Review: ‘Breaking Fast,’ starring Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy

January 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Haaz Sleiman and Michael Cassidy in “Breaking Fast” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Breaking Fast”

Directed by Mike Mosallam

Culture Representation: Taking place in West Hollywood, California, the romantic comedy “Breaking Fast” features cast of Middle Eastern and white characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A gay Lebanese American man, who is a religious Muslim, is still pining over his ex-boyfriend, when he meets a potential new love (a white American man who isn’t Muslim) during Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and abstaining from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset.

Culture Audience: “Breaking Fast” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about Arab Americans, Muslim religious practices and the LGBTQ community.

Amin El Gaman in “Breaking Fast” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

In many ways, “Breaking Fast” sticks to a familiar romantic comedy formula of two people meeting, having a courtship where there’s some fear of commitment, and then getting into a big argument that threatens to ruin the relationship of the would-be couple. But in so many other ways, “Breaking Fast” is definitely not a typical romantic comedy. That’s because much of the movie is about what it’s like to be a gay, religious Muslim and how to handle dating someone who’s neither religious nor Muslim. The results are a charming movie that makes up for some exaggerated acting with genuine heartfelt moments that can be relatable to any adult, regardless of religion or sexuality.

Written and directed by Mike Mosallam, “Breaking Fast” (based on his short film of the same name) takes place in West Hollywood, California, which has a large LGBTQ population. However, Lebanon is a big influence on the movie’s main character Mohammed (played by Haaz Sleiman), a hospital doctor in his mid-30s who goes by the nickname Mo. That’s because Mo’s parents and some other relatives are immigrants from Lebanon. Mo was born in the United States, but he often refers to Lebanon as “home,” as do many of his relatives who live in America.

Mo is a well-respected gastroenterologist who happens to be gay. Everyone in his life knows it, and his family members have accepted his sexuality. Mo, who is an only child, is very close to his mother (played by Rula Gardenier), who can be meddling, effusive and domineering. She keeps pestering Mo about wanting to become a grandmother. Mo could be considered a “mama’s boy” because he talks to his mother on the phone every day, sometimes more than once a day.

Mo’s father, nicknamed Baba (played by Serop Ohennisian), has a very different personality from Mo’s Mother: Baba is laid-back and quiet. Also living in the Los Angeles area are Mo’s aunt (played by Lameece Assaq); Mo’s uncle (played by Abdul Alnaif); and Mo’s beloved maternal grandmother nicknamed Tata (played by Fatima Quwaider), whom he seems to adore the most because she never pressures him to change anything about his life. They are a very tight-knit family who spend a lot of time together.

But not everyone in Mo’s life has this type of supportive and loving family. At the beginning of the movie, Mo and his family are at Mo’s house to celebrate the beginning of Ramadan, a Muslim tradition where for one month, Muslims who observe this tradition have to fast, avoid thinking impure thoughts, and abstain from sexual activity from sunrise to sunset. Mo’s boyfriend Hassan (played by Patrick Sabongui) is also there, but he’s not in a celebratory mood.

Hassan, whose entire family is in Lebanon, is still “in the closet” about his sexuality to his family. Hassan is extremely worried because a female cousin has found out that Hassan is gay, and she’s threatening to tell Hassan’s homophobic father. The cousin found out about Hassan’s sexuality through Hassan’s secret Facebook account, which he has now deleted. Hassan is terrified of being disowned by his family.

Mo tries to comfort Hassan and advises him to just continue doing what he’s been doing: Telling his family that he’s single and he’s still looking for the right person. But Hassan is so paranoid about his family finding out the truth that he tells Mo that he’s thinking about finding a woman to marry so that his family won’t even suspect that he’s gay. Mo thinks it’s a terrible idea, and the look on his face shows that Mo also thinks it’s insulting to their relationship for Hassan to go to those lengths to live a lie.

Hassan reminds Mo that Mo doesn’t know what it’s like to live in fear of family who will disown other family members who are LGBTQ. Hassan seems pretty sure that he’s going to go through with a fake marriage. As Hassan joins Mo’s family for the Ramadan dinner and acts like nothing is wrong, Mo looks heartbroken and alienated from the boyfriend he thought he knew.

The movie then fast-forwards to a year later. And sure enough, Mo and Hassan have broken up and are no longer in contact with each other. Mo is in an exercise class with his flamboyant gay best friend Sam (played by Amin El Gamal), who is also a Lebanese American, but he’s not religious in the way that Mo is religious.

