, but the movie starts to lose steam in the last third of the story, when the social commentary loses some of its bite.

Throughout the movie, it’s repeatedly mentioned that Buchanan (who was president from 1857 to 1861) is considered the worst U.S. president of all time. He advocated for states to keep slavery legal (such as Buchanan’s endorsement of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott v. Sanford case), and he made other presidential decisions that are now considered on the wrong side of history. Before he was elected the 15th president of the United States, Buchanan said he would serve only one term. He was succeeded by Abraham Lincoln.

A running gag in “Raising Buchanan” is that whenever someone in the movie mentions Buchanan’s “worst U.S. president ever” reputation, one of the characters gives a side nod and says, “Well…,” as if to imply that a more recent president could take that title. In the production notes for “Raising Buchanan,” Dellis said he came up with the idea for the film before Donald Trump was elected president. However, the movie was filmed while Trump was president, so it’s clear that people can interpret the sarcasm however they want to interpret it.

“Raising Buchanan” starts off by showing protagonist Ruth Kiesling (played by Amanda Melby) in a weird situation: She’s handcuffed to a table leg in the kitchen of the donut shop where she works. And the “ghost” of James Buchanan (played by René Auberjonois) is telling her a story about seeing a magician’s stage show in Paris in 1855, where the show ended with the magician’s assistant being sawed in half and then never seen again. Buchanan says that it was widely believed that the assistant had really been murdered on stage without the audience knowing it at the time.

Buchanan tells Ruth, “When one encounters a magician, one expects and invites trickery. But the simplest way to saw a woman in half is to saw a woman is half.” What’s going on here? A great deal of “Raising Buchanan” is then a flashback that leads up to the moment where Ruth finds herself handcuffed in the donut shop’s kitchen and talking to the ghost of Buchanan.

Ruth works behind the counter at Gunderson Donuts, a small shop that is located in an unnamed city in the Phoenix area. She’s a 40-year-old underachiever who has a habit of lying and stealing. For example, when a customer returns to the shop to ask her if anyone saw the wallet he lost there, she says she’ll go in a back room and check.

Viewers see that Ruth is the one who took the wallet. Before going back to the front of the store to return the wallet to the customer, she steals all the cash that’s in the wallet. The customer notices the missing cash but says nothing, because everything else is still in the wallet.

Ruth’s dishonesty isn’t just habitual. It’s pathological and extreme. In another scene, she visits her ailing, widowed father Larry Kiesling (played by M. Emmet Walsh) in a hospice, where he’s been staying for almost a year. Ruth has told her bed-ridden father elaborate lies about her life: She says that she’s married to a financially successful businessman, she’s about be promoted in her important corporate job, and she has a baby son whom she’s brought with her to the hospice.

But those are all lies. In reality, Ruth is very single and “squatting” at Larry’s house with two roommates who are around her age: Meg (played by Cathy Shim), who works with Ruth at the donut shop, and Holly (played by Jennifer Pfalzgraff), who works as a janitor and part-time ventriloquist. And that baby isn’t Ruth’s either. She borrowed the baby from a single friend named Brock (played by Kane Black), who only gets to see his son during visitation arrangements.

And that’s not all the deception that Ruth is hiding from her father. She’s fallen 10 months behind on the mortgage payments to the house, because she used that money as payments for a settlement resulting from an auto theft that she committed. Although Ruth was arrested for the crime, she agreed to a deal where she would get probation and pay restitution. Ruth has another part-time job playing the cello for a smarmy ventriloquist named Errol (played by Steve Brisco), who puts his stage performances on YouTube to make extra money.

In a meeting with her probation officer Philip Crosby (played by Terence Bernie Hines), viewers find out that Ruth also has an anger-management problem, when she admits that she got involved in a road rage incident. Philip is exasperated when he tells Ruth that her job as a cello player in a ventriloquist act does not count as “community service.” He tells her to find work that actually qualifies as community service, so that she won’t be found guilty of violating the conditions of her probation.

But there’s a bigger problem that Ruth has to face: Her father Larry had been originally been given a month to live, but he obviously outlived that diagnosis. And now, he’s been told that he could be released from the hospice in as early as two weeks. She’s terrified that he’ll find out about all of her lies.

