Review: ‘Dark Web: Cicada 3301,’ starring Jack Kesy, Conor Leslie and Alan Ritchson

April 11, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ron Funches, Conor Leslie and Jack Kesy in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301”

Directed by Alan Ritchson

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed North American city, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A bartender who’s a secret computer hacker uncovers a Dark Web secret society of rich criminals called Cicada 3301 and is pressured by law enforcement to infiltrate this secret society.

Culture Audience: “Dark Web: Cicada 3301″ will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a painfully unfunny film that struggles to find anything resembling a coherent plot.

Alan Ritchson, Andreas Apergis and Jack Kesy in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Just like the title of this movie, the action comedy film “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is vapid and badly conceived. It tries desperately to be a wacky caper film, but the movie’s convoluted plot is filled with cheesy comedy that includes a homophobic fixation on depicting gay male sexuality as something to shamefully ridicule. Almost all of the characters in this movie are unappealing. Good luck to anyone who wastes time watching this incoherent drivel until the very end. Even the movie’s mid-credits scene looks like a throwaway.

Directed by Alan Ritchson, who co-wrote the screenplay with Joshua Montcalm, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” has a misguided concept that can be described as “Mr. Robot” meets “National Treasure” meets an “Austin Powers” movie. The protagonist of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a computer hacker who’s a loner, but he goes on a treasure hunt as a wisecracking spy for the government. It’s even more cringeworthy than it sounds. At 105 minutes, “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” feels like much longer, as viewers have to watch a lot of nonsense, and most of it still won’t make much sense by the end of the movie.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” takes place in an unnamed North American city. The movie was filmed in Canada and has a mixture of American and Canadian actors, but nothing in the movie looks specific to the U.S. or Canada. The name of the federal agency that the law enforcement people work for is also left out of the movie. There’s a lot of things in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” that are purposely vague, mostly due to terrible screenwriting and direction.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” opens with a scene of Connor Black (played by Jack Kesy) in a castle, pointing a gun at someone in a study room, uploading something on a computer in the room, and then destroying the computer. Connor then climbs out the window and over a wall. Suddenly, there’s an explosion that hurls Connor backward. It’s a scene that the movie circles back to later on, to explain how Connor got into this situation.

As the movie shows Connor falling in slow motion, he’s heard commenting in a voiceover: “Believe it or not, I’m falling through the sky like an apple over Newton’s head. Things have been a little fuzzy ever since.” It’s one of the many examples of how tonally off-kilter this movie is. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a mindless action flick, but it also makes these pseudo-intellectual references where people have to know that Isaac Newton is being referenced in this bizarre attempt at a joke.

Throughout the movie, it becomes apparent that the filmmakers of “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” couldn’t seem to make up their minds about what type of audience they want for this movie: Is it the people who like the complex and edgy hacker drama of “Mr. Robot”? Is it the people who like artifact-finding adventures like “National Treasure”? Or is it the people who like deliberately zany spy comedies like “Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery”?

There is some overlap in these audiences, but not much. And the result is that “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is a tonal mess. Connor Black is written as a strange amalgamation of all three male protagonists in “Mr. Robot,” “National Treasure” and “Austin Powers.” It’s no wonder that Connor is as annoying and confused as he is throughout the movie.

Early on in the movie, it’s shown that Connor is now a prisoner who is testifying on his behalf at a judge’s hearing. The “adventure” scenes of the movie are really supposed to be what happened that led up to Connor being arrested. This movie is so badly made that this scene doesn’t look like it was filmed in a courtroom. It looks like it was filmed in a library or a university meeting room with three tables placed in the room.

At the “defense” table is Connor, who is in a prisoner’s uniform, with his hands and feet cuffed in chains. And he doesn’t have a lawyer with him. Sitting at the “prosecution” table are five men: two attorneys (the one who speaks is played by Joe Bostick) representing the prosecution, as well as the three government agents who offered $5 million to Connor to find a darknet secret society called Cicada 3301. The government agents are leader Mike Croft (played by Al Sapienza), Agent Carver (played by “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” director Ritchson) and Agent Sullivan (played by Andreas Apergis), who all have contempt for Connor.

Sitting at the third table that faces the other two tables is a panel of three judges: Judge Mary Collins (played by Victoria Snow), who does most of the talking; Judge Walters (played by Rothaford Gray); and Judge Bates (played by Marvin Karon). The judges ask Connor to tell his side of the story, which leads to the flashback scenes in the movie. During his “testimony” Connor is very rude to the agents, and he often gets up from the table in a disruptive manner. Connor and the agents also frequently interrupt each other.

Connor sometimes distorts the details in his “testimony,” by telling lies that Agent Carver is a closeted and horny gay man who’s attracted to Connor. For example, there’s a “fantasy” scene from Connor’s imagination where Agent Carter sexually licks Connor on the face. And in another “fantasy” scene, Agent Carter has a dildo strapped on his head after being in an “orgy room” with another man.

Telling these fabrications is Connor’s way of trying to humiliate Agent Carver, who gets upset every time Connor creates a false story about Agent Carter trying to seduce Connor and other men. These fantasies are depicted in the movie for laughs, but it’s not funny to use real or perceived homosexuality as a way to shame someone. “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” over-relies on these co-called “gay jokes” to the point where viewers have to wonder what kind of bigoted hangups these filmmakers have about gay men.

Connor is portrayed as a stereotypical arrogant jerk whom the filmmakers want to audiences to think is what you’re supposed to be if you’re a wisecracking, “no filter” action hero. He’s a bachelor in his early 30s who lives alone and works as a bartender. But he’s also a computer whiz who has a photographic memory. And when the government recruits a reluctant Connor to be a spy, he suddenly has combat skills that aren’t really explained in the movie.

“Dark Web: Cicada 3301” uses an an annoying visual technique of showing numbers and images on screen, to depict how Connor’s photographic memory works in his brain. The movie never explains why Connor is a bartender instead of working in a computer-related job. Maybe it’s to set up this clumsy plot development in the beginning of the story where Connor starts looking for Cicada 3301. He’s enlisted to be a government spy when government officials find out that he’s close to discovering Cicada 3301, and they want Connor to lead the government to this secret society.

Twenty-nine days before he’s shown falling out from a castle ledge, Connor is at the restaurant/bar where he works. He sees a rude customer give Connor’s waitress co-worker Lori (played by Linnea Currie-Roberts) a measly 50 cents as a tip for serving about three or four people. Before the customer leaves with his dinner companions, Connor steps in and confronts the customer about the insulting tip.

The customer, whose name is William J. Edwards III (played by Benjamin Sutherland), is unapologetic and angrily flicks a lit cigarette at Connor. This triggers Connor to a childhood memory of his abusive father (played by Patrick Garrow) flicking a lit cigarette at him. The movie has more of these flashback memories of Connor’s troubled relationship with his father. (Tomaso Sanelli portrays Connor as a child.) Connor responds to the cigarette-throwing, stingy customer by getting into a fist fight with him.

Later, when he’s at home in his dingy apartment and nursing his bruised knuckles, Connor decides to get revenge on William, the customer he fought with in the bar. Connor remembers William’s full name and goes on his desktop computer to log on to the Dark Web. Connor hacks into William’s Bitcoin and credit card accounts to mess up his credit, and he sends a computer virus to William’s email.

While surfing the Dark Web, Connor stumbles onto mysterious files from an entity calling itself Cicada 3301 that promises a huge treasure worth a fortune, for people who can crack Cicada 3301’s puzzle codes and clues that will lead to the treasure. The group’s logo is a cicada. And it’s implied that whatever “treasure” is being offered is illegal.

Connor is intrigued, but his first attempt at solving a Cicada 3301 puzzle results in him getting a message from Cicada 3301 telling him that he failed the test because he’s not smart enough. This insult causes Connor to get so angry that he smashes a beer bottle, but some of the beer spills onto the computer tower and short-circuits the hard drive. Connor is now more determined than ever to find out who’s behind Cicada 3301 and how to get some of the promised treasure.

Connor needs the money because he’s very close to being evicted from his apartment. Connor has already been served an eviction notice. His deaf landlord Mr. Costa (played by Anselmo DeSousa) threatens to change the apartment’s locks if Connor doesn’t come up with the money. Connor promises that he will have the money by the next day, but even the landlord know that’s a lie.

Connor seems to be fluent in American Sign Language (ASL), because he understands everything that Mr. Costa is saying just through hand signs. (The words hover over Mr. Costa’s head instead of appearing on screen as regular captions.) It’s never explained how or why Connor as ASL communication skills, just like it’s never explained why Connor works in a low-paying bartender job, even though he has advanced-level computer information technology skills.

Because the story in “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” is so jumbled, it throws in a precocious, foul-mouthed kid, and then makes this character disappear for no good reason. She’s a 10-year-old named Sophia (played by Alyssa Cheatham), who lives in the same apartment building as Connor. Sophia is first seen in the movie cursing out Connor for being late with his rent. It’s mentioned later in the movie that Sophia has a single mother (played by Quancetia Hamilton), who spends long hours working away from home. Therefore, Sophie and Connor hang out together a lot, with Connor as Sophia’s unofficial babysitter.

Connor seems to be aware of how odd it might look for a man his age to be spending so much time with a girl who’s not a family member. And so, when he and Sophia go to the library to do some research, there are some moronic jokes made about pedophilia. Connor doesn’t have the money to fix his computer, so he has to use Sophia’s computer or a computer at the library.

While at the library, he meets a sarcastic and pretty library assistant in her 20s named Gwen (played by Conor Leslie), who predictably ends up helping him with this Cicada 3301 hunt. Gwen becomes Connor’s more level-headed sidekick/accomplice. Gwen and Connor have the type of sexual-tension banter that indicates he’s very attracted to her.

But Gwen plays guessing games with Connor about her sexuality. In one scene, Gwen tells Connor that she’s a lesbian. In another scene, Gwen kisses Connor in a romantic way. In another scene, she tells him that she “goes both ways.” In other words, she’s bisexual or queer.

“Cicada 3301” is annoyingly preoccupied with portraying queerness as something to be ridiculed or used as a a homophobic punchline. The third member of this “National Treasure” wannabe trio is Connor’s best friend Avi (played by Ron Funches), who needs a lot of convincing to go on this Cicada 3301 treasure hunt. Avi is used later in the story as sexual bait to flirt with a museum front-desk attendant who’s openly gay, so that Connor and Gwen can sneak into the museum’s book archives while Avi serves as a distraction. All the stereotypical over-the-top gay male mannerisms are used in this scene, such as high-pitched squeals and hand fluttering.

Avi is a college professor of art history who becomes Connor’s reluctant recruit to help solve Cicada 3301’s puzzles, which require extensive knowledge of art history. Avi, who likes to wear bow ties and blazers, is the type of eccentric whose idea of fun is to play chess with old men in a park. Funches portrays Avi as someone with flamboyance and of vague sexuality, although Avi seems to be initially attracted to Gwen. Toward the end of the movie, Avi gets a female love interest named Shauna (played by Jess Salgueiro), whose presence is almost like an afterthought, as if to let viewers know that Avi really isn’t gay.

Avi likes to make cupcakes, and the movie depicts Avi’s interest in cupcakes as “effeminate.” Avi also has the role of the high-maintenance “scaredy cat”/worrier of this Cicada 3301-hunting trio. It’s just another reason for Avi to have more diva-like posturing in the movie, to try to make him the frequent butt of the movie’s not-very-funny jokes.

A lot of the movie consists of Connor, Gwen and Avi gathering clues and solving puzzles. There’s some gibberish about William Blake art and clues that suggest that Cicada 3301 is an Illumniati-type of group. In one preposterous scene, Cicada 3301 has rigged an entire set of street lights to blink out a message in Morse code. Connor conveniently knows Morse Code, so he deciphers the message.

And Connor has some visions that often don’t make any sense. In one of these visions, his 10-year-old neighbor Sophia is seen being taken out of her home on a gurney, with a sheet over her body, as if she’s dead. Her mother is shown wailing next to the gurney. Sophia is never seen in the movie again, nor is it ever explained why Connor had that vision. That gives you an idea how sloppy this movie’s screenplay is.

Connor, Gwen and Avi go through some more shenanigans that eventually lead them to a castle, where Cicada 3301 is having an orgy party that’s trying to go for an “Eyes Wide Shut” masquerade vibe. It goes without saying that there are people in this movie who wear animal masks—and not because it’s Halloween. There’s someone at the party named Phillip Dubois (played by Kris Holden-Ried), whose purpose in the movie is exactly what you think it is. And there are a few twists toward the end of the film that aren’t very clever and aren’t much of a surprise.

The cast members’ performances, which are mediocre, aren’t the main problem in this shoddily made film. The screenplay and direction are the weakest links. At one point in the movie, Gwen says to Connor: “Are you always this grating? It’s like living sandpaper, man!” Ironically, that’s a perfect description for “Dark Web: Cicada 3301.”

Lionsgate released “Dark Web: Cicada 3301” on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on March 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Stealing School,’ starring Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz

April 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Celine Tsai and Jonathan Keltz in “Stealing School” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Stealing School”  

Directed by Li Dong

Some language in Chinese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Canadian city, the comedy/drama “Stealing School” features a racially diverse cast (white, Asian and black) representing people connected in some way to the well-known (but fictional) Dupont University.

Culture Clash: At the university, a white teaching assistant/Ph.D. student faces off with an Asian undergraduate accused of plagiarism in a tribunal hearing, which will determine if the student will be allowed to graduate or not.

Culture Audience: “Stealing School” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dark satires of how social justice issues have an effect on how universities want to be perceived.

A scene from “Stealing School.” Pictured from left to right, facing the camera: Celine Tsai, Mpho Koaho, Kayleigh Shikanai, Jonathan Keltz and Matthew Edison. Pictured from left to right, with backs toward the camera: Jonathan Malen, Michelle Monteith and Darrin Baker. (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The astutely written “Stealing School” takes an incisive look what can happen when race, class, gender and political correctness collide in a Canadian university that wants to project an image of being progressive and inclusive. The true nature of the movie, just like some of the characters in the story, won’t always match a first impression. “Stealing School” appears to be a straightforward drama, but it’s really a dark satire about the lengths that people will go to to keep up appearances. The story (which takes place at the fictional Dupont University in an unnamed Canadian city) unfolds in layers. Viewers will be kept in riveted suspense to see if the whole truth will eventually be revealed in an investigation over a student accused of committing plagiarism.

