Review: ‘Reverse the Curse,’ starring Logan Marshall-Green, David Duchovny, Stephanie Beatriz, Jason Beghe, Evan Handler, Santo Fazio, Daphne Rubin-Vega and Pamela Adlon

July 11, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: David Duchovny, Stephanie Beatriz and Logan Marshall-Green in “Reverse the Curse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Reverse the Curse”

Directed by David Duchovny

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey, mostly in 1978 (and briefly in 1956 and 2004), the comedy/drama film “Reverse the Curse” (based on the novel “Bucky F*cking Dent”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring writer and his terminally ill father try to mend their rocky relationship during the 1978 Major Leage Baseball season that had a World Series competition between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees. 

Culture Audience: “Reverse the Curse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director/star David Duchovny and movies about father-son relationships that alternate between being cynical and sentimental.

Logan Marshall-Green and David Duchovny in “Reverse the Curse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Reverse the Curse” awkwardly fumbles its attempts to balance sarcasm and sappiness. This comedy/drama has too much phony-sounding and lackluster dialogue in portraying a volatile father-son relationship affected by the 1978 World Series. Perhaps because of the maudlin and frequently dull screenplay, the principal cast members look like they’re trying too hard to be convincing as their often-unhappy characters. And that desperation just ends up being a distraction.

Written and directed by David Duchovny, “Reverse the Curse” is based on his 2017 novel “Bucky F*cking Dent,” which was the original title of the movie. After the movie had its world premiere at the 2023 Tribeca Festival, Vertical acquired the film and changed the movie’s title to “Reverse the Curse.” The “Reverse the Curse’ title refers to the theory that the Boston Red Sox baseball team was cursed from winning the World Series after trading Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees in 1919.

“Reverse the Curse” begins by explaining this theory in a scene taking place in New Jersey in 1956. In a household living room, 11-year-old Theodore “Ted” Fullaker (played by Liam Garten) is watching a TV news report about how the Boston Red Sox hasn’t won a World Series because of this supposed curse. The movie then abruptly shifts to 1978, to show 33-year-old Ted is now working as a peanut vendor at Yankee Stadium.

Ted is divorced, has no children, and still lives in New Jersey. (“Reverse the Curse” was filmed on location in New Jersey.) What Ted really wants to do for a job is be a novelist, but he hasn’t had luck getting any of his manuscripts published. It doesn’t help that Fred would rather get stoned (he has a fondness for marijuana) instead of working on his craft. It’s mentioned several times that he doesn’t do much except smoke marijuana and watch TV when he’s at home.

One of the problems with “Reverse the Curse” is that it never really shows if Fred is a good writer or not and therefore doesn’t give viewers anything to root for when it comes to Fred wanting to fulfill his dream of becoming a professional writer. His writing aspirations are sidelined and overshadowed by the repetitive bickering that Fred has with his father and other people. It all becomes tiresome and annoying to watch after a while.

An early scene in the movie shows Ted in a meeting with a book publisher or a book agent named Blauner (played by Pamela Adlon), who tells Ted: “You’re a real writer. You’re a goddamn writer. But you’ve got nothing to write about. You write as if you haven’t lived … You haven’t suffered—and it shows.” She then advises that Ted commit a crime so that he can go to prison and get raped in prison. If you think this type of conversation is hilarious, then “Reverse the Curse” is the movie for you.

Ted’s cranky father is Marty Fullaker (played by Duchovny), a widower who 60 years old and has heart disease and terminal lung cancer. Marty has declined any further medical care and just wants to die at home. During his stay in a hospital, he was assigned a nurse named Mariana Blades (played by Stephanie Beatriz), who calls herself a “death specialist”—someone who gives counseling to patients to prepare them for death.

Ted meets Mariana for the first time at the hospital where Marty will soon be discharged. Mariana tells Ted that Marty been working on a “biographical novel.” Mariana tells Ted that Marty wants Ted to help him finish the book. Mariana has this to say about Marty: “He’s been a villain. He’s been a scapegoat. Now, he just wants to die a hero.”

Marty is a longtime Red Sox fan who believes that he will live to see the Red Sox “reverse the curse” and win the World Series. In 1978, the Red Sox get closer and closer to making it to the World Series. Ted is a Yankees fan. One of his favorite players is Bucky Dent, who was a short stop for the Yankees at the time.

“Reverse the Curse” makes Marty an Archie Bunker-type character who is curmudgeonly and openly racist but is supposed to be “loveable” anyway. When Marty introduces Mariana to Ted, Marty calls her a racial slur for Hispanics. Mariana shrugs it off and says to Ted: “Your father and I are friends. Epithets can sometimes be endearments. It’s all in how you tell the story.” She then adds by saying to Marty: “Right, honky?”

In order to help Marty finish his book, Ted reluctantly spends more time with Marty. And what a coincidence: Every time Ted is visiting Marty, Mariana just happens to come over to visit too, even though Marty is technically no longer her patient. It’s the movie’s predictable set-up for a romance to start between Ted and Mariana, who have the type of attraction to each other that they try to hide but it’s very obvious.

Ted (who’s not very smart and is self-defeating) and Mariana (who is quick-witted and ambitious) have the type of “opposites attract” banter that a would-be couple can have in movies where they spend quite a bit of time clashing before admitting that they want a romantic relationship with each other. It’s all so predictable but made very boring because Ted and Mariana don’t really have great chemistry with each other. While Ted opens up to Mariana about his past, she’s very emotionally guarded and doesn’t want to talk to Ted about her personal life.

There are the inevitable father-son arguments that are extensions of long-simmering resentments from the son’s childhood. (Benny Mora plays a young adult Marty in flashback scenes.) It should come as no surprise that Marty wasn’t a great husband and father and now has some regrets. Marty has a habit of treating Ted as kind of a loser who didn’t live up to Ted’s potential. Will Ted and Marty heal their grudges against each other before it’s too late? Hint: Did the Red Sox ever “reverse the curse”?

It would be enough for “Reverse the Curse” to have subplots about the writing of Marty’s novel; Marty’s battle with a terminal illness; the possible romance between Ted and Mariana; and Marty’s obsessions with the Red Sox reversing the curse. But no. The movie throws in yet another subplot about Marty pining over a long-lost mistress he fell in love with when he was married to Ted’s mother.

The name of this long-lost love is Eva Maria Gonzalez (played by Daphne Rubin-Vega), who is portrayed by Kathiamarice Lopez in flashback scenes. It leads to a meandering part of the story where Ted enlists Mariana’s help to look for Eva in neighborhoods where people mostly speak Spanish. The movie shows if Eva and Marty reunite or not.

“Reverse the Curse” also has some time-wasting nonsense about Marty’s friends at a barbershop who plot ways for Marty to not find out if the Red Sox lost a game this season. These barbershop friends are yammering meddlers named Benny (played by Evan Handler), Shticker (played by Santo Fazio) and Tango Sam (played by Jason Beghe), who tell Ted a bizarre story about how Marty thinking that the Red Sox is a winning team has direct links to Marty’s health.

Years ago, when Ted was too young to remember, Marty was sick and had to use a wheelchair. Benny said that he fabricated a newspaper story about the Red Sox winning a game (when in fact, the Red Sox lost the game) and gave the fake newspaper article to Marty. Benny says that after seeing the newspaper article, Marty “miraculously” stopped needing to use a wheelchair.

Marty’s barbershop pals think the same tactic can work on Marty again to improve his health. And so, there are entire segments of the movie where Marty’s barbershop friends and Ted go to great lengths to keep any news from Marty that the Red Sox lost a game, including the old trick of fabricating newspaper articles. Marty doesn’t watch TV, which makes it easier for him to not find out the truth. “Reverse the Curse” fails to be believable in this subplot of “hiding the real Red Sox game scores from Marty” because the movie doesn’t want viewers to think that avid Red Sox fan Marty, who has a lot of time on his hands, could easily and realistically find a way to get Red Sox game scores on the radio.

All of these subplots and shenanigans are rarely amusing to watch in this very uneven movie. It seems as if writer/director Duchovny was too enamored with the “Bucky F*cking Dent” book to leave out the parts of the book that didn’t need to be in the movie. Ted is such a mopey sad sack, and Marty is such arrogant bore, it’s hard to care that they’ve made their own lives miserable.

For most of the film, Marshall-Green wears a fake-looking hippie wig that’s very distracting because it looks so artificial. In “Reverse the Curse,” Marshall-Green also looks too old to be 33-year-old Ted. In fact, Marshall-Green was in his mid-40s when he filmed the movie. Because of this noticeable age miscasting, Duchovny (who is only 16 years older than Marshall-Green) and Marshall-Green do not look convincing as father and son.

But that’s not the only problem with this movie. There’s so much cringeworthy dialogue, it diminishes the intended emotional impact of the story. “Reverse the Curse” lurches around from one subplot the next, like the rambling novel that Marty’s book seems to be. “Reverse the Curse” crams in some heavy-handed schmaltz in the last 20 minutes, but by then, it’s too late to save this well-intentioned but mishandled movie.

Vertical released “Reverse the Curse” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 14, 2024.

Review: ‘Thelma’ (2024), starring June Squibb, Fred Hechinger, Richard Roundtree, Clark Gregg, Parker Posey and Malcolm McDowell

July 8, 2024

by Carla Hay

June Squibb and Fred Hechinger in “Thelma” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Thelma” (2024)

Directed by Josh Margolin

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the comedy film “Thelma” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Latina) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 93-year-old grandmother attempts to track down the con artists who scammed her out of $10,000.  

Culture Audience: “Thelma” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and are interested in comedies that make pointed observations about aging and how elderly people are often perceived.

Richard Roundtree and June Squibb in “Thelma” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The vigilante comedy “Thelma” achieves a rare balance of being hilarious, harrowing and heartwarming, even with some plot holes. June Squibb is a delight in this unique movie about a 93-year-old grandmother seeking revenge on con artists who scammed her. It’s the type of comedy that also has a lot to say (without being preachy) about how elderly people are often treated by society.