During this workout session, Sam chastises Mo for not being able to move on from Hassan. Mo is feeling down because he’s found out through social media that Hassan is now married to a woman and expecting a child with her. Sam thinks that Mo is long overdue to start dating again, so Sam insists that Mo go to Sam’s birthday party that night, even though it’s on the first night of Ramadan.

Mo is very reluctant, but he ends up going to the party. Sam has a crush on a guy named John (played by Christopher J. Hanke), who shows up at the party with a friend named Kal (played by Michael Cassidy), whom Mo initially thinks is out of his league because Kal is so good-looking. When John and Kal go over to Mo and Sam and introductions are made, Mo is friendly, but Mo gives the impression that he’s not looking to date anyone. However, it’s clear that there are undercurrents of attraction between Mo and Kal from the way that Kal jokes with Mo and how Mo seems to like it.

Despite this immediate attraction, the first meeting between Mo and Kal does have some awkward moments. Kal is an actor, and Mo blurts out that he doesn’t understand actors. Kal has the type of dry humor where he can say something that seems serious, but he has tell people that he’s really joking if they take it the wrong way. It happens several times between Kal and Mo that night.

Soon after Mo and Kal meet, Sam is ready to play matchmaker with Mo and Kal and speaks some words of encouragement in Arabic to Mo about it while Kal is standing there. To Sam and Mo’s surprise, Kal speaks Arabic too and lets it be known that he could understand everything that Sam was saying to Mo.

Why does Kal know how to speak Arabic? Kal spent part of his childhood in Jordan, where his military father was stationed. Therefore, Kal is also very familiar with Islam and Muslim traditions. Kal is not religious or Muslim, but he has no problem respecting other people’s religious beliefs. During Mo and Kal’s conversation, Kal finds out that Mo strictly observes Ramadan.

After an embarrassing situation where Sam practically harasses Mo to follow Kal into the bathroom (nothing sexual happens), Mo is ready to call it a night. As Mo is leaving, he notices Kal standing outside. Kal invites Mo to walk with him to a nearby grocery store. Kal tries to make an excuse not to go, but Kal persuades him.

It’s during their walk together that romantic sparks start to fly between Mo and Kal. The icebreaker happens when Kal mentions that his full name is Kal-El, because he was named after the birth name of Superman. That’s when Mo and Kal find out that they’re both big fans of Superman and that their favorite “Superman” movie actor is Christopher Reeve. And they both say that their favorite “Superman” movie is the first one from 1978.

During this conversation, Kal and Mo find out that they both do not drink alcohol. They also talk about how Mo’s Muslim faith affects his life. Kal says to Mo: “It must be hard to find a good Muslim guy in this town … I bet most Muslims [reject] you for being gay, and most gays don’t get down with God.” Mo replies, “I was born gay, and I love God. The two can and should be able to co-exist.”

During this leisurely stroll, Kal mentions that he’s going to head to Fubar, a local gay nightclub, to meet up with some people he knows. He asks if Mo wants to join him, but Mo politely declines and says that nightclubbing isn’t his thing. When Mo and Kal arrive at Fubar, they go their separate ways.

The next day, gossipy Sam finds out that Mo and Kal spent some time together after the party. Naturally, Sam wants to hear all the details. Sam is shocked and disappointed to find out that Mo and Kal didn’t kiss, didn’t exchange phone numbers, and didn’t even tell each other that they wanted to see each other again.

But there would be no “Breaking Fast” movie if Mo and Kal didn’t see each other again. That moment comes when Mo is in an elevator at his hospital job, and Kal just happens to step into the elevator. They are pleasantly surprised to see each other. Mo asks what Kal is doing at the hospital, and Kal says he was there to visit a patient and that everything is fine, but he doesn’t go into further details.

Kal teases Mo by asking him why Mo “ditched” him outside Fubar. Kal says that he thought he made it clear to Mo that night that he was only going to be in the bar for a few minutes. He thought Mo would be waiting for him outside, so Kal was disappointed to see Mo was gone. Meanwhile, Mo expresses genuine surprise and says he wasn’t aware of this misunderstanding.

Kal is more assertive and open about his attraction to Mo, so he suggests coming over to Mo’s place to cook an Iftar dinner for them. Iftar is the after-sunset meal eaten by Muslims during Ramadan, to break the fasting for the evening. Mo and Kal have a cute meet-up at a grocery store to buy ingredients for the dinner. It’s where Kal shows his knowledge of Arabic food, and he flirtatiously informs Mo that he doesn’t like stems in tabouli, while Mo playfully disagrees.