Written and directed by Li Dong, “Stealing School” centers on an academic tribunal to determine if Dupont undergraduate student April Chen (played by Celine Tsai) will be able to pass her political science class. April is a computer science major who is a week away from graduating from Dupont. The reason for the tribunal is because April has been accused of plagiarism in an important political science assignment. The political science class is one of the liberal-arts classes that April is required to take in order to graduate. If the three-person judging panel at the tribunal decides that April is guilty of plagiarism, she’ll fail the class and won’t be able to graduate.

The class’ ambitious teaching assistant Keith Ward (played by Jonathan Keltz), who is a Ph.D. candidate in the university’s political science department, brought the suspected plagiarism to the attention of the university and filed the formal complaint against April. Keith is also the one who has appointed himself the lead person to present the case against April. He’s taking this responsibility as seriously as a prosecutor in a criminal trial. Meanwhile, April has vehemently declared that she is not guilty and she’s going to vigorously defend herself.

Sitting next to Keith during the tribunal is his reluctant supervisor Professor Alan Thornton (played by Matthew Edison), who doesn’t really want to be there. Professor Thornton is annoyed with Keith because Keith went behind Professor Thornton’s back to file the complaint against April. Professor Thornton went along and signed off on the complaint because he didn’t want to look ignorant about what was going on with April’s assignment, which Professor Thornton had tasked Keith to look over and grade.

At the tribunal, April has someone on her side who definitely wants to be there. Sitting next to her at is undergraduate student Micah Shaw (played by Mpho Koaho), who is a volunteer in the student advocacy department. Micah has aspirations to go to law school. And based on what he says in the movie’s conversations, he’s more inclined to become a defense attorney than to work for plaintiffs. Just like Keith, Micah has the type of personality where he wants to be the one to stand up in front of a room and take the lead in presenting a case.

The three people on the judging panel who will decide April’s fate are Josh Bertier (played by Jonathan Malen), an undergraduate student in the computer science department; recently hired Dupont University bureaucrat Deborah Lewis (played by Michelle Monteith), whose title is academic integrity officer; and Professor Richard Gould (played by Darrin Baker) from the political science department. Because the tribunal is being held so close to the end of the academic school year, the three panelists are a little restless and want to get these proceedings over with as soon as possible. It also doesn’t help that the air conditioner in the room doesn’t seem to be working on this sweltering day.

Bit by bit, several things are revealed about all of the people in this tension-filled room. Many of the people have personal agendas that affect the way that they act and what they say in public and private. For example (and this isn’t spoiler information), Professor Gould and Professor Thornton have known each other since they attended the same grad school together. But they have a distant relationship because Professor Gould suspects that Professor Thornton wrote an insulting letter to university officials about Professor Gould to urge the university not to give tenure to Professor Gould. Whoever wrote the letter failed in the attempt to smear Professor Gould, because he ended up getting tenure.

During a break in the tribunal proceedings, Professor Gould (who is normally mild-mannered) angrily confronts Professor Thornton in the hallway about that letter. All of his pent-up anger comes out, but Professor Thornton denies that he wrote the letter. Is Professor Gould being paranoid? Or is he correct in assuming that Professor Thornton wrote the letter? And how will this grudge affect Professor Gould’s decision in April’s case?

Meanwhile, during certain breaks in the proceedings, April (who comes from a Chinese immigrant family) talks to her mother (voiced by Celest Chong) on the phone because her mother keeps calling in excitement over April’s graduation. It’s revealed that 12 people in April’s family will be traveling to the university for her graduation. April has a very promising future. She’s a computer science whiz who created a publishing platform that was bought by a company called Snakeskin. And she already has a job lined up at an unnamed Silicon Valley company.

A series of flashbacks tell more of the story. These flashbacks go as far back as two years before the tribunal and as recently as three days before the tribunal. Private conversations with some of the characters reveal some of their conscious and unconscious biases. For example, Josh (the computer science student on the tribunal judging panel) tells someone that there’s no shortage of Asian people in the computer science department, with his tone of voice suggesting that by “no shortage,” he really means “too many.” Josh also tells the same person that April is a “unicorn” because not she’s a good-looking woman who works in computer science.

In another flashback, academic integrity officer Deborah is seen in her first day on the job having a nervous and awkward conversation with her immediate supervisor Irene McDonnell (played by Adrienne Wilson), who is the assistant vice president of academic operations. Irene invites Deborah to an upcoming dinner that will be attended by potential donors. It’s implied but not said out loud that these potential donors are from non-Western countries.

Irene tells Deborah that American universities aren’t as welcoming of non-Westerners are Canadian universities are. “We’re better than that,” Irene says haughtily of what she thinks is American universities’ bigotry. Irene also tells Debora that it’s important that the potential donors get the impression that Dupont is welcoming to people from non-Western countries.

Several witnesses are called during the tribunal, which takes place in one day. The witnesses include April’s roommate Kelly Nakashima (played by Kayleigh Shikanai); computer science professor Tim Mistry (played by Sugith Varughese); April’s writing coach Mark Lin (played by Andy Yu); and professional essay writer Elisha Sinclair (played by Clare McConnell), who freely admits that students pay her to write their school assignments. They all provide some level of comic relief when they say things that the judging panel doesn’t expect.

“Stealing School” has some sly commentary on the perceived value of a college degree. When university official Deborah asks essay writer-for-hire Elisha at the end of Elisha’s testimony: “Why do you help students cheat? Is it because you need the money?” Elisha has this snappy response: “No, we’re both shilling overpriced pieces of paper to kids too. Yours just happens to say ‘diploma’ at the top.”

One of the flashbacks reveals that a Dupont student named Russ Kasdan (played by Vas Saranga), a journalist for the university’s student newspaper, has heard about this confidential tribunal. Russ has been snooping around to try to get information about the tribunal for a potentially damaging exposé article that he plans to write for the newspaper. Someone in that tribunal ends up leaking valuable information to Russ, and this leak might or might not affect the outcome of the panel’s decision. In addition, there’s a room in the building with a ventilator where conversations can be heard from the nearby restrooms, unbeknownst to the people in the restrooms. And yes, there are are some interesting eavesdropping scenes in this movie.

“Stealing School” has some subtle and not-so-subtle depictions of power dynamics that have to do with race and gender. When Micah advises April to not testify on her own behalf and that he will speak for her, April angrily responds: “Can you please stop coddling me? I’m not a victim. I’m simply innocent.” It’s left open to interpretation if Micah would be that patronizing if April were a man.

Likewise, Adam is aggressive in his “prosecution” of April. He openly expresses hostility toward April and appears to resent that she has a cushy job lined up while he’s a low-paid grad student whose employment future is less certain. There are times when Adam acts like he thinks he’s the smartest person in the room. It’s left open to interpretation if Adam feels emboldened in acting like an “angry white man” because he knows it’s more socially accepted than if a woman or person of color acted in the same combative and arrogant way that he does.

Although all the characters in the movie play some role in the outcome of the tribunal, the biggest power struggle is between April and Adam. Their showdown is fascinating to watch because it’s clear that this battle is more than about who wins or who loses. It’s also about how they each feel that the outcome is a reflection of how the university treats students like them. Therefore, their racial and gender identities can’t help but be part of the equation in how April and Adam feel that they will be judged.

Because the showdown between these two students is essentially the heart of the story’s conflict, much of “Stealing School” relies on Tsai’s and Keltz’s performances to keep viewers interested. Keltz’s acting at times can be a little too over-the-top, but not excessive enough to ruin the movie. Tsai has the more interesting role and performance, which she handles capably, because April goes through a wider range of emotions than Adam does.

The supporting actors all have performances that range from good to mediocre. The movie’s original screenplay and wise editing choices elevate this movie, whose flashbacks could have made it a messy film if handled incorrectly. “Stealing School” writer/director Dong and cinematographer Jack Yan Chen also bring the right balance between a “bird’s eye”/observant view in some of the scenes that are in public and the “voyeur”/intimate view for the scenes that are in private. Overall, “Stealing School” is an impressive feature-film debut from Dong.

Up to a certain point in the movie, viewers will be kept guessing if April is guilty of what’s she’s been accused of doing. Although she’s the one being judged, “Stealing School” is really a clever and somewhat snarky indictment of academic institutions and how “political correctness” can be used as a weapon to cut both ways. And the movie sends a message that first impressions aren’t always the correct impressions.

Vertical Entertainment released “Stealing School” on U.S. digital and VOD platforms on February 26, 2021. The movie was released in the United Kingdom in 2020.

Review: ‘Blithe Spirit’ (2021), starring Dan Stevens, Leslie Mann, Isla Fisher and Judi Dench

April 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Leslie Mann and Dan Stevens in “Blithe Spirit” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Blithe Spirit” (2021) 

Directed by Edward Hall

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1937 in England and briefly in Los Angeles, the comedic film “Blithe Spirit” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one black person and a few Indians) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Struggling with writer’s block, a novelist-turned-screenwriter is haunted by the ghost of his dead ex-wife, who plots to break up his marriage to his current wife.

Culture Audience: “Blithe Spirit” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Noel Coward play on which the movie is based or the 1945 “Blithe Spirit” movie, but the 2021 movie version of “Blithe Spirit” is vastly inferior.

Pictured clockwise, from left to right, Julian Rhind-Tutt, Isla Fisher, Judi Dench, Dan Stevens and Emilia Fox in “Blithe Spirit” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

The 2021 version of “Blithe Spirit” is like a meal that seems to have all the right ingredients, but it turns out to be dull and unappealing mush that will leave people with a bad taste in their mouths. Even though this comedic film (based on the Noel Coward play of the same name) has terrific and talented cast members who have done much better work elsewhere, this “Blithe Spirit” movie’s screenwriting and direction fall flat on almost every level. There are some movies that are so bad that they’re entertaining, and there are some movies that are so bad that they’re boring. Unfortunately, this “Blithe Spirit” remake falls into the latter category.

People watching this version of “Blithe Spirit” might already know about the critically acclaimed 1945 movie version of “Blithe Spirit,” directed by David Lean. The 2021 version of “Blithe Spirit, ” directed by Edward Hall, lacks much of the charm of the 1945 “Blithe Spirit.” The lethargic and simple-minded screenplay of this “Blithe Spirit” remake was written by Nick Morcroft, Meg Leonard and Piers Ashworth. (Morcroft and Leonard are two of the movie’s producers.)

The actors do the best that they can, but they strain for laughs that are few and far in between in this joyless story of a love triangle gone awry because of a vengeful ghost. In “Blithe Spirit,” which takes place in 1937, the love triangle consists of a writer who has a crumbling marriage to a socialite when he becomes haunted by the spirit of his dead ex-wife, who was his most important muse. The ghost of the ex-wife then causes all sorts of mischief in order for her ex-husband’s current marriage to fail.

In the “Blithe Spirit” remake, the person at the center of the love triangle is also the story’s protagonist: British writer Charles Condomine (played by Dan Stevens) is a successful crime novelist who has been hired by a major movie studio to write his first screenplay, which is based on one of his novels. Charles has been experiencing writer’s block, and he tries to hide his fear that he won’t finish the screenplay on time.

Charles’ loyal and adoring wife Ruth (played by Isla Fisher) tries to be as understanding as possible, but there’s an added layer of pressure for Charles to finish this screenplay: Ruth’s father Henry Mackintosh (played by Simon Kunz) is a high-ranking executive of the movie studio that has commissioned Charles to write the screenplay. Charles is writing a crime drama/thriller movie that the studio hopes to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock (played by Peter Rogers), a master filmmaker of suspenseful movies.

Other “celebrity cameos” in “Blithe Spirit” include appearances from Greta Garbo (played by Stella Stocker), Clark Gable (played by Jaymes Sygrove), filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (played by Colin Stinton) and notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (played by Georgina Rich), with none of these cameos adding much impact to the story. These cameos happen when Charles visits the famed production facility Pinewood Studios in Iver, England, and when he goes to Hollywood.

You can tell already that the “Blithe Spirit” movie remake did not stay true to the original play and movie, which had a small cast of characters and a small number of locations. The “Blithe Spirit” movie remake overstuffs the story with too many characters and jumps around in too many places. It’s as if the filmmakers wanted to distract viewers with a bunch of gimmicky scenes that are new to this “Blithe Spirit” movie remake, as a smokescreen for the sad reality that this movie doesn’t have the verve of the original “Blithe Spirit.”

The vengeful ex-wife who comes back to haunt Charles is his first wife Elvira (played by Leslie Mann), who got divorced from Charles before she died in a horse-jumping competition. Elvira is supposed to be shrewish and seductive, so that when she reappears in Charles’ life, he has a hard time resisting her manipulations. In this “Blithe Spirit” remake, Elvira is American (she was British in the other versions), presumably because Mann, who is American in real life, couldn’t or didn’t want to do a British accent for the movie.

Mann has been typecast in several movies, because she usually plays a character who’s a mild-mannered suburban American mother. Mann has a sing-song tone to her speaking voice that sounds like she could be a kindergarten teacher. And so, movie audiences might find it hard to believe Mann in the role of a spiteful and homicidal ex-wife who doesn’t hesitate to plot the death of her rival Ruth.

The role of Elvira needed to be played by someone who is a more convincing femme fatale but who also has the talent to carry this role with comedic charisma. So although Mann is talented, she is miscast in this role because she doesn’t come across as the least bit dangerous throughout the movie. Stevens portrays Charles as an egotistical, insecure buffoon who won’t find much sympathy with viewers of this movie. Fisher has the most thankless role as Ruth, who’s supposed to be the “good wife,” but even Ruth’s patience gets tested by Charles’ erratic shenanigans.

At the beginning of “Blithe Spirit,” the passion has all but disappeared from Charles and Ruth’s nearly five-year marriage. (Ruth and Charles do not have children together, and neither did Charles and Elvira.) And now, Charles is stressed-out over finishing a screenplay that he has problems even starting. He doesn’t like distractions when he’s writing, so this need for isolation causes even more discontent and alienation in his marriage to Ruth.

Ruth notices Charles’ sullen mood over his writer’s block and says to him: “You’ve been commissioned to write a 90-page screenplay, not ‘War and Peace.’ I don’t see how it can be problematic to adapt a story you’ve already written.”

Ruth continues, “I’m sorry, Charles. I just don’t know how long I can go on like this, with you stuck in an imaginary world and me alone in the real one. I miss you. I miss us.” Charles replies, with a hint of guilt. “So do I.”

This “Blithe Spirit” remake tries to appeal to a modern audience by putting more sex and drugs in the story but without anything that’s too raunchy. Early on in the movie, it’s mentioned that part of the reason why Charles and Ruth’s marriage is faltering is because he has erectile dysfunction. Charles talks about it with his close friend Mr. Bradman (played by Julian Rhind-Tutt), a doctor who gives Charles some benzedrine pills that Bradman says should solve the problem. Charles is hesitant, but Bradman says he’s been taking the same pills and it’s done wonders for his energy and sex life.