“Thelma,” which is the feature-film debut of writer/director Josh Margolin, had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the fact that 93-year-old widow Thelma Post (played by Squibb) is very resourceful in her quest, despite being disabled, ignorant about most computer technology, and not having a driver’s license or a car. All of these factors affect her vigilante mission after she is scammed out of $10,000. Although the movie is fiction, a mid-credits scene shows how Margolin’s real-life grandmother Thelma influenced the movie.

“Thelma” (which takes place in the Los Angeles area) begins by showing Thelma getting help from her 24-year-old grandson Daniel Markowitz (played by Fred Hechinger), who is patiently showing her how to find a certain message in her email. Thelma is looking for an emailed recording of her deceased husband Ted singing “One Enchanted Evening.” Thelma, who lives by herself, has been a widow for almost two years.

Daniel, who is Thelma’s only grandchild, has a close relationship with Thelma and adores her immensely. Daniel’s neurotic mother Gail (played by Parker Posey) is Thelma’s daughter. Gail and her uptight husband Alan (played by Clark Gregg), who is Daniel’s father, are both busy working professionals. Daniel is unemployed, so he’s been asked to look after Thelma as much as he can. Daniel asks Thelma to wear a wrist band for emergency alerts. She reluctantly agrees to wear it.

It’s shown in the beginning of the movie that Daniel has a lot of insecurities because he feels like he is a disappointment to his parents. Not only is he unemployed, but he also hasn’t figured out what to do with his life. His aimlessness is one of the reasons why he thinks his estranged girlfriend Allie (played by Coral Peña) has asked that they take a break from each other. Daniel has this to say to Thelma about his separation from Allie: “We’re in different places. She thinks I’m ‘stuck.'”

One day, Thelma is at home by herself when she gets a frantic phone call from a young man who identifies himself as her grandson because he calls her “Grandma.” The voice on the phone sounds a lot like Daniel. The person the phone tells her that he’s in jail because he got into a car accident where his car hit a pregnant woman.

Another man then gets on the phone and identifies himself as the defense attorney for the grandson. This so-called attorney says it’s urgent that his client get bailed out as soon as possible, but he needs $10,000 in cash immediately for that to happen. He instructs Thelma to send the cash through the mail to his office address.

It’s a scam, of course, but Thelma doesn’t know it yet. She doesn’t hesitate to follow the instructions. And so, Thelma withdraws $10,000 from her bank account and mails the cash to the name and address she was given. She put the cash in a stamped envelope and just dropped the envelope in a mailbox at a post office, without getting a tracking number for the envelope. She later finds out it’s a fake name, and the address is a place that provides a street address for private mail boxes.

When Thelma finds out that Daniel really isn’t in jail and that she was scammed, she’s deeply embarrassed. Daniel, Gail and Alan tell her that the most important thing is that Thelma wasn’t physically hurt. They report the theft to police. But unfortunately, Thelma can’t remember the name and address where she mailed the money in an envelope that can’t be tracked.

The police officer taking the report tells Thelma and her family that it’s unlikely they can catch the culprits and get the money back since they don’t have any helpful information to track down the con artists. Daniel feels guilty because he wasn’t there with Thelma to prevent this scam from happening.

Meanwhile, Gail and Alan start to revisit the idea that Thelma is better off in a senior living facility. It’s a sore subject with Thelma, who thinks she’s perfectly capable of living by herself. Thelma’s embarrassment about being scammed turns to anger. And she decides she’s gong to track down the con artists, whether her family likes it or not.

Thelma knows her family wouldn’t approve of her vigilante plan, so she doesn’t tell them what she wants to do. She asks Daniel for a car ride to the Belwood Village Senior Living Facility, where she visits her longtime friend Ben Halpern (played by Richard Roundtree), who’s been a widower for the past five years. Thelma tells Ben about her plan and asks to borrow his scooter, but he says no.

The rest of “Thelma” is a madcap and sometimes poignant roller coaster ride of a story as Thelma (with a lot of help from Ben) plays detective and goes on the hunt for the scammers. Thelma’s anxious family members report her missing from the Belwood Village Senior Living Facility. It’s in this part of the movie that it’s revealed Thelma has several health issues: She’s a breast cancer survivor, had a hip replacement, and she wears hearing aids. She also has arrhythmia, a brain tumor, sepsis, edema and transient global amnesia.

There are some amusing scenes with Belwood Village employees Rochelle (played by Nicole Byer) and Colin (played by Quinn Beswick), who go back and forth with Thelma’s family over whether or not Thelma’s disappearance need to be reported to police, since it’s not uncommon for elderly people to wander off at this facility. There’s a Belwood Village resident named Starey Gary (played by David Giuliani), who got this nickname because he’s non-verbal and just stares. Starey Gary’s disabilities are not mocked in a cruel way, but his spaced-out persona is used for some of the comedic moments.

“Thelma” makes physical aging and elderly disabilities the focus of lot of jokes in ways that are not intended as insult but to make viewers are that senior citizens should not be underestimated because they might have physical characteristics that some people might perceive as liabilities. Thelma is a feisty free spirit who doesn’t let her disabilities hold her back from what she wants to do.

Thelma’s relationship with Daniel and her relationship with Ben are the heart and soul of the movie. Hechinger’s performance is convincing as a scruffily adorable Daniel, while Roundtree’s appealing performance as practical Ben provides some down-to-earth balance to Thelma’s impulsive tendencies. (“Thelma” is the last movie from Roundtree, who died in 2023 at the age of 81.) An “in memoriam” tribute caption for Roundtree is in the film’s end credits. Malcolm McDowell plays a character named Harvey, who shows up in the last third of the film.

“Thelma” has plenty of laugh-out-loud moments because the casting and comedic timing for this movie are pretty much close to perfect. However, viewers have to suspend a lot of disbelief in a climactic part of the film which has some unrealistic elements with a few contradictions and unanswered questions. Overall, the movie’s heartfelt moments are effective without being sappy. “Thelma” stands out not just because it’s rare to see someone in their 90s headline a movie but also because it’s a genuinely funny movie that defies all the usual stigmas that people usually have about getting old.

Magnolia Pictures released “Thelma” in U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024.

Review: ‘Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F,’ starring Eddie Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Taylour Paige, Judge Reinhold, John Ashton, Paul Reiser, Bronson Pinchot and Kevin Bacon

July 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise from left: Eddie Murphy, Taylour Paige, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Bronson Pinchot in “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F”

Directed by Mark Molloy

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Beverly Hills, California, and briefly in Detroit, the action comedy film “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African Americans, white, Latin and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Detroit police officer Axel Foley returns to Beverly Hills and investigates a murder case involving the jailed client of his estranged daughter, who is the defense attorney of the accused suspect.  

Culture Audience: “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Eddie Murphy, the “Beverly Hills Cop” movie series and action comedy films that don’t take themselves too seriously.

Eddie Murphy, John Ashton and Kevin Bacon in “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

Because sequels usually aren’t as good as the first film, “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” should meet expectations for most viewers who aren’t expecting this fourth movie in the series to be as fresh and original as the first (and still best) movie in the series: 1984’s “Beverly Hills Cop.” “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” relies heavily on nostalgia and a transparently predictable plot. However, this lively sequel overcomes its weaknesses with some funny moments, well-cast new characters, and plenty of expected action spectacles.

Directed by Mark Molloy, “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” was written by Will Beall, Tom Gormican and Kevin Etten. The previous sequels in the series are 1987’s “Beverly Hills Cop II” and 1994’s “Beverly Hills Cop III.” “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” is better than the abysmal “Beverly Hills Cop II” but it’s not as entertaining as “Beverly Hills Cop II.” The concept is essentially the same for every movie in the series: wisecracking and rebellious Detroit police detective Axel Foley (played by Eddie Murphy) gets pulled into an investigation that requires him to go to Beverly Hills, California, to solve the case.

The beginning of “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” shows Axel in Detroit at a hockey game with a co-worker named Detective Mike Woody (played by Kyle S. More), who hasn’t been able to solve a case in the five years since Mike has been a Detroit police detective. Mike is an eager admirer of Axel, but Mike is socially awkward and slow to pick up on clues.

At this hockey game, Axel informs Mike that they’re not spending leisure time at this hockey game. They’re really on a stakeout for a major robbery that will take place during the game. The robbery an inside job involving a security guard named Junior Bollinger (played by Kenneth Nance Jr.) and several other people. If they can thwart this robbery and have the criminals arrested, Axel wants to help Mike by giving Mike some credit for helping crack this case.

Axel and Mike make their move to prevent the robbery, but they are outnumbered by several thugs. It all just leads to car chases and shootouts, including Axel stealing a large construction truck and crashing it. You know where all of this is going: The criminals are caught, but Axel leaves a trail of car chase destruction as part of the mayhem.

Back and police headquarters, Axel gets scolded by his supervisor Jeffrey Friedman (played by Paul Reiser), who tells Axel that the police department no longer tolerates the types of irresponsible shenanigans that Axel has been getting away with for years. “They don’t want swashbucklers. They want social workers,” Jeffrey says.

Jeffrey also tells Axl that Jeffrey is retiring so he can spend more time with his family. Axel is upset by this news and asks Jeffrey to reconsider. Jeffrey has already made up his mind though, and he gives this piece of advice to Axel about reconnecting with family: “Talk to your daughter.”

Who is Axel’s daughter? She is Jane Saunders (played by Taylour Paige), an outspoken and independent defense attorney who works for an elite law firm in Beverly Hills. Jane is a 32-year-old bachelorette with no children. She has not spoken to Axel in several years because she chose to cut off contact with him.

It’s later revealed that Jane has a lot of bitter resentment toward Axel because she felt that Axel neglected her after her parents’ divorce. Jane’s mother/Axel’s ex-wife is mentioned in the movie as still being alive, but she’s never seen in the movie. Because Jane has refused to communicate with Axel, he has stayed away from her too and gave up on contacting her. It should come as no surprise that all of that is about to change as Axel finds himself in Beverly Hills again.

