Review: ’80 for Brady,’ starring Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Sally Field and Tom Brady

January 28, 2023

by Carla Hay

Rita Moreno, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin and Sally Field in “80 for Brady” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“80 for Brady”

Directed by Kyle Marvin

Culture Representation: Taking place in Boston and in Houston, in 2017 and briefly in 2020, the comedy film “80 for Brady” (inspired by a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Four elderly women, who superfans of football star Tom Brady, win a contest to go to Super Bowl LI, and experience various hijinks before and after they lose their Super Bowl tickets. 

Culture Audience: “80 for Brady” will appeal primarily to people who are fans the movie’s stars, American football and movies about senior citizens who have a zest for life.

Lily Tomlin and Tom Brady in “80 for Brady” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

As lightweight as a styrofoam football, “80 for Brady” is a transparently old-fashioned comedy about four female fans of Tom Brady who go on a Super Bowl adventure. The cast members’ chemistry is the main reason to watch, because the jokes are hit and miss. This is the type of movie where you know even before it starts how it’s going to end, but it’s still a breezy and inoffensive ride that should bring some mild grins even to the most cynical viewers.

Directed by Kyle Marvin, “80 for Brady” is inspired by a true story and has a trailer where about 80% of the plot is revealed. Even without seeing the trailer or knowing anything about “80 to Brady” before seeing the film, viewers will know about 15 minutes into the movie what to expect. The “80 for Brady” screenplay by Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins has many hokey sitcom-ish elements that could have been a lot more cringeworthy if not for the immense talents of the four principal actresses at the center of the story. It also helps that all four actresses are entirely believable in their “80 for Brady” roles as longtime best friends.

Lily Tomlin portrays Louella, nicknamed Lou, the group’s most enthusiastic risk-taker. Jane Fonda is Patricia, nicknamed Trish, who is a flirtatious and fun-loving divorcée. Rita Moreno has the role of sassy widow Maura Martinez, whose husband Francisco died the previous year. Sally Field depicts sensible and socially inhibited Elizabeth “Betty” Bachman, a retired Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of applied mathematics. Betty is the only one in this group of four who is married; she’s been married to her husband Mark (played by Bob Balaban) for 51 years. All four of these female friends are in their 80s, except for Betty, who is 75.

The story of “80 for Brady” begins in Boston in 2017, when these four New England Patriots superfans look forward to watching Super Bowl LI, where the New England Patriots will be playing against the Atlanta Falcons at NRG Stadium in Houston. Fans of American football already know that Super Bowl LI had one of the most shocking victories in Super Bowl in history, so it’s no surprise that it would eventually be recreated in a scripted film. The four Patriot superfans in “80 for Brady” would love to go to the Super Bowl in person, but they can’t afford the trip and the price of the Super Bowl tickets.

As explained early on in the movie, these four best friends are particularly fond of quarterback Tom Brady. They’ve adored him, ever since 2001, his first year with the New England Patriots. However, Trish also has a big crush for Rob Gronkowski, who was the tight end for the New England Patriots at the time.

Trish has such lustful admiration of Gronkowski, she’s turned her steamy fan fiction about him into bestselling romance novels. Trish has the author pseudonym Virginia Le Doux, the name of a poodle that Trish used to own. Her current book is called “Between a Gronk and a Hard Place.” Gronkowski makes a cameo in “80 for Brady,” as already shown in the movie’s trailer. Other former National Football League (NFL) stars who make cameos in “80 for Brady” are Marshawn Lynch, Danny Amendola and Julian Edelman.

Lou, Trish, Maura and Betty are avid viewers of a TV show for New England Patriots fans called “Pats Nation,” hosted by two guys named Nat (played by Alex Moffat) and Pat (played by Rob Corddry), who announce that the show is giving away free tickets to Super Bowl LI. The winner will be whoever “Pats Nation” thinks has the best story for why that person deserves to go to Super Bowl LI. Only one entry per person is allowed. And so begins a not-very-funny stretch of the movie where Lou, Trish, Maura and Betty all come up with different ways to make their statements for the contest.

This part of the movie looks very outdated, because people enter the contest by calling a hotline phone number and saying why they deserve to go to the Super Bowl. Haven’t these people ever heard of online technology? Maura, who lives at a group home called Calm Gardens Retirement Resort, gets some of the residents to help her with this contest by making phone calls on her behalf, by using their own names and promising they will give her the tickets if they win. One of these residents is Mickey (played by Glynn Turman), who is obviously attracted to Maura, but she’s still grieving over her husband and doesn’t seem ready to be in another romantic relationship for now.

Because viewers already know that these four friends are going to the Super Bowl, it’s only a matter of time before it’s revealed that Lou won the contest by making a heartfelt statement about how she, as a recovering cancer patient, and her three best friends became fans of Brady and the New England Patriots. “80 for Brady” has all sorts of contrived slapstick comedy to make this Super Bowl trip wacky and challenging. Accidents, misunderstandings and physical mishaps are all part of the predictable antics.

The hijinks start before they even get on the airport. Maura has taken some sleeping pills and can’t wake up when Lou, Trish and Betty arrive to pick up Maura and go to the airport. Calm Gardens Retirement Resort has a policy not to wake up sleeping residents. A well-meaning employee named Tony (played by Jimmy O. Yang) is determined to enforce this policy and won’t let Lou, Trish and Betty visit Maura.

Trish puts on a flowing blonde wig and a star-spangled, tight outfit, as if she Boston’s version of Dolly Parton. Trish then flirts wth Tony as a distraction, while Lou and Betty sneak into Maura’s room and try to wake up Maura. They eventually “smuggle” a passed-out Maura in a wheelchair, but not before Tony sees them and tries to stop them. Mickey helps by announcing on the P.A. system that “Wheel of Fortune” host Pat Sajak is in the building. Several curious residents gather in the hallway and block Tony’s path, so Maura and her pals are able to get away and go to the airport. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The “80 for Brady” trailer already shows many of the four pals’ other experiences after they get to Houston. Betty enters a contest called Spicy BBQ Hot Wings Challenge, hosted by Guy Fieri, who portrays himself in the movie. Trish meets a handsome ex-NFL player named Daniel “Dan” Callahan (played by Harry Hamlin), who has two Super Bowl rings from two different teams. You know exactly where the storyline is going to go for Trish and Dan.

At a pre-Super Bowl party, the shenanigans continue. Maura, Betty and Lou are unknowingly given gummy bears laced with an unnamed drug, which results in Maura hallucinating that everyone she sees looks like Guy Fieri. Maura ends up playing poker with some strangers, including comedians Patton Oswalt and Retta, portraying themselves. She becomes fast friends with one of the poker players named Gugu (played by Billy Porter), who happens to be the leader of a group of dancers performing at the Super Bowl.

Betty is considered the most “responsible” on in the group, so she’s put in charge of keeping the Super Bowl tickets safe. As soon as she’s given that responsibility, you just know something is going to happen to the Super Bowl tickets. Ron Funches has a generic supporting role as a stadium security staffer named Chip, who becomes an obstacle for the ladies when they try to go into the stadium without their tickets.

Whenever there’s a comedy about best friends who are senior citizens, there always running gags that essentially seem to be saying, “Look: These old people are a lot stronger, smarter, and livelier than people think. Don’t underestimate them.” When it comes to that formula, “80 for Brady” follows it to the hilt.

Fonda and Tomlin have worked together on the Netflix’s 2015 to 2022 comedy series “Grace and Frankie” (and previously on the Oscar-nominated 1980 comedy film “9 to 5”), so they have an easy camaraderie with each other on screen. Moreno has some of the best comedic scenes in the movie, particularly in the party scene where she’s hallucinating. Field handles her role quite well, considering that Betty goes through the expected transformation from being the “uptight friend” to someone who learns how to loosen up more. The supporting characters in “80 for Brady” aren’t developed enough to really make a big impression, since the cast members in these roles have played versions of these types of characters in other movies.

These types of senior-citizen comedies usually have a cliché about one of the friends having a health/medical condition but hasn’t told the other friends about it. There’s no subtlety about it in “80 for Brady,” which has multiple scenes of Lou’s worried daughter Sara (played by Sara Gilbert) begging Lou to call Lou’s doctor, who reached out to Sara (Lou’s emergency contact) because Lou wasn’t returning the doctor’s messages. Considering that the movie announces early on that Lou is a recovering cancer patient, there really is no mystery about why her doctor might be calling.

Aside from this health issue, “80 for Brady” keeps the tone very jovial, even when the pals get into uncomfortable predicaments. Some of the comedy is downright silly, such as an early scene where Lou imagines that a bobblehead toy of Brady tells her, “Let’s go,” when she says out loud that she’s thinking about entering the contest to win the Super Bowl tickets. The movie has an abundance of people gushing about Brady, as if he’s the greatest American football player who could ever exist.

Why is there all this the over-the-top fan worship of Brady in this movie? Brady is one of the movie’s producers. He also has a small supporting role in “80 for Brady,” although many of his scenes are on the football field. Is this movie a vanity project for Brady? Yes and no. You can’t go 15 minutes without hearing Brady’s name in this movie, but he wisely chose not to appear as a leading star of the film.

Most famous athletes finance movies so that the athletes can launch acting careers too, but they usually end up embarrassing themselves with terrible acting. Brady does a fairly competent job as an actor, but he’s clearly not a natural when it comes to acting skills. He plays a slightly goofier version of himself who doesn’t take his sex symbol status seriously, but the movie definitely takes his celebrity status a little too seriously.

And speaking of not taking anything too seriously, viewers should not take “80 for Brady” that seriously at all. It’s a fantasy version of what a Super Bowl experience would look like if four superfans won Super Bowl tickets and had things go wrong and things go right in some extreme ways. Simply put: “80 for Brady” fulfills its intention to be harmless entertainment that isn’t masterful comedy but can be a satisfactory amusing diversion.

Paramount Pictures will release “80 for Brady” in U.S. cinemas on February 3, 2023.

Review: ‘Wyrm,’ starring Theo Taplitz, Lulu Wilson, Sosie Bacon, Natasha Rothwell, Paula Pell, Azure Brandi and Tommy Dewey

January 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Lulu Wilson and Theo Taplitz in “Wyrm” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Wyrm”

Directed by Christopher Winterbauer

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city in the mid-1990s, the comedy film “Wyrm” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: In an alternate reality where people have to wear electronic collars until they get their first romantic kiss, a nerdy freshman in high school tries to get rid of the stigma of being the only person in his school who’s still wearing this collar.

Culture Audience: “Wyrm” will appeal primarily to people are interested in watching quirky coming-of-age comedies.

Azure Brandi, Dan Bakkedahl, Theo Taplitz, Natalia Abelleyra and Tommy Dewey in “Wyrm” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Amid the overabundance of comedies about nerdy teenage guys who want to be more sexually experienced, “Wyrm” is memorable for its unique story and quirky characters. This movie doesn’t try to have broad appeal because it’s for people who are interested in low-budget, independent films about eccentrics. The comedy in “Wyrm” is also mixed with a touching story about grief and how people choose to remember the deceased.