Ruth has avoided foreclosure on the house by telling the mortgage company that Larry is unable to to pay because he’s in a hospice. But if Larry is discharged from the hospice and comes home, she can no longer use that excuse to not pay the mortgage. And there’s also a possibility that her lies will lead to her roommates Meg and Holly having no place to live, and it will all be Ruth’s fault.

Around the time that it looks like Ruth’s web of lies will start to unravel and be exposed, her roommate Holly comes home and asks Ruth and Meg if they want to see a dead president of the United States. Holly takes them to the place where she works as a janitor and shows them a coffin containing the body of James Buchanan. (Although the movie has a lot of adult language, “Raising Buchanan” avoids the vulgarity of showing a corpse. Viewers just have to imagine what it looks like.)

Meg takes a photo of the dead president and comments, “He looks peaceful.” Ruth says, “He looks like a fucking ghoul.” Meg observes, “It’s hard to imagine Abraham Lincoln taking orders from this guy.” Holly replies, “Well, early on in his career, Jimi Hendrix opened for the Monkees.” This is the kind of dialogue that’s in the movie.

Much of the humor in “Raising Buchanan” derives from Ruth and Meg being less-than-smart in almost everything they do. (Think of them as an indie-film female version of “Dumb and Dumber.”) Ruth comes up with a poorly thought-out plan to steal Buchanan’s body to get what she thinks will be easy cash (she’s hoping for at at least $100,000) to solve her money problems.

Meg essentially follows Ruth’s orders, which includes disguising themselves in ridiculous wigs and exaggerated eyebrows when they go to a public library to email the “ransom note.” And when Ruth has to take time off from work because her Buchanan schemes are taking more time than she expected, she tells Meg to give any illness excuse to their boss, as long as the word “vagina” is in the excuse, so it can be used as grounds for a sexism lawsuit if he says no.

A lot of the movie’s storyline is about how different places and individuals reject Ruth’s attempts to extort money or to sell the Buchanan corpse to them, because Buchanan just isn’t considered important enough or respected enough for people to care. The U.S. government mistakenly thinks Ruth is asking for grant money, and she obviously doesn’t want to fill out any forms that would reveal her identity. Ruth then botches an attempt to sell the corpse to a rich widow named Laura Warren (played by Laura Durant) who collects rare historical objects.

Ruth’s sales pitch to Buchanan’s former hometown of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, is also met with comical results. An office guy (played by Robert Ben Garant) in the city government answers the phone and tells Ruth when she tries to sell Buchanan’s body to the city: “He’s not really a national treasure. He’s more of a town character. Good luck selling your corpse, man.” Ruth responds, “I’m working my way down a list. Hopefully, someone will care.”

While she works her way down her list, the “ghost” of James Buchanan often appears to Ruth (usually when she’s alone) and talks to her. This dialogue often leads to a sarcastic back-and-forth between Ruth and Buchanan on his legacy and why he made certain decisions while he was president of the United States.

The humor in “Raising Buchanan” is hit or miss. The movie works best in the first two-thirds, when Ruth gets rejection after rejection in trying to get money for the corpse. The humor is definitely “deadpan,” as opposed to “madcap,” since the comedy relies on Ruth and her cohorts being too simple-minded to come up with coherent plans, and yet they think they’re being criminal masterminds.

Melby and Shim make a pretty good comedy team, and the filmmakers should be commended for not doing predictable casting of people in their 20s in the lead roles. Ruth, Meg and Holly are in their 40s, but don’t have a maturity level that most of their peers do, which makes their shenanigans more pathetic, in a  comical way.

And the movie makes a point of showing that a smooth-talking “villain” such as Buchanan can come up with ways to explain some of his very heinous decisions. Auberjonois’ portrayal of Buchanan as a pompous blowhard who thinks he’s doing everything right is one of the main reasons to see this movie, because it’s a spot-on satire of how the real Buchanan might justify his decisions if he were alive today. (“Raising Buchanan” was one of the last film roles for Auberjonois, who died in 2019, at the age of 79.)