Jane represents a low-level criminal named Sam Enriquez (played by Damien Diaz), who has been arrested and is in jail for the murder of an undercover narcotics officer named Lieutenant Copeland (played by David Rowden), who worked for the Beverly Hills Police Department. Sam admits he was a short-lived drug mule, but he denies being a killer. When Jane visits Sam in jail, he can’t believe that this high-priced attorney wants to represent him.

However, Jane tells Sam that she thinks he’s innocent of the murder charge, she’ll represent him for free, and she wants a chance to prove that Lieutenant Copeland was a dirty copy who might have been killed by someone working with the Beverly Hills police. The person who gave her this tip and asked her to take Sam’s case is none other than Billy Rosewood (played by Judge Reinhold), who recently quit the Beverly Hills Police Department over. Fans of the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies know Billy as the earnest, bungling sidekick who has a history of helping Axel. Billy was also in the first two “Beverly Hills Cop” movies.

During a courtroom appearance, Jane says her “dirty cop” theory in open court. And not long after that, a group of three or four masked thugs ambush Jane in a high-rise parking garage while she’s in her car. The masked goons force her car out of the garage window, but leave it dangling with some cable wires. It’s an obvious threat but also an indication that Jane has made certain people very nervous with her theory. Billy comes to the rescue (presumbly because he was following Jane), and he calls for help to get Jane (who isn’t physically hurt) and her car back into the garage.

Billy then calls Axel and asks him to come to Beverly Hills to help with this case. When Axel goes to Billy’s former office, he finds two hoodlums named Kurtz (played by James Preston Rogers) and Silva (played by Joseph Aviel), who are searching the office. Axel, who is quick to invent personas when he’s in tricky situations, says yes when the thugs asks if their boss Beck (played by Mark Pellegrino) is the one who sent him.

Of course, the thugs find out that Axel is lying. It leads to another destructive chase scene. Axel ends up getting arrested and right back at the Beverly Hills Police Department. The police detective who questions him is Bobby Abbott (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who is fairly easygoing but tough when he needs to be. It’s the first time that Bobby has met Axel, but Bobby sees that Axel has a history of getting into trouble in Beverly Hills, going back to 1984.

Axel calls Jane for help in baling him out of jail, but she hangs up a few times until he tells her he knows about the case she’s working on and has valuable information to share. Bobby knows Jane already and finds out after Jane shows up at the police station that Axel is Jane’s father. And what a coincidence: It’s revealed later in the movie that Bobby and Jane used to date each other, but she ended the relationship because she told Bobby that she couldn’t date a cop. Bobby still hasn’t gotten over the breakup.

Axel is able to get off the hook for this arrest because he knows police chief John Taggart (played by John Ashton), a no-nonsense leader who was in the first two “Beverly Hills Cop” movies. John explains that he came out of retirement because he doesn’t want to be at home with his wife. John scoffs at the idea of the deceased Lieutenant Copeland was a corrupt cop.

John also introduces Axel to Lieutenant Copeland’s former boss Captain Cade Grant (played by Kevin Bacon), a smirking character who’s in charge of the police department’s interdepartmental narcotics task force. Cade use to be a Beverly Hills Department police detective and was personally trained by John. Cade also backs up John’s statement that Lieutenant Copeland was a trustworthy and honest cop.

The rest of “Beverly Hills Cop” is about Axel helping a skeptical and often-hostile Jane in investigating this case. And you just know that Bobby is going to help too. Bronson Pinchot, who played scene-stealing Serge in the first “Beverly Hills Cop” movie, makes a brief but amusing appearance in “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F,” as a real-estate agent who helps Axel, Jane and Bobby get access to a certain mansion they want to investigate. Luis Guzmán has a small but hilarious role in the movie as Chalino Valdemoro, a drug dealer who likes to sing karaoke.

“Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” lays it on very thick with the nostalgia by re-using the same best-known soundtrack songs from the “Beverly Hills Cop” movies: Harold Faltermeyer’s instrumental “Axel F” theme song. Glenn Frey’s “The Heat Is On,” the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance” and Bob Seger’s “Shakedown,” a hit that was on the “Beverly Hills Cop II” soundtrack. As for re-using “Beverly Hills Cop” characters, the return of Serge is unfortunately too short (less than 10 minutes), while Billy is no longer a wide-eyed rookie but is now a disgruntled former cop.

Axel’s jokes and impersonations are hit and miss. Murphy still has good comedic timing and can bring charisma to some dialogue that would otherwise fall very flat. “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” has the most emotional authenticity in the scenes where Axel tries to mend his broken relationship with his daughter.

As Jane, Paige gives the best and most difficult performance in the movie because she’s the cast member who has to do the most to balance the comedy and the drama. Her delivery looks natural, not forced or phony. Gordon-Levitt capably handles his role as dependable but somewhat bland Bobby.

Even if it’s very obvious who the chief villain is, “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” can keep viewer interest because the cast members have believable chemistry with each other. Some of the action sequences are very unrealistic but people don’t see “Beverly Hills Cop” movies for complete realism. It’s got a heavy dose of 20th century ideas updated in a 21st century setting but using a very tried-and-true familiar formula.

Netflix premiered “Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F” on July 3, 2024.

Review: ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ (2024), starring Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum

July 5, 2024

by Carla Hay

Scarlett Johannson and Channing Tatum in “Fly Me to the Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures)

“Fly Me to the Moon” (2024)

Directed by Greg Berlanti

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1969, in Florida and briefly in New York and Louisiana, the comedy/drama film “Fly Me to the Moon” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An ambitious advertising executive and a patriotic NASA flight director have conflicts over how to handle marketing and media coverage of the historic Apollo 11 spaceflight that was the first to send people to the moon. 

Culture Audience: “Fly Me to the Moon” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum, movies about NASA, and dramedies that present revisionist versions of real history.

Scarlett Johannson and Channing Tatum in “Fly Me to the Moon” (Photo courtesy of Apple Original Films  and Columbia Pictures)

“Fly Me to the Moon” is a breezy and charming comedy/drama that tells an alternate and often-satirical version of planning media coverage of NASA’s historic Apollo 11 spaceflight. Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum carry this movie over some of its bumpier parts. It’s the type of movie that will have the most appeal with people who have good knowledge of American history (especially when it comes to NASA) and can appreciate movies that poke fun at how easily the media can be manipulated.

Directed by Greg Berlanti and written by Rose Gilroy, “Fly Me to the Moon” is based on a story by Bill Kirstein and Keenan Flynn. The movie takes place during an untold number of weeks leading up to and including July 20, 1969, the date that the Apollo 11 spaceflight put the first people on the moon. The movie has a little bit of something for everyone: scientific adventure, emotional drama, suspenseful thrills, lighthearted comedy and entertaining romance.

“Fly Me to the Moon” begins with a voiceover from a character who is later introduced as Moe Berkus (played by Woody Harrelson), who says he works in the office of the U.S. president. (Richard Nixon was president of the U.S. at the time. And although his name is mentioned a few times in the movie, he’s not a character in the film.) Moe is a government official who acts more like a spy than someone who has a typical administrative job.

An opening montage sequence explains how the Space Race competition between the Untied States and Russia (which was then known as the U.S.S.R.) heated up in the 1960s, as both countries competed to be the first to send people to the moon. In a 1962 speech at Rice University, then-U.S. President John F. Kennedy stated that the U.S. would accomplish this goal before the end of the 1960s.

In 1969, Cole Davis (played by Tatum), a bachelor with no children, is NASA’s launch director at Kennedy Space Center on Merritt Island, Florida. He is confident and has the respect of his team. It’s later revealed that Cole is a Vietnam War veteran who used to be a military pilot. He had trained to be a NASA astronaut but had to leave the astronaut training program when it was discovered that his heart had a fibroid. Cole also has some emotional baggage, including remorse and guilt, over his involvement in the tragic Apollo 1 spaceflight where three astronauts died.

Kelly Jones (played by Johansson), a bachelorette with no children, is also an assertive achiever who sees herself as highly motivated. She works for a New York City-based advertising agency called Hoover. Kelly knows she’s in a male-dominated profession, so she uses her wit and charm to impress people who underestimate her. An early scene in the movie shows Kelly (who’s wearing a fake baby bump to appear pregnant) astounding an all-male group of executives working for a car company client during a conference room meeting. She tells all of the executives in the meeting what types of cars they drive and what types of cars they should be driving.

These weren’t lucky guesses from Kelly. She did her homework in researching these executives. An unethical reason for her success in business is that she has a long history of presenting fake stories, images situations as being real. More of Kelly’s past is revealed in the story. Why did she fake a pregnancy in a business meeting? It’s an example of how far Kelly is willing to go to manipulate people into thinking that she’s more vulnerable than she really is, in order to get what she wants.

Someone who has noticed Kelly’s “smoke and mirrors” skills is Moe, who can be either stern and smirking in the way that he interacts with people. He approaches Kelly in a bar, introduces himself as someone who works for the U.S. president, and shows her proof that he knows a lot of secrets from her past, including Kelly having a history of creating false identities for herself. Moe tells Kelly that he can make her shady past go away if she takes NASA as a client to market the Apollo 11 spaceflight to the public.

Moe explains that Apollo 11 has a public relations crisis because many people, including several influential politicians, think that the U.S. government is spending too much money to try to send people to the moon. At the time, sending people to the moon was still considered an improbable science fiction fantasy. Kelly’s job would be to “sell” Apollo 11 as not only patriotic but also an opportunity for capitalists to make a lot of money. Kelly feels she has no choice but to take this job, and she sees it as a challenge that she can conquer.

And so, Kelly goes to Kennedy Space Center with her trusted assistant Ruby Martin (played by Anna Garcia), who is openly a liberal feminist. Ruby says she has a problem with the job if it means they’re working for politically conservative Richard Nixon, but Kelly assures Ruby that their client is really NASA. The budget for this job is much lower than what Kelly usally gets. She and Ruby have to stay at a motel. And to their dismay, their office at NASA is cluttered and small.