“Wyrm” (pronounced “worm”) is the feature-film debut of writer/director Christopher Winterbauer, who based the movie on his 2017 short film “Wyrm.” The feature film “Wyrm” (which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city) had its world premiere at the 2019 edition of Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, but the movie wasn’t released until 2022. Most of the comedy is deadpan and almost satirical, so don’t expect the typical formula of teen comedies where a geeky male outcast is trying to date his “dream girl.”

According to the “Wyrm” production notes, the movie is set in an “alternate reality” in the mid-1990s. It’s a reality where people’s sexuality is monitored in terms of levels. To reach Level One sexuality, someone must experience a romantic kiss. People have to wear an electronic collar that can’t come off until they reach Level One sexuality.

Wyrm Whitner (played by Theo Taplitz), who’s about 14 years old, is a freshman in high school with his twin sister Myrcella (played by Azure Brandi), who has a prickly relationship with Wyrm. Wyrm and Myrcella had an older brother named Dylan (played by Lukas Gage, shown briefly in flashbacks), who died in a car accident when Dylan was about 16 or 17. Dylan has been dead for less than a year.

Wyrm and Myrcella’s parents are emotionally absent. Their father Allen (played by Dan Bakkedahl) spends most of his time either at work or in the parents’ bedroom. Wyrm’s mother Margie (played by Rosemarie DeWitt) is on a trail hiking trip for an undetermined period of time. (Paula Pell has a cameo as a park ranger named Tanya.) Although there isn’t much information about the Whitner family dynamics before Dylan died, it’s implied that these parents are avoiding spending time with Wyrm and Myrcella because it’s the parents’ way of grieving.

For now, Myrcella and Wyrm are essentially being raised by their bachelor uncle Chet (played by Tommy Dewey), who met his current girlfriend Flor (played by Natalia Abelleyra) in an Internet chat room. In an early scene in the movie, Chet tells Wyrm: “I just think with the right girlfriend, you’d really be happy.” Chet also paints a portrait of Wyrm.

Wyrm has become preoccupied with interviewing people on his portable tape recorder about their memories of Dylan and about their thoughts on romantic relationships. Experiencing his first romantic kiss (preferably from his first girlfriend) soon becomes another preoccupation for Wyrm. He’s getting pressure to have his collar “popped” (unlocked) for various reasons.

When Wyrm and Myrcella entered high school, they both had Level One sexuality collars. However, Myrcella has recently had her collar “popped” because she’s been dating a Norwegian immigrant student at the school named Mads Nillson (played by Ky Baldwin), who was Myrcella’s first romantic kiss. Wyrm is now the only person at the school who has a Level One sexuality collar.

An early scene in “Wyrm” shows what type of comedy that the movie has about teen sexuality. Wyrm’s friend/classmate Charley (played by Samuel Faraci) tells Wyrm: “Mads Nillson fingered your sister at the cinema yesterday.” Charley then asks Wyrm if Wyrm feels the same things at the same time as Marcella does because they’re twins. Wyrm says about twin telepathy, “I think that’s only [with] identical twins.”

Wyrm and Myrcella, who share the same room, soon clash over how her level of sexual experience will now affect their living situation. Myrcella reads to Wyrm a formal declaration of why she wants to move into Dylan’s former room so that she can have more privacy. Wyrm thinks it’s disrespectful and too soon for anyone else to have Dylan’s former room.

However, Wyrm tells Myrcella that if Mads comes over to visit: “I don’t want Mads Nillson fingering anyone in my room.” Myrcella replies, “I don’t want to be related to the only freak in ninth grade who can’t get his collar popped.”

Wyrm’s level of sexual experience will also affect whether or not he can graduate from ninth grade. He’s called into a meeting with his school’s child development specialist Reginald “Reggie” Corona (played by Davey Johnson), who tells Wyrm: “You are literally the last incoming freshman to complete their Level One sexuality requirement. We’re collecting collars on Picture Day.”

Wyrm asks for an extension on when he can get his collar popped. Reggie agrees to the extension but cautions that time will soon run out for Wyrm. Reggie advises Wyrm to play on people’s sympathy to find a girlfriend: “A death in the family should work in your favor.” Wyrm gets even more pressure from the school’s vice-principal Cynthia Lister (played by Natasha Rothwell), who has a separate meeting with Wyrm in her office and ominously says to him: “Lonely people are dangerous, especially lonely boys.”

Wyrm doesn’t get any sex education from his parents, who avoid talking to him about it. There’s an intentionally amusing scene were Wyrm asks his parents: “How do kiss a person? And how do you finger them?” Each parent tells Wyrm to ask the other parent. Myrcella, now feeling sexually superior to Wyrm, wants to distance herself from him and treats him like an outcast at school.

Teen movie cliché alert: A student has recently transferred to the school from Florida. Her name is Izzy (played by Lulu Wilson), who is a sassy non-conformist. Wyrm is immediately attracted to Izzy, and wants to date her, but there’s a problem: Izzy has a boyfriend named Kyle, who’s in Florida, and Izzy wants to stay loyal to Kyle. Izzy doesn’t care about Wyrm being an unpopular student and school, because she’s not part of the popular crowd either, not does she want to be part of the crowd.

Thus begins the “will they or won’t they get together” part of the Wyrm/Izzy relationship. Along the way, Wyrm spends time with two other teenage girls who give him more insight into male/female relationships. Lindsey (played by Sosie Bacon) is a 17-year-old sarcastic student, who uses a wheelchair and who knew Dylan very well. Wyrm’s friend Charley introduces Wyrm to his sister Becky (played by Cece Abbey), who’s about 15 or 16, and is kind-hearted and appreciates Wyrm’s quirkiness.

“Wyrm” has some familiar story arcs found in many teen comedies, but they’re slightly off-center enough to avoid being completely predictable. The Level One sexuality collar is a symbol of the pressure that is put on teens to have certain sexual experiences by they time they’re a certain age. Whether or not people agree with this pressure, it exists, and those who are deemed sexually inexperienced are often unfairly labeled as social failures.

“Wyrm” doesn’t pass judgment on its title character, nor does it assign blame to any particular person for why Wyrm desperately tries to get his first romantic kiss, or risk getting the stigma of “being left behind.” Instead, the movie’s “alternate reality” is used as a mirror to show people how much it reflects what many teens experience in real life to a different degree.

The movie also has a meaningful depiction of how people cope with death and how their memories of someone who’s deceased can be altered for various reasons. The interviews that Wyrm conducts about Dylan are ostensibly so that Wyrm can make a tribute to Dylan. But as time goes on, viewers can see that these Wyrm is using these interviews to deal with his grief and to get to know Dylan better, since Wyrm and Dylan weren’t very close to each other.

As social misfit Wyrm, Taplitz gives a commendable performance that solidly carries most of the emotional wright in the movie. The rest of the cast members are perfectly fine, but the movie lives or dies on whether or not viewers will be interested in Wyrm. Some of the movie tries too hard to be offbeat, but there are enough moments of genuine humanity that can make “Wyrm” resonate with viewers who might not have much in common with the characters.

Vertical Entertainment released “Wyrm” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 10, 2022.

Review: ‘House Party’ (2023), starring Jacob Latimore, Tosin Cole, Karen Obilom, D.C. Young Fly and Scott Mescudi

January 14, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jacob Latimore, LeBron James and Tosin Cole in “House Party” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“House Party” (2023)

Directed by Calmatic

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

Culture Clash: In this reboot of the 1990 comedy film “House Party,” two best friends—one who’s an aspiring musician, the other who’s an aspiring party promoter—throw an illegal party at the mansion of basketball superstar LeBron James while James is away on vacation.

Culture Audience: Aside from the obvious target audience of fans of the “House Party” comedy franchise, “House Party” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching silly movie remakes that make African Americans look stupid and ridiculous.

Scott Mescudi (with his back to the camera), Tosin Cole, Karen Obilom and Jacob Latimore in “House Party” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

The 2023 reboot of “House Party” is nothing but a shallow cesspool of bad jokes, mindless characters and a relentlessly dull story. The house party doesn’t get started until almost halfway through this vapid movie. The original 1990 “House Party” (written and directed by Reginald Hudlin) was by no means a masterpiece, but it was a low-budget movie that had moments of charm and genuinely hilarious comedy. This 2023 version of “House Party” is just one of many examples of a very misguided and unnecessary movie reboot that is a complete waste of time and money.

Calmatic (whose real name is Charles Kidd II) makes his feature-film directorial debut with the 2023 version of “House Party,” which uses the same concept as the original 1990 “House Party”: Two best friends experience various hijinks during a raucous house party. Jamal Olori and Stephen Glover wrote the terrible screenplay for 2023’s “House Party.”

In 1990’s “House Party” movie, which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, best friends Christopher “Kid” Robinson Jr. (played by Christopher “Kid” Reid) and Peter “Play” Martin (played by Christopher “Play” Martin) are teenagers in high school. The basic plot is about aspiring rapper Kid sneaking out of his house to go to a house party thrown by aspiring party promoter Play, while Play’s parents are away on vacation. The two pals also have a loudmouth DJ friend, possible love interests, and a trio of bullying thugs who also factor into the story.

The 2023 version of “House Party,” which takes place in Los Angeles, uses the same template of the original “House Party” movie, except the two best friends are in their mid-20s, not underage teens. But because 2023’s “House Party” is polluted with negative stereotypes of African American men, these two clowns are supposed to be financially broke and still living with family members. The two best friends, whose names are Kevin and Damon, both have low-paying day jobs as housecleaners for a company called Windsor Prestige House Cleaning, which has a lot of wealthy people as clients.

In 2023’s “House Party,” Kevin (played by Jacob Latimore) is an aspiring R&B singer/songwriter who shares custody of his toddler daughter Destiny with an ex-girlfriend named Cher (Destiny’s mother), who is never seen in the movie. Kevin lives with his father Pops (played by Bill Bellamy) and Pops’ wife Lisa (played by Nakia Burrise), who will soon be selling the house after Pops’ planned retirement. Kevin has a good relationship with his father and stepmother, but they’ve told Kevin that he will have to find another place to live after the house is sold. Kevin needs money to find a new home and because he wants to send Destiny to an elite private school.

Kevin’s best friend Damon (played by Tosin Cole), whose name is pronounced “Duh-mawn,” is an aspiring party promoter living with his aunt Jean (played by Renata Walsh), who is a cringeworthy stereotype of an “angry black woman” in the brief time that she’s on screen. She bursts into Damon’s bedroom during the day while he’s sleeping and yells at him to wake up. And because it isn’t enough for this horrible movie to portray Damon as lazy, “House Party” depicts him as someone with bad hygiene. Jean complains about the foul body odor in Damon’s bedroom with some insults that include: “It smells like someone fucked an onion in here!”

Just like in 1990’s “House Party,” the lighter-skinned friend is portrayed as the “responsible, smarter” one who is more likely to be worried about getting in trouble, while the darker-skinned friend is the “irresponsible, dumber” one who is more likely to do reckless things that will get the two pals in trouble. It might or might not be colorism from the “House Party” filmmakers, but it sure looks like colorism to a lot of people. Even if this apparent colorism wasn’t intentional, 2023’s “House Party” has so many other problems that can’t save this movie from being a complete flop.