And so, Charles takes benzedrine and suddenly has a burst of energy that catches Ruth off guard. He takes her on a bicycle ride in a wooded area and vigorously pedals as if he’s in contestant in a bike race. And later, Ruth is pleasantly surprised to find out that Charles is interested in reviving their sex life, and he’s a more enthusiastic lover than he was in recent months. There’s no explicit sex in the movie, but the sexual activity is either depicted in mild sex scenes or talked about in the story.

With Charles and Ruth’s marriage seemingly back on track to becoming happy again, they go on a double date with Bradman and his wife (played by Emilia Fox) to a theater stage show to see a well-known psychic named Madame Cecily Arcati (played by Judi Dench). The Bradmans don’t have first names in this version of “Blithe Spirit,” but they are called George and Violet in previous versions. Charles doesn’t really take this psychic/fortune teller show seriously and only goes out of slight amusement and curiosity.

Also in the audience are two of Charles and Ruth’s servants: maid Edith (played by Aimee-Ffion Edwards) and cook Edna (played by Michele Dotrice), who have the cheap seats down below, while the Condomines and the Bradfords have top-tier balcony tickets. Most of what Edith and Edna do in the movie is react to Charles’ increasingly unhinged state of mind the more that Elvira irritates him. Some of the other people who are seen in the Condomine house are the couple’s other friends who are written as vague characters who don’t have much to say and only show up when there’s a house party.

“Blithe Spirit” tries to infuse some slapstick comedy by having Madame Arcati fall from a rope during a levitating trick in front of the audience. This mishap leads to her being exposed as a fraud, which causes an uproar from audience members. Many of the people in the crowd demand refunds. It’s a rather unnecessary scene, unless you were really waiting your whole life to see a movie with a Judi Dench stunt double taking a humiliating tumble on stage.

While all this chaos is going on, Charles sneaks backstage to talk to Madame Arcati in her dressing room. He introduces himself as a crime writer and tells Madame Arcati: “Like me, you occasionally have to employ artistic license to entertain the masses.” Madame Arcati responds with a “poor me” tone of voice when she talks about her audiences: “They expect me to deliver a spectacle, a transcendental miracle, night after night.”

Madame Arcati is embarrassed over her fiasco performance, which caused her to lose money due to all the refunds. Her shame is somewhat alleviated when Charles gives her another job opportunity, albeit a temporary one. Charles asks Madame Arcati to do a private séance at his home. He tells her that he, his wife Ruth and “influential guests” will be attending the séance. Madame Arcati willingly obliges.

Charles is hoping that the séance will inspire ideas for his writing and and possibly help him get over his writer’s block. The Condomines and Bradfords don’t take the séance that seriously until some spooky things start happening. Madame Arcati says that the spirit in the room wants to contact Charles. And then, Madame Arcati convulses and the room’s French windows blow open.

Madame Arcati is visibly shaken when she leaves the house. However, the couples have a laugh over what happened. Ruth and Charles won’t be laughing when they find out that the séance has conjured up the spirit of Elvira, who doesn’t waste time in trying to wreck Charles and Ruth’s marriage. First, Elvira tries to drive Ruth crazy, and then Elvira turns to more devious methods to get Ruth out of Charles’ life.

While all of this is happening, Charles is the only one who can see Elvira’s ghost. And so, much of the contrived comedy in “Blithe Spirit” is about Charles talking to Elvira, but other people think he’s going crazy because he looks like he’s talking to himself. Another scenario that happens frequently is that Charles says something insulting to Elvira, but someone in the room thinks Charles is actually saying the insult to them. Tension and arguments then ensue.

Elvira can be maddening to Charles, but she also inspires him and gives him some of his best ideas. It should come as no surprise that Charles overcomes his writer’s block with Elvira’s help. However, Elvira wants credit for her contributions, and that leads to more conflicts between Charles and Elvira. And that’s apparently an excuse for this cringeworthy line to be in this movie, when Charles utters to Elvira: “What am I supposed to say? That I have a ghost writer?”

Charles has unresolved love/hate feelings toward Elvira, so there’s a lot of back-and-forth over whether or not he wants to save his marriage to Ruth or end it. Elvira makes it clear that she wants Charles all to herself. Does this movie really expect people to believe that Elvira’s can come fully back to life, not just as a vision that only Charles can see?

Yes, it does, because later in the story, Madame Arcati becomes the second person who can see the ghost of Elvira, and she has this declaration about Elivra’s spirit: “If the returning spirit feels welcome, it can gradually become physically substantial.” There are some catty showdowns between the main female characters in the movie, but no real suspense or compelling dialogue.

For example, this is the type of bland comment that Elvira gives when she tries to threaten Madame Arcati: “I’ll haunt you until the day I die!” For someone who’s supposed to be a great writer, Elvira can’t even say things that are very witty, due to the lackluster screenwriting for this movie.

The 1945 movie version of “Blithe Spirit” starred Rex Harrison as Charles Condomine; Constance Cummings as Ruth Condomine; Kay Hammond as Elvira Condomine; and Margaret Rutherford as Madame Arcati. There was a natural-looking rapport that the actors had with the dialogue that’s missing from this “Blithe Spirit” remake. Oftentimes, the actors in this “Blithe Spirit” remake give little pauses as if they’re expecting it to be filled by a laugh track. And the slapstick comedy in this remake isn’t that special.

This version of “Blithe Spirit” has unnecessary detours in the plot, including Madame Arcati going to the London Spiritual Alliance and asking national director Harry Price (played by James Fleet) for help. He refuses because she’s been suspended from the alliance because of the con job at the theater were the audience demanded refunds. The Harry Price character is an example of a new character that ends up being irrelevant to this story.

Madame Arcati is a widow who lives alone and talks to her dead husband Donald as if he were still alive. Donald is mentioned enough times that you just know that there’s a reason for it in this movie. Madame Arcati is written as a watered-down character that vacillates between being assertive and pathetic. It’s the kind of unchallenging, shallow role that Dench can do in her sleep. Viewers of this monotonous movie might also be put to sleep.

A scene that’s new to the remake is a prank that Elvira plays on Ruth, when Elvira spikes Ruth’s drink with Charles’ benzedrine during a party that the Condomines are having in their home. Ruth has no idea, of course, and she ends up getting high out of her mind, stripping to her underwear in front of the guests, and getting frisky with Charles in the bedroom during the party. There’s some ghostly voyeurism that Elvira has with Ruth and Charles, but it comes across as creepy, not hilarious.

The filmmakers of “Blithe Spirit” clearly wanted to make this a sexier version of the play and original movie, but they also wanted to keep the movie “family friendly.” And so, the result is a comedy that tries to be adult-oriented but is toned down to the point of blandness, in order for it not to be inappropriate for underage children. It’s as wishy-washy as Charles’ decision making in this love triangle.

Adding to the misfires in this version of “Blithe Spirit” is Simon Boswell’s annoying musical score that sounds like it was made for a TV sitcom, not a movie that’s supposed to take place in 1937. The reality is that “Blithe Spirit” is not the type of movie that’s going to appeal to underage kids anyway. And so, if the filmmakers wanted this “Blithe Spirit” to be sexier than previous versions, it should’ve just gone all in with some clever raunchiness and with a better-quality screenplay.

Movie audiences don’t mind remakes/reboots if these remakes/reboots bring a lot of fresh ideas while staying true to some of the basics that the original project had. Sadly for this version of “Blithe Spirit,” it wallows in stale concepts that wouldn’t even past muster in mediocre comedies made for television. It seems as if Charles Condomine’s writer’s block extended to this movie’s screenplay, which is lacking in the spark and wit that made the original “Blithe Spirit” (the play and the movie) such a treat.

IFC Films released “Blithe Spirit” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021.

Review: ‘The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,’ starring Paul Hogan

March 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Paul Hogan (center) in “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee”

Directed by Dean Murphy 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, Melbourne and London, the comedic film “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos) portraying people who are connected in some way to Australian actor Paul Hogan, who’s best known for his “Crocodile Dundee” movies

Culture Clash: The movie is supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek satire of all the things that go wrong when Hogan tries to make a comeback.

Culture Audience: “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Hogan, but everything about this movie is a colossal mistake.

Paul Hogan and John Cleese in “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” is a very meta and misguided sequel in the “Crocodile Dundee” comedy franchise, made famous by star Paul Hogan, beginning with the 1986 blockbuster “Crocodile Dundee,” the first movie in the series. That movie was followed by 1988’s “Crocodile Dundee II” and 2001’s “Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles,” with each sequel worse than its predecessor. Unfortunately, the “Crocodile Dundee” movie series is like a good meal that went rotten years ago, then retrieved from the trash, and then served up to people who never asked for this stinking mess in the first place.

In the other “Crocodile Dundee” movies, Hogan played the title character as a crocodile hunter from Outback Australia who finds himself out of his comfort zone in urban environments. In “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” (directed by Dean Murphy, who co-wrote the movie’s embarrassing screenplay with Robert Mond), Hogan ditches the Crocodile Dundee persona and portrays himself as a has-been actor who hasn’t been able to surpass his “Crocodile Dundee” success with anything else, and he’s persuaded to make a comeback.

You just know it’s going to be a dumb movie when Hogan’s Paul character is supposed to be getting knighted by the Queen of England. That’s something that would not happen to Hogan in real life. But it’s used as a silly plot device in the “race against time” aspect that comes toward the end of the film, which takes place mostly in Los Angeles, but also partially in Melbourne and in London.

It’s repeated throughout “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” that the first “Crocodile Dundee” movie was the highest-grossing independent film at that time. It’s mentioned so many times that it’s irritating, as if the filmmakers want to desperately remind viewers why Hogan was a big movie star back in the 1980s. In the movie though, Paul has a not-very-convincing “aw, shucks” humble attitude about his fame. His character claims that he’s been trying to retire for the past 20 years. Not really, because the real Paul Hogan did this very corny mess of a film as a possible comeback vehicle.

In “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,” Paul is a bachelor who lives in Los Angeles with his Golden Retriever dog Paddy as his only companion. The movie didn’t get too meta, because there’s no mention of the real-life Hogan’s messy divorces, including one from his former “Crocodile Dundee” co-star Linda Kozlowski. In “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee,” Paul’s manager/agent is Angie Douglas (played by Rachael Carpani), whose late father used to be Paul’s manager and was the founder of the Douglas Management Team.

Angie is very excited to tell Paul that in six weeks, he will be knighted by the Queen of England. In the lead-up to this big event. Angie thinks it would be a good idea for Paul to get as much publicity and job opportunities as possible. This comeback attempt results in Paul making a series of disastrous public appearances that are supposed to be funny for this movie but the comedy is just dull and poorly executed.

Paul has a son his early 20s called Chase (played by Jacob Elordi), whose vaguely written and brief role in the movie just seems to be about displaying his toned physique, since Chase is shown leading a workout class in Paul’s backyard. Paul and Chase do not have a convincing father/son bond in the film, even though they’re supposed to have a good relationship with each other. Therefore, it seems that Elordi was just put in the film so the movie could attract viewers who know him for “The Kissing Booth” movies.

Paul also has a 9-year-old granddaughter named Lucy (played by Charlotte Stent), who lives in Australia. (Lucy’s parents are not seen, heard or mentioned in the film.) In one scene in the movie, Paul does a video chat with Lucy, who is rehearsing for her school play. Lucy and Paul adore each other, but she’s a little sad that he won’t be able to see her in her play because it’s on the same day of his knighthood ceremony in London.

Several real-life celebrities portray themselves in this movie. Some have supporting roles, while others have quick cameos. Olivia Newton-John has a supporting role as a friend of Paul’s. She invites Paul and Angie to a “Grease” charity event that she’s hosting with John Travolta. The real Travolta was smart enough to stay away from this movie, so don’t expect any surprise cameos from him. A fictional nun named Sister Mary Murphy (played by Dorothy Adams) runs the charity that’s supposed to benefit from the “Grease” event.

John Cleese does a parody of himself, as a washed-up comedian who’s become a rideshare driver to pay his bills. Guess who ends up being Paul’s driver in this movie? Cleese’s immense talent is squandered in this very tacky role that makes him look like a fool. Chevy Chase portrays himself in scenes where he meets up with Paul in restaurants, offers advice, and gets more praise and attention than Paul does. All of these scenes are uninteresting and often awkward.

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” pokes fun at Hogan’s “has-been status” in a scene where he’s visiting a movie studio lot while a group of tourists are nearby on a guided tour. The tour guide points out Hogan to the tourists, but they don’t care. This happens a few more times in other places, but this stale and unimaginative joke wasn’t even that funny the first time it was in the movie.

Another running gag in the movie that falls flat is that a group of fast-talking producers keep approaching Paul in various places to persuade him to do another “Crocodile Dundee” movie. One of these producers suggests that Will Smith could play Paul’s son in this proposed movie. Paul says no for a reason that’s obvious, but no one but Paul says it out loud in these meetings: Will Smith is black. When Paul says it, the producers act horrified and tell Paul that he comes across as racist.

Paul being misunderstood as “racist” is used in another badly written scene, where John drives Paul to the “Grease” charity event, but John accidentally drops Paul off at the fictional Black Talent Awards, which is supposed to be like the BET Awards. In a live TV interview on the red carpet, Paul says to the reporter: “I’m here to help the little people. I’m here to help those less fortunate than I am.”

Naturally, Paul’s condescending remarks come across as racist. And since he said these comments live on TV, he gets immediate backlash on social media and on the red carpet. Before things get more hostile for Paul at this award show, John sheepishly goes up to Paul and tells him that the “Grease” charity event is actually at another building nearby. The movie makes Paul look so clueless that he didn’t notice all the Black Talent Awards logos when he arrived on the red carpet.

More mishaps occur that make Paul look like he’s rude to unsuspecting people, but they’re really just “accidents.” There’s an incident where he’s accused of being cruel to tourist children. And then at the “Grease” charity event, Paul ends up on stage, and there’s a disruption involving a flying object that hits Sister Mary, and he gets blamed for it. All of these gags are so dumb, contrived and the epitome of horrendous slapstick.

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” also introduces a very annoying and unnecessary character named Luke Clutterbuck (played by Nate Torrence), a self-described “mama’s boy” who’s originally from Indiana. Luke was a wedding photographer in Indiana, until he decided to move to Los Angeles to become part of the paparazzi. Paul first meets Luke when Luke falls out of a tree in Paul’s backyard, in Luke’s desperate attempt to get paparazzi photos. Luke gets more and more insufferable as the story goes on.