That being said, “Raising Buchannan” has some badly written jokes, such as how the movie handles the never-married Buchanan’s sexuality and how he is now widely perceived as a closeted homosexual. There’s been speculation that Buchanan’s longtime housemate William Rufus King was his secret lover, and there have been some historical accounts that many of Buchanan’s political peers thought the same thing. Some historians have also speculated that Buchanan could have been asexual, which is a theory that “Raising Buchanan” ignores.

Whatever Buchanan’s sexuality really was, it seems to have nothing to do with him being an incompetent leader of the United States. But “Raising Buchanan” makes a few questionable jokes to imply that Buchanan’s sexuality and his leadership skills were connected. For example, when Ruth first sees the corpse of Buchanan, she says that Buchanan being “queer” was one of the reasons why he was considered the “worst” president of the United States.

Later, when she taunts the ghost of Buchanan over him possibly being a closeted gay man, he responds by asking her if it would be fair for people to assume that Ruth and Meg are lovers just because they’re not married and live in the same household. Ruth sees his point and backs off of her slightly homophobic baiting of Buchanan.

Buchanan’s sexuality is brought up several times in the film because there’s a scene in the movie where Ruth and Holly (who eventually finds out that Ruth stole the Buchanan corpse) go to a local college’s LGBT center to try to sell the corpse. But, of course, Ruth and her cohorts are too dimwitted to know that not only would this LGBT center not have the money they want, but Buchanan’s white supremacist beliefs about slavery are also contradictory to any civil-rights beliefs that would include the LGBTQ community.

“Raising Buchanan” starts to lose its satirical edge in the last third of the movie, during a stretch of the story with ventriloquist Errol and his involvement in Ruth’s quest to get money for Buchanan’s corpse. The film also makes the mistake of trying to show parallels between Ruth’s messed-up, deceptive life and Buchanan’s despised legacy in American history, as if these two people weirdly have things in common and can therefore relate to each other.

It’s a misguided comparison that leads to clunky scenes that are meant to portray Buchanan as “sympathetic” and “misunderstood.” One of the reasons why filmmaker Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit” (a satire about a boy in Nazi Germany who has Adolf Hitler as an imaginary best friend) was such a well-received, award-winning movie is because “Jojo Rabbit” never lost sight of why Hitler was such a toxic leader. Unfortunately, “Raising Buchanan” gets a little too unfocused toward the end of the film by trading in satire for sentimentality, which lessens the intended impact of the story.

Gravitas Ventures released “Raising Buchanan” on digital and VOD on May 5, 2020.

Review: ‘The High Note,’ starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ice Cube

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

“The High Note”

Directed by Nisha Ganatra

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “The High Note” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A personal assistant to a superstar music diva comes up against obstacles when the assistant tries to become a music producer.

Culture Audience: “The High Note” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about showbiz that have a predictable ending.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Dakota Johnson in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

It’s a pretty well-known fact at “The High Note” stars Tracey Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson grew up in the upper echelons of show business, since they both have parents who are famous entertainers. Ellis Ross’ mother is Diana Ross. Johnson is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. So with all that knowledgeable background, it’s too bad that Dakota Johnson and Ellis Ross have chosen to be in such a hollow and predictable dramedy about the music business. The irony of this movie being called “The High Note” is that there aren’t too many highlights for this film, when it comes to authenticity, laugh-out-loud humor or outstanding original songs.

However, one of the notable consistencies of the film is Ellis Ross—who does her own singing in the film and is very good at it— in her performance as spoiled superstar Grace Davis, who’s reached a crossroads in her career. Grace, who lives in Los Angeles, is famous enough to still be on the covers of People, Rolling Stone and Billboard, but she’s been coasting on her past hits because she hasn’t come out with an album of new songs in about 10 years. She still keeps herself in the public eye and continues to make millions by doing tours.

Grace’s long-suffering personal assistant Margaret “Maggie” Sherwoode has been working for Grace for three years, but what Maggie really wants to do is to be a music producer. Grace is coming out with a live album that Maggie has been secretly mixing in a recording studio in her spare time, in order for Maggie to practice her producer/mixer skills. Maggie has been able to get access to the studio, thanks to her recording engineer acquaintance Seth (played by Eugene Cordero), who’s worked with Grace and has been training Maggie in the studio.