Kevin is confronted on the street by three thugs who are looking for Damon. The leader of this dimwitted, scowling trio is Kyle (played by Allen Maldonado), who is almost always accompanied by sidekicks Larry (played by Melvin Gregg) and Guile (played by Rotimi), who are all cartoonish because of the stupid things that they say and do in the movie. The three bullies want to rough up Damon because they think that Damon has stolen a gold chain necklace from a woman named Daisy, who is Guile’s cousin.

Kevin manages to convince Kyle, Larry and Guile that he doesn’t know anything about this alleged theft. But don’t think this will be the last time that this trio of hoodlums will appear in the movie. Viewers will later find out if Damon really did steal that gold chain necklace. It’s such an uninteresting subplot that it might as well have not been in this “House Party” remake.

Damon and Kevin were hired by Windsor Prestige Housecleaners because Kevin’s ex-girlfriend Venus Bailey (played by Karen Obilom) has some type of managerial position at the company, and she was able to use her clout to get jobs for these two slackers. When it comes to Kevin’s love life, Kevin thinks of Venus as “the one that got away,” so you know what that means: Venus is Kevin’s obvious love interest.

One day, Damon and Kevin are doing a housecleaning job at a mansion, whose owner is away on vacation. It isn’t long before they discover from snooping around the house that the mansion belongs to basketball superstar LeBron James. Damon and Kevin find a private calendar showing that the family members who live in the house are all in India for a two-week spiritual retreat.

While Kevin and Damon are snooping around the mansion, they go into a trophy/memorabilia room, where they see LeBron’s awards and possessions related to basketball, including a championship NBA ring locked in a glass case. (And it’s easy to predict what will happen to the ring and the “race against time” that ensues.) The two pals also see that LeBron has a life-sized hologram of himself in this room, with the hologram giving self-esteem-boosting pep talks.

Why is there all this LeBron James promotion in 2023’s “House Party”? James is a producer of the movie through his SpringHill Company. He also makes a cameo as himself in the movie. Considering that James was a producer and had a starring role in the awful 2021 reboot/sequel “Space Jam: A New Legacy,” maybe it’s time for him to stop making inferior remakes of movies that weren’t very good in the first place.

Not long after Kevin and Damon find out that they’re in LeBron’s mansion, Venus calls them to let them know that Kevin and Damon have been fired. Why? During a previous housecleaning job for the company, Damon and Kevin were caught smoking marijuana on the house’s surveillance video, which was sent to the company.

Kevin is desperate for money, so he comes up with the idea of charging people money to party for one night at LeBron’s mansion, with the intention to mislead the invited people into thinking that LeBron will be at the party too. At first Damon doesn’t want to do it, but he changes his mind and ends up causing more problems during the party. Before they leave LeBron’s house for the day, Kevin and Damon smoke some marijuana on the property. (“House Party” over-relies on marijuana smoking as the gag in jokes that fall very flat.)

“House Party” is so ill-conceived, viewers are supposed to believe that two complete strangers can throw this type of illegal party in a celebrity mansion and that there would be no employees of the celebrity who would find out. In fact, there are no staffers of LeBron James during the party that attracts a few hundred people, including celebrities portraying themselves. The movie never bothers to explain why this mansion doesn’t have any of the James family’s security people or other employees hired to look after it while the family is on vacation. It’s all so mind-numbingly idiotic.

The movie also expects viewers to be morons and think that this party that was marketed as being hosted by LeBron is supposed to be a “secret,” as if word of mouth doesn’t exist. In addition, people at the party are shown filming themselves or taking photos to put on their social media. And yet, there’s a scene during the party when Kevin angrily yells at Damon for revealing the “secret” party because Damon put photos of the party on social media.

One of the worst things about the 2023 version of “House Party” is that all of the characters are boring or very obnoxious. (And so are the performances by the cast members.) Damon and Kevin hire a DJ friend named Vic (played by D.C. Young Fly), who is nothing but an irritating buffoon. He’s nowhere near as funny as Martin Lawrence’s DJ character Bilal in 1990’s “House Party.”

The female characters with prominent roles in the movie are presented as dull love interests or “video vixen” types. Venus has a cousin named Mika (played by Shakira Ja’nai Paye), who’s a very superficial and materialistic party girl. Grammy-winning singer Mya portrays herself in a bland role as LeBron’s neighbor who attracts the lustful attention of Damon.

A subplot from 1990’s “House Party” that isn’t in 2023’s “House Party” is showing how white police officers constantly harass the protagonists when the protagonists aren’t doing anything wrong. It’s a social issue that could have been in a “House Party” movie of the Black Lives Matter era, but apparently this subject matter was too challenging for the filmmakers of 2023’s “House Party.” It’s probably better that 2023’s “House Party” did not have racist police harassment/abuse of African Americans as part of the movie’s story, because it’s a real-life racial problem that’s too important to be in this garbage movie.

The closest that 2023’s “House Party” comes to addressing racial issues is by having a “token” white character named Peter (played by Andrew Santino), who is a nerdy and nosy neighbor of LeBron. Peter becomes the butt of a lot of the movie’s so-called jokes because he’s supposed to be the “clueless white guy” who fails miserably at trying to appear “cool” to black people. Peter inevitably goes over to the house when he sees some of the activity going on and because his female koala named Marley has wandered over to LeBron’s property.

When Kevin and Damon answer the door, Peter is surprised to see these two strangers, who can’t get their stories straight about why they’re at LeBron’s mansion. Before Peter leaves, he tells Damon and Kevin, “By the way, Black Lives Matter.” At various times during “House Party,” the movie uses the koala (which is an obvious fake replica, not a real koala) as a weak gimmick for more unfunny jokes that get run into the ground early, such as the koala getting a contact high from marijuana smoked at the party. The visual effects in this movie are very tacky and unrealistic.

The 2023 version of “House Party” overloads on useless celebrity cameos, as if seeing these celebrities is supposed to make this junkpile movie better. Among the stars who demeaned themselves to portray themselves in this dreadful dud are Snoop Dogg, Lil Wayne, Juvenile, Tinashe, Lena Waithe, Mark Cuban, Odell Beckham Jr., Tristan Thompson and Carl Anthony Payne II. Waithe, who is an Emmy-winning screenwriter in real life, embarrasses herself by portraying a marijuana-smoking party guest who is shown brainstorming ideas for a TV series, including a show that she wants to be like “Roots,” but “in reverse,” with black people enslaving white people.

Scott Mescudi (also known as rapper Kid Cudi) has a poorly written supporting role as himself; his character is another stoned party guest. He has some of the worst lines in the movie, which makes him look like a drug-addled dolt. The 2023 version of “House Party” takes a bizarre turn with a bloody and violent subplot that looks like it’s trying to be a horror-movie parody of 1999’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” but this subplot is neither scary nor funny. Original “House Party” stars Reid and Martin (also known as rap duo Kid ‘n Play) have a very quick cameo in this gruesome part of the movie.

The release of the 2023 version of “House Party” was delayed several times—an obvious indication that Warner Bros. Pictures knew that the movie was an irredeemable bomb. At one point, the movie wasn’t going to have a theatrical release and was supposed to be released directly to HBO Max. Even if people see this version of “House Party” without paying for a movie ticket, it’s still a painfully unfunny waste of time and so horrendously stupid, even the fake koala should be ashamed to be associated with this dreck.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “House Party” in U.S. cinemas on January 13, 2023.

Review: ‘Vengeance’ (2022), starring B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae and Ashton Kutcher

January 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ashton Kutcher and B.J. Novak in “Vengeance” (Photo by Patti Perret/Focus Features)

“Vengeance” (2022)

Directed by B.J. Novak

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas and briefly in New York City, the comedy/drama film “Vengeance” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A New York City podcaster is persuaded to go to rural Texas to investigate the drug-overdose death of a woman whom he briefly dated. 

Culture Audience: “Vengeance” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/filmmaker B.J. Novak and movies about crime investigations that take dark comedic jabs at society.

B.J. Novak asnd Boyd Holbrook in “Vengeance” (Photo by Patti Perret/Focus Features)

The comedy/drama “Vengeance” puts a satirical spin on a familiar movie concept of a stranger coming to an area to investigate a possible crime, with the stranger feeling like a “fish out of water.” The stranger then usually lets judgment get clouded by internal prejudices, as well as the prejudices of people around the stranger. “Vengeance” makes some of its cultural stereotypes too broad and heavy-handed, and the movie’s ending could have been better. Overall, the story can hold viewers’ interest, as long as there’s tolerance for what the movie is saying about personal biases.

B.J. Novak, a former co-star and writer of the U.S. comedy TV series “The Office,” makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Vengeance,” a movie that he also wrote. “Vengeance” starts out very strong with biting comedy. And then, it meanders back and forth between an intriguing investigation and clumsily handled culture shock, with jokes that are hit and miss. The ending of “Vengeance” is meant to be a surprise twist, but observant viewers can see some clues leading up this ending and can figure out why Novak chose to end the movie this way.

In “Vengeance” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival), Novak portrays Ben Manalowitz, a politically liberal podcaster who lives and works in New York City. Ben, who is also a writer for The New Yorker, is every cliché (for better or worse) of what many people think about a college-educated, New York City media person. Depending on someone’s perspective, Ben is either well-versed and knowledgeable about many topics, or he’s a a smug intellectual snob.

The movie opens with a hilarious scene of Ben and musician John Mayer (portraying himself) having a conversation at a rooftop party in New York City. The conversation topic for these two bachelors is dating. John says, “I don’t ever want to go past knowing what someone’s parents do for a living. If I know what someone has done for a living, I’ve hung too long.”

Ben replies in agreement: “Or siblings. Why does anyone care about your siblings, especially so early [of meeting a potential partner]? Has that ever changed whether you want to date somebody?” John says, “People say guys like us are afraid of commitment. No, we’re afraid of commitment to something we can’t get out of.”

Ben adds, “There’s no such thing as commitment. Fear of commitment is fear of regret.” John replies, “100%. Or fear of intimacy. Please. I’m intimate with everybody.” If only “Vengeance” had more of this type of banter in the movie, it would have been a lot funnier. Viewers won’t get to see much of Ben’s life in New York City, because he will soon be plunged into an unexpected investigation in rural Texas.

It just so happens that Ben wants to do a new investigative series for his podcast, so he pitches an idea to his podcast producer Eloise (played by Issa Rae), who is smart and sarcastic. Ben says that he wants to do a series about why the United States is so divided. However, as he tells Eloise his theory: “America isn’t divided by space. America is divided by time.”

Eloise replies, “Not every white guy in New York needs to have a podcast. You got the verified checkmark. You got The New Yorker position.” Ben says, “I want something more. I don’t just want to be writer. I want to be a voice. As dorky as it sounds, I care about America.”