Wayne Knight portrays a version of himself, as a theater actor who asks Paul for a temporary place to stay because Wayne’s wife Carol (played by Julia Morris) has kicked Wayne out of their house. Wayne is rehearsing for an upcoming musical, so there are some excruciating scenes of Paul being interrupted or frustrated by Wayne loudly singing or doing other musical-related things in the house at inconvenient moments. It’s the type of comedy that most sitcoms would reject.

Australian actors Luke Hemsworth, Costas Mandylor and Luke Bracey all have cameos as themselves doing red-carpet interviews. Australian comedian Jim Jeffries also portrays himself in a quick appearance. They either praise or give mild insults about Paul. Nothing is funny in these bits.

And it should come as no surprise that bachelor Paul gets a potential love interest. Olivia sets him up on a blind date with someone she knows named Ella (played by Kerry Armstrong). Paul quips, “I haven’t been on a date since a man walked on the moon.” That’s news to Hogan’s real-life ex-wives.

“The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” is so badly made that it seems like many of the celebrities in the movie might have committed to it without seeing the script first and/or did the movie as a big favor to Hogan. No one should tell Hogan when he should retire. But “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” is such an atrocious dud, it’s all the proof anyone needs that the “Crocodile Dundee” movie series needs to be retired once and for all.

Lionsgate released “The Very Excellent Mr. Dundee” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on December 11, 2020. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Coming 2 America,’ starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, KiKi Layne, Shari Headley and Wesley Snipes

March 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Bella Murphy, Akiley Love, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley, KiKi Layne and Paul Bates in “Coming 2 America” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures/Amazon Prime Video)

“Coming 2 America”

Directed by Craig Brewer

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional African country of Zamunda and briefly in the New York City borough of Queens, the comedy sequel “Coming 2 America” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with a few white people) representing African royalty, working-class Africans and Americans of various classes.

Culture Clash: An African royal, who is shamed for not having a male heir, finds out that he has an illegitimate American son, who is brought to Africa to be groomed as an heir to the throne.

Culture Audience: “Coming 2 America” will appeal primarily to fans of 1988’s “Coming to America,” but this sequel lacks the charm of the original movie.

Wesley Snipes, Jermaine Fowler and Leslie Jones in “Coming 2 America” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures/Amazon Prime Video)

The comedy film “Coming 2 America,” which is the sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America,” is a perfect example of a movie that was not worth the wait. It’s a dull and disappointing mess that trashes or wastes the character relationships that made the “Coming to America” a crowd-pleasing hit. Co-stars Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, who were a dynamic duo in “Coming to America,” don’t have very many scenes together in “Coming 2 America.”

The new characters that are introduced in “Coming 2 America” are bland or obnoxious. An endearing romance/courtship that was at the heart of “Coming to America” is largely absent from “Coming 2 America,” which rushes a predictable relationship between a young couple who have almost no believable chemistry with each other. And “Coming 2 America” is filled with misogyny and racist stereotypes about black people, from a mostly white team of filmmakers.

The title of this dreadful and boring sequel shouldn’t have been “Coming 2 America.” It should have been titled “Shucking and Jiving in Zamunda.” That’s essentially what all the main characters do throughout this idiotic movie that takes place mostly in the fictional African country of Zamunda, not in America.

The “fish out of water” premise of culture shock that worked so well in “Coming to America” is muddled and mishandled in “Coming 2 America,” which was directed by Craig Brewer. This entire film looks like a tacky TV-movie instead of what it should have been: a cinematic triumph in comedy. (It’s easy to see why Paramount Pictures chose not to release “Coming 2 America” in theaters and sold it to Amazon Prime Video instead.) It doesn’t help that the movie’s musical score is schlocky sitcom music by Jermaine Stegall. Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield wrote the awful and lazy screenplay for “Coming 2 America.”

Murphy and Hall do their expected schticks of portraying various characters (some in prosthetic makeup), just like they did in “Coming to America.” It brings some mildly amusing moments that are fleeting and recycled. (The barbershop scene is back, and it’s not as funny as it was in the first “Coming to America” movie.) But these moments are not enough to save “Coming 2 America,” which is ruined by too many stale jokes that would’ve been outdated in 1988.

In fact, there’s almost nothing modern about “Coming 2 America,” except for some of the contemporary costumes. The song selections and musical numbers that are used as filler in this movie are straight out of the early 1990s, as if the filmmakers are trying to relive the music of their youthful days. And there are several celebrity cameos from African American entertainers, to distract from the movie’s silly plot. However, sticking a bunch of talented black people in front of the camera doesn’t make the writing and directing of “Coming 2 America” any less moronic and cliché.

In the beginning of “Coming 2 America,” Prince Akeem (played by Murphy) and his loyal sidekick/best friend Semmi (played by Hall) are living an uneventful life in Zamunda. Akeem and his American wife Lisa (played by Shari Headley)—who met, fell in love, and got married in “Coming to America”—are now celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, as well as peace and prosperity in Zamunda. Semmi is still portrayed as a bachelor who has nothing better to do with his life but to be Akeem’s glorified lackey.

Akeem and Lisa have three children, all daughters: eldest Meeka (played by KiKi Layne), who’s in her mid-to-late 20s, is the only daughter with a distinct personality, since she’s the most assertive and outspoken of the three. Middle teenage daughter Omma (played by Bella Murphy, one of Eddie Murphy’s real-life daughters) and youngest pre-teen daughter Tinashe (played by Akiley Love) don’t have much dialogue in the movie. Their only moments where they get to shine are in some choreographed fight scenes.

Lisa’s father Cleo McDowell (played by John Amos) has expanded his fast-food McDowell’s restaurant business to Zamunda. McDowell’s blatantly copies McDonald’s, even down to having a “golden arches” sign in the shape of the letter “M.” This copycat gag leads to a not-very-funny segment in the beginning of the movie about how much McDowell’s imitates McDonald’s. Cleo quips, “They’ve got Egg McMuffins. We’ve got Egg McStuffins.” That’s what’s supposed to pass as comedy in this horribly written film.

Oscar-winning “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter did the costumes for “Coming 2 America.” The costumes in “Coming 2 America” are among the few high points of the movie. Unlike “Black Panther,” which treated its female and male characters as equals, “Coming 2 America” is a parade of misogyny that makes the female characters look inferior to the male characters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The running “joke” in the film is that Zamunda is a socially “backwards” country with laws where women can’t be the chief ruler of the nation, and women can’t own their own businesses. The Zamundan culture is that women exist only to cater to men. Females can’t make any big decisions without the approval of the closest patriarch in her family. It’s sexism that could be ripe for parody, if done in a funny and clever way. But “Coming 2 America” bungles it throughout the entire movie, except for the end when a predictable decision is made to resolve a certain problem related to Zamunda’s sexist laws.

That decision is rushed in toward the very last few minutes of the movie. And it looks like what it is: the filmmakers’ way of pandering to feminism. However, this fake feminist plot development doesn’t erase all the ways that “Coming 2 America” marginalizes and “dumbs down” the women in the movie in a way that’s so foul and unnecessary.

“Black Panther” proved you don’t have to make black women in an African country look like they’re incapable of being smart and strong leaders. The “Coming 2 America” filmmakers try to rip off a lot of “Black Panther’s” visual style, but it’s all a smokescreen for the way “Coming 2 America” makes the African country of Zamunda (and therefore the people who live there) look like a very ignorant culture that’s behind the times.

In “Coming 2 America,” the “rank and file” black female citizens in Zamunda are just there to literally shake their butts in the dance routines; act as servants who are required to bathe or groom the royal men; or be preoccupied with marriage and/or motherhood. Akeem is shamed and ridiculed by a rival named General Izzi (played by Wesley Snipes) because Akeem has no male heirs. Izzi is portrayed as a cartoonishly buffoon villain who’s power-hungry and jealous of Akeem’s status as a royal heir.

In order to gain power in Zamunda, Izzi would rather form some kind of alliance with Akeem, instead of fighting Akeem. When Izzi storms the royal palace with an army of men, Izzi tells Akeem: “I came here for blood, but not the murder kind. Family blood, marriage blood.” Izzi suggests that Izzi’s son Idi (played by Rotimi Akinosho) marry Meeka, but Akeem rejects the offer.

Akeem’s widower father King Jaffe Joffer (played by James Earl Jones) thinks he’s going to die soon. And the king isn’t happy that Akeem doesn’t have a son. “The throne must pass to a male heir,” King Jaffe declares. Jones, who is a majestic presence in many other movies, has his talent squandered in “Coming 2 America,” which makes him look like a sexist old fool who doesn’t think any of his granddaughters could be worthwhile leaders.

Izzi tells Akeem that it’s too bad that Akeem doesn’t have a male heir, because Izzi think his daughter Bopoto (played by Teyana Taylor) would be a perfect match for any son of Akeem’s. And just like that, Semmi and a crotchety elderly man named Baba (played by Hall, who’s made to look like a tall, African version of Gollum) tell Akeem that he actually does have a son that Akeem didn’t know about for all of these years. Akeem doesn’t really believe it, until he’s reminded of something that happened when he and Semmi were in the New York City borough of Queens, during the time that the “Coming to America” story took place.

Meanwhile, King Jaffe announces, “My funeral should be spectacular. Let’s have it now, while I’m alive.” This was apparently an excuse for the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers to have one of several dance numbers in the movie as a gimmick to fill up time.

King Jaffe’s “funeral party” features Morgan Freeman introducing performances by En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa, who perform the 1993 hit “Whatta Man.” Also performing at the party is Gladys Knight, who is forced to embarrass herself in butchering her 1973 classic “Midnight Train to Georgia” because the filmmakers made her change the song to “Midnight Train to Zamunda.” At any rate, King Jaffe dies at the party (he falls asleep and doesn’t wake up), which is a good thing for Jones, because the less screen time he has in this garbage movie, the better.

After his father’s death, Akeem becomes king, but Akeem is now desperate to find a male heir. Akeem’s son (who is constantly called a “bastard” in this movie) was the result of a one-night stand that Akeem had in Queens. “Coming 2 America” then shows how this son was conceived. Akeem and Semmi, who were in Queens to look for a woman to marry Akeem, were at a nightclub, when Semmi spotted an American woman named Mary Junson (played by Leslie Jones) at the bar. (“Coming 2 America” uses flashbacks from “Coming to America” and some visual effects to recreate this moment.)

Semmi struck up a conversation with Mary and told her that he was working for an African prince who was looking for a bride. Mary takes one look at Akeem and doesn’t need any encouragement to hook up with Akeem. She invites Akeem back to her place. And as Akeem remembers it in the present day, Mary blew smoke from marijuana (which he calls “wild herbs”) in his face, thereby impairing his judgment.

Akeem describes Mary and his sexual encounter with her in this way: “A wild boar [Mary] burst into the room and rammed me and rammed me.” The sex is shown in a flashback in a very problematic scene, because it portrays Mary as someone who sexually assaulted Akeem. He definitely wasn’t a willing partner, by the way it’s portrayed in the movie, but it’s played off as something to laugh at in the movie. It makes Mary look like she’s so desperate for sex that she will incapacitate and rape a man.

And the dialogue in this sexual assault scene is just so cringeworthy. Before Mary attacks Akeem, she says to him, “I hope you like pumpkin pie, ’cause you goin’ to get a whole slice.” Mary can’t speak proper English in the movie because the filmmakers want to make her look as dumb and uneducated as possible.

It’s also downright sexist and racist to call a black woman a “boar,” which is an animal that is an uncastrated male swine. It doesn’t make it okay if another black person says this insult, just because he was paid to say it as an actor. It should be mentioned that two out of the three screenwriters of this crappy “Coming 2 America” screenplay are white. Had there been more black people on the filmmaking team, it’s doubtful that there would have been so many insulting and offensive portrayals of black people (especially black women) in this trash dump of a movie.

Portraying Mary as a desperate sexual assaulter isn’t the only problematic thing about this character. The entire character of Mary is problematic, because it’s all about reinforcing the worst negative stereotypes that movies and TV have about black women who are single mothers: loud, crude, stupid, broke/money-hungry and promiscuous. Mary (who doesn’t seem to have a job) calls herself a “ho” multiple times in the movie.

Akeem also calls Mary a “morally bereft” woman when he describes his memory of her. And when Akeem and Semmi inevitably go back to Queens to find Mary and the mystery son, Mary isn’t sure if Akeem is the father of her child. That is, until she finds out how rich Akeem is (Semmi accidentally drops open a suitcase full of cash in front of her), and suddenly Mary can’t wait to move to Zamunda and live in the royal palace.

The filmmakers go out of their way to make Mary as mindless and vulgar as possible. When Mary goes to Zamunda and she’s served caviar, she doesn’t know what this delicacy is and calls it “black mashed potatoes.” And in another scene in the movie, Mary shouts, “I am so hungry, I could eat the ass out of a zipper!”

Mary and Akeem’s son Lavelle Junson (played by Jermaine Fowler) is a good guy overall. But the filmmakers force a negative stereotype on him, by making him yet another black male who breaks the law. Lavelle and his Uncle Reem (played by Tracy Morgan, using the same shady clown persona that he usually has in his movies and TV shows) are ticket scalpers. Clearly, the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers wanted yet another ghetto stereotype of black people who commit illegal acts to make money.

“Coming 2 America” has a very racially condescending scene of Lavelle and Reem (who is Mary’s brother) at a corporate office on Lavelle’s 30th birthday. Lavelle is at this company (a firm called Duke & Duke) to apply for some kind of computer job. Lavelle tells Reem that he’s tired of having an unstable income from ticket scalping, and he wants to earn an honest living in a steady job. Reem thinks Lavelle is a dolt for wanting to get a legitimate job, and he asks Lavelle if he’s going to use his “white voice” in the interview.

In the interview with the firm’s racist scion named Calvin Duke (played by Colin Jost), Lavelle is subjected to a barrage of bigoted assumptions that are meant to make Lavelle feel inferior. When Calvin finds out that Lavelle was raised by a single mother who’s unemployed (she got laid off from her job), Calvin makes a snide remark: “They say that not having a dominant male figure at home is detrimental to a child.” There are some more racist insults (Calvin asks Lavelle if his mother is addicted to drugs or gambling), before the interview ends predictably, with Lavelle angrily telling Calvin he doesn’t want the job.

The thing is that even though the character of Calvin is supposed to represent white elitists who are racists, the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers do everything to make a lot of the movie’s black characters (especially Mary) the very degrading stereotype that racists like Calvin have of black people. And that’s why the movie’s job interview scene is very phony in its intentions to make it look like racists are most likely to be spoiled white rich kids. The reality is that people from all walks of life can be racists.