Soon after arriving in Florida, Kelly is by herself in a diner when Cole walks in and looks at her as if he’s immediately attracted to her. Kelly notices Cole staring and her, and they both try to play it cool. He finally approaches her.

They have their “meet cute” moment when he notices that a candle on her table has accidentally lit a book on fire. Cole quickly puts out the fire, and she offers to buy him a drink. He tells her that he doesn’t drink alcohol. Later, it’s revealed that Cole is also very religious. In other words, Cole and Kelly have opposite lifestyles.

Kelly notices that Cole is wearing a NASA pin. They have some casually flirtatious conversation where she plays coy about who she is and exactly what she’s doing in this part of Florida. Before Cole leaves, he is somewhat bashful and a little awkward when he tells her that she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Cole thinks he’ll probably never see her again, but there would be no “Fly Me to the Moon” movie if this was just a one-time encounter between Cole and Kelly.

Cole inevitably finds out who Kelly is and what she’s doing at Kennedy Space Center. When they see each other again, she’s giving orders on his turf. And he doesn’t like it one bit. When two people who are accustomed to getting their own way have to work together and disagree, arguments and other conflicts predictably ensue. And when those two people have sexual tension with each other, the conflicts get even more complicated and personal.

“Fly Me to the Moon” takes a while before it gets the parts of the movie that are the most interesting. A lot of screen time is taken up by somewhat repetitive scenes of Cole disliking almost every idea that Kelly has in order for her to make the Apollo 11 spaceflight more appealing to skeptics. Soon after finding out that he has to work with Kelly, Cole tells her to forget about what he told her about how he thinks she’s the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen because he wants their relationship to be strictly platonic. (And we all know that’s a lie because they’re obviously attracted to each other)

Kelly’s ideas involve things such as product placement and marketing the Apollo 11 astronauts as product spokespeople; hiring actors to pretend to be NASA officials (including Cole) who don’t want to do media interviews; and creating fake personal histories about herself, in order to make herself more relatable to politically conservative U.S. Senators whose votes are needed to get more funding for Apollo 11. In very unrealistic-looking scenes, Kelly suddenly acts like a political lobbyist and has separate meetings with U.S. Senator Hopp from Georgia (played by Gene Jones) and U.S. Senator Cook from South Carolina (played by Colin Jost, who’s married in real life to Johansson). And then, Cole gets in on the lobbying too when he and Kelly have dinner with Senator Vanning from Louisiana (played by Joe Chrest) and his wife Jolene Vanning (played by Stephanie Kurtzuba) in the Vanning family home.

Some of the other NASA people at Kennedy Space Center who work closely with Cole include executive launch director Henry Smalls (played by Ray Romano) and two engineers in their 20s: resourceful Stu Bryce (played by Donald Elise Watkins) and nerdy Don Harper (played by Noah Robbins), who becomes Ruby’s love interest. The three Apollo 11 astronauts—Neil Armstrong (played by Nick Dillenburg), Buzz Aldrin (played by Colin Woodell) and Michael Collins (played by Christian Zuber)—are given somewhat generic personalities and are not the focus of the story. There’s also a stray black cat hanging out at Kennedy Space Center, much to the annoyance of Cole, who doesn’t like this cat because he thinks the cat is bad luck.

Moe isn’t at Kennedy Space Center all the time to see how Kelly is doing her job, but he has ways of monitoring what she’s doing. He orders her to do something that is highly unethical, which is already revealed in the “Fly Me to the Moon” trailers: Film an alternative version of the Apollo 11 moon landing where everything goes perfectly, and pretend that this recording is a live telecast of the real moon landing.

Moe has a name for this massive lie about Apollo 11: He calls it Project Artemis. Moe pressures a reluctant Kelly to carry out this scam because he says it’s a matter of national security. “This isn’t just a race for the moon,” Moe says in a lecturing tone to Kelly. “This is a race for the ideology that gets to run things.”

Kelly recruits her longtime director colleague Lance Vespertine (played by Jim Rash) to be a part of the scheme. Lance, who is a very fussy and flamboyant prima donna, directs commercials (he has the nickname “the [Stanley] Kubrick of commercials”), but he really wants to direct prestigious movies. Rash is a hilarious scene stealer and gets some of the best lines in the movie, although some viewers might find the Lance character kind of irritating.

When it comes to recreating 1969, “Fly Me to the Moon” is at its best with the movie’s production design, costume design, makeup and hairstyling. Some of the dialogue and mannerisms aren’t quite convincing because they seem too influenced by later decades. Tatum in particular has some scenes where he comes across as too 21st century. (And there are some sleek, lingering shots of him staring into the distance as if he’s in a fashion ad.)

Johansson (who is one of the producers of this movie) is more believable as a retro character who is living on the cusp of the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s. Kelly often blurs the lines between being a coquettish sex symbol and being fiercely independent feminist. Some of the scenarios in the movie go a little overboard in making it look like Kelly can get anyone to do anything she wants just because she’s a beautiful blonde.

Tatum and Johansson together have crackling chemistry in their scenes together. Cole and Kelly don’t really seem like soul mates because a lot of their attraction to each other has to do with their physical looks and the way they like to compete with each other. For most of the movie Cole doesn’t ask Kelly very much about herself because he’s too busy arguing with her and trying to assert his authority. Kelly has many secrets and has no qualms about being a habitual liar, so it’s questionable if she’s capable of having a truly honest relationship.

All of those questions are put on the back burner when the last third of the movie takes a “race against time” turn concerning the big fraudulent Project Artemis plan that Moe wants Kelly to carry out on behalf of the U.S. government. Kelly is also ordered to keep this scheme a secret from almost everyone at NASA, including Cole. “Fly Me to the Moon” has a heightened sense of glossy movie glamour that shows it’s not intended to be a historically accurate movie. It’s pure escapist fantasy that mixes some parts of real-life history with fictional main characters and 1960s nostalgia. It all results in an entertaining movie experience whose best moments outshine any flaws.

Apple Original Films and Columbia Pictures will release “Fly Me to the Moon” in U.S. cinemas on July 12, 2024. Sneak previews of the movie took place in U.S. cinemas on July 1 and July 5, 2024.

Review: ‘Griffin in Summer,’ starring Everett Blunck, Melanie Lynskey, Owen Teague, Abby Ryder Fortson and Kathryn Newton

June 24, 2024

by Carla Hay

Everett Blunck in “Griffin in Summer” (Photo courtesy of Coveside Films)

“Griffin in Summer”

Directed by Nicholas Colia

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Borwood, Virginia, the comedy/drama film “Griffin in Summer” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 14-year-old boy is obsessed with having a professional production of his latest play that he’s written, and he unexpectedly gets distracted by his attraction to a young handyman who has been hired to do work at his house. 

Culture Audience: “Griffin in Summer” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and movie about queer young people discovering their sexual identities.

Owen Teague and Everett Blunck in “Griffin in Summer” (Photo courtesy of Coveside Films)

“Griffin in Summer” capably handles the nuances of telling the story of a teenage boy’s sexuality awakening without veering into lurid exploitation. The performances in this comedy/drama are memorable, even when the plot occasionally gets one-note. The movie’s protagonist is believable because he’s not a caricature and has very realistic personality flaws.

Written and directed by Nicholas Colia, “Griffin in Summer” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival, where it won two prizes: Best U.S. Narrative Feature and Best Screenplay (U.S. Narrative Feature). In addition, Colia received a special jury mention (the equivalent of second place) for the Best New Narrative Director Award. “Griffin in Summer” takes place in the fictional city of Borwood, Virginia. The movie was filmed on location in Virginia.

“Griffin in Summer” is a movie about a 14-year-old boy who gets a clear understanding that he’s gay or queer, even though he doesn’t have any sexual encounters in the movie. “Griffin in Summer” handles this sensitive subject with a tone that is frank without being explicit. For example, there are no sex scenes in the film or even discussions of homosexuality or queerness. The words “gay” and “queer” aren’t even said in this film to describe the teenage protagonist. Everything is presented in a matter-of-fact way, without any big, dramatic “coming out” moments.

“Griffin in Summer” begins by showing a student talent show at Borwood Middle School. This talent show takes place shortly before the school will be on a summer break. A boy named Mark (played by Ian Hernandez-Oropeza) and an unnamed girl (played by Aurora Richards) on stage are singing an off-key duet of Chicago’s 1984 hit “You’re the Inspiration.” Even though it’s a horrible performance, the audience politely claps.

Next up is 14-year-old Griffin Nafly (played by Everett Blunck), whose personality can best be described as precocious and prickly. Griffin is an aspiring playwright and has chosen to act out a scene from his play “Regrets in Autumn.” In this play excerpt, Griffin acts out the roles of an unhappily married couple named Harriet (a homemaker in her 50s) and her husband Walter, who’s a Wall Street banker.

Harriet accuses Walter of cheating on her. Walter accuses Harriet of abusing alcohol. It leads to a shouting match where Harriet blurts out: “Oh, and another thing, Walter: Those weren’t miscarriages. They were abortions!”

Needless to say, the audience of mostly students are taken aback by this intense drama and are stunned into mostly silence. Griffin doesn’t seem to care that only a small percentage of people are clapping with tentative applause. His performance got the desired effect of making everyone in the room pay attention to Griffin and his work. Griffin has big plans for this play, which he’s determined to make a reality before he starts high school after his summer break.

At home, Griffin’s supportive mother Helen (played by Melanie Lynskey), who works as a real-estate agent, asks Griffin (who is an only child) if he has any plans to “do anything else” for the summer. Griffin curtly tells her no. That’s because for this summer, Griffin has a single-minded goal to stage his first play in a real theater, which will be the first time any of his plays will be in a legitimate performing arts space instead of the basement of his parents’ home. The play, of course, is “Regrets of Autumn,” which Griffin describes as “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” meets “American Beauty.”