At home one night, Ben is asleep when he is woken up by the sound of his phone ringing. The person on the other line is sobbing, and he identifies himself as Ty Shaw (played by Boyd Holbrook), who is a complete stranger to Ben. Ty lives in a rural part of western Texas, about five hours away from the city of Abilene. It’s a very politically conservative part of Texas that has almost the opposite of the environment and lifestyle that Ben has in New York City.

At first, Ben doesn’t know the reason for Ty’s call, until Ty tells Ben that Ty is the older brother of Abilene “Abby” Shaw (played by Lio Tipton in flashbacks), who recently died of an opioid overdose at a party in a Texas oil field. Ben and Abby had a fling some years ago that he almost forgot about until Ty’s phone call.

Ty is under the impression, based on the way Abby talked about Ben, that Ben and Abby were in a serious, long-distance relationship. The reality is that Ben and Abby haven’t seen or been in contact with each other for years. Ben tries to tell Ty this information, but Ty is so grief-stricken and insistent that Ben was the love of Abby’s life, Ben goes along with it.

It isn’t long before Ty has convinced Ben to go to Texas for Abby’s funeral, where Ben is asked to give a eulogy about Abby. At the funeral, Ben finds out that Abby was an aspiring singer, so he awkwardly says in his speech: “I know she loved music. She will always be a song in our hearts.”

Ty soon tells Ben that he believes that Abby’s overdose death was murder. Ty also insists that he and Ben are going to track down whoever allegedly murdered Abby. Ty says to be: “You and me, we’re the men in their lives. And they fucked with the wrong two guys.”

Ben tells Ty: “I don’t avenge deaths. I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie.” Ty responds, “You kind of look like a guy in a Liam Neeson movie.” Ty names “Schindler’s List” as “my least-favorite Liam Neeson movie. Huge downer.” Ty adds, “Stay down here and avenge Abby’s death with me.”

Ben doesn’t take Ty’s murder theory seriously, but Ben sees this investigation as the perfect idea for his next podcast series. He tells Eloise about it and says, “This isn’t a story about vengeance. It’s a story about the need for vengeance, the meaning of vengeance.” Eloise asks, “Dead white girl?” Ben replies, “The holy grail of podcasts.”

And so, Ben ends up getting to know Ty and the rest of the loud and boisterous Shaw family. They include Ty’s three other siblings: 24-year-old sister Paris (played by Isabella Amara), who’s an aspiring filmmaker; 17-year-old sister, Kansas City (played by Dove Cameron), who’s an aspiring “celebrity”; and 9-year-old El Stupido (played by Eli Abrams Bickel), who isn’t called by any other name in the movie.

The siblings’ mother is feisty Sharon Shaw (played by J. Smith-Cameron) and grandmother Carole Shaw (played by Louanne Stephens), who is very racist against people of Mexican heritage. One of the movie’s jokes about Carole is that she doesn’t know that Texas lost the battle of Alamo. Unfortunately, all of the Shaw family characters except for Ty are very underdeveloped and are nothing but hollow stereotypes.

Ben and Ty are told that Mexican drug dealers probably killed Abby. During this investigation, Ben meets and interviews several local people who might have information on what happened to Abby on the night that she died. These locals include a smarmy music producer named Quentin Sellers (played by Ashton Kutcher), who was working with Abby on some music recordings; a drug dealer named Sancholo (played by Zach Villa); and County Sheriff Jimenez (played by Rio Alexander), who is every cliché of an unsophisticated cop.

“Vengeance” has some subtle and not-so-subtle comedy poking fun at stereotypes of “city slickers” and “country hicks.” Ben is doing a podcast series about vengeance, but it begins to dawn on him that he’s experiencing his other podcast series idea about America being a divided country. Not surprisingly, Ben gets some resistance to his investigation because many of the locals think that Ben is an “outsider” who can’t be trusted. The cast members give competent performances, although enjoyment of “Vengeance” will be affected by how much a viewer thinks Kutcher is convincing or not convincing in portraying a Texan.

All of the characters in “Vengeance” are portrayed as alternately amusing or annoying, which seems to be the movie’s point. “Vengeance” doesn’t point fingers at any particular lifestyle or political belief as better than the rest. The movie shows there’s something irritating and ultimately toxic about any mindset that wants to lump people of different cultures into one degrading stereotype. And sometimes, when people get consumed by an “us versus them” mentality, they can end up with the worst traits of the people they despise.

Focus Features released “Vengeance” in U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 16, 2022, and on Blu-ray and DVD on September 20, 2022. Peacock premiered “Vengeance” on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘An Action Hero,’ starring Ayushmann Khurrana and Jaideep Ahlawat

January 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jaideep Ahlawat and Ayushmann Khurrana in “An Action Hero” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

“An Action Hero”

Directed by Anirudh Iyer

Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in India and the United Kingdom, the action comedy film “An Action Hero” features a predominantly Indian cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous action movie star goes on the run after he accidentally kills a corrupt politician, and the dead man’s brother goes after the movie star for revenge. 

Culture Audience: “An Action Hero” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching action movies that make up for their simple plots with plenty of high-octane thrills and satirical comedy.

Ayushmann Khurrana and Jaideep Ahlawat in “An Action Hero” (Photo courtesy of AA Films)

“An Action Hero” is a completely predictable chase movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. It manages to be entertaining because of its cheeky comedy, thrilling action and satirical take on celebrity worship of movie stars. Many of the stunts in “An Action Hero” are very over the top, which will either amuse or annoy viewers.

Directed by Anirudh Iyer and written by Neeraj Yadav, “An Action Hero” takes place in India and the United Kingdom in a non-stop action-adventure that tells the story of an international hunt for a movie star suspected of murder. The movie begins in India, where action movie star Maanav Khuranna (played by Ayushmann Khurrana) is being interrogated about his connection to the death of Vicky Solanki (played by Sumit Singh), a corrupt politician from Mandothi, India. The movie then switches flashbacks to show whot Maanav ended up in this predicament.

At the time of Vicky’s death, he was in the midst of contesting election results showing that he has lost his most recent election. Vicky was seeking out Maanav to get Maanav to give Vicky a personal endorsement, in order to use Maanav’s star power to possibly sway the results of the election. Vicky was also star-struck and desperately wanted a photo with Maanav. Maanav doesn’t want to get involved in politics, so he was actively avoiding Vicky, who went as far as showing up uninvited on the set of one of Maanav’s movies in Mandothi, and interrupting Vicky’s work.

One day, Maanav gets a new Ford Mustang as a gift. He’s eager to take his new car out for an evening drive. During this drive, Maanav notices that Vicky is following him on a deserted road. Vicky forces Maanav stop the car. The two men have a heated argument, which results in a physical brawl, where Maanav pushes Vicky back in self-defense. Vicky falls down, hits his head on rock, and dies instantly.

In a panic, Maanav quickly drives away, not noticing that one of his car’s side mirrors (which got broken off during the fight) has been left behind at the scene. Vicky is reported missing by his worried older brother Bhoora Solanki (played by Jaideep Ahlawat), a Mandothi municipal councilor. Bhoora tells investigators that Vicky had gone to meet Maanav.

Led by an inspector named Roop Kumar (played by Jitender Hooda), the local police arrive at the scene and find Vicky’s dead body. They also find the broken side mirror nearby. It doesn’t take long for the investigators to find out that Maanav is the new owner of a black Ford Mustang that has the exact same type of side mirror. Maanav has now become a person of interest in Vicky’s death and he is sought for questioning.

An enraged Bhoora is convinced that Maanav murdered Vicky. And so, Bhoora vows to get revenge by hunting down Maanav and killing him. Inspector Kumar is also leading a search to find Maanav, but Bhoora thinks the police are buffoons, and Bhoora wants to get his own brand of justice. Bhoora often berates Inspector Kumar, and he wages a public campaign to ruin Maanav’s reputation. The media has now branded Maanav as the chief suspect in Vicky’s death.

Maanav has fled Mandothi by taking a plane to Mumbai. While on the plane, there’s a satirical moment when Maanav meets real-life movie star Akshay Kumar, in a cameo as a version of himself. Akshay tells Maanav: “You’re going to win an Oscar for India some day.” Maanav confides in Akshay about why he suddenly left town. Akshay advises him: “I know from experience. Don’t tell anyone.”

After Maanav lands in Mumbai, he then takes another plane to London, where he hears on the news that police in India are looking for him. And, of course, Bhoora is hot on Maanav’s trail too. Most of the fight scenes in the movie (as already revealed in the trailer) involves Maanav’s conflicts with Bhoora, who has a group of thugs who are helping Bhoora.

Maanav also gets some help to evade the people who are after him. In London, Maanav gets assistance from his attorney Vishwas Patel (played by Siddharth Amar), who tell Maanav to lay low until they can figure out a way the best way for him to return to India to answer questions from authorities. Maanav also has a goofy personal assistant named Guddu (played by Pankaj Mathur), communicates with Maanav mainly by phone while Maanav has gone into hiding.

Maanav has a house in London, but it should come as no surprise that Maanav finds out that he isn’t going to be safe at his London home. The rest of “An Action Hero” involves Maanav getting mixed up with more shady characters, including Kaadir (played by Vaquar Shaikh), a notorious “fixer” for gangster Masood Abraham Katkar (played by Gautam Joglekar), who has a grudge against Maanav because Maanav did a TV interview saying that underworld gangsters are “irrelevant.” Maanav also enlists the help of two computer hackers: Sai (played by Neeraj Madhav) and Li Xian (played by Elton Tan), who might or might not be of any real help.

In between all the mayhem, the movie has a few musical numbers that poke fun at Bollywood action movies that force out-of-place song-and-dance numbers into action movies. In these sequences, Maanav sees himself as a hero who’s irresistible to women. Malaika Arora portrays Manaav’s leading lady for the song “Aap Jaisa Koi.” Nora Fatehi is Manaav’s leading lady for the song “Jehda Nasha.” Maanav is too busy trying not to get killed to really have a love interest in this story.

As the action here on the run, Khuranna carries the movie quite well, considering he has to portray a movie star whose action skills that he learned in movies are put to the test his “real life.” “An Action Hero” constantly lampoons Maanav’s “worth” as an action star, because on how well he can get himself out of predicaments. Don’t expect this movie to have complete realism, since much of it is quite cartoonish in how Maanav and the rest of the characters are portrayed.

“An Action Hero” is by no means an intellectual movie, but the movie is effective in poking fun at the media’s role in hyping celebrities while also seeking to “cancel” celebrities by always looking for celebrity scandals, only to try to build back up disgraced celebrities who are deemed worthy of making a comeback. The movie takes a sarcastic view of all the sensationalist, tabloid tactics that have become commonplace in mainstream media. These sardonic observations make “An Action Hero” slightly better than the usual formulaic action flick.

AA Films released “An Action Hero” in select U.S. cinemas and in India on December 2, 2022.

Review: ‘Love Suddenly’ (2022), starring Michael Ning, Shirley Chan, Adam Pak, Roxanne Tong, Anson Kong, Karina Ng, Edward Ma and Chloe So

January 5, 2023

by Carla Hay

Shirley Chan and Michael Ning in “Love Suddenly” (Photo courtesy of Just Distribution Company Ltd.)