It turns out that Lavelle isn’t going to need a job because Akeem soon finds Lavelle (who’s scalping tickets outside of Madison Square Garden), introduces himself as Lavelle’s long-lost father, and tells Lavelle that his new identity is as a wealthy royal heir in Zamunda. Lavelle says he won’t move out of New York without his mother. And quicker than you can say “stupid comedy sequel,” Lavelle and Mary are in Zamunda. And this time, the Americans are the ones who are the “fish out of water.”

Lisa isn’t too happy that Akeem has a son that they didn’t know about until recently. However, she’s willing to forgive Akeem because Lavelle was conceived before Akeem met Lisa. Someone who is even less thrilled about Lavelle is Meeka, who sees Lavelle as a threat to any leadership power she hoped to inherit as a legitimate member of this royal family. The sibling rivalry scenes predictably ensue.

Meanwhile, Lavelle meets a hair stylist named Mirembe (played by Nomzamo Mbatha), who works for the royal family. She’s single and available, so you know where this is going. Mirembe changes Lavelle’s hairstyle from the Kid ‘n Play-inspired fade that he had in Queens to a short-cropped locks hairstyle that Erik Killmonger from “Black Panther” would wear, but with a rat tail braid in the back.

Mirembe says that she would love to open her own hair salon one day (her biggest inspiration is the 2005 movie “Beauty Shop”), but she’s sad and discouraged because the law in Zamunda doesn’t allow women to own their own businesses. Lavelle thinks this law is wrong and he promises her that when he has the power, he’s going to change the law. Lavelle and Mirembe are good-looking, but there’s no believable romantic spark between them, so their inevitable courtship is very boring.

The only thing that looks authentic between them is a meta moment when Mirembe and Lavelle have a conversation about which of the “Barbershop” movie is the best of the series, and how sequels usually aren’t as good as the original. Mirembe says, “This is true about sequels. Why ruin it?” If only the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers took that advice for this movie.

It should come as no surprise that the movie relies on the cliché of a love triangle. Now that Akeem has a male heir, Izzi ramps up the pressure for Bopoto to become Lavelle’s wife. Akeem is open to the idea after Bopoto does a sexy dance for the royal family while showing her ample cleavage. However, Bopoto is deliberately written as a submissive airhead. More than once in the story, Lavelle says he wants to be with an intelligent and independent-minded woman, so it’s obvious which woman he’ll choose in the love triangle.

Fowler has an appealing screen presence as Lavelle, but he’s hemmed in by a character that’s written as average and unremarkable. “Coming 2 America” is also very unfocused, since it can’t decide if the story should be more about the Lavelle/Mirembe romance or the Lavelle/Meeka rivalry. Truth be told, even though Layne plays Lavelle’s half-sister, her scenes with Fowler are more dynamic and have more energy than the scenes with Fowler and Mbatha. Layne’s considerable talents are underappreciated in “Coming 2 America,” because her Meeka character isn’t in the movie as much as people might think she should be.

Continuing with the fixation on early 1990s music, there’s another out-of-place musical number where people do a big sing-along to Prince’s “Gett Off,” led by Akeem’s servant Oha (played by Paul Bates). And there’s an atrociously written scene where Queen Lisa gets drunk with Mary at a party, and they start dancing to Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” This scene is supposed to make it look like Lisa is getting back in touch with her New York hip-hop roots.

But when they have Lisa and Mary repeat the lines, “Uppity bitch what?,” it just goes back to making the black women in this movie look like they have a ghetto mentality. It says a lot that the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers make the woman who is literally the movie’s black queen incapable of being completely dignified. They try to make it look like Lisa has been suppressing her “true” self as a trashy party girl, when Lisa was never that way in the first “Coming to America” movie. Almost all the black women in this movie are marginalized as either existing only in the story because they’re appendages to the men, as wives/love interests/sex partners, servants or daughters.

One of the signs of a creatively bankrupt movie is when it relies too much on celebrity cameos without bringing any genuine laughs. (John Legend sings during a mid-credits scene, and it’s a useless appearance that has no bearing on the movie’s story.) Trevor Noah makes a quick and inconsequential cameo as a TV newscaster named Totatsi Bibinyana of the Zamunda News Network.

Eddie Murphy, who is the main attraction for the “Coming to America” franchise, should have been a producer and/or writer of “Coming 2 America.” His company Eddie Murphy Productions helped finance the movie, but Murphy himself was not a credited producer responsible for the movie’s content and day-to-day operations. If he had been a producer or writer, Eddie Murphy could have brought better creative clout to this movie, which makes him do silly sketches that are way beneath his talent. The comedy and tone, including the slapstick scenes, are monotonous and unimaginative.

Lavelle goes through an initiation process that includes taming a tiger and a “circumcision” ritual that are ineptly written and filmed. As part of his “royal training,” Lavelle gets criticism from Semmi, who yells at him: “You walk like an American pimp!” Lavelle shouts back, “You dress like a slave from the future!”

Doing a high-profile, highly anticipated sequel such as “Coming 2 America” isn’t just about the paychecks. It’s about making good entertainment and a fairly accurate representation of cultures to make the story look relatable. And it should be about celebrating people, instead of making them demeaning caricatures that embody what racist and sexist bigots believe.

Amazon Prime Video will premiere “Coming 2 America” on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Love Sarah,’ starring Celia Imrie, Shannon Tarbet, Shelley Conn, Rupert Penry-Jones and Bill Paterson

February 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Celia Imrie, Shannon Tarbet and Shelley Conn in “Love Sarah” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

“Love Sarah”

Directed by Eliza Schroeder

Culture Representation: Taking place in London, the dramedy film “Love Sarah” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some people of Indian, Latino, African and Japanese heritage) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: A rising-star pastry chef dies before launching a bakery business, but her best friend, 19-year-old daughter and estranged mother decide to band together and open the bakery in her memory.

Culture Audience: “Love Sarah” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching sentimental and harmless dramas.

Shelley Conn and Rupert Penry-Jones in “Love Sarah” (Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films)

It might be a good idea not to watch “Love Sarah” when you’re hungry. The delectable pastries that are on display throughout this Comedy/drama movie are among the highlights of this good-natured but ultimately bland and predictable story. However, the acting performances are watchable, and the movie has its heart in the right place, so it can be recommended viewing for anyone who’s in the mood for an uplifting story about forgiveness and following dreams.

Directed by Eliza Schroeder and written by Jake Brunger, “Love Sarah” starts off with the heartbreak of three very different London women whose lives have been shaken up by the death of a loved one named Sarah Curachi. On the day that she died, Sarah (played by Candice Brown), who’s in her late 30s, is shown riding her bicycle on her way to the empty storefront that she has rented in Notting Hill with her best friend Isabella (played by Shelley Conn), who’s about the same age as Sarah. Isabella is waiting outside impatiently because Sarah is late.

Meanwhile, Sarah’s mother Mimi Curachi (played by Celia Imrie), a retired circus owner/performer who lives by herself, is writing a letter of apology to someone who’s obviously her daughter. Viewers find out later that the letter was supposed to be sent to Sarah, who is Mimi’s only child.

Sarah is a single mother to a 19-year-old aspiring ballet dancer named Clarissa Curachi (played by Shannon Tarbet), who sometimes goes by the nickname Lari. Clarissa is a bit of a rebel because even though she’s training to be a dancer, she regularly smokes marijuana and she’s irresponsible with money.

It’s not shown in the movie, but Sarah was accidentally hit by a car, so she never made it to the storefront that day. Sarah and Isabella, who went to culinary school together, were renting the space with plans to open a bakery. The movie shows how the three most important people in Sarah’s life cope with her death.

After Sarah’s death, Isabella is shown in a distressed meeting with a leasing agent named Clive (played by Andrew Davis). Isabella is upset because, as a co-signer on the lease, she’s still responsible for paying the rent. Sarah was the star chef in this business partnership. (Sarah was good enough to train with celebrity chef Ottolenghi, as Isabella mentions in the meeting.) Because Sarah died, the bakery’s investors pulled out of the business.

Isabella (who quit her job as an investment banker) has been draining her savings to pay the rent. Despite a lot of pleading, the landlord won’t let Isabella out of the lease until another renter can take over the lease. Isabella decides it’s up to her to find another renter. The rental space, which is unfurnished and run-down, is definitely a “fixer upper” that had been vacant for quite some time before Sarah and Isabella rented it. Therefore, it’s going to be a big challenge to find someone else to take over the lease.

Meanwhile, Clarissa is also going through some tough times. She’s grieving over her mother’s death and hasn’t been able to concentrate in her dance classes. One night, her live-in boyfriend Alex (played by Max Parker), who’s also a dancer in the same class, tells Clarissa that their relationship isn’t working anymore, and he breaks up with her. Apparently, Clarissa’s name was not on the lease, because Clarissa is the one who has to move out.

With nowhere to go, Clarissa breaks into the storefront and spends the night there. The next morning, she’s about to be possibly arrested by the police, who were notified that there was a break-in. Isabella is there with two cops when she notices that Clarissa is sleeping on the floor. Isabella tells the cops that she knows Clarissa and can vouch for her, so the police officers leave.

An embarrassed Clarissa tells Isabella that she’s homeless because of the break-up with Alex. Isabella says that Clarissa can temporarily stay at Isabella’s place, but Clarissa declines the offer because she knows that Isabella’s home is so small that the only place that Clarissa would be able to sleep is on the couch. Clarissa tells Isabella that there’s only one other person she can ask for a place to stay. They both know who it is, and they both are reluctant to be in contact with her.

Sarah’s mother Mimi had been estranged from Sarah when Sarah died. That estrangement also extended to Clarissa, who has been avoiding seeing her grandmother for about a year or more, according to the inevitable conversation that Clarissa has later with Mimi. The movie shows Mimi grieving by avoiding spending time with her friends who invite her to social outings, and by spending time alone at home watching old film footage of herself when she used to be a trapeze artist in the circus.

What did Mimi do that was so awful that her daughter and granddaughter didn’t want to be in contact with her? The answer is revealed later in the movie. And what Mimi did is not as bad as you might think it is.

However, there are other hints in the story that Mimi’s fractured relationship with Sarah had been a problem for years. As the owner of a circus, Mimi often had to travel, and Sarah felt neglected when she was growing up. Mimi also has a prickly and overly judgmental personality that makes it hard for people to get close to her. Sarah’s father is not mentioned in the story, but it’s implied that Mimi was a single mother when she raised Sarah.

Sarah repeated the same pattern, by raising Clarissa as a single mother with no father around to help. The identity of Clarissa’s biological father becomes a subplot to this movie. After Sarah’s death, Clarissa is shown looking at her own birth certificate and seeing that the space for the father’s name has the word “unknown.”

It’s not a surprise to Clarissa, because she’s apparently been told all of her life that her biological father wasn’t going to be a part of her life. But now that Sarah has died, Clarissa wants to find out who her father is. Isabella mentions to Clarissa that Sarah always told her that Clarissa’s father was someone whom Sarah barely knew. Sarah wasn’t even sure what his name was.

Isabella has gone back to her investment job, working in a corporate office. Her heart isn’t in it, but she needs the money. And as fate would have it, Isabella has found another renter for the storefront. It’s a man who wants to turn the space into a wine bar. But lo and behold, shortly before Isabella is about to close this deal to sign over the lease to someone else, Clarissa shows up at Isabella’s office and begs her not to give up on the bakery.

Isabella is practical and tells Clarissa that she can’t afford to launch the bakery. Clarissa tells Isabella that she knows how to get the money to launch the business. And that leads to the inevitable scene where Clarissa reunites with Mimi. At first, Mimi is wary of Clarissa’s sudden reappearance in her life. And Mimi correctly guesses that what Clarissa wants from Mimi has something to do with money.

However, Clarissa is able to convince Mimi to invest in the bakery because she says it will be a way to honor Sarah. They decide to call the bakery Love Sarah. And the next thing you know—in the unrealistic way that movies conjure up ultra-convenient scenarios—Clarissa, Mimi and Isabella suddenly have the skills work on Love Sarah’s interior design and construction together. The first time that Clarissa takes Mimi to the dilapidated storefront, she says excitedly, “You can definitely see its potential.” Mimi quips in response, “What, as a crack den?”

Because a movie like this usually likes to have some romance as part of the story, there are two men who each end up becoming a potential love interest—one for Isabella, and the other for Mimi. There’s the predictable trope of the men making the first move, and the women playing hard to get, but we all know how these storylines are going to end.

Mathew Gregory (played by Rupert Penry-Jones) was a culinary school classmate of Sarah’s and Isabella’s. He suddenly shows up at Love Sarah one day and says he’s no longer working as a chef of a two-star Michelin restaurant. He also announces to Isabella that he wants to be a chef with her at the bakery. Isabella isn’t very happy to see Mathew because he used to date Sarah in their culinary school days, but he cheated on Sarah, so the relationship ended. Therefore, Isabella has a hard time trusting Mathew.

Sarah, Mathew and Isabella went to culinary school 20 years ago. Clarissa knows that the timeline of when Sarah and Mathew dated matches the timeline of when Clarissa could have been conceived. Mathew knows it too, so there’s some drama over a DNA test that results in Clarissa finding out whether or not Mathew is her biological father. However, Clarissa isn’t the only reason why Mathew wants to work at the bakery.

Mimi catches the eye of a man named Felix (played by Bill Paterson), who’s around the same age as she is. He lives in a building that’s directly across the street from the bakery. Mimi first notices Felix looking out his window at her while she’s at the bakery. After the bakery opens, Felix stops by and introduces himself as an inventor.

Felix is a little bit of an eccentric, and he tells Mimi, Isabella and Clarissa (who are all working at Love Sarah) that he’s invented a top-notch security system. Felix offers his services to install the security system because he says there have been break-ins and burglaries in the area. But it’s pretty obvious from the way he acts (he makes it known that he’s single and available) that the security system is just an excuse to try to get to know Mimi better. It should come as no surprise that she eventually warms up to his attention.

“Love Sarah” has a few very corny moments, such as when the spirit of Sarah is seen looking into the bakery and smiling at all the activity taking place. Fortunately, this ghostly appearance is only fleeting, because the last thing this movie needed was to turn into a “Ghost” ripoff, with Sarah appearing reincarnated in the bakery kitchen to guide the chefs in making the pastries. There’s also a very formulaic plot development where a would-be couple gets together, then has a falling out over a lie/misunderstanding, and then the person who feels betrayed has to decide if the other person deserves another chance.

All of the actors play their roles solidly and convincingly, but this movie isn’t going to win any awards. Some parts of the movie drag in a sluggish manner, so the pacing would’ve improved with better dialogue and more interesting things happening in the bakery. And there are some antics that Mathew does that are a little ridiculous and borderline stalker-ish, in his attempt to impress someone in the story.