Although Kal seems like a great guy, Mo is approaching this possible relationship with caution, not just because it’s starting during Ramadan but also because Mo doesn’t want to get his heart broken again. Mo takes a “let’s be friends first” approach to hanging out with Kal, who respects Mo’s wishes to keep their budding romance chaste, for now. Mo is so strict about following Ramadan that he won’t even allow Kal to talk about kissing during the hours that Ramadan must be observed.

One of the funnier scenes in the movie is when Kal shows up early to Mo’s place for their first dinner date. Mo has just gotten out of shower, wearing nothing but a towel. He answers the door, not expecting Kal to be there. They hug, but Mo’s towel accidentally drops. A mortified Mo then asks Kal not to look as the towel is retrieved. Kal thinks the whole situation is hilarious.

Eventually, Mo and Kal have more home dinner dates, where Kal does the cooking. Mo and Kal open up some more about their backgrounds. Kal reveals that he had a troubled, dysfunctional childhood with an alcoholic father whom Kal hints was verbally abusive. Kal’s parents knew that Kal was gay from an early age, and Kal’s beloved mother (who died when Kal was 16) tried to protect Kal in the homophobic military environment where he grew up. Kal is comfortable being openly gay, but he’s not very comfortable talking about painful experiences from his past.

Kal and Mo also tell each other why they chose their respective careers. Kal says that he was inspired to be an actor because when he was a kid, he did skits for his mother, who told Kal that he was the only person who could make her laugh. Despite being in a profession where he gets a lot rejections, Kal says he doesn’t want to do anything else as a career except being an actor. Mo says that he knew he wanted to be a doctor after a terrifying experience as a child, when he was at the movies with his grandmother, who choked on some popcorn and was saved by a doctor who happened to be there.

“Breaking Fast” has some sweet moments during Kal and Mo’s dates. But over time, some of Kal’s and Mo’s differences come to light and could mean trouble for their relationship. Kal is very distant from his family. Mo sees this family estrangement firsthand when he and Kal are on a date, and they happen to run into Kal’s stepmother Judy (played by Veronica Cartwright), who seems to want to have a pleasant conversation with Kal. However, Kal has a hostile reaction to her.

It’s the first time that Kal shows that he’s the easygoing, happy-go-lucky person that he first appeared to be. Some of Kal’s family secrets are eventually revealed. Meanwhile, Mo’s tendency to be rigid and judgmental also causes problems in his relationship with Kal. Mo believes that Hassan’s family problems had a lot to do with why he and Hassan broke up, so Mo is wary of getting romantically involved with another man who has “family baggage.”

Sleiman and Cassidy mostly succeed in their nuanced and layered portrayals of Kal and Mo. who find out whether or not their differences are too big to overcome, or if they can find enough common ground to start a serious romance. Their portrayals are grounded in a lot of realistic emotions, which are complemented by their appealing dialogue.

El Gamal’s Sam character often serves as the film’s often loud and vulgar comic relief, which might get on some viewers’ nerves. Some people might also be turned off by Sam being a very stereotypical effeminate gay character. However, El Gamal brings the type of charisma to the Sam character where—love him or hate him—Sam lights up the screen and it’s hard to take your eyes off of him. Sam isn’t just a clownish character, since he has a big dramatic moment in the film where he expresses why he doesn’t agree with Mo’s devotion to Islam.

“Breaking Fast” falters when some of the actors look like they’re trying too hard to be funny. However, the heart of the story remains Mo and Kal’s relationship, which has a lot of emotional authenticity. The movie, under the earnest directing and writing from Mosallam, doesn’t fall into a trap of absurdist melodrama. Instead, the movie has plenty of moments that are true-to-life but told from a complex cultural perspective that isn’t represented too often in American movies.

Vertical Entertainment released “Breaking Fast” on digital and VOD on January 22, 2021.

Review: ‘The Forty-Year-Old Version,’ starring Radha Blank

January 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version”

Directed by Radha Blank

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedic film “The Forty-Year-Old Version” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white, Latino and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A struggling African American playwright decides to reinvent herself as a rapper a few months before her 40th birthday, and she has to come to terms with her definition of “success” versus “selling out,” as she deals with racism and sexism.