“Love Suddenly” (2022)

Directed by Mak Ho-Pong

Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hong Kong, the romantic comedy/drama film “Love Suddenly” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Eight people who are connected to each other in some way have various ups and downs in finding love.

Culture Audience: “Love Suddenly” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching silly romantic comedies that have a lot of cringeworthy scenarios and conversations.

Karina Ng and Anson Kong in “Love Suddenly” (Photo courtesy of Just Distribution Company Ltd.)

“Love Suddenly” is just a poorly made ripoff of the “Love Actually” concept. Everything about “Love Suddenly” is embarrassing to all those involved. The movie is supposed to be a romantic comedy/drama, but some of the scenarios in “Love Suddenly” are actually very creepy, not romantic, such as presenting a Peeping Tom situation as being cute and endearing. Most people would not want to date someone they knew was spying on them in their bedroom without their consent. But don’t tell that to the filmmakers of “Love Suddenly,” who want to pretend that this voyeuristic crime is an effective way to get someone to fall in love with the voyeur.

Directed by Mak Ho-Pong, “Love Suddenly” focuses on eight people in their 20s and 30s. It’s easy to see that long before the movie is over, these eight people will be paired off into four love couples. Two of the people are already a couple at the beginning of the movie, but they argue, break up, and reunite multiples times in the movie. Viewers are supposed to wonder if this bickering duo will stay together or not. (We all know what the outcome will be in a predictable movie like “Love Suddenly.”)

The 2003 British film “Love Actually” takes place in and around London, close to Christmas. “Love Suddenly,” which is set in Hong Kong in the early 2020s, takes place close to Valentine’s Day. The eight people at the center of “Love Suddenly” act in ridiculous ways that are supposed to be amusing, but most of it just looks unrealistic and pathetic. And much of it is downright dull. Edmond Wong, Cheung Chun-Ho, Hayley Fu and Cyan Ho wrote the horrible screenplay for “Love Suddenly.”

Here are the eight people who are the movie’s main characters:

Wong Chung (played by Anson Kong) and Jenny, also known as Zoe (played by Karina Ng), are a dysfunctional couple who make a living by documenting their lives on social media. Their constant verbal conflicts (usually over jealousy or suspicion that someone in the relationship is unfaithful) gets very tedious, very quickly. There is absolutely no good reason presented in the movie for why this miserable couple is together, except that they have to put up a front for their social media business that they are in a happy and healthy relationship.

Pong Kong (played by Michael Ning) is a nerdy roommate of Chung and Jenny/Zoe. He has a crush on someone who has recently moved into the home as a fourth roommate: Shirley (played by Shirley Chan), a graduate student who previously lived in Australia. Shirley’s bedroom is right next to Kong’s bedroom. Kong becomes so obsessed with Shirley, he secretly bores a smale hole in his bedroom wall to spy on Shirley, who just so happens to be doing her graduate thesis on porn and the sex industry.

Jerome (played by Adam Pak) is a freewheeling bachelor, who works as a gigolo servicing women and men. He is hired by a shy, rich woman named Silver (played by Chloe So), who says she is very inexperienced in dating. Silver is so bashful about dating, she’s afraid of men touching her. You know where this storyline is going, of course.

Chi Ho (played by Edward Ma) is a ladies’ man who is dating two women at the same time. During a date at a restaurant with one of the women, she finds out that Ho has been cheating on her, so she stabs him in the hand with a restaurant utensil. Ho ends up in a hospital, where he is tended to by a nurse named Tin Tin (played by Roxanne Tong), who listens to Ho talk about problems in his love life. Tin Tin proudly declares to Ho that she is currently dating 10 men at the same time.

“Love Suddenly” throws in a bizarre and not-very-funny subplot of Silver’s domineering father Boss Dai (Cheung Tat Ming) disapproving of Jerome, who meets Silver’s father and mother (played by Yuen Kling Dan) during a family dinner. Boss Dai challenges Jerome to a drinking contest. If Jerome loses, he will agree to stop dating Silver. If Boss Dai loses, he will agree to stop bullying Silver. This drinking contest scene is nothing but terrible slapstick comedy that just wastes more time in this stupid and boring movie. “Love Suddenly” is 93 minutes long but feels much longer because the semi-torture of watching this dreck can’t end soon enough.

“Love Suddenly” is just scene after scene of idiocy, with none of it very comical at all. Jerome gets kidnapped by some of Boss Dai’s thugs. Chung plays a prank on Jenny/Zoe by setting her up to be caught on camera reacting to catching him in bed with another woman, who is in on the “joke.” Chung and Jenny/Zoe have an important videoconference meeting with a potential business sponsor (played by Benny Lau), but roommate Kong suddenly appears in the background, visibly wearing a strap-on sex device, which is one of Shirley’s “research” toys.

Sometimes, a mindless movie can be watchable if the cast members have the talent to make the scenes interesting. Unfortunately, the acting in “Love Suddenly” is not good at all, making the movie extra-painful to watch. Ladies’ man Ho and sexually adventurous nurse Tin Tin are the least annoying would-be couple, but these two characters have the least screen time out of the eight main characters. Ultimately, all of the characters in “Love Suddenly” (just like the entire movie) have all the substance of disposable and used candy wrappers on Valentine’s Day.

Just Distribution Company Ltd. released “Love Suddenly” in select U.S. cinemas on December 2, 2022. The movie was released in China on November 17, 2022.

Review: ‘Alone Together’ (2022), starring Katie Holmes, Jim Sturgess and Derek Luke

January 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jim Sturgess and Katie Holmes in “Alone Together” (Photo by Jesse Korman/Vertical Entertainment)

“Alone Together” (2022)

Directed by Katie Holmes

Culture Representation: Taking place in Connecticut and New York City, from March to April 2020, the comedy/drama film “Alone Together” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, a food critic/journalist with an attorney boyfriend finds herself quarantining unexpectedly with a bachelor repairman when they are both double-booked at the same Airbnb rental house, and the awkwardness between these temporary housemates turns into a romantic attraction.

Culture Audience: “Alone Together” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/writer/director Katie Holmes and don’t mind watching a clumsily made and extremely predictable romantic dramedy.

Katie Holmes and Derek Luke in “Alone Together” (Photo by Jesse Korman/Vertical Entertainment)

“Alone Together” is a trite and misguided dramedy about a would-be couple stuck quarantining in the same house during the COVID-19 pandemic. The only social distancing needed is for viewers to avoid this boring flop that fails to have any romantic sizzle. Katie Holmes is the writer, director and star of this formulaic dud, so she bears the responsibility for not being able to write and direct a great role for herself. The cast members’ performances aren’t terrible, but the movie’s storytelling is so unimaginative and substandard, it’s disappointing that the potential to make a witty and memorable film is completely wasted.

“Alone Together” takes place during only a one-month period (March to April 2020), during the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns. Keep that in mind when the “Alone Together” characters make big decisions about their lives in such a short period of time. The problem is that some of these life decisions don’t look completely believable and look too rushed, considering the personalities of some of the characters involved.

“Alone Together” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival. Holmes’ feature-film directorial debut “All We Had” (written by Josh Boone and Jill Killington) had its world premiere at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival. In both movies, Holmes as a director shows a knack for choosing talented cast members, but she needs a lot of improvement in how a director shapes the narrative of a film.

“Alone Together” is not as muddled as “All We Had” (a drama about a single mother who becomes homeless), but “Alone Together” has almost the opposite problem: It presents complicated life decisions in such an overly simplistic way, the end result is that “Alone Together” looks like an unrelatable, half-baked fairy tale. “Alone Together” earnestly wants to be a meaningful love story set during the COVID-19 pandemic, but the lack of believable chemistry between the two lead characters automatically makes this romantic dramedy a non-starter.

“Alone Together” begins on March 15, 2020, in New York City, at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns. A food critic/journalist named June (played by Holmes) is going on a getaway trip to an Airbnb rental house in Connecticut. Her boyfriend John (played by Derek Luke), who is a corporate attorney, booked this rental the week before, as a romantic vacation. But now, with the world under quarantine from a deadly disease, this trip has taken on a new meaning.

From the beginning, “Alone Together” has a series of contrivances to make June get in a bad mood at the start of the trip. When she goes to the subway station, a homeless panhandler (played by Mike Iveson) verbally abuses her when she ignores his begging for money: “The world is ending, bitch,” the panhandler snarls. “I shouldn’t have to ask you twice.”

The subways are delayed, so June decides to take an above-ground train. But when she gets to the train station, she finds out that the train she needs to take has cancelled all service for the day. June ends up using a Lyft car service to get to her destination, so traveling to the rental home costs a lot more than June expected.

While June uses hand sanitizer in the car (and she continues to use hand sanitizer throughout the movie, to show she’s conscientious about germs), the nosy Lyft driver (played by Neal Benari) inappropriately asks June if she’s married. June says no, but she says she eventually wants to get married and start a family someday. It’s later mentioned in the movie that June and John have been dating each other for a year.

When she’s in the car on the way to the Airbnb rental, June gets a text from John telling her that he won’t be able to join her at the Airbnb rental, because he’s staying in the city to look after his elderly parents during the COVID-19 lockdowns. The rental house has already been paid for, and June is almost there, so she doesn’t see the point of going all the way back to New York City.

The irritations for June continue: When she arrives at the house, she can’t find the key to the front door. And then, her phone battery dies. She also finds out the house is already occupied by someone who says he booked the same house the day before. You know where this is going, of course.

The house’s other rental occupant is Charlie (played by Jim Sturgess), a bachelor who has his own business repairing vintage items. His especially loves to fix up old motorcycles. And what a coincidence: Charlie lives in New York City too, and he’s rented the house to be by himself during the pandemic lockdowns during the same period time that June and John had the booked the place. June and Charlie predictably have a mild squabble over who has the right to be at the house, until they both agree to share the house for the duration that they have it booked.

“Alone Together” then goes through the tedious and snoozeworthy motions of June and Charlie bickering and being uncomfortable with each other, until they discover they actually like each other and have some romantic attraction to each other. Meanwhile, June is already annoyed with John for wanting to spend time with his parents instead of with her. And then, June gets jealous when she sees a social media photo of John looking cozy with one of John’s female co-workers named Carol.

June tells Charlie about John but almost makes John sound like an inattentive boyfriend instead of a loving and caring son. Charlie has some issues about falling in love because his most recent ex-girlfriend cheated on him and dumped him to be with another man. Even after Charlie tells June this information, she seems to have very little qualms about cheating on unsuspecting John with Charlie. Charlie also doesn’t seem to want to think too much about the consequences if Charlie and June hook up: Charlie is going to be involved with another woman who’s a cheater, and he’s going to be involved in emotionally hurting John.