Another flaw is how the movie clumsily handles Clarissa’s dreams of becoming a dancer. Clarissa’s work to become a professional dancer is shown in the beginning of the movie as a big part of her identity. And then, she’s not shown dancing at all when she decides to work full-time in the bakery. It’s as if the movie doesn’t want to explain how she handled not being in dance classes anymore because she had to be at Love Sarah. It’s not until the end of the movie that Clarissa’s identity as a dancer is hastily brought back up again, almost as an afterthought.

“Love Sarah” has a lot of sentimentality, but it isn’t a completely squeaky-clean movie, since there’s some occasional cursing in the film. For people interested in an overall feel-good movie, “Love Sarah” is a pleasant diversion. And it’s sure to delight foodies who love pastries because there’s an enticing variety that’s on display.

Samuel Goldwyn Films released “Love Sarah” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on January 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Breaking News in Yuba County,’ starring Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina, Wanda Sykes, Juliette Lewis, Samira Wiley and Regina Hall

February 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Allison Janney in “Breaking News in Yuba County” (Photo courtesy of Anna Kooris/MGM)

“Breaking News in Yuba County”

Directed by Tate Taylor

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. Southern city of Stanlow, the dark comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A lonely, middle-aged woman pretends that her philandering criminal husband has been kidnapped (even though he really died of a heart attack), so that she can get sympathy and attention.

Culture Audience: “Breaking News in Yuba County” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Allison Janney and to people who don’t mind watching incoherent movies about people behaving badly.

Allison Janney, Mila Kunis and Regina Hall in “Breaking News in Yuba County” (Photo Anna Kooris/MGM)

Oscar-winning actress Allison Janney has worked with director Tate Taylor in all of his feature films so far, and she usually plays supporting or minor characters in these movies. The dark and violent comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County” is the first Taylor-directed film where Janney is front and center as the movie’s lead character. And it’s a dreadful misstep not only for Taylor and Janney but also for everyone involved in this embarrassing mess. “Breaking News in Yuba County” (whose producers include Taylor and Jake Gyllenhaal) is proof that having a talented cast doesn’t automatically equal a good movie.

In “Breaking News in Yuba County” (whose horrendous screenplay was written by Amanda Idoko), Janney portrays Sue Buttons, a lonely woman who feels neglected and under-appreciated and goes to extreme lengths to get attention. The movie shows obvious signs that Sue doesn’t get the respect that she thinks she deserves, to try and make her look sympathetic. But her personality and actions are so off-putting (and so are almost all of the characters in this stinker film) that the movie’s attempts to be comedic are pathetic and monotonous.

“Breaking News in Yuba County” takes place in an unnamed U.S. state in the South, in a fictional city called Stanlow, located in Yuba County. In the movie’s opening scene, viewers see Sue listening to motivational affirmations on her iPod as she goes to a supermarket. She repeats these mantras several times throughout the movie: “My story matters. I am enough. I am confident.” Sue’s self-directed pep talks do little to change the way that the outside world treats her. And something happens on her birthday that causes her to snap and go from being a mild-mannered, law-abiding citizen to being a stone-cold, heartless fraudster.

She arrives at the grocery store to pick up her small birthday cake, which is inscribed with the words “Happy Birthday, Sue.” But Sue notices that the “e” looks more like a “c.” She points out this mistake to the pastry worker behind the counter, with a tone of voice implying that she wants the error corrected. But the worker just ignores Sue’s attempt to assert herself and asks if Sue is paying by cash or credit.

Sue is married to a corrupt banker named Karl (played by Matthew Modine), who’s first seen at their home talking dirty to a woman whom he plans to meet later for a sexual tryst. Sue doesn’t know about this affair but she’ll soon find out on her birthday. She’ll also find out later about her husband’s illegal activities. In the meantime, Sue has made plans for her and Karl to have a romantic dinner at a restaurant on her birthday.

But as soon as she arrives home, Karl is out the door to go meet up with his mistress. Meanwhile, Sue takes her birthday cake and makes the correction on the letter “e” herself. She then goes to her job, a place called Sidewinder Safety Tubs, where she works in customer service at a call center. The only work on the job that the movie shows her doing is taking one phone call from a rude customer who curses at her.

Considering all the ludicrous shenanigans that Sue gets up to later that take up all of her time, the movie shouldn’t have bothered showing her having a job at all. This movie is so badly written that it’s never explained how Sue took all the time off from work that she takes to try to cover up her web of lies. But the filmmakers seem to assume that everyone who’s watching this movie is as idiotic as the characters.

Sue just happens to be driving near a motel when she sees Karl’s car parked outside. She gets out and sees him holding some flowers and going into a motel room while calling a woman inside “honey” before he shuts the door. An alarmed Sue goes to the motel’s front desk and correctly assumes that the room is reserved in Karl’s name. Sue tells the front desk clerk that she’s his wife and pretends to have accidentally locked herself out of that room, so she asks for a spare key.

Sure enough, when Sue lets herself into the motel room, Karl is having sex with another woman, whose name is Leah Norton (played by Bridget Everett), whom Sue has never met before. Sue gets angry, while Karl and Leah are naturally startled and horrified at being caught. Karl is so surprised that he falls off the bed, has a heart attack, and dies.

While Leah is freaking out and babbling, Sue finds out that Leah is also married. She slaps Leah and tells her that she will inform Leah’s husband about Leah’s cheating if Leah doesn’t leave the motel immediately. Sue also tells Leah that Sue will take care of the problem of Karl’s dead body. Leah doesn’t hesitate to quickly leave the motel.

Instead of being upset that Karl is dead, Sue forlornly says out loud as she sits on the bed, “You forgot my birthday.” Sue then hatches a plan to bury the body in a lot near the motel. This movie is so stupid, that it shows Sue digging the grave in plain view where anyone could have easily seen her. But there would be no “Breaking News in Yuba County” if she were caught that quickly and easily.

Meanwhile, Sue doesn’t find out until after Karl dies that he was involved in a money-laundering scheme with some local criminals, who used Karl to launder millions of dollars. The people in this illegal enterprise are a ruthless crime boss named Mr. Kim (played by Keong Sim); his sometimes-bungling daughter Mina (played by Awkafina), who tries to be as tough as her father; a menacing, trigger-happy thug named Ray (played by Clifton Collins Jr.); and Karl’s younger brother Petey (played by Jimmi Simpson), who’s been trying to leave his criminal life behind.

Petey works as a salesperson at a furniture store named Rita’s, owned by a sassy lesbian named Rita (played by Wanda Sykes), who manages the store with her equally feisty live-in girlfriend Debbie (played by Ellen Barkin). Rita and Debbie know that Petey has a criminal background, but he’s told them that he’s trying to “go straight” and stay out of trouble. Debbie is often suspicious of Petey and sometimes accuses him of stealing from the store. Meanwhile, Rita has a friendly rapport with Petey, and she strangely tells Petey that she wouldn’t mind too much if he was caught stealing because she would understand that he would be stealing out of desperation.

Sue is fixated on a local news/public affairs TV program called “The Gloria Michaels Show,” which has been doing constant coverage of a missing 13-year-old girl named Emma Rose. After Sue has buried Karl’s body, she goes home and watches the show. She has a silent “a-ha” moment when she sees Emma Rose’s parents Jonathan and Robin (played by Michael A. Newcomer and Liz Elkins Newcomer) being interviewed by host Gloria Michaels (played by Juliette Lewis), who tells the distraught parents that they have the unwavering support of the community in finding Emma Rose. Gloria is a TV personality who’s a mix of Nancy Grace and Deborah Norville, even down to having the same type of blonde bob hairstyle and Southern accent.

Sue decides that she can get the public’s sympathy and attention if she pretends that Karl is missing. Sue calls the restaurant to cancel the dinner reservation by saying that her husband isn’t feeling well. It’s a discrepancy (and plot hole) that a good investigation team would be able to uncover when Sue later reports that Karl is missing. She foolishly claimed that Karl disappeared during the time she said that he was too “sick” to go to the restaurant. Another big plot hole is that Sue never bothers to contact anyone to try to look for Karl. But, of course, this movie has incompetent cops who investigate and overlook many of these things that would expose her lies.

Sue goes to the local police station to report Karl’s disappearance, but the officer on duty, Detective Cam Harris (played by Regina Hall), is impatient and dismissive, especially when Sue tells her that Karl has been missing for less than 48 hours. Detective Harris doesn’t file a report and instead advises Sue to ask Karl’s friends and relatives if they know where he is, because many missing spouses usually have just gone somewhere without telling their spouses. Once again, Sue feels ignored and disrespected.

The gravity of what Sue has done begins to sink in with her. When she goes home, she has a meltdown and starts trashing her house. She picks up the birthday cake, as if she’s going to destroy it too, but she can’t bring herself to do it. It’s symbolic of how she’ll take extreme measures later in the story to save herself and destroy others, just so she won’t be exposed for committing the crimes of illegal disposal of a corpse and lying to the police.

Sue has a younger half-sister named Nancy (played by Mila Kunis), who comes over to visit shortly after Sue has her meltdown. The house looks like it’s been ransacked, so Sue pretends to be distraught that Karl is missing. Sue also plays along with Nancy’s assumption that Karl was probably kidnapped during a home invasion.

It just so happens that Nancy is a highly ambitious and competitive TV reporter who works for a local station that’s a rival to the station that has “The Gloria Michaels Show.” Sue and Nancy see Karl’s “disappearance” as an opportunity to get media attention for themselves. Predictably, Nancy offers to interview Sue on TV about the “disappearance.” Nancy doesn’t really care that Karl could be missing; she just wants to get a “news scoop” over the competition.

This TV interview is the first time that Petey finds out that his older brother Karl is missing. And that’s a problem because Karl had $3 million that he was supposed to launder, so now that money is missing too. In a panic, Petey tells Mina and Ray that he doesn’t know where Karl or the money is. And inexplicably, Mina decides to tell Petey that she and Ray have kidnapped Karl, so that they can extort $20,000 in ransom money from Petey. It’s a dumb decision by any standard, but it’s an example of how bad this movie is.

What follows is a convoluted and messy farce, with betrayals, more lies, and people inevitably getting killed in brutal ways. Detective Harris is the only cop on the case who gets suspicious of Sue. But Detective Harris is stonewalled by her dimwitted junior cop partner Officer Jones (played by T.C. Matherne) and their boss Captain Riggins (played by Dominic Burgess), who both think that Sue doesn’t seem like the type who could be a criminal mastermind. It’s a subtle commentary on how certain people, because of their physical appearance, are given a “privileged pass” with law enforcement.

The movie has a few supporting characters that don’t have much to do except be possible targets of violence. Petey has a pregnant girlfriend named Jonelle (played by Samira Wiley), who grows concerned at how strange he’s been acting lately. Her pregnancy only seems to be in the movie so there’s an inevitable scene of a pregnant woman in a vicious fight. And then there’s one of Karl’s bank colleagues named Steve (played by Chris Lowell), who doesn’t do much but act frightened when Mina and Ray predictably show up at the bank to look for Karl.

This type of low-quality movie usually has a cast of unknown actors. But it’s very disappointing to see how many talented and famous actors (who are all known for doing much better work elsewhere) are in this atrocious movie. Not even the action stunts are interesting to watch.

And the tone of the film is horribly uneven, as the actors do their performances as if they’re in very different films. Awkwafina, Barkin, Sykes, Kunis, Hall and Simpson act as if they’re in a goofy slapstick comedy. Matherene, Burgess, Wiley and Lowell act as if they’re in a serious drama. Janney, Lewis, Collins, Sim and Everett come closest to capturing the movie’s intended dark satire. Modine isn’t in the movie long enough for most viewers to care about his Karl character, who seems to be despicable anyway.

Almost as annoying as this movie’s characters is the music score by Jeff Beal, because it’s the epitome of sitcom smarm. Given how violent this movie is, the music is completely out-of-place and awkward, because it sounds like something that should be for an outdated family comedy series on TV. The overall direction of the movie is lazy, as if Taylor just let the actors do their own thing instead of having a cohesive tone for the film. And clearly, the filmmakers didn’t do enough to fix the many problems in the screenplay.

It seems as if “Breaking News in Yuba County” tried and failed to be like a Guy Ritchie crime film, by having a story where lawbreakers comically try to outdo each other in absurd ways, while they attempt to cover up everything and blame their misdeeds on other people. There are plenty of female-centric dark comedy satires that get all the elements right, including 2017’s “I, Tonya,” the movie that garnered Janney her Academy Award. Sometimes bad movies are fun to watch, but “Breaking News in Yuba County” is the type of irritating movie where viewers can’t wait for it to be over and won’t care what happens to the characters in the end.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “Breaking News in Yuba County” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘French Exit,’ starring Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges

February 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges in “French Exit” (Photo by Tobias Datum/Sony Pictures Classics)

“French Exit”

Directed by Azazel Jacobs

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and Paris, the comedy/drama “French Exit” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one black person and one Asian person) representing the wealthy, middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: An American socialite widow and her young adult son relocate from New York City to Paris after she loses her fortune.

Culture Audience: “French Exit” will appeal primarily to fans of star Michelle Pfeiffer and to people who like stories about drastic life changes, but the movie’s abrupt shift from realism into becoming a wacky supernatural story might annoy some viewers.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Danielle Macdonald, Valerie Mahaffey and Imogen Poots; (in back) Isaach de Bankolé, Michelle Pfeiffer and Susan Coyne in “French Exit” (Photo by Lou Scamble/Sony Pictures Classics)

The comedy/drama film “French Exit” starts out as a straightforward story about two Americans who’ve relocated to Paris, but then takes a bizarre turn that involves a psychic, a missing cat and a plot that becomes about reincarnation. Despite impressive performances from co-stars Michelle Pfeiffer and Lucas Hedges, “French Exit” is a messy, uneven film that tries to be too quirky for its own good. The characters in the movie act more and more ridiculous until the story reaches a very uninspired and tepid conclusion.

Directed by Azazel Jacobs and written by Patrick DeWitt (who adapted the screenplay from his 2018 novel of the same name), “French Exit” begins with a flashback scene of the story’s two main characters. Haughty socialite Frances Price (played by Pfeiffer) and her 12-year-old son Malcolm (played by Eddie Holland) hastily leave the boarding school where Frances has arrived to withdraw his enrollment. Frances has taken Malcolm back home to live with her in their spacious New York City townhouse.