“The High Note,” directed by Nisha Ganatra, hits a lot of the same cringeworthy beats of Ganatra’s 2019 comedy/drama “Late Night,” a movie that flopped with audiences because it was easy to see how phony and pandering the story was. Both movies are about a plucky young woman with a big dream who thinks she can take a shortcut to that dream, just by being in the right place at the right time. The young woman works for an egotistical, middle-aged diva who’s worried about becoming a has-been. The diva boss also has to choose between continuing with a familiar and safe work routine or going outside her comfort zone to do something new.

Along the way, people discourage the young woman from following her dream because she has no real experience. And then, she and her boss end up clashing in a big way because the young woman does something that the boss really hates. (Viewers have to wait until the end of the movie to see if or how this conflict is resolved.) And this young woman ends up dating someone she works with, even though dating a co-worker is a tricky issue in this #MeToo era, when a consensual affair between co-workers can be described in very different terms later if the relationship ends badly.

In “Late Night,” which was set in the workplace of a New York City-based late-night talk show, Mindy Kaling (who wrote the “Late Night” screenplay) played the show’s inexperienced and unqualified writer Molly Patel, who’s a “diversity hire,” while Emma Thompson played the prickly boss Katherine Newbury, the show’s host/executive producer. Except for the cities and types of work in the entertainment industry, “The High Note” and “Late Night” have the same premise and are basically the same type of movie, but “The High Note” is much worse than “Late Night.”

Fortunately, Maggie in “The High Note” (written by Flora Greeson) isn’t as clueless about music as Mindy Kaling’s Molly character in “Late Night” is clueless about writing for a late-night talk show. Maggie is a true music trivia buff, who can easily name songs and albums from classic artists to contemporary hitmakers. (Sam Cooke and Carole King are among her favorite classic artists.) Maggie also comes from a music-oriented family: Her father Max (played by Bill Pullman) is a longtime radio DJ, while Maggie’s mother (who died when Maggie was 6) was a singer.

But knowing a lot of music trivia and being a talented music producer are two different things. What will make people’s eyes roll about the dumb aspects of “The High Note” is that Maggie thinks she can go from these training sessions in the recording studio to becoming Grace’s producer, without actually putting in a lot of real work as a producer to pay her dues.

Grace’s harsh and cynical manager Jack Robertson (played by Ice Cube, in yet another in his long list of cranky, foul-mouthed character roles) essentially tells Maggie that she’s acting like an entitled brat in one of the few realistic scenes in the movie. This verbal takedown of Maggie’s ego comes after Maggie insults a smarmy and pretentious but experienced hitmaking DJ/producer named Richie Williams (played in a somewhat hilarious cameo by real-life hitmaking DJ/producer Diplo), who’s recruited by Jack to work on Grace’s live album. Maggie, who’s revealed her secret mixes to Grace at this point, wants Grace to choose Maggie’s mixes instead.

Jack doesn’t particularly like Maggie for another reason. While Jack has been finagling and pressuring Grace to do a Las Vegas residency, Maggie has been encouraging Grace to make an album of new songs instead. The Vegas residency would be easy money for everyone, but Maggie thinks Grace has a lot more to say as an artist instead of doing the same show every night in Vegas for an untold number of years. In a candid conversation with Grace, Maggie tells her that she once saw Grace say in an Oprah Winfrey interview about Grace’s career: “If there are no more surprises, who am I doing it for?”

Although the Jack character is greedy, attention-hungry and generally unlikable, his persona as a manager is actually one of the more realistic things in the movie. One of the other things that “The High Note” accurately portrays is how personal assistants of rich and famous people are often treated like 24-hour-a-day on-call servants. Grace is also one of those “lonely at the top” celebrities who has no real friends and has shallow dating relationships that don’t last, and that’s why her life revolves around her career.

“The High Note” also has a pretty good send-up of the false sense of superiority that employees who work for the same celebrity can have toward other employees. Grace has a materialistic and not-very-smart house manager named Gail (played by June Diane Raphael), who acts as if she’s better than Maggie, simply because Gail gets to have reasonable working hours while Maggie does not. Gail is also the type of “yes”-person leech that Hollywood is famous for attracting when people want to be close to celebrities.