Griffin plans to rent a small performance theater space “somewhere outside of Borwood” for the production. He has already decided who in his small circle of friends will be on his team for this production. Tyler Smoot-Rigsby (played by Gordon Rocks) will have the role of Walter, whom Griffin describes a “serial adulterer.” Winnie Hernandez (played by Johanna Colón) will have the role of Harriet, whom Griffin describes as an “alcoholic.” Pam Vanderworm (played by Alivia Bellamy) has the role of Scarlett, who is Walter’s “social-climbing mistress.”

Kara Pointer (played by Abby Ryder Fortson), who seems to be Griffin’s best friend, has been given the task of directing the play. However, it soon becomes very apparent that Kara has this title of “director” in name only because Griffin is the real director of the play, based on how he acts and the decisions that he makes. It would not be an exaggeration to describe Griffin’s bossy attitude toward his teammates as tyrannical and difficult.

Griffin wants intensive rehearsals that would require 60 hours week. It’s a lot to ask from anyone—let alone an underage teen—to give up that much of their time for an amateur, unpaid play. When Kara speaks on behalf of the castmates about this demanding work schedule and asks for them to rehearse for less hours per week, Griffin has this hostile reaction: “It’s the Equity standard!” (Griffin conveniently forgets that the Actors Equity Association standard also includes union-approved payments and insurance benefits, which obviously Griffin cannot offer.)

In the meantime, Griffin has been frantically putting the finishing touches of the play. He expects to work on the play in quiet solitude in his room. But those plans are disrupted when Griffin finds out that his mother has hired the young adult son of a neighbor named Mrs. Rizzo (played by Francine Berk) to do some handyman work inside and outside the Nafly family home. This handyman work inevitably involves using equipment noises that irritate Griffin.

The name of this handyman is Brad Rizzo (played by Owen Teague), who is an aspiring performance artist. Brad is not intellectual but he’s good-looking in a “lanky and laid-back” type of way. The first time Brad makes his noisy presence known, he’s doing some work on the front lawn, Griffin haughtily orders Brad to stop making noise because Griffin is working on writing a play. “Art comes from a quiet place,” Griffin tells Brad in a snooty tone.

Griffin wants Helen to fire Brad. She refuses. As Brad spends more time at the house, it soon becomes obvious that Griffin is attracted to Brad in a way that makes Griffin feel excited, confused and fearful at the same time. Griffin’s attraction to Brad becomes even stronger when he finds out that Brad is an aspiring performance artist who is only in Virginia to make enough money so Brad can go back to New York City and pursue his real goals of being a professional performance artist.

The rest of “Griffin in Summer” is how Griffin handles his feelings toward Brad while still juggling the stress of launching his “Regrets in Autumn” play. Things get complicated for Griffin when he finds out that Brad has a possessive and insecure girlfriend named Chloe (played by Kathryn Newton), who has known Brad since she and Brad were in high school. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that “Griffin in Summer” pokes some fun at how power dynamics and decision making can change when sexual attraction is part of the mix.

“Griffin in Summer” also has a subplot about how the somewhat troubled marriage of Griffin’s parents affects Griffin’s outlook on life. Griffin’s father Bill (played by Michael Esper) is frequently away from home because of his job. This absence has taken a toll on his marriage to Helen. At one point, Griffin hints that Helen has a substance abuse problem when he tells someone that Helen is “only into Chardonnay and Klonopin.”

As a character, Griffin has a few predictable stereotypes that are often given to queer male characters in movies. Griffin is sassy, fussy and has more than his share of “drama queen” meltdowns. However, the dialogue in the movie rarely strays from sounding authentic. If stereotypes exist for a reason, at least Griffin embodies those stereotypes in a believable way that don’t make him look like a caricature.

What’s special about “Griffin in Summer” is that it does the opposite of what many movies often do that are about underage teens discovering their sexuality: It doesn’t make any of the teens in the film in a rush to lose their virginities. And these teens aren’t fixated on sex and don’t make constant crude jokes about sex, which are other predictable clichés in teen-oriented movies with sexuality as a major theme. Griffin and his friends are still in their early teens and don’t have to be portrayed as if they’re horny 17-year-olds.

Blunck gives a very expressive performance where his face and body language show a lot of what Griffin is really thinking. Meanwhile, Teague gives a credible performance as Brad, who doesn’t initially pick up on the queer signals that Griffin is giving. Brad mistakenly thinks that Griffin is growing attached to Brad because Griffin sees Brad as being like an older brother.

Lynskey gives a solid performance as a harried mother trying to keep her family together, Helen seems to know that Griffin is gay or queer, but it doesn’t seem to be something she wants to discuss with Griffin until he’s ready to talk about it. Newton’s portrayal of ditsy Chloe is intentionally campy. The other supporting cast members give good performances in their very limited roles.

Doing a movie about teenage sexual identity is a tricky thing to do in a movie when the protagonist is under the legal age of sexual consent and the protagonist has a crush on an adult. “Griffin in Summer” isn’t just about sexuality; it’s also about self-acceptance. Through ways that are comedic and often poignant, “Griffin in Summer” shows that it’s much easier to put a label on a sexual identity than it is to have the self-confidence to live authentically, no matter how much it might hurt.

Review: ‘Kinds of Kindness,’ starring Emma Stone, Jesse Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn, Mamoudou Athie and Hunter Schafer

June 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

Emma Stone and Joe Alwyn in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

“Kinds of Kindness”

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Louisiana, the comedy/drama film “Kinds of Kindness” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Various people seek satisfaction in their lives but experience conflicts in this offbeat, three-story anthology. 

Culture Audience: “Kinds of Kindness” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and movies that are often strange but are well-acted.

Margaret Qualley, Jesse Plemons and Willem Dafoe in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

It’s weird and not always wonderful, but “Kinds of Kindness” has committed performances from the cast members in this unpredictable anthology film. This acerbic comedy/drama cuttingly explores the dark sides of power, control and manipulation. Several scenes in “Kinds of Kindness” are deliberately off-putting and intended to make people squirm with discomfort.

For example, there’s a scene where a woman is drugged without her knowledge and consent, and then she is raped while she’s unconscious. (The sexual assault is not shown in graphic detail.) There’s another scene that shows animal cruelty. (A disclaimer in the movie’s end credits says that no animals were harmed while making the film.) In other words, “Kinds of Kindness” is not a family-oriented film that’s supposed to have mass appeal.

Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote “Kinds of Kindness” with Efthimis Filippou), “Kinds of Kindness” had its world premiere at the 2024 Cannes Film Festival, where “Kinds of Kindness” co-star Jesse Plemons won the award for Best Actor. This anthology movie is told as three different stories, all taking place in Louisiana, where “Kinds of Kindness” was filmed on location. Lanthimos is known for making offbeat movies about people doing very unpleasant things to each other. Most of his movies also depict polyamory and/or sexual fluidity. “Kinds of Kindness” is more extreme and less straightforward than Lanthimos’ Oscar-winning films “The Favourite” and “Poor Things.” Some cast members from “The Favourite” and “Poor Things” are also in “Kinds of Kindness.”

In “Kinds of Kindness,” the three stories have these titles, shown in this order: “The Death of R.M.F.,” “R.M.F. Is Flying” and “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich.” (R.M.F. is a mysterious character played by Yorgos Stefanakos in all three stories.) All three stories feature the other main actors portraying different characters in each story. Emma Stone, Plemons, Willem Dafoe, Margaret Qualley, Hong Chau, Joe Alwyn and Mamoudou Athie are the rotating star cast members in each story. Stone and Plemons get the most screen time. Hunter Schafer has a small role in “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich.”

Each story takes its time to reveal the motives of the central protagonists. Keeping the viewers guessing in this way has benefits and limitations. Viewers who have short attention spans will quickly grow tired of “Kinds of Kindness” because of all the guessing games that the movie has in revealing bits and pieces of each story. Many times, viewers will be asking themselves, “Where is this story going?” If you dislike how the first story plays out, then chances are you won’t like the rest of the movie either.

“The Death of R.M.F.”

Hong Chau and Jesse Plemons in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

In “The Death of R.M.F.,” Robert Fletcher (played by Plemons) and his wife Sarah (played by Chau) are a seemingly regular middle-class couple. Sarah and Robert have no children, but they have been trying to start a family. Sarah has gotten pregnant several times but lost all of the pregnancies.

Robert works for a company in an unnamed industry. It’s an office job where Robert is expected to wear business attire. Robert’s boss is Raymond (played by Dafoe), who is a demanding tyrant. Robert and Raymond have been in each other’s lives for about 10 years.

It soon becomes apparent that Raymond wants complete control over certain people in his life. For example, Raymond dictates what Robert and Sarah can eat and when the couple can have sex. Raymond also tells Robert that Robert needs to gain a few more pounds. Raymond expects Robert to confirm every day that Robert has followed Raymond’s orders. Robert willingly complies.

However, there’s one demand from Raymond that Robert has a problem carrying out: Raymond has ordered Robert to kill someone by crashing Robert’s car into the other person’s car. Raymond insists that this car crash has been arranged by a suicidal person whose car will be hit by Robert’s car. Robert is supposed to get a description of the car and the crash victim in advance.

Robert is very reluctant to follow this order from Raymond. Near the beginning of the movie, R.M.F. is shown as someone who’s in another car that Robert crashes into with his car. The fate of R.M.F. is shown in this story. Meanwhile, Raymond’s willing accomplice in these bizarre suicide arrangements is his lover Vivian (played by Qualley), who has been put in charge of meeting with the future car crash victims and asking them to pose for photos that she sends to Raymond for his approval.

It’s soon revealed that Robert is also sexually involved with Raymond, who expects to have complete control over Robert, Vivian and other people. Raymond sometimes gives rare collectibles to manipulate people into thinking that he likes them. In the beginning of the story, Raymond has gifted to Robert and Sarah a tennis racket that was smashed by John McEnroe in 1984.

Alwyn has a cameo as a collectibles appraiser who meets with Raymond. Athie is briefly seen in this story as a character named Will, who also works for Raymond. Stone has the role of a lonely bachelorette named Rita, whom Robert asks on a date after Robert sees that Raymond is also dating Rita.