The next time that viewers see Frances and Malcolm (played by Hedges), it’s now 12 years later. Frances’ husband Franklin (who was Malcolm’s father) has been dead for 12 years, and Frances has run out of the money that she inherited. She’s also been told that the house is in foreclosure and she’s going to be locked out of her home in a matter of weeks. It’s implied that either Franklin left behind a lot of debts that Frances (who is now 60 years old) could not pay and/or that Frances racked up a lot of debts on her own after Frank’s death. At one point in the movie, Frances says she’s never worked a day in her life and she has no intention of ever doing so.

After Frances gets over the shock and denial that she’s no longer wealthy and is about to be homeless, she takes her accountant’s advice to sell all of her jewelry, artwork and many other possessions, in order to get enough cash for the near future. Frances has almost no friends, but she has the good luck of having a socialite confidante named Joan (played by Susan Coyne), who generously offers her unused Paris apartment as a place for Frances and Malcolm to stay.

Frances accepts the offer, even though her pride is wounded by having to take this charitable handout. Frances is so broke that she can’t afford to pay the $600 salary that she owes to her maid Sylvia (played by Christine Lan), who demands to be paid in cash because Sylvia’s most recent paycheck from Frances was returned due to insufficient funds. Frances doesn’t have the cash, but Malcolm does, so he pays the $600 that’s owed. Sylvia isn’t going to be working for Frances for much longer anyway, because Frances has told Malcolm that they could be living in Paris “perhaps for the rest of our lives.”

Meanwhile, Malcolm is dealing with some problems in his love life. He has an on-again/off-again girlfriend named Susan (played by Imogen Poots), who’s slightly older and more emotionally mature than he is. Malcolm and Susan are secretly engaged, but he’s been afraid to tell his mother Frances. In fact, Malcolm tells Frances one day over breakfast that he and Susan are in a “holding pattern,” as in, his relationship with Susan is now on pause.

It becomes very obvious early on in the movie that Frances and Malcolm have a very co-dependent relationship. Frances is the type of domineering mother who probably doesn’t approve of anything that would result in Malcolm getting his own place and starting his own independent life. Just like his mother, Malcolm is somewhat of a loner. Unlike his mother, Malcolm is tactful when dealing with people and he doesn’t have a snobbish attitude.

Franklin is never seen in the movie in flashbacks, but his presence looms large over Frances and Malcolm, who talk about him often in this story. His voice is heard later in the movie, with Tracy Letts as the voice of Franklin. Based on what Frances and Malcolm say, Franklin was an emotionally distant and often-cruel husband and father. Frances mentions that her marriage to Franklin started off happy, but then it turned into a love/hate relationship.

Malcolm, who was never close to Franklin, only started to bond with Frances after she took Malcolm away from the boarding school. It’s implied that Frances only did so after Franklin died and she was lonely and needed someone else in the house to live with her. Malcolm is a socially awkward lost soul who clings to his mother for love but knows that his relationship with her can be very unhealthy.

Susan has been pressuring Malcolm to tell Frances that they are engaged, but he keeps postponing telling Frances this news. Malcolm and Susan are on the verge of breaking up when he tells Susan that he and his mother are moving to Paris the next day. Shocked and dismayed, Susan breaks up with Malcolm because she says there’s no point in continuing in the relationship if he’s going to live so far away. She also feels disrespected that Malcolm was keeping their engagement a secret from his mother.

And so, Frances and Malcolm pack up the modest number of their remaining possessions, including their black cat Small Frank, and head to Paris on a cruise ship. Before the trip, Frances converted all of their cash into euros to carry with her. And it’s a stash that gets smaller as the story continues.

During this journey across the Atlantic Ocean, Malcolm meets a woman who calls herself Madeleine the Medium (played by Danielle Macdonald), who works as a fortune teller on the ship. Frances first sees Madeleine giving bad news to an elderly woman, who is sobbing because Madeleine predicted that the woman would die soon. Malcolm is intrigued by Madeleine, and when he sees Madeleine alone at the ship’s bar one night, he strikes up a conversation with her.

At first, Madeleine is standoffish, but eventually she warms up to Malcolm, and they end up having a sexual tryst. She spends the night in the cabin that Malcolm shares with Frances. And the next morning, Frances seems unbothered by this overnight guest because she assumes that Madeleine is just a one-night stand.

And then, things get weird. At the ship’s bar, Malcolm meets a very drunk elderly man named Boris Maurus (played by Vlasta Vrana), who’s the ship’s doctor. Boris chuckles as he tells Malcolm that he wants to show Malcolm something on the ship. Where does Boris takes Malcolm? To the ship’s morgue. Boris explains to Malcolm that it’s not unusual for people to die on a cruise ship, but cruises never advertise this fact.

Boris also points out a recently deceased woman among the bodies and says that Madeleine had predicted that this woman would die. It’s the same woman whom Frances had seen sobbing during a fortune-telling session with Madeleine. Malcolm is predictably uncomfortable with being in the morgue, but he’s too polite to scold Boris for bringing him there. And so, Malcolm gives an awkward thank you to Boris and then makes a hasty exit. The main purpose of this scene, except for being morbid and creepy, is that it lets viewers know that maybe Madeleine’s psychic abilities are real.

When Frances and Malcolm arrive Paris, there’s a somewhat comical scene of them illegally smuggling in Small Frank through customs. (Frances gave the cat a tranquilizer that rendered the cat unconscious, so she’s able to hide the cat in her travel bag.) After Frances and Malcolm settle into Joan’s apartment, they mostly keep to themselves, simply because they don’t know anyone in the area. It’s not the first time Frances has been to Paris, but the last time she was there was when she was on a trip with Franklin in happier times.

Malcolm gets lonely and he calls Susan to invite her to visit him in Paris. He’s hurt and surprised to find out that she’s gotten back together with a boyfriend named Tom (played by Daniel di Tomasso), whom she dated when Susan and Tom were in college. Susan drops hints that it’s a rebound relationship on her part because she doesn’t want to be alone and because Tom is very much in love with her.

Malcolm reacts as if Susan has been cheating on him, by telling her that he still thinks of Susan as fiancée. It’s a hypocritical reaction, considering that Malcolm was acting very single and available when he hooked up with Madeleine. Malcolm also doesn’t tell Susan about Madeleine in this conversation. Susan is annoyed by Malcolm’s possessiveness, and she asks Malcolm not to contact her again.

When Malcolm and Frances first arrive in Paris, the movie drags a little in showing how bored and lonely they are. In one scene, Frances and Malcolm have lunch together in a fairly empty café. When they’re ready to leave, Malcolm asks the waiter to get the bill for the meal. The waiter rudely tells Malcolm to wait.

Malcolm and Frances watch as the waiter casually jokes around with a co-worker, as if he’s on a break and doesn’t need to attend to any customers. Frances gets visibly annoyed and then calmly puts some perfume on the small vase of flowers on the table, and then sets the flowers on fire. That definitely gets the waiter’s attention, and the horrified waiter can’t believe what he’s seeing. The waiter tells Frances that she’s crazy, as he and other employees rush to put out the fire, while Frances and Malcolm just sit there and smirk.

It’s a very unrealistic “only in a movie moment” (and there will be more to come as the story goes downhill), because in the real world, causing arson in a restaurant can get someone arrested. Perhaps this arson scene was supposed to make Frances look like a “badass” who doesn’t put up with anyone disrespecting her son. But it just makes her look mean-spirited and mentally unstable, with Malcolm as her enabler.

Malcolm and Frances soon meet someone who comes into their lives as a possible friend. Frances shows Malcolm a house party invitation from another American in Paris named Madame Renard (played by Valerie Mahaffey), a widow who used to run in the same New York City social circles as Frances. Malcolm and Frances go to the party at Madame Renard’s home and find out that they are the only guests.

It turns out that Madame Renard only invited the two of them to this party. Madame Renard confesses to Frances and Malcolm that she’s been lonely since her husband died and was hoping that she could become friends with Frances. Madame Renard gives effusive compliments to Frances and says that she’s always admired Frances from afar.

Even though it’s obvious that Madame Renard is feeling very emotionally vulnerable, Frances callously tells Madame Renard in a disgusted tone of voice that she’s not interested in being her friend and isn’t looking for any friends. Madame Renard looks crushed and embarrassed, while Malcolm makes a sincere apology for the way his mother is behaving.

Despite being insulted in her own home, Madame Renard invites Frances and Malcolm to stay for dinner. Frances eventually makes an apology to Madame Renard for being so rude, and makes the excuse that she’s going through a difficult time too. Madame Renard accepts the apology and she ends up spending more time with Frances and Malcolm.

Some viewers will have a hard time connecting to Frances and Malcolm, which is why “French Exit” isn’t the charming oddball movie that it wants to be. Frances is emotionally cold, usually selfish, and really isn’t that great of a mother. She also doesn’t seem to have any talent for anything. And she’s definitely not very smart, considering she had a lot of privileged advantages and yet ended up in this awful predicament at this stage in her life.

At one point in the movie, Frances declares: “My plan was to die before the money ran out.” It tells you a lot about how short-sighted, boring and empty her life is if all she has to show for it is an emotionally stunted son and a fortune she’s squandered (money that was earned by someone else, since Frances has never worked), thereby leaving her son’s future uncertain too. Most socialites at least have some hobbies, but Frances doesn’t seem to have any interests other than trying to be the center of attention and getting what she wants.

Malcolm is a man-child who’s fairly articulate and has good manners, but he’s completely sheltered from a lot of reality and wants to live in the same psychological “bubble” that Frances tries to use to shield herself from life’s harshest problems. He also doesn’t seem willing or concerned about finding a job to help with their financial problems. Frances is close to retirement age and has no job skills. But there’s no excuse for Malcolm, who’s young and healthy, for him not to try and find work. Is he really that lazy and incapable of problem solving? Apparently so.

An example of how socially clueless Malcolm can be is in the scene in New York when Malcolm told Susan that he was moving to Paris. He brought flowers to their lunch date, even though he probably knew that Susan would break up with him. Susan sees the absurdity of this romantic gesture and chastises Malcolm for bringing flowers to this date. It’s almost as if he thinks a gift of flowers could erase the bad news that he was moving to Paris.

However, Malcolm has a sympathetic side when viewers find out how much his parents neglected him when he was a child. There’s a scene that shows how deep Malcolm’s emotional wounds run in feeling unloved by his father. It explains why Malcolm can’t quite tear himself away from Frances, because he’s trying to get the unconditional love and approval from her that he didn’t get from his father. As toxic as his mother’s love can be, Malcolm thinks it’s better than nothing.

The filmmakers clearly didn’t want “French Exit” to be a typical mother/son movie, but in trying to buck convention too much, the movie falls off the rails. In the last third of “French Exit,” the movie then turns into a silly indulgence of séances and people who don’t know each other conveniently showing up in the same place in a short period of time to continue the absurdity. There’s also a private investigator named Julius (played by Isaach De Bankolé) who comes into the picture, for reasons that are explained in the movie.

The cinematography, costume design and production design make the movie look very stylish. (“French Exit” was actually filmed in Montreal.) But the music of “French Exit” is a weird mix of sitcom schlock in some scenes and classical elegance in other scenes. It’s an example of the wildly contrasting tones in this movie, which seems like it got weirder and weirder to distract viewers from the fact that Frances and Malcolm have very aimless lives. Paris is one of the most exciting and fascinating cities in the world, but this miserable mother and son of “French Exit” have such hollow lives that their boredom comes at the expense of making Paris and this movie look like mindless gimmicks.

Sony Pictures Classics released “French Exit” in select U.S. virtual cinemas in New York City and Los Angeles on February 12, 2021. The movie expands to more cities across the U.S. on April 2, 2021.

Review: ‘The Mimic’ (2021), starring Thomas Sadoski and Jake Robinson

February 15, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jake Robinson and Thomas Sadoski in “The Mimic” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Mimic” (2021)

Directed by Thomas F. Mazziotti

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed suburb in New York state, the comedy film “The Mimic” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A writer is annoyed by a younger man who follows him everywhere and seems to want to copy everything that the writer does.

Culture Audience: “The Mimic” will appeal primarily to people who have the patience to sit through a movie whose comedy is too self-conscious and awkward for its own good.

Jake Robinson and Thomas Sadoski in “The Mimic” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

In the comedy film “The Mimic,” a struggling screenwriter is aggravated because he’s being stalked by a younger man who seems to want to imitate everything about this writer’s life. But viewers will be doubly irritated because both of these characters are equally obnoxious in this dull and time-wasting film. Written and directed by Thomas F. Mazzioti, “The Mimic” is one of those movies that tries too hard to be deadpan funny, but the dialogue is often idiotic and downright cringeworthy.

Most of the characters in this movie don’t have names. In the film’s credits, the two central characters are listed as The Narrator (played by Thomas Sadoski) and The Kid (played by Jake Robinson), who are at odds with each other for almost the entire story. The Narrator is a 41-year-old widower who writes for a small newspaper in the unnamed suburb where he lives in New York state. The Kid is a 31-year-old married man who’s recently moved near The Narrator. The Kid begins stalking The Narrator and tries to copy his mannerisms and actions. Neither of these men has kids, which is a good thing, because no child deserves to have insufferable parents like these two self-absorbed creeps.

It’s soon becomes clear to viewers that there’s nothing about The Narrator’s life or personality that’s worth mimicking. He’s bitter about being alone, and he doesn’t like to see other people happy in their personal lives. And he has a weird obsession with the concept of being a sociopath—so much so that he immediately calls The Kid a sociopath. And he keeps calling him a sociopath repeatedly, when it wasn’t even funny the first time.

Needless to say, “The Mimic” is one of those movies that has annoying voiceover narration from you-know-who. And making things worse, the entire movie is filled with cheesy sitcom music as the film score. The actors in the movie are adequate but can’t save this embarrassing and clunky film that can’t decide whether it wants to be a dark comedy or a screwball comedy.

“The Mimic” starts out somewhat promising, by appearing to be unconventional and unpredictable. The opening line is a voiceover of The Narrator saying, “The high point of the weekend was when my St. Bernard fell through my attic ceiling and landed on my kitchen table.”

Why? Because The Kid was up in the attic snorting cocaine and somehow the dog fell through the floor. It sounds like a situation ripe for some potentially hilarious slapstick, but the movie just mentions this scenario and does nothing clever with it. There are too many moments in this film where it’s nothing but silly arguments and unimaginative action.

The first time that The Narrator meets The Kid, it’s when The Kid shows up unannounced at a newspaper staff meeting and says he wants to write for the paper. Apparently, this newspaper has no budget for an office but instead the staffers meet in someone’s living room. The Narrator says in a voiceover: “I first met The Kid when he infiltrated our small-town newspaper, right after my wife died. I say ‘infiltrated,’ because I believe it was a deliberate action to meet me.”