In other words: “Alone Together” doesn’t give any good reasons for viewers to root for June and Charlie to be a couple. To make things worse, the dialogue in “Alone Together” is so bland and forgettable, it’s hard to believe that June and Charlie are connecting on a level other than physical attraction. It’s supposed to be an “opposites attract” situation where uptight, white-collar June and laid-back, blue-collar Charlie are supposed to find love with each other, despite their different lifestyles. It all looks so phony.

“Alone Together” also has some weird inconsistencies that are examples of the movie’s substandard writing and directing. When June first meets Charlie, she asks him, “Are you from Wisconsin?,” even though he has an obvious East Coast accent. Charlie later tells June that he grew up New York City’s Lower East Side, even though Sturgess (who is British in real life) has an American accent that sounds more like Charlie grew up in New Jersey.

The two-story house where June and Charlie are staying is big enough to have more than one bathroom, but there are multiple, fake-looking scenes where Charlie and June have discomfort from using the same bathroom. June is supposed to be such a germaphobe during the pandemic (before a COVID vaccine is available), she’s paranoid about using towels in someone else’s house. But then, there are multiple scenes of her not social distancing or using any face protections when she’s around a stranger like Charlie during the pandemic. Charlie eventually makes face masks for himself and June, because it’s supposed to be a cutesy romantic gesture.

Charlie and June eventually open up to each other about their family lives. June’s only living relative is her widowed, unnamed grandfather (played by Ed Dixon), who is the father of June’s mother. There’s a scene where June sings “Blue Moon” to her grandfather when they chat on the phone during the quarantine. (During the movie’s opening credits, Holmes’ real-life daughter Suri Cruise sings a pitch-perfect and delightful version of “Blue Moon,” in one of the few highlights of this dud of a movie.) Charlie is close to his widowed mother Deborah (played by Melissa Leo), and she calls him during the quarantine too.

June’s best friend is named Margaret (played by Zosia Mamet), who tries to assure a worried and insecure June that John wouldn’t cheat on June with his co-worker Carol because John is a good guy. Meanwhile, hypocritical June gets closer and closer to cheating on John with Charlie. June fails to see this double standard. The characters of June’s grandfather, Charlie’s mother Deborah and June’s friend Margaret are just sounding boards and are ultimately of no consequence to the story.

Even if the trailer for “Alone Together” didn’t already reveal that John (who is a very generic character) would show up unexpectedly at the house, it’s too easy to predict that this is how John will find out about Charlie. The movie then hems and haws with pseudo-suspense, as June has to decide if she will choose John or Charlie in this monotonous love triangle. And remember: June is making this decision after knowing Charlie for less than a month. “Alone Together” is trying desperately to be a smart independent film, but there’s no intelligence to be found from copying the same old tired clichés that can be found in a Hallmark Channel movie or a cheap romance novel.

Vertical Entertainment released “Alone Together” in select U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on July 29, 2022.

Review: ‘I’m Totally Fine,’ starring Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales

January 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jillian Bell and Natalie Morales in “I’m Totally Fine” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“I’m Totally Fine”

Directed by Brandon Dermer

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., the sci-fi comedy film “I’m Totally Fine” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Not long after her best friend/business partner dies, a 36-year-old woman finds out that an alien from outer space has embodied the form of her dead best friend.

Culture Audience: “I’m Totally Fine” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Jillian Bell, Natalie Morales, and independent films that try too hard to be offbeat comedies but are actually quite dull.

Natalie Morales and Jillian Bell in “I’m Totally Fine” (Photo courtesy of Decal)

“I’m Totally Fine” is a one-note slog masquerading as a quirky comedy for people who think this type of independent film automatically deserves praise. The entire movie has this self-congratulatory, repetitive tone: “You’re supposed to laugh because this is a low-budget film starring fairly well-known actresses who’ve been in much better comedies, so their filmographies should make this movie funny too.” Spoiler alert: “I’m Totally Fine” is not funny.

The movie’s very thin plot gets stretched to the point where it breaks, and it goes from tedious sarcasm to sentimental mush. None of the movie’s emotional tone looks genuine or natural, despite the efforts of the co-stars, and it’s only made worse by the movie’s sluggish pacing. “I’m Totally Fine” (directed by Brandon Dermer and written by Alisha Ketry) looks like the type of movie that was made with an unfinished screenplay, with the hope that the cast members would be able to make goofy facial expressions and do some improvisation, in an attempt to make the movie interesting.

“I’m Totally Fine” (which takes place in various parts of the U.S., but you can tell that the movie was filmed in a limited part of California) is essentially about how a 36-year-old business entrepreneur named Vanessa (played by Jillian Bell) reacts when she finds out that an outer space alien (played by Natalie Morales) has shapeshifted into appearing as her dead best friend Jennifer Martinez, who has died less than a week ago. (It’s mentioned in the movie that Jennifer has not been buried yet.) The alien tells Vanessa that the alien has taken on a human form so that the alien can learn more about what it feels like to be human.

Vanessa and Jennifer co-founded a start-up company that makes organic soda drinks. They had just landed a distribution deal to have the soda sold in stores nationwide. And then, Jennifer died. (Her cause of death is not mentioned in the movie.) Vanessa has traveled alone by car to spend some time by herself to grieve at the house where Jennifer and Vanessa had planned to hold a celebration party because of the distribution deal.

Vanessa is surprised when employees of the event planning company that was hired for the party show up at the house to set up the party. There’s some haggling back and forth, because Jennifer was the one who signed the contract with this event planning company. The party planner in charge is named Susan (played by Karen Maruyama), and she informs Vanessa that Jennifer was legally the only one who could cancel the contract, if she did so with at least 24 hours notice. But, of course, Jennifer is dead, and there’s some arguing over whether or not Vanessa can cancel the contract. She can’t cancel, so the party is set up anyway.

It’s just an excuse for the movie to show grieving Vanessa alone at the house with plenty of alcohol. She gets drunk, of course. And so, when Vanessa sees the alien who looks exactly like Jennifer, the first reaction from Vanessa is to think that it’s just a drunken hallucination. But the next day, a hungover Vanessa again sees the Jennifer look-alike alien, who calmly hands Vanessa a cup of coffee. And this time, Vanessa thinks she’s having some kind of mental breakdown.

The alien tells in a robotic voice: “I know this is an odd encounter. My appearance resembles your perished companion. Unfortunately, Jennifer continues and will continue to be deceased. I am simply an extraterrestrial who has taken her form.” The space alien also calls itself a “species observation officer” who mission is to observe how humans live and how resilient they are.

The Jennifer look-alike alien expects Vanessa to give her a crash course on being human in “orientation sessions.” Vanessa finds out that this alien has some unusual quirks: The alien gets easily dehydrated by the sun, so the alien guzzles olive oil to keep hydrated.

The alien also says that its native planet consists of lightning, and the beings from this planet need a certain energy source: “We absorb the battery life of anything around us that has a battery life. We also absorb heat.” You can easily predict what happens to Vanessa’s cell phone when she needs it, or what happens when Vanessa and the alien decide to go on a road trip together in Vanessa’s car when they’re on a deserted road.

Expect to see a lot of “odd couple” clichés with grumpy and jaded Vanessa and the upbeat and naïve Jennifer look-alike alien. The movie has a small number of people in the cast, so most of the screen time is focused on these two characters. Vanessa has a musician boyfriend named Eric (played by Blake Anderson), who is concerned about Vanessa’s well-being and checks in with her occasionally by phone. During the road trip, the two travelers encounter an unnamed scruffy weirdo (played by Kyle Newacheck), who does what unnamed scruffy weirdos do in “trying too hard to be cool” movies like “I’m Totally Fine.”

There’s also some time-wasting nonsense about Vanessa, Jennifer and Jennifer’s younger sister Megan (voiced by Cyrina Fiallo, in a phone conversation) being fans of the rock band Papa Roach when they were teenagers. Vanessa gets jealous because she finds out all these years later that Megan and Jennifer went to see Papa Roach in concert for the first time, one year before Jennifer and Vanessa saw the band in concert. Jennifer had lied to Vanessa and told her that the Papa Roach concert that Jennifer went to with Vanessa was Jennifer’s first Papa Roach concert experience.

Vanessa gets so upset about this lie, it makes viewers think that even though Vanessa is 36, she has the emotional maturity of someone who’s 16. The movie runs this dull Papa Roach subplot into the ground. It should come as no surprise when a flamboyant party DJ named DJ Twisted Bristle (played by Harvey Guillén) shows up at the house, Papa Roach’s 2000 song “Last Resort” (the band’s breakthrough hit) is played, so Vanessa can teach the alien how to let loose at a party. Yes, this scene really is as stupid as it sounds. There’s some predictable drinking and drugging in this scene too.

Bell’s portrayal of Vanessa goes back and forth between trying to look like a grief-stricken person who’s rude and impatient to someone who’s whiny, spoiled brat who needs an alien to teach her how to get in touch with her sensitive side again. There are a few moments of juvenile-minded comedy that might give viewers some mild laughs, in the way that people might laugh at outdated jokes. Morales’ space alien performance is a weak imitation of the Coneheads. It quickly gets tiresome.

“I’m Totally Fine” wasted an opportunity to make the story concept into an amusing and edgy film. Instead, the movie is filled with idiotic scenarios and lackluster dialogue. For example, at one point in the movie, Vanessa says, “I am a strong, powerful woman, and I am perfectly capable of handling my mental breakdown,” as if it’s supposed to be a clever comedic moment.

“I’m Totally Fine” forces in some tearjearker scenes in the film’s last 15 minutes. It’s just a cheap ploy to make the movie look like it’s trying to convey “meaningful messages about life and humanity.” But by then, it’s too late, because this contrived human-alien friendship is as fake as an alien shapeshifter’s body disguise.

Decal released “I’m Totally Fine” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Darby and the Dead,’ starring Riele Downs and Auli’i Cravalho

January 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Riele Downs and Auli’i Cravalho (both pictured in center) in “Darby and the Dead” (Photo by Marcos Cruz/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“Darby and the Dead”

Directed by Silas Howard

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the fantasy comedy film “Darby and the Dead” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a popular but snobby girl in high school dies in a freak accident, she returns as a ghost to haunt her psychic former best friend to throw a tribute party for her, and the former friend goes from being a social outcast to being the most popular student in the school.

Culture Audience: “Darby and the Dead” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching teen comedies that are “dumbed down” for audiences, and lazily mix together plots that were in superior movies.

Riele Downs, Asher Angel and Auli’i Cravalho in “Darby and the Dead” (Photo by Marcos Cruz/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

The cringeworthy comedy “Darby and the Dead” is as fresh and funny as a rotting corpse. This dreadful dud relentlessly insults its characters and viewers, as it clumsily rips off ideas from better movies. It’s easy to see why 20th Century Studios dumped “Darby and the Dead” on a streaming service instead of releasing the movie in theaters: “Darby and the Dead” is the type of awful movie that viewers would want refunds for if they had the misfortune of buying movie tickets for it.