“R.M.F. Is Flying”

Emma Stone and Jesse Plemons in in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Searchlight Pictures)

In “R.M.F. Is Flying,” Daniel (played by Plemons) and Neil (played by Athie) are best friends and police officers who work together. Daniel and his wife Liz (played by Stone) are very close to Neil and his wife Martha (played by Qualley) and spend a lot of time at each other’s houses. The two couples are so close, it’s eventually revealed that they are swingers who have foursome orgies with each other that they record on video.

In the beginning of this story, Liz (who is a marine biologist explorer) has been missing during a deep-sea exploration trip. However, Liz has been found on a remote island and has been rescued by helicopter. When she arrives home after a brief stay in a hospital, Daniel notices that Liz has a hard time putting on her shoes, because her feet seem slightly bigger than her shoes. Liz says her feet must be swollen.

Other things happen (as shown in the story) that convince Daniel that the person who was rescued and claims to be his wife Liz is an imposter. Is Daniel imagining things or is he correct? Liz’s father George (played by Dafoe) disapproves of how Daniel has been acting cold and distant to Liz, ever since the rescue. Chao has the role of George’s supportive wife Sharon. Alywn appears in the movie in a brief role as a defiant and intoxicated passenger in a car that gets pulled over by Daniel for reckless driving.

“R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich”

Emma Stone in “Kinds of Kindness” (Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos/Searchlight Pictures)

In “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich,” Emily (played by Stone) and Andrew (played by Plemons) are on an intense search for a woman who saved Emily’s life when Emily almost drowned in a swimming pool. At first, Emily and Andrew seem like they’re a couple. But it’s eventually revealed they’re in some kind of polyamorous sex cult led by a domineering guru named Omi (played by Dafoe), who decides which people in the cult will have sex with Omi and when. A mother named AKA (played by Chau) has a certain “tastemaker” role in the cult.

Emily is literally a hard-driving person: She speeds, careens and skids around in a dark purple Dodge Challenger, as if she’s in a demolition derby race. Emily is rude and impatient in her obsessive search. The reason for the search has to do with special powers that she thinks her rescuer has.

Qualley portrays identical twins Rebecca and Ruth in this story. Schafer has a small role as a woman named Anna, who is examined by Emily in a hospital and is quickly rejected as not being the woman whom Emily is seeking. Alwyn portrays Joseph, Emily’s estranged husband, who has custody of their unnamed daughter (played by Merah Benoit), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Athie has the role of an unnamed morgue nurse.

Of these three stories, “R.M.F. Eats a Sandwich” is the most memorable and the most disturbing. It’s also sure to be the most divisive part of “Kinds of Kindness” because of the way it depicts spiritual beliefs and sex in the context of a cult. The main reason to keep watching is to find out what happens in the story’s mystery.

Because “Kinds of Kindness” has two stories in this movie where Dafoe portrays a leader who controls other people’s sex lives, “Kinds of Kindness” seems to be repeating itself in this way, which is to the movie’s detriment. Some of the movie’s bizarre scenes can be amusing, while other weirdness is just plain irritating and serves no other purpose but to show something weird. The cinematography (by Robbie Ryan) gives “Kinds of Kindness” a compelling modern noir tone.

The cast members’ performances make much of the movie more interesting. Stone excels in portraying three very different characters. The other cast members also capably handle their roles. Plemons’ three characters (Robert, Daniel and Andrew) all have loss of control as a major part of their stories, so his “Kinds of Kindness” characters are not as varied as Stone’s characters in this movie.

Viewers of “Kinds of Kindness” should not go into this movie expecting to see charming characters who are easy to like. The movie goes out of its way to have characters who are unlikable or are sometimes difficult watch. “Kinds of Kindness” is like sushi smothered in wasabi. Many people won’t be able to tolerate the parts that sting, but there are other parts that go down easier and have more substance if people are curious to see how everything ends.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Kinds of Kindness” in select U.S. cinemas on June 21, 2024.

Review: ‘All That We Love,’ starring Margaret Cho, Kenneth Choi, Alice Lee, Atsuko Okatsuka, Devon Bostick, Missi Pyle and Jesse Tyler Ferguson

June 17, 2024

by Carla Hay

Margaret Cho in “All That We Love” (Photo courtesy of Ley Line Entertainment and Ten Acre Films)

“All That We Love”

Directed by Yen Tan

Culture Representation: Taking place in Austin, Texas, the comedy/drama film “All That We Love” features a racially diverse cast of characters (Asian, white and a few Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged divorcée copes with the death of her beloved dog and other changes in her personal life, such as her ex-husband moving back to the same city, and their adult daughter moving to Australia. 

Culture Audience: “All That We Love” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and realistic stories about divorced parents of adult children.

“All That We Love” is a smart and mature comedy/drama about the changes that adults go through in personal relationships, from the perspective of a neurotic, divorced mother. Margaret Cho gives a credible and impressive performance. People who are familiar with Cho as only being a comedian will be pleasantly surprised at how good her dramatic talent is too, as demonstrated in this low-key but emotionally honest movie. “All That We Love” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Yen Tan (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Clay Liford), “All That We Love” takes place in a city that is not named, but the movie was filmed in Austin, Texas, and includes some familiar Austin landmarks. In the beginning of the movie, divorcée Emma (played by Cho) is feeling down because her beloved dog Tanner (a brown Collie) has died from cancer. Emma chose to have Tanner cremated. She plans to spread his ashes but hasn’t yet decided where.

Tanner was more than just a dog to Emma, who lives alone. She says multiple times in the movie that Tanner was her main source of comfort and “the love of my life.” There will be more upheavals in Emma’s life during the course of the story. These changes get different reactions from Emma and the people who are close to her. A great deal of the movie is how people deal with unexpected turns in their lives and how much of the past should influence their decisions about relationships.

The two most important people in Emma’s life are her impulsive daughter Maggie (played by Alice Lee), who’s in her early 20s, and Emma’s gay best friend Stan (played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson), who is getting back into the dating scene after a long period of mourning over the death of his longtime boyfriend Craig. Craig’s cause of death is not mentioned in the movie, but it’s mentioned that Stan and Craig were a couple for more than 15 years. Stan is a somewhat stereotypical gay best friend who makes sassy and sarcastic comments. Emma resists Stan’s efforts to play matchmaker for her.

Emma and Maggie are very close, almost like sisters. It’s revealed later in the movie that Emma and Maggie have bonded over their shared trauma of bad times with Emma’s ex-husband Andy (played by Kenneth Choi), who is Maggie’s father. Andy, who is an actor, is described as an alcoholic and a selfish deadbeat dad, who abandoned Emma and Maggie to be with another woman, whom he eventually married after Andy and Emma got divorced. Andy moved to Singapore and hasn’t been in contact with Emma and Maggie for an untold number of years.

Lately, Emma has started to feel like Maggie’s life is going in a direction that’s different from what Emma wants or expects. Maggie is in a serious relationship with her boyfriend Nate (played by Devon Bostick), who is originally from Melbourne, Australia, where his parents and other family members live. Emma doesn’t dislike Nate (who is easygoing and a little goofy), but she doesn’t entirely approve of the relationship either. Emma hasn’t taken the time to get to know Nate, so she’s somewhat suspicious of him.

Emma works at an unnamed company that publishes catalogues. The company has recently been been acquired by a large corporate firm. This merger resulted in layoffs and a more formal work culture that is causing many longtime employees to feel uncomfortable and insecure about their jobs. They don’t think this company is as fun and relaxed as it used to be before the merger. If Emma is feeling afraid she might be laid off, she’s not showing it, and there are no indications that she’s looking for another job.

Emma supervises a team of people whose job is to come up with the designs and words for the catalogues. Even though Emma can be very insecure in her personal life, she’s a demanding and assertive boss at work. For example, she’s shown in a staff meeting getting annoyed and fixated on how an unseen employee named Brian, who is fairly inexperienced, has made a lot of errors in a draft of a catalogue. Later, Emma is stung by a comment from a subordinate, who says that Emma seems to have a more rigid attitude ever since the merger, and Emma is not as friendly and approachable on the job as she used to be.

Stan is a real-estate agent who is contemplating entering into a “throuple” relationship with a gay couple named Julio (played by Joe Souza) and Bob (played by Marcus DeAnda), who recently bought a house from one of Stan’s clients. Julio and Bob have been heavily flirting with Stan, who doesn’t really know how to handle this attention from the couple. Stan also hints that he’s never dated a couple before. Stan is also exploring his options through online dating and asks for Emma’s help in taking a profile photo that Stan hopes will make him look sexy and attractive.

Meanwhile, Emma’s personal life gets turned upside down with news that happens within a day or two of each other. First, Maggie tells Emma that Maggie plans to spend more than just a few weeks with Nate when they visit his family in Australia for an upcoming trip. Maggie has decided that she will be spending five months in Australia and is quitting her job instead of taking a leave of absence. (The movie doesn’t say what kind of job Maggie has.) Emma thinks that Maggie is making the wrong decision about leaving a job for a temporary visit to another country. What really bothers Emma more (but she doesn’t say it out loud) is that she’s afraid that Maggie is starting to see Nate as more important to Maggie than Emma.

Not long afterward, Emma gets even more surprising news: Her ex-husband Andy has moved back to town. Andy surprises Emma with a visit and tells her that his career in Singapore (where he was the star of a successful TV series) got ruined because he was arrested for drunk driving, which was a big scandal. His most recent marriage also fell apart, and he’s now divorced again. He’s also financially broke. Andy is sheepish about these recent failures in his life, but he’s not looking for Emma’s pity or help.

Andy tells Emma that he has now permanently moved to the United States, where he hopes to revive his acting career. In the meantime, he’s working as a barista in a cafe, because he can’t find any jobs as an actor, although he’s hoping an offer that he got to be in a frequently delayed movie will work out for him. Andy is so broke, he can’t afford his own place. Andy has to live with his younger bachelorette sister Raven (played by Atsuko Okatsuka), a YouTuber whose channel is about doing food-related stunts for comedy. Raven has more than 1 million subscribers and makes a full-time income from what she does on YouTube.