Meanwhile, Grace has a smart and likable roommate named Kate (played by Zoe Chao), who thinks Grace is wasting her talent by being a personal assistant. Maggie’s excuse for continuing to be stuck in the dead-end existence of being Grace’s assistant: “It’s the gateway to my dream job.” Katie’s reply: “It’s the gateway to Stockholm syndrome.” That’s one of the funnier lines in the movie.

As for Maggie’s love interest (because you know a movie like this has to have a love interest for the ingenue), his name is David Cliff (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an aspiring rock/pop musician who happens to be rich enough to own a mansion without working at a “real” job. Of course, Maggie doesn’t know all of that about David when they “meet cute” at a Laurel Canyon grocery store. While they’re standing near each other, Phantom Planet’s “California” song is playing over the store’s speakers, which leads Maggie and David to have a lively conversation about music.

When Maggie mentions Sam Cooke, she’s appalled that David says he doesn’t know who Sam Cooke is. They go their separate ways. But lo and behold, when Maggie leaves the store, she sees David playing a guitar outside the store’s entrance and singing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” while he gives her a sly look. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

At some point, Maggie and Katie are invited to a big house party at David’s place, and that’s how they find out that he’s a musician who’s not financially struggling. So why is this rich guy playing substandard gigs, such as singing cover songs in front of a grocery store? It turns out that David lacks confidence to record his own music and take his career to the next level. And guess who convinces David that she can be his producer?

Of course, in a movie like this, there has to be at least one “big lie/secret” that someone will tell early in the relationship, so that the couple will fight about it later if the secret is revealed. For Maggie, her big lie is that she tells David that she’s an experienced and busy producer, which is why he agrees to let her produce his first demo recording.

And this is where the plot goes down the toilet: David believes Maggie’s claim that she’s an experienced producer, without even asking to hear other music she’s produced, without asking for references, or without doing a background check. Cue to the predictable scene of David and Maggie singing together in a recording booth. (Harrison and Dakota Johnson also do their own singing in the movie. He’s a much better singer than she is.)

As for Maggie, she doesn’t seem that curious to know how or why David is so wealthy. All he’s told her about his family background is that he was raised by his father (a saxophone player named David Cliff Sr.) after David’s mother left them when he was a very young child. For a movie that’s supposed to take place in the present-day music business, it strangely and unrealistically has no scenes of David and Maggie using the Internet to check each other out when they show an interest in each other.

After Maggie and David start sleeping together, she comes up with a dumb idea to trick him into being the opening act for Grace’s record release party—without telling David, Grace or Jack. And in order to do that, Maggie secretly convinces star singer Dan Deakins (played by Eddie Izzard, in a cameo that’s a waste of his talent), who was booked as the opening act, to back out of the gig. How does Maggie convince Dan to cancel this high-profile job? Just by playing David’s demo for Dan and asking Dan to do her this favor, even though Maggie and Dan just met. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Whether or not this moronic plan works or backfires is spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review.  But that stupidity is nothing compared to the ludicrous plot twist that comes toward the end of the film. It’s a plot twist that’s not too surprising because all the signs were there, but it’s still the worst part of the movie.

There’s not much originality in “The High Note,” even in the movie’s soundtrack, which has mostly cover songs or hit songs that were previously released. “Bad Girl,” which is supposed to be Grace’s biggest hit, is a cover version of the Lee Moses song. In “The High Note,” the Grace character has two original songs that are prominently featured in the movie and are performed by Ellis Ross: “Stop for a Minute” and “Love Myself,” which is the tune heard during the end credits.

“Stop for a Minute” was co-written by Rodney Jerkins, who executive produced “The High Note” soundtrack. “Love Myself” was co-written by Greg Kurstin, who’s best known for his work with Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Beck and Sia. But even the contributions of these Grammy-winning hitmakers don’t make these songs particularly outstanding or likely to be nominated for any Grammys.

In fact, there’s a lot of things about “The High Note” that are dull (including the too-long running time of nearly two hours), forgettable or just plain awful. The stars of “The High Note” should not consider it a high point of their careers, because the reality is that the movie is a lackluster low point that they’d probably like to bury.

Focus Features released “The High Note” on VOD and digital on May 29, 2020.