Culture Audience: “The Forty-Year-Old Version” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories of self-identity from an African American perspective.

Reed Birney and Radha Blank in “The Forty-Year-Old Version” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a comedic film that skillfully shows a mid-life crisis that has never before been portrayed on screen: Just a few months before she turns 40 years old, a struggling New York City playwright, who’s looking for a new way to express her creativity, decides that she wants to become a rapper. It’s a career move that’s risky and outside her comfort zone not only because hip-hop isn’t generally welcoming of female rappers but it’s a music genre that also has incredibly difficult barriers for beginner rappers who are over the age of 30. Radha Blank makes a captivating feature-film debut as the star, writer, director and one of the producers of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a semi-autobiographical movie that strikes the right balance of showing uncomfortable truths with whimsically raw comedy.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is entirely in black and white, which gives the movie a somewhat timeless look. This creative choice might also draw comparisons to filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1986 feature-film debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” which was also entirely in black and white. Both movies are comedies with an independent-minded woman as the main character. And although the overall tone is comedic, both movies also have underlying serious social commentary about how relationships are affected by gender roles and race.

In “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Blank portrays a playwright named Radha, who is about to turn 40 in a few months, and she feels like her life is imploding. She’s grieving over the death of her beloved widowed mother. Radha is also having financial problems and is trying not to get depressed that she hasn’t lived up to her expected potential.

Years ago, Radha received a “30 Under 30” prize by an influential theater organization, to signify that she was considered a promising playwright under the age of 30. And now, all these years later, Radha can’t even get a workshop of her latest play. To pay her bills, Radha teaches an after-school class on dramatic writing at a local high school. But even in that job, she’s not appreciated, because some of the teenage students in her small class (which has eight students) don’t really want to be in her class and show little to no interest in theater.

Radha’s latest play that she’s hoping to get produced is called “Harlem Ave,” which is set in New York City’s predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. She describes the play as being about “a young man who inherited a grocery store from his parents and struggles to keep the business afloat with an activist wife.” Radha wants the play to be reflective of the real Harlem, by having a predominantly black cast.

In the hopes of getting “Harlem Ave” in regional theater, Radha meets with a pretentious acquaintance named Forrest Umoja Petry (played by Andre Ward), who owns the local OUmoja Theatre, an off-Broadway venue whose specialty is African American stage productions. Forrest, who founded the theater in 1988, doesn’t really take Radha that seriously. Instead of discussing the play with Radha, he makes her meditate with him in his office that he likes to fill with burning incense.

Radha’s best friend Archie (played by Peter Kim), an openly gay Korean American, is an aspiring theater producer. It’s later revealed in the movie that Radha and Archie have been best friends since high school. They were each other’s prom dates back then, when Archie was still closeted to most people and afraid to tell his family about his sexuality. Archie is staunchly loyal to Radha, but he disagrees with her “I’ll never sell out” mindset when it comes to getting her plays financed. Radha wants to be a success, but only on her terms.

Archie excitedly tells Radha that he’s scored an invitation to a black-tie party that will be attended by a powerful, Tony-winning producer named J. Whitman (played by Reed Birney), who could be a likely investor in “Harlem Ave.” Archie wants Radha to be his “plus one” at the party, which Archie thinks will be the perfect opportunity for Radha to pitch her play to Whitman. Radha is very reluctant to go to this party and tells Archie: “J. Whitman only does black ‘poverty porn’ plays. I’d rather do a workshop with Forrest and his stinky-ass ancestors than suck up to J. Whitman!”

But after some pleading from Archie, Radha eventually agrees to go to the party. The soiree is upscale and filled with a lot of well-to-do “theater patron” types, who are usually over the age of 60. It’s the type of party where Archie and Radha stand out because they’re relatively young by comparison, and they’re two of the few non-white people at the party.

Sure enough, Radha gets a chance to talk to Whitman, so she tells him about “Harlem Ave.” Whitman says he would be interested in investing, but he thinks the play should be about “gentrification.” It’s really code for saying, “There needs to be white people as main characters in the play, in order to sell it to a predominantly white audience.”

Radha thinks it’s demeaning for Whitman to suggest that she change her play in this way, but she doesn’t say it out loud to Whitman. Instead, she politely tells him that she doesn’t want to change to focus of her play. She’s ready to end the conversation, but a tone-deaf Whitman adds insult to injury and tells Radha: “I still need a writer for my Harriet Tubman musical.”

This racial condescension enrages Radha