Andy seems to be remorseful for how badly he treated Emma and Maggie in the past. He claims that he is now clean and sober and plans to stay that way. Emma is very skeptical at first, but the more time she spends with Andy, the more she is surprised by how different he seems from when they were married. He’s kind, polite and he makes her laugh. Some of their romantic sparks come back. Can this lead to a rekindled romance?

However, things are complicated because Andy wants to make peace with Maggie, who is still deeply hurt and resentful of the neglectful father she used to know. Emma doesn’t quite know when or how to tell Maggie about Andy moving back to same area. And then there’s Stan, who really disapproves of Emma giving Andy another chance because Stan thinks Andy will hurt Emma again.

“All That We Love” has obvious themes of when or if to let go of emotional baggage and whether or not to forgive someone who has been hurtful in the past. There are also some parallels about altered dynamics in close relationships. At various points in the story, Maggie and Emma want to be free to make certain life decisions without the harsh judgments of loved ones who are close to them.

The movie has a somewhat cutesy subplot involving one of Emma’s subordinates named Kayla (played by Missi Pyle), a devout Christian. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Kayla tells Emma that she wants to take an early buyout from the company instead of waiting to be laid off because Kayla wants to spend time doing her “true calling” of church work. Kayla also volunteers as a foster caregiver for dogs. You can easily predict where this subplot will go as soon as Emma visits Kayla at Kayla’s home.

All of the cast members give very good performances, but the movie’s authenticity rests largely on Cho’s nuanced performance as someone who’s feeling the discomfort of unpredictable life events while going through a grieving process. “All That We Love” excels in depicting complicated emotions and situations that arise when formerly feuding divorced parents reach a tentative reconciliation after years of anger and resentment. What does this do to the rest of the affected family members, who might not be ready to forgive and let go of the past?

A few moments in “All That We Love” veer into sitcom territory, particularly in a scene where Emma is asked to leave a house party, and she urinates in the lawn bushes because she doesn’t want to ask the party host to let her back in the house to use the bathroom. However, this well-written and capably directed film shows an overall wisdom of life’s messiness and how people can arrive at different conclusions based on how they deal with the past and the present. In its own observational way, “All That We Love” is a poignant testament of how letting go of previous experiences and facing an uncertain future can be much harder than holding on to the past.

Review: ‘Sacramento’ (2024), starring Michael Angarano, Michael Cera, Kristen Stewart and Maya Erskine

June 13, 2024

by Carla Hay

Maya Erskine, Michael Angarano, Michael Cera and Kristen Stewart in “Sacramento” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Sacramento” (2024)

Directed by Michael Angarano

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the comedy/drama film “Sacramento” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two estranged best friends have a tension-filled and sometimes wacky reunion when they go on a road trip together from Los Angeles to Sacramento. 

Culture Audience: “Sacramento” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and road trip “buddy” movies with good acting.

The comedy/drama “Sacramento” has an over-used formula of two people with opposite personalities who go on a trip together. However, the cast members’ believable performances capably balance the movie’s shifting tones of whimsical and weighty. “Sacramento” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Directed by Michael Angarano, “Sacramento” (which was filmed on location in California, mostly in the cities of Los Angeles and Sacramento) is about life’s growing pains and the crossroads of decisions about maturity and lifestyles that are often experienced by people in their 30s. Christopher Nicholas Smith and Angarano co-wrote the screenplay for “Sacramento,” which begins by showing protagonist Rickey (played by Angarano) by himself in a wooded area near a creek. Standing on the opposite side of the creek is a stranger named Tallie (played by Maya Erskine), who shouts out this sexual flirtation to Rickey: “Nice dick!”

Rickey (a never-married bachelor with no children) is intrigued by this stranger and is immediately attracted to Tallie. He suggests that they spontaneously get in the creek and swim to each other. She agrees. He strips down to his underwear, but Tallie suddenly changes her mind and doesn’t go in the water.

It sets the tone of what types of personalities they have: Rickey is very impulsive, and many people in his life think he’s irresponsible. Tallie is less likely to be a risk taker and is more of a realist. Rickey decides to swim to Tallie. Over the rest of the trip, they flirt with each other and eventually hook up sexually. What happens to their relationship is eventually revealed in the movie.

One year later, in Los Angeles, Rickey’s on-again/off-again best friend Glenn Mullen (played by Michael Cera) is assembling a crib for his soon-to-be-born first child. Glenn gets frustrated because he can’t put together the crib in the way he thinks it’s supposed to be. Glenn becomes so angry, he shakes off one side of the crib in frustration. It soon becomes obvious in other scenes that Glenn is a neurotic control freak with an obsessive-compulsive attitude about cleanliness and sticking to routines.

Glenn’s supportive wife Rosie (played by Kristen Stewart) is laid-back and very understanding about Glenn’s quirks. Adding to Glenn’s overall frustration, he has recently been laid off from an unnamed job. Rosie, who works from home in an unnamed job, has offered to be the household breadwinner until Glenn finds another job. She suggests that Glenn can be a stay-at-home father for a year while she financially supports the family. Glenn somewhat reluctantly agrees.

Based on conversations in the movie, Rickey and Glenn have known each other since they were children. But as adults, Rickey has been in and out of Glenn’s life. Even though they both live in the Los Angeles area, it’s not unusual for Rickey to cut off contact with Glenn for several months and then make contact and expect them to resume ther friendship right where it left off. This flakiness has made Glenn feel very estranged from Rickey.

But there would be no “Sacramento” movie if Rickey and Glenn didn’t have a reunion. Rickey, who is chronically unemployed, is seen trying to lead a grief support group that used to be led by his deceased father. Rickey’s style of counseling is considered too aggressively judgmental, so he’s asked to leave the group.

Feeling lonely, Rickey suddenly shows up unannounced at the home of Glenn and Rosie. Glenn isn’t happy to see Rickey, but he’s polite enough to make time to talk to Rickey. Through a series of events, Rickey convinces Glenn to go on a road trip to Sacramento (which is about 386 miles northeast of Los Angeles) because Rickey says his father recently died, and his father’s dying wish was to have his ashes spread in Sacramento. This “dying wish” is a lie. Early on in the trip, when Glenn isn’t looking, Rickey spontaneously fills a tennis ball container with dirt and pretends that the container has the ashes of his dead father.

The rest of “Sacramento” has some clichés from many other road trip movies of this ilk: The two travelers frequently bicker with each other. They meet unusual characters along the way. Something goes wrong with the vehicle being used for the trip, such as running out of gas, a mechanical malfunction, or the vehicle gets stolen or towed. And as defenses come down, the two quarrelling people on the road trip show vulnerability to each other and reveal personal secrets.

What saves “Sacramento” from watered-down mediocrity is the fact that the main characters are written in such a specific way, they can’t be described as shallow or generic. Angarano and Cera have genuine chemistry with each other that makes it easy for viewers to believe and feel invested in this volatile friendship, which is at the heart of the film. “Sacramento” doesn’t do anything that’s really inventive (and some of the scenarios are a bit too much like a sitcom), but it’s a solid option for people who want to see an entertaining film that will make viewers laugh, cringe and possibly feel some sentimentality.

Vertical will release “Sacramento” in select U.S. cinemas on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘The Last Frenzy,’ starring Jia Bing, Xiaoshenyang, Yu Yang, Dong ‘Gem’ Baoshi and Tan Zhuo

May 25, 2024

by Carla Hay

Dong “Gem” Baoshi, Jia Bing, Yu Yang and Xiaoshenyang in “The Last Frenzy” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

“The Last Frenzy”

Directed by Rina Wu

Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in China, the comedy/drama film “The Last Frenzy” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A terminally ill man, who has been diagnosed with brain cancer and has been told he has only a few days to live, contacts his three best friends from his childhood so they can live out their wildest dreams. 

Culture Audience: “The Last Frenzy” will appeal primarily to people are fans of the movie’s headliners and movies about friendships and fulfilling fantasies.

Xiaoshenyang, Jia Bing, Yu Yang and Dong “Gem” Baoshi in “The Last Frenzy” (Photo courtesy of Tiger Pictures Entertainment)

“The Last Frenzy” is a little too rushed and trite at the end of the movie. However, this comedy/drama succeeds overall at maintaining viewer interest in a story about a dying man having a twist-filled reunion with three friends from his childhood. It’s a movie that has a good balance of wacky amusement and heartfelt sentimentality.

Written and directed by Rina Wu, “The Last Frenzy” takes place in unnamed cities in China in the early 2020s, but has some flashbacks to the early 1990s. The movie’s central character is Jia Youwei (played by Jia Bing), a divorced bachelor in his mid-40s who lives alone in small condominium apartment. Youwei lives very frugally and is such a “tightwad,” he seeks out the lowest prices on the items that would just cost the equivalent of less than one yuan. Youwei also doesn’t own a car, because he doesn’t want to deal with any car expenses, so he gets around by riding a bicycle.

Youwei will soon have more important things to worry about than trying to live as frugally as possible. After a visit to a doctor (played by Zhou Dayong) to get a MRI scan, the doctor tells Youwei some very bad news: Youwei has a brain tumor and only has 10 days to live. A distraught Youwe goes to his favorite casual restaurant, which is owned and operated by a friendly elderly man named Uncle Niu (played by Li Qi), and tells Uncle Niu this devastating news.

Youwei asks Uncle Niu for advice because Uncle Niu is also a bachelor who lives alone. Uncle Niu tells Youwei that if Uncle Niu had to deal with the same diagnosis, he would spend his last days alive by partying as much as possible with his friends. It’s advice that Youwei takes immediately.

First, Youwei sells his apartment. He also withdraws all of his money that he had saved in a bank. He then takes all the cash (about ¥ 1 million, which is about $140,625 in U.S. dollars in early 2020s money) and puts it in a duffel bag.

Youwei then contacts the three best friends he had when they were in their mid-teens together in the same group home. He tells them about his terminal illness and the diagnosis that he only has less than two weeks to live. Youwei says he wants to spend all of his money partying with them and fulfiling all of their fantasies.