Directed by Silas Howard, “Darby and the Dead” (written by Becca Greene and Wenonah Wilms) was originally titled “Darby Harper Wants You to Know.” It’s about a psychic teenage girl who can see dead people and is then haunted by a former best friend while they argue about issues having to do with cliques and popularity at their high school. You don’t have to be a psychic to know that this subject matter has been so overdone with predictable endings in comedy films about teenagers, any movie with the same concept has do something special to stand out from the forgettable mediocrity of most of these formulaic teen films.

Unfortunately, everything about “Darby and the Dead” looks like it was made by out-of-touch adults who took the cheesiest aspects of teen comedies from the 1980s and 1990s and just shoveled it into “Darby and the Dead” while making a few technological updates for the early 2020s. “Darby and the Dead” has the benefit of some talented cast members, but they don’t have believable chemistry as friends or enemies in the movie. In “Darby and the Dead,” they look exactly like what they are: cast members in their 20s pretending to be teens in high school and trying too hard to be comical while saying their very unfunny lines of dialogue.

The title character of “Darby and the Dead” is Darby Harper (played Riele Downs), a sarcastic loner, who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Darby is also a psychic who lives with her widowed father Ben (played by Derek Luke) in an unnamed U.S. city. (“Darby and the Dead” was actually filmed in South Africa.) Darby’s constant voiceover narration gets annoying after a while, because what she thinks are witty observations are actually just dull rants from a teenager who doesn’t want to admit that she’s bitter about her life.

When she was 7 years old, Darby (played by Milan Maphike) witnessed her mother (played by Kim Syster) drown while they were both swimming in an ocean. Darby also shows a brief flashback of Darby (played by Emily Maphike), when Darby was about 13 or 14 years old. “I was never the same,” Darby explains about how the death of her mother changed Darby. “I see dead people everywhere. The dead needed my help.” Darby says she turned her back on the living world and started what she calls her “side hustle: counseling dead people.”

She calls herself a “spiritual messenger, of sorts” and the ghosts who still haunt Earth have “unfinished business.” Darby further explains what happened to the ghosts who received her help: “Spirits were able to cross over, which is pretty beautiful. Word spread in the purgatory circuit, and my after-school job took off. There’s no pay, but if dead people’s gratitude had value, I’d be [Amazon’s billionaire founder] Jeff Bezos.”

Now that it’s been established that Darby has such a huge ego, she thinks she’s the Jeff Bezos of the ghost world, Darby becomes quite insufferable for much of the movie, as she shows a mixture of self-pity and arrogance about being a pariah at her high school. On the one hand, Darby likes to brag about how she thinks she’s too smart and too special to mingle with the common people who go to her high school. On the other hand, it’s obvious that she desperately craves their approval.

One of the reasons why she’s treated like an outsider is that anti-social Darby talks out loud to the ghosts that no one else can see. Therefore, people wonder if Darby has some type of mental illness. When it comes to being shunned by her peers, Darby also puts a lot of blame on her former best friend Capri Donohue (played by Auli’i Cravalho), who is a classmate of Darby’s at Frederick Douglass High School. Darby says in a voicever that Capri is the “head phony” at the school, which Darby calls “a torturous realm, where I am forced to spend my days.”

Capri is currently the queen bee of the most popular clique in school. Capri’s three subservient sidekicks are Bree (played by Genneya Walton), Taylor (played by Kylie Liya Page) and Piper (played by Nicole Maines), whose personalities are indistinguishable from each other. Because Darby has a reputation for being weird, Capri ended their friendship. Capri and her “mean girls” clique also ridicule and insult Darby any chance that they can get.

Adding to the animosity between the two ex-pals is (teen comedy cliché alert) they both want to date the same guy. His name is James Harris (played by Asher Angel, in a generic teen boyfriend role), whom Darby describes as a “band geek” she’s had a crush on since sixth grade. However, when James went on “The Voice” TV talent show as a contestant and had his 15 minutes of fame, Capri suddenly took an interest in him, turned on the charm, and now Capri and James are dating each other. James has fallen hard for Capri, but Capri is not nearly as smitten. Capri is interested in James as long as she thinks that dating him will boost her popularity.

Meanwhile (teen comedy cliché alert), a new transfer student named Alex (played by Chosen Jacobs) arrives at the school. Principal Morgan (played by Anthony Oseyemi) tells Darby, of all people, to be Alex’s study buddy in school. It’s quite the unrealistic, meddling reach for a school principal to order a student to be a study buddy for another student who just transferred to the school. Alex is friendly, a little nerdy, and he likes a lot of the same entertainment and literature that Darby likes. And you know what that means.

Maybe the “Darby and the Dead” filmmakers didn’t want to use the tired teen-comedy stereotype of making two potential love interests get assigned by a teacher to be study partners, usually in a biology class. However, by having the school principal force this partnership, it just looks even phonier. At any rate, as soon as Alex meets Darby, and she is rude and standoffish to him, you know exactly what’s going to happen between these two characters later in the movie.

While Darby has voiceover rants about how Capri and her friends are horrendous snobs, Darby doesn’t see the irony that she is almost equally unpleasant and snooty to Alex when she rebuffs his attempts to become her friend. “I’m a lone wolf,” Darby curtly tells Alex. The off-putting tone of “Darby and the Dead” is that viewers are supposed to automatically love Darby’s rudeness because she’s the “underdog” of the story. However, Darby is such a terribly written character (she says multiple times she doesn’t like being around people who are still alive), there’s no good reason to root for her for most of the story.

As part of Darby’s “spiritual guidance” counseling sessions, “Darby and the Dead” has some awkward filler of Darby hanging out with two old men (who are both dead) that is embarrassing to everyone in these movie scenes. A better movie would have had more variety in the types of ghosts that Darby helps, but that would involve creative imagination, which “Darby and the Dead” sorely lacks. It actually comes across as a little creepy that these dead old men have gravitated to this underage teen.

Gary (played by Tony Danza) is a dead janitor who used to work at the high school, but he hasn’t passed on to the other side. He’s waiting for his widow to die and join him, so they can cross over to the other side of the spirit world together. There’s a stupid scene of Darby talking to Gary on the school bleachers, and he gives Darby some cash to pass on to his widow. This scene is as bad as it sounds.

Even worse: Gary introduces Darby to his dead friend Mel (played by Wayne Knight), who died of a heart attack but has not crossed over the other side yet. Mel’s wife died 17 years earlier. Mel is concerned that when he dies, his wife will see him in the body that Mel has now: older and with a lot more weight gain, compared to 17 years ago. Darby assures Mel that when he passes on to the next realm to reunite with his dead wife, Mel will be his “optimal self” (whatever that means). So now, viewers know that not only does Darby think she’s the Jeff Bezos of the ghost world, she also thinks she’s a makeover guru for the ghost world.

Capri’s death doesn’t happen until almost halfway through the movie, which takes entirely too long to get to this plot development, considering “Darby and the Dead” is marketed as a movie that’s mostly about what happens after Capri dies. Capri’s death is another badly written, phony-looking scene: In a school locker room, Capri is holding a plugged-in, hairstyling iron after stealing Darby’s clothes in a bullying incident. Capri accidentally falls down in a shallow body of water while holding the iron, she gets electrocuted, and dies.

You already know what’s going to happen next: Capri won’t cross over into the other realm, Darby can see Capri’s ghost, and the two teens spend a lot of time bickering and getting on each other’s nerves. Capri’s “unfinished business” is that she died before she could have her Sweet 17 birthday party extravaganza. Capri makes a deal with Darby: Capri will leave Darby alone if Darby turns the birthday party into a special tribute for Capri, and Capri will teach Darby how to become the most popular girl in school.

What about Capri’s boyfriend James? “Darby and the Dead” has more terribly staged scenarios over this love triangle. And let’s not forget Alex, who is waiting around and hoping that Darby will wake up and see that Alex is a much better match for her. There are absolutely no surprises in “Darby and the Dead,” which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the movie makes it all so boring and witless.

Downs isn’t horrible in the role of Darby. She’s just been saddled with a horrible script, and she’s just not able to make grumpy Darby all that endearing for most of the movie. There’s only so much whining and pouting that viewers can take from Darby, a teenager who’s actually fairly privileged and is, by her own admission, anti-social by choice.

Cravalho, who’s best known as a singer, might excel in musical roles, such as her voice-starring title role in Disney’s 2016 animated film “Moana.” However, live-action comedy doesn’t appear to be a strong suit for Cravalho, who is too hammy in “Darby and the Dead,” and she needs to work on her comedic timing. Not only is Capri dead for most of the movie, but Capri also has a dead personality. Cravalho tries too hard to be campy in this role, and her performance just doesn’t work well for how this mean-spirited and soulless character is written.

The rest of the cast members are serviceable and don’t do anything special. “Darby and the Dead” fails to impress as a movie that can portray teenagers in ways other than the usual, narrow movie stereotypes. To rephrase the title of a Nirvana song, the teen spirit in “Darby of the Dead” smells like bad filmmaking.

Hulu premiered “Darby and the Dead” on December 2, 2022.

Review: ‘A Man Called Otto,’ starring Tom Hanks

December 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tom Hanks in “A Man Called Otto” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Columbia Pictures)

“A Man Called Otto”

Directed by Marc Forster

Culture Representation: Taking place in Pittsburgh, in 2018 and 2019, the comedy/drama film “A Man Called Otto” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A grouchy, suicidal widower gets a new outlook on life when a young family moves into a home across the street from him. 

Culture Audience: “A Man Called Otto” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Hanks; the 2015/2016 Swedish movie and 2012 book “A Man Called Ove,” on which the American remake is based; and movies that try too hard to wring emotions out of people with broadly portrayed characters and scenarios.

Tom Hanks and Mariana Treviño in “A Man Called Otto” (Photo by Dennis Mong/Columbia Pictures)

“A Man Called Otto” bulldozes over the realistic charm of Sweden’s “A Man Called Ove” and gives it an inferior Hollywood treatment full of overly staged smarm. There are much better “grumpy old man” movies out there, including the Oscar-nominated comedy/drama “A Man Called Ove” (released in Sweden and Norway in 2015, and elsewhere in 2016), which viewers should see before or instead of “A Man Called Otto.” Anyone who watches both movies can see how much “A Man Called Otto” stumbles as a disappointing remake. Everything about “A Man Called Otto” looks like it’s a made-for-TV formulaic film, instead of being a cinematic experience worthy of the price of a movie ticket.

Directed by Marc Forster and written by David Magee, “A Man Called Otto” has absolutely no improvements from the movie “A Man Called Ove,” which was written and directed by Hannes Holm. Both movies are based on Fredrik Backman’s 2012 Swedish novel “A Man Called Ove.” Instead of making creative advancements to “A Man Called Ove,” what “A Man Called Otto” actually does is make a few lazy tweaks to some of the characters and scenarios and actually “dumbs down” a lot of the material. It all results in some annoying dialogue, a comedic tone that’s more appropriate for a TV sitcom, and an abundance of characters who are less believable and more superficial than they need to be.