Up until The Kid came along, The Narrator (who says he’s a trying to write a screenplay) was the only man on the staff. The rest of the newspaper employees are four middle-aged and elderly women, who hire The Kid on the spot without even interviewing him. The Narrator thinks these women are all tedious and uptight because they obsess over things like comma placement in an article. Meanwhile, the only reason why this scene seems to exist is to have Marilu Henner, Didi Conn and Jessica Walter share a scene, since they play three of the women on the newspaper staff.

In fact, “The Mimic” is filled with cameos from character actors whose names are best known to people who are familiar to TV shows and movies from the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s. M. Emmet Walsh, Austin Pendleton and Josh Pais all make brief appearances in the movie, which wastes their talent with nonsensical scenes. Gina Gershon has a cameo as a woman who has a tryst with The Kid in a restaurant ladies’ room, because the movie keeps mentioning that The Kid has a thing for older women.

After The Narrator and The Kid meet, The Kid starts showing up in the same places where The Narrator is and says to him: “We’re on the same wavelength!” At an outdoor park, The Kid and The Narrator have a conversation where The Kid reveals a little bit more about his personal life.

The Kid, who moved from New Jersey to New York, says he’s been married for seven years to his high-school sweetheart, but their marriage hit a rough patch when he left her for an older woman. That affair didn’t last, and his wife took him back. The Kid then inexplicably plucks two giant mushrooms from the park and holds each mushroom upright in each hand during this conversation, so this movie can make his character look “quirky.” It’s one of many sight gags in the movie that don’t work well at all.

As much as The Kid seems to be obsessed with The Narrator for unknown reasons, The Narrator is also fixated on The Kid. At an optometrist appointment, The Narrator is asked to read the eye chart and he can only see the word “sociopath,” so he spells it out for the doctor who’s giving the eye exam. The Narrator says, “I’m a writer and I’m still trying to read between the lines.” The Narrator also goes to a library to do more research on sociopaths.

Later, The Narrator and The Kid have a long-winded conversation at a restaurant. The Narrator (and the audience) can’t be certain how much of what The Kid says is true and how much is a lie. However, The Narrator becomes intrigued about learning more about The Kid’s wife because she sounds like the type of wife whom The Narrator wishes he had.

The Narrator and The Kid have other meet-ups, such as at a tennis court, a hospital and eventually at The Kid’s house. The Kid’s wife seems to be elusive though, so that becomes a subplot that doesn’t really go anywhere. “The Mimic” is such a badly written movie that it never actually shows The Narrator or The Kid having lives outside of their moronic conversations.

The Narrator says that he’s using his experiences with The Kid as his next screenplay, but the movie never shows him doing any work either on the screenplay or at his newspaper job. Whatever The Kid does to make money, it remains vague and questionable, just like many other things about this character’s life.

How bad is “The Mimic”? In a scene where The Narrator and The Kid first have dinner together at what looks to be a mid-priced restaurant, The Narrator says in a voiceover: “It’s been my experience, with women at least, that if she orders white wine, she’s classy. If she orders red wine, she has class, but she can get a little wild. And if she orders rosé, she’s a slut.”

Guess which type of wine The Kid orders, considering that he’s supposed to be the “crazy” one of this duo? The Kid’s obsession with The Narrator and vice versa have some undertones of homoeroticism, which The Narrator seems to acknowledge when he says, “This is turning into a gay relationship without the sex.”

In another of many scenes with bad dialogue, Pais portrays The Narrator’s unnamed lawyer, who meets with The Narrator over lunch at a restaurant. For no reason whatsoever, the lawyer says, “I hate cats. They close their eyes when they eat. I want them to know who’s feeding them and who’s paying for everything.”

If people have the misfortune to watch this terrible movie from beginning to end, they’ll be closing their eyes too from falling asleep (because it’s so boring) or because they want to un-see some of the stupidity that’s on the screen.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Mimic” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 5, 2021.

Review: ‘The Right One,’ starring Nick Thune, Cleopatra Coleman and Iliza Shlesinger

February 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nick Thune and Cleopatra Coleman in “The Right One” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“The Right One”

Directed by Ken Mok

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle, the romantic comedy “The Right One” features a predominantly white cast (with some black people and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A romance novelist is attracted to an elusive man who has multiple personality disorder.

Culture Audience: “The Right One” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching flimsy romance stories with unappealing characters and offensive ways of depicting mental illness.

Iliza Shlesinger and Cleopatra Coleman in “The Right One” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even without the ridiculous and offensive way that mental illness is handled in “The Right One,” the movie fails to meet the basic requirement of a romantic comedy: believable chemistry between the would-be couple. Written and directed by Ken Mok (who’s best known as an executive producer of “America’s Top Model”), “The Right One” is a tedious and not-very-funny slog of a story that badly mishandles this concept: A romance novelist falls for a guy who has multiple personality disorder. And she thinks he doesn’t need psychiatric help or any therapy, but that her love is enough to “cure” him. Try not to gag at this disgustingly irresponsible attitude toward mental illness.

In “The Right One,” the clueless romance novelist who ends up thinking that she’s qualified to cure someone’s multiple personality disorder is Sara (played by Cleopatra Coleman), a 31-year-old with the emotional maturity of a 17-year-old. The movie takes place in Seattle, but was actually filmed in British Columbia. For more than a year, Sara hasn’t been dating anyone and has been celibate, ever since her ex-boyfriend Simon (played by Nykeem Provo) dumped her because they didn’t agree on parenting issues and he wanted to be with another woman. Sara wants to eventually become a parent, while Simon told her he didn’t feel the same way.

When viewers first see Sara, she’s reluctantly at a trendy art gallery party with her obnoxious agent/best friend Kelly (played by Iliza Shlesinger), who insists that Sara has to start dating again. Kelly is loud, bossy and abrasive. And Kelly seems to care more about how much money Sara can make for Kelly than she cares about Sara as a human being. As seen later in the movie, Kelly is the type of horrible boss who yells insults at subordinates, throws things in the office, and makes her male administrative assistant paint her toenails.

Meanwhile, Sara is still pining over Simon and bitter about the breakup, but she doesn’t really want to admit it. At the party, Sara notices a man who’s about 10 years older than she is, and he looks like an uptight and pretentious art critic giving a lecture about some of the art on display. By the way that Sara looks at him, it’s easy to see that she’s immediately attracted to him.

Just minutes after that, Sara sees the same guy, dressed in different clothes and wearing a different hairstyle, in another room. This time, he’s acting like a hipster bohemian type, who jumps around with enthusiasm while talking to another group of people about the art on the wall. By the way, it’s a very quick-change transformation into these two different personas. Who does he think he is? Superman?

Is he an actor? Does he have an identical twin? Is he doing some kind of performance art? No. His name is Godfrey (played by Nick Thune), whose psychological problems are so serious that he’s been living his life as several different people. Sara doesn’t find out what Godfrey’s real name is until much later in the story. Until then, she meets his many personalities. And this movie wants people to believe that Godfrey’s mental illness will stop just because Sara is now in his life and she wants to “save” him. Retch.

The next time Sara sees Godfrey, he’s performing as a country singer busker on the street. He calls himself Cowboy Cody (and he says it a straight face) and speaks to her with a Southern twang when she inevitably approaches him and says, “I know you from somewhere.” When Sara figures out that he’s the same chameleon whom she saw at the art gallery party, he insists that she’s wrong and that his name is Cowboy Cody.

This back-and-forth goes on for a few minutes, but it seems like longer. Sara can’t get him to admit that he’s the same person she saw at the party. Sara makes it clear that she wants to see him again. But Cowboy Cody is about to hop on a bus, so he hands her a flyer showing when and where his next performance is going to be. And you know that Sara will be there.

After having this street encounter with Cowboy Cody, Sara excitedly tells Kelly that she no longer has writer’s block and has decided on the plot for her next romance novel “Chastity,” which Sara has to finish on a tight deadline (three months) because she’s been procrastinating. Sara tells Kelly that the novel’s female protagonist falls for a mysterious guy who has several different personalities, and this heroine will try to figure out which of his personalities is the real one. And guess how Sara going to research this book?

Kelly is very self-absorbed, but even Kelly knows that it’s a bad idea for Sara to get involved with someone who has mental health problems that Sara isn’t equipped to handle. Kelly advises Sara not to fall in love with this mystery man but only get to know him as research if it will help Sara finish the book on time. But Sara and this movie will not be stopped in their misguided quest to make it seem like all someone like Godfrey needs is the love of a good woman to cure him of his mental illness. It’s a concept that’s shoved in viewers’ faces in the most obnoxious ways.

There’s a minor subplot of Kelly setting up Sara on a blind date with a nice guy named Ben (played by Anthony Shim), who’s an artist. Sara and Ben’s first date together is somewhat awkward because Sara tells weird jokes that don’t land well at all. Still, Ben asks Sara out on a second date, and tells her they can go wherever she’d like. She suggests that they go to the nightclub where Cowboy Cody says he’ll be performing next.

But the person performing at this nightclub isn’t Cowboy Cody. It’s Godfrey in drag, wearing a blonde wig and a long dress. This time, he’s a spoken-word artist named Allie Cornbush, who does an act that’s part comedy, part avant-garde performance. Sara loves it and cheers enthusiastically, while Ben is not impressed and thinks the whole act is bizarre.

Sara is so infatuated with this chameleon, that after the performance, she follows him outside of the club, thereby ditching Ben without even a goodbye. How rude. At this point, Sara is acting like a pathetic groupie, because she begs Godfrey (who’s now dressed as a man, in jeans and a hoodie) to let her tag along with him wherever he’s going. Slow down. You just met him.

She then follows him into a dark alley, where he surprises her with two oversized, glowing helmets shaped liked cat heads—one for him, and one for her. They go to a nightclub, where yet another persona for Godfrey emerges. This time, he’s a DJ who calls himself Katamine (rhyming with ketamine), who’s an obvious ripoff of real-life DJs who wear oversized mask helmets as part of their act, such as Deadmau5 and Marshmello. DJ Katamine is very popular with the crowd, and Sara ends up on stage with him too. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

But that’s not all. Godfrey has other personalities and other jobs, which makes you wonder why Sara thinks he would have time to date her when he has all these different lives that he’s leading. Godfrey also teaches a reading class for kindergarten-age students at what looks like a library. They call him Mr. G there.

And he also works as a high-ranking salesperson for an unnamed corporate company, where he’s nicknamed G-Money. He does most of his sales over the phone, where he has more personas that he fabricates with clients in order to close a deal. His office persona as G-Money is as an eccentric who shows up for work with spiked hair like a punk rocker, dressed like a surfer, and wearing no shoes. It’s the opening scene in the movie.

Godfrey is allowed to dress this way in a corporate environment (while his office colleagues have to wear suits) because he outperforms all the other sales staffers by 364%. That’s according to what a fellow employee tells the visiting head honcho Bob Glasser (played by David Koechner), who has arrived to evaluate the sales department and boost their productivity. In an early scene in the movie, Godfrey (aka G-Money) is able to charm Bob because they’re both fans of the jam-rock band Blues Traveler.

Meanwhile, Sara tries to keep seeing Godfrey as much as she can, even though she still doesn’t know what his real name is or anything substantial about him. She keeps a journal of all her encounters with him, as if she’s a love detective. And her attempts to get close to him hit a snag when a thuggish-looking guy in his 20s tells Sara that she needs to stay away from Godfrey.

It turns out that this guy’s name is Shad (played by M.J. Kokolis), and he’s Godfrey’s foster brother. Godfrey’s reason for his multiple personality disorder is eventually revealed in the movie. Needless to say, Sara ignores Shad’s demands to stop seeing Godfrey. She comments to Shad about Godfrey: “I know that I don’t know him, but I feel like inside, there’s this special, sweet person.”

Later in the movie, Godfrey has somewhat of a meltdown at one of his jobs, and he’s in danger of being fired. However, Shad and Sara go to talk to Godfrey’s boss, who thinks that Godfrey should get a psychiatric evaluation and professional help for his obvious mental-health problems. But then, in the worst scene in the movie, Sara has the idiotic nerve to lecture this boss and say: “Godfrey isn’t mentally unstable … He doesn’t need a psych evaluation. He needs support and time to process what he’s going through.”

Before Godfrey’s freak-out on the job, he and Sara had gone on a ballroom dancing date. During the date, his persona was Matteo, who claimed to be from Argentina but actually spoke in a weird mashup of a German/Spanish accent. As far as Sara and this awful movie is concerned, getting professional help for Godfrey’s mental health isn’t important because it would interrupt Sara’s girlish fantasies of being romanced by this very obviously messed-up person.

There’s almost nothing to root for with this would-be couple, when this movie can’t even grasp the concepts of true love and how mental illness should be handled by people who really care about the mentally ill person. Coleman and Thune have zero chemistry together. Thune looks ridiculous in about half of his personas in this movie. His uneven performance as the joyless Godfrey looks like Thune is somewhat embarrassed to be there.

Meanwhile, Coleman has terrible comedic timing in many of her scenes. She also has a way of over-emoting that’s very annoying. This cringeworthy style of acting is most apparent in a scene that takes place in a park, where Sara unexpectedly runs into her ex-boyfriend Simon and his wife Allegra (played by Leanne Lapp), who is pregnant. Allegra is the woman whom Simon got together with after he broke up with Sara.

Simon and Allegra seem very happy about this pregnancy. Meanwhile, jealous Sara is shocked to see that Simon has changed his mind about being a parent. Sara spitefully tells Allegra that Simon said he didn’t want to be a father when he and Sara were a couple. Sara also makes a body-shaming comment to Allegra, by telling Allegra that her pregnancy makes her look “big.”

It’s unknown if writer/director Mok consulted with enough women before he wrote the atrocious screenplay for this movie, which is clearly targeted to a mostly-female audience. If he had, he would’ve heard that women (and movie audiences in general) enjoy romantic comedies the best when the people in these movies don’t act delusional, air-headed and degrading to other people when it comes to finding true love. And it’s become a boring and unimaginative cliché when romantic comedies have a scenario of women being catty to each other because of a man.

The tacky and unrealistic way that relationship issues are handled in this movie is not only an insult to women but also anyone who’s suffering from mental illnesses. In addition to horrible casting choices and sloppy direction, “The Right One” disregards the severity of a mental illness such as multiple personality disorder. The way it’s portrayed in the movie, multiple personality disorder is just a phase that someone can “get over” if the right person comes along to give them love. Well, there’s one way to “get over” a bad romantic comedy like “The Right One”: Just don’t watch it.

Lionsgate released “The Right One” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on February 5, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on February 9, 2021.