Flashbacks to the four friends’ teenage years show that they were a tight-knit group that vowed to always treat each other like brothers. They called themselves the Workshop Four and each had different roles in their friendship, based on their personalities. These roles linger even when they are reunited 30 years later in adulthood.

Youwei had the role of a protective “older brother,” especially to “younger brother” Xu Dali (played by Yu Yang), who is the shyest and most insecure one in the group. Dali, who is a bachelor with no kids, works as a security guard in a shopping mall, and he has fantasies of becoming a professional boxer. Dali feels self-conscious of this thin body and doesn’t want people to think he’s a wimp.

As a teenager, outspoken Sha Baihu (played by Xiaoshenyang) dreamed of being a martial arts hero. Baihu is now a married father of a teenager son and a teenage daughter and has a wife who is a workaholic. Baihu often feels like a stranger in his own home because his wife and children don’t really pay attention to him.

Don Jiafeng (played by Dong Baoshi, also known as rapper Gem) had dreams of becoming a race car driver. Now, he is married and has a strained relationship with his son, who’s about 10 or 11 years old. Jiafeng’s son admires a rapper named Danko (played Liu Jiayu) and says that he wishes Jiafeng could be more like Danko. Jiafeng wants to impress his son, so he secretly tries to learn how to write and perform rap music.

Younger actors portray the four pals in these flashbacks. Zhang Baiqiao (also known as Zhang Baigui) portrays young Jia Youwei. Wei Lei has the role of young Dong Jianfeng. Li Zongheng is young Sha Baihu.

A flashback shows that when these four pals were teenagers, Youwei was blamed for betraying the Workshop Four. It was a misunderstanding but one the main reasons why the four friends eventually drifted apart. Youwei still feels some guilt over this estrangement, but he’s determined to make up for lost time. His plan is to have all of his money spent before he dies.

The four friends go on a spending spree with Youwei’s money. Among the things they do with the money is rent a Rolls Royce for Jiafeng to drive; stay at luxury hotel; gamble with large sums of cash; buy huge quantities of high-priced, imported liquor; play video games; and shoot guns at a firing range. Their indulgences sometimes get very over-the-top, such as when they hire about 12 waiters to guzzle much of the alcohol that was bought.

A reunion movie like this usually has some type of romance with a “lost love.” In “The Last Frenzy,” the “love who got away” is Wang Xiaoqian (played by Tan Zuo), who was Youwei’s crush when he was in high school. After 30 years of not seeing each other, Youwei and Xiaoqian unexpectedly encounter each other when Youwei and his pals check into a hotel where Xiaoqian works as a maid.

It’s a somewhat awkward reunion because Xiaoqian did not have romantic feelings for Youwei in high school. And she’s still not really attracted to him, but he still has a little bit of a crush on her. Xiaoqian tells Youwei that she’s a widow. She was married to a man named Zhang Minju, who was a bully at their school when they were teenagers. Youwei expresses surprise and disappointment that Xiaoqian married a guy who was Youwei’s nemesis in school.

A lot of sappy movies would then have a storyline about Youwei being able to win over Xiaoqian in a romance. But “The Last Frenzy” isn’t completely formulaic in this way. Youwei tells Xiaoqian about his terminal ilness. Xiaoqian is up front in telling Youwei that she is not interested in dating him because she doesn’t see the point of getting involved with him if he’s not expected to live for much longer. It’s a brutally honest reaction but it’s also realistic.

Youwei finds out that Xiaoqian is beng harassed by a thug named Brother Kun because her dead husband owed Brother Kun some money, and Brother Kun expects Xiaoqian to pay this debt. Xiaoqian doesn’t have the money and refuses Youwei’s offer to give her the money. There’s some slapstick comedy involving Youwei and his friends dealing with Brother Kun and his goons.

After the four friends go on a spending spree and do some luxury traveling, they go back home, and Youwei has another doctor’s appointment. The movie’s story then shifts dramatically after this doctor’s appointment, as Youwei faces a new crisis. The rest of “The Last Frenzy” is about how Youwei handles this change of events.

“The Last Frenzy” can be a very zippy comedy, but it also has dramatic themes about regrets and friendships. Now in their 40s, the four pals have to come to terms that aspects of their lives are not what they thought they would turn out to be. All four pals feels lonely, neglected or misunderstood in some way in their personal lives. The movie has made all four pals think about the time they might have left to live and what they really want to make their priorities.

One of the main reasons why “The Last Frenzy” works so well is the cast members have believable chemistry with each other. Their comedic timing works for the zanier moments, while the more serious moments have the right amount of emotional authenticity. Some of the plot is stretched thin with repetitiveness. And even though the last third of “The Last Frenzy” looks like an “only in a movie” fantasy, the movie’s four friends will have earned enough goodwill, viewers will be rooting for them until the very end.

Tiger Pictures International released “The Last Frenzy” in U.S. cinemas on May 17, 2024. The movie was released in China on May 1, 2024.

Review: ‘Poolman,’ starring Chris Pine, Annette Bening, DeWanda Wise, Stephen Tobolowsky, Clancy Brown, John Ortiz, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Danny DeVito

May 23, 2024

by Carla Hay

Chris Pine in “Poolman” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)


Directed by Chris Pine

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy film “Poolman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: An apartment complex’s swimming pool cleaner, who is working on an environmental documentary about Los Angeles, investigates a corruption scheme involving a city council president and a property developer. 

Culture Audience: “Poolman” will appeal primarily to people are fans of the movie’s headliners and don’t mind watching a time-wasting and poorly made movie.

Chris Pine in “Poolman” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“Poolman” is like a flimsy and faulty floating device that’s full of holes and quickly sinks due to its sheer incompetence. This comedy noir mystery is very unamusing and incoherent. Everyone involved should be embarrassed.

“Poolman” is the feature-film directorial debut of actor Chris Pine, who stars in the movie and co-wrote (with Ian Gotler) the abysmal screenplay. “Poolman” (which takes place in Los Angeles, where the movie was filmed on location) is clearly inspired by the Oscar-winning 1974 noir mystery “Chinatown,” starring Jack Nicholson and Faye Dunaway. However, “Poolman” removes all of the good filmmaking qualities that make “Chinatown” a classic. “Poolman” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival, which clearly chose this movie because of Pine’s fame, not because of the low quality of the film.

In “Poolman,” Darren Barrenman (played by Pine) is a long-haired, scruffy, wannabe documentarian who has a day job as the swimming pool cleaner for a shabby motel-like apartment complex called the Tahitian Tiki. Darren (who is the only employee of his Awesome Aquatics business) lives in a small trailer that is awkwardly located on the side of the Tahitian Tiki’s swimming pool. Darren is dating Tahitian Tiki manager Susan Kerkovich (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), but their relationship seems to be stuck in a rut. Darren and Susan have boring conversations that go nowhere, such as when they are in bed and talk about how the owner of their favorite chicken restaurant has recently died.

Darren has an obsession with real-life environmental activist Erin Brockovich, so he is seen typing (on a typewriter) a letter to her every day. These letters, which are read out loud in voiceovers, are quite pathetic because Darren sounds like a jilted ex-lover in these letters, even though he has apparently never met Brockovich. Darren wants to make an important environmental documentary about Los Angeles and is against any property development that might harm the environment. One of the reasons why he’s directing this documentary is so he can impress Brockovich.

Darren has three friends who are helping him with this documentary: Diane Esplinade (played by Annette Bening), who seems to be a producer, constantly rambles about New Age self-care gibberish. Jack Denisoff (played by Danny DeVito) is a cinematographer, who often likes to talk about his glory days working as a television director. Wayne (played by John Ortiz), who is a production assistant, is described as Darren’s “best friend” and a “union analyst.”

“Poolman” is so poorly written, it isn’t made immediately clear what type of relationship Diane and Jack have with emotionally immature Darren. When Diane and Jack are first seen with Darren in the movie, Diane and Jack act like they are Darren’s parents, not his documentary co-worker/friends. Darren’s relationship with “best friend” Wayne is also strange, with no backstory.

Darren makes himself a nuisance at Los Angeles City Council meetings to protest anything that he thinks will harm the environment. Darren is very suspicious of an upcoming property development called the Very Venice Housing Project. At one of these meetings, Darren is ranting about an environmental study that he has completed. The president of the Los Angeles City Council is Stephen Toronkowski (played by Stephen Tobolowsky), who sees that Darren is attempting a filibuster, so he orders Darren to stop.

A bailiff named Reggie (played by Aflamu Johnson) tries to stop Darren, but Darren assaults Reggie. Darren is arrested, but he is bailed out of jail by June Del Rey (played by DeWanda Wise), who dresses and acts like she thinks she’s in a 1940s noir film. June tells Darren that she’s Stephen’s new executive assistant and says she needs Darren’s help in exposing Stephen as a corrupt politician. Darren has a romantic attraction to June that never looks believable in this dreadful movie.

Meanwhile, Darren’s investigation involves a wealthy property developer named Theodore “Teddy” Hollandaise (played by Clancy Brown), the CEO of Big Dutch Group, the company behind the Very Venice Housing Project. There’s also another rich mogul named William Van Patterson (played by Ray Wise), who becomes part of the story. Darren and his documentary film pals get involved in amateurish and bumbling spying on suspicious characters.

Everything in “Poolman” is sloppily conceived and clumsily executed. Bening does the best that she can in a terribly written role, while the other cast members’ performances are mediocre-to-horrible. Pine constantly mugs for the camera and smirks in ways that quickly become irritating, as Darren shows how much of a moronic “investigator” he can be.

The secrets and surprise “reveals” for some of the characters just add to the movie’s idiocy. There are plenty of low-budget, independent movies that are of low quality, but “Poolman” didn’t have to be this bad, considering the well-known talent involved. All of that talent is wasted and goes down the drain quicker than obnoxious poolman Darren can empty a pool.

Vertical released “Poolman” in select U.S. cinemas on May 10, 2024.

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