“A Man Called Otto” keeps the same basic concept of “A Man Called Ove”—a grouchy widower in his 60s is forced to take an “early retirement” from his factory job. He is so grief-stricken over the death of his beloved wife (who passed away from cancer less than a year ago), he decides to commit suicide. His suicide attempts get interrupted by a variety of circumstances that begin when a young couple with two daughters under the age of 10 move across the street from this angry old man. Throughout the movie, there are flashbacks that show viewers some details about this grouch’s past, to explain why he ended up the way that he is.

In “A Man Called Otto” (which takes place in Pittsburgh, in 2018 and 2019), Tom Hanks is Otto Anderson, the bitter protagonist of the story. At the beginning of the movie, Otto’s wife Sonya died six months earlier. Otto is the type of miserable complainer who has to find fault with almost everything that people do when they have the misfortune of interacting with him. The movie opens with a scene of Otto at a hardware store, where he berates a hapless sales clerk (played by John Higgins) about Otto’s purchase of five feet of rope. Otto has a problem with the sale because the measurement charges are per yard, not per foot.

In “A Man Called Ove,” the opening scene shows protagonist Ove Lindahl (played by Rolf Lassgård) haggling over a sale price in a store, but Ove is buying a flower bouquet to put on his late wife’s grave. Both movies then show how this cranky protagonist is nasty and mean-spirited to his neighbors, including a woman with a small dog that he detests. He insults the dog’s owner and the dog in very harsh and demeaning ways.

Both movies have a nosy but cheerful neighbor named Jimmy (played by Cameron Britton in “A Man Called Otto” and Klas Wiljergård in “A Man Called Ove”), who apparently has nothing better to do with his time but exercise outdoors and gossip about other people’s business in the neighborhood. Both movies also have a stray cat that sometimes hangs out in the grumpy old man’s front yard. He angrily shoos away the cat every time he sees it, until that predictable turning point when he warms up to the cat and starts to treat the cat like a pet.

Otto doesn’t know it yet, but his life is about to be changed when a young family moves across the street from him in a rental house. Marisol Mendez (played by Mariana Treviño) and Tommy Mendez (played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) have two adorable daughters: Luna (played by Christiana Montoya) is about 6 or 7 years old. Abbie (played by Alessandra Perez) is about 4 or 5 years old. During most of the movie, Marisol is pregnant with the couple’s third child.

Tommy is an information technology consultant, who was born and raised in the United States. Marisol is a homemaker who was born in El Salvador and was raised in Mexico. When the Mendez family arrives in the neighborhood with a U-Haul storage unit towed behind the family car, Otto is immediately rude to them and yells at Tommy for how Tommy is parallel parking the car. In frustration, Otto gets in the car to show Tommy how parallel parking should be done. Otto also lectures these newcomers about the parking rules and other regulations in the neighborhood.

Otto is still unfriendly when Tommy and Marisol show up at Otto’s door with a neighborly gift: a container of Pollo Con Mole. Otto doesn’t know how to be appreciative, and he gets annoyed when talkative Marisol tries to engage Otto in an amiable conversation. Marisol is 30 years old in “A Man Called Otto,” but she sometimes acts a lot less mature than 30. Over time, Marisol and Otto continue to cross paths, and she seems determined to become Otto’s friend.

It’s a personality difference from the Persian-immigrant pregnant wife Parvaneh (played by Bahar Pars), who is part of the young family who moves in across the street in “A Man Called Ove.” Parvaneh wasn’t so much of a people pleaser, and she realistically clashed with Ove because she wasn’t trying so hard to be his friend. Parvaneh also didn’t tolerate Ove’s insults as much as Marisol tolerates Otto’s insults. In other words, Parvaneh was no pushover, and Otto sort of met his match with her. Marisol having such a relentlessly perky personality will get on the nerves of anyone who likes and appreciates “A Man Called Ove.”

“A Man Called Otto” also has an inferior way of handling immigrant issues, compared to how “A Man Called Ove” handles these issues. Marisol is written and portrayed in ethnic clichés of being a loud, fast-talking, high-strung Latina. Marisol also sometimes comes across as ditzy, which is not a flattering portrayal when Latin/Hispanic representation on screen already over-uses the negative stereotype that immigrants of Latin/Hispanic heritage in the United States are less intelligent than white Americans.

By contrast, Parvaneh in “A Man Called Ove” (whose love partner is a white Swedish man named Patrik, played by Tobias Almborg) is intelligent (she’s portrayed as having more common sense than Patrik), and she truly felt like more an immigrant outsider in the neighborhood. There are no other people near her who can speak Parvaneh’s first language or who come from her native culture. In “A Man Called Otto,” Marisol and Tommy, who have a shared Latin/Hispanic heritage, both speak Spanish and English fluently. “A Man Called Ove” also shows that Parvaneh didn’t really have a support system in raising her children, whereas “A Man Called Otto” shows that Marisol and Tommy have relatives who visit them and help look after the kids.

It’s this deeper sense of isolation that makes the evolution of the relationship between Parvaneh and Ove (who is isolated in a different way) more meaningful and genuine in “A Man Called Ove,” compared to how the relationship between Marisol and Otto evolves in much more contrived way in “A Man Called Otto.” “A Man Called Ove” also portrays in a more realistic way how stressful it is to be a pregnant mother taking care of two other children under the age of 10. Parvaneh is not as patient and saintly as Marisol. In other words, Parvenah is more authentic and relatable.

“A Man Called Otto” also reveals way too early in the movie that Otto has a health condition, and the movie over-relies on flashbacks related to this health condition. Therefore, all of this telegraphing ruins or diminishes the impact of a plot development toward the end of the movie. Only the most naïve or inattentive viewers won’t see this plot development coming. By contrast, the flashbacks in “A Man Called Ove” are much more poignant, including a backstory involving a young Ove (played by Viktor Baagøe as 7-year-old Ove and by Filip Berg as teenage/young adult Ove) and Ove’s father (played by Stefan Gödicke) that is essentially removed from “A Man Called Otto,” which mishandles the flashbacks in a jumbled manner.

Viewers of “A Man Called Otto” eventually see that Otto bought the rope at the hardware store to use as a noose to hang himself in his living room. He tries other ways to commit suicide, but every time he tries to kill himself, something happens to remind him (even if Otto doesn’t see the signs) that his life is worth living. “A Man Called Ove” delivers these life-affirming messages in well-crafted ways, in contrast to “A Man Called Otto” which has all the subtlety of a jackhammer on full blast.

After Sonya’s death, the closest that Otto has had to a family is a longtime friendship with a married couple in the neighborhood named Reuben (played by Peter Lawson Jones) and Anita (played by Juanita Jennings), who are about the same age as Otto. Reuben, who has dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, is now mute and needs a wheelchair to move around. There’s a subplot about a plan to put Reuben in a nursing home, against the objections of Anita, who wants to remain as Reuben’s full-time caretaker.

It’s the same subplot as in “A Man Called Ove,” except that “A Man Called Otto” adds an unseen character (Anita and Reuben’s estranged adult son, who lives in Japan) as the “villain” instigator in this scenario. Mike Birbiglia has a one-dimensional “other villain” role as an unnamed real-estate agent for a company called Dye & Merica, which has been trying to convince many of the elderly residents of the neighborhood to sell their homes, so that Dye & Merica can redevelop the area to have pricier homes. This greedy and opportunisitic real-estate agent and some of his co-workers constantly patrol the neighborhood in their Dye & Merica vehicles.

Otto and Reuben used to be best friends, but (for reasons shown in some of the movie’s flashbacks) their relationship fractured before Reuben’s health issues happened. These reasons are treated with much more care and skill in “A Man Called Ove,” compared to “A Man Called Otto” which rushes through a superficial treatment of these reasons. These sloppily written flashbacks might leave “A Man Called Otto” viewers baffled over how over Otto and Reuben would stop talking to each other over something that’s not very well-explained in the movie.

The best flashbacks in “A Man Called Otto” have to do with the relationship between a young adult Otto (played by Truman Hanks, Tom Hanks’ real-life son) and Sonya (played by Rachel Keller), but these Otto/Sonya flashbacks aren’t nearly as well-done as the Ove/Sonja flashbacks in “A Man Called Ove,” which features a radiant Ida Engvoll as Ove’s wife Sonja. Through these flashbacks, viewers learn that Otto wasn’t always a bitter and angry man. He was still very uptight and stringent about following rules, but he had a much kinder spirit and a more generous heart. The flashbacks in “A Man Called Ove” do a better job of showing how the protagonist overcame some major challenges in his younger life.

“A Man Called Otto” slightly changes a subplot involving a LGBTQ character in the movie. In “A Man Called Ove,” Sonja used to be a high-school teacher, and one of her recent students named Adrian (played by Simon Edenroth) delivers newspapers in the neighborhood. This teenager has another job working at a cafe, where one of his slightly older co-workers named Misrad (played by Poyan Karimi) is openly gay and ends up temporarily staying with Otto after getting kicked out of his home for being gay. In a “Man Called Otto,” there is no gay cafe co-worker. The newspaper-delivering student is a transgender male teen named Malcolm (played by Mack Bayda), and Malcolm is the one who gets kicked out of his home.

“A Man Called Otto” copies “A Man Called Ove” in showing how Otto visits his late wife’s grave and talks out loud to her in emotionally vulnerable moments. But then, there are changes in “A Man Called Otto” that aren’t for the better. For example, both movies have a scene where the protagonist gets into a conflict at a hospital with a man dressed as a clown, whose job is to cheer up people at the hospital. The clown performs a magic trick with a coin that has a lot of sentimental value to the protagonist, who accuses the clown of stealing the clown after the clown performs the trick.

In “A Man Called Ove,” Ove gets angry by stepping on the clown’s shoes to trip clown. In “A Man Called Otto,” Otto tackles and fully punches the clown to try to get the coin. This assault is not shown in “A Man Called Otto,” but it’s talked about in the movie when the police arrive at the hospital to investigate. “A Man Called Otto” stretches out this clown conflict to an unnecessary length when it looks like Otto will be arrested for it. It’s a very clumsily handled and unnecessary detour to the plot in “A Man Called Otto.”

If there’s any saving grace to “A Man Called Otto,” it’s that all of the performances are watchable and have moments of being entertaining. But it’s not enough to make it a great movie, especially when everything is so heavy-handed in portraying issues that deserved less Hollywood phoniness and more authenticity. A key scene of the suicidal protagonist at a train station is a perfect example of how “A Man Called Otto” is a lower-quality film, compared to “A Man Called Ove.”

In “A Man Called Otto,” Tom Hanks (who is one of the movie’s producers) is just doing another version of a cranky old widower character that has been done already in dozens of other movies and TV shows. Robert De Niro has been doing this type of repetitive role in formulaic comedy films for many years. Hanks doesn’t deserve extra praise for doing the same thing, just because Hanks usually plays “nice guys” in his movies. “A Man Called Otto” is not as bad as most of De Niro’s comedy films. But considering that “A Man Called Otto” is a remake of an Oscar-nominated film, it’s a shame that “A Man Called Otto” did not improve on the original movie and instead turned the best parts into mediocre mush.

Columbia Pictures will release “A Man Called Otto” in select U.S. cinemas on December 30, 2022, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on January 6, 2023, and January 13, 2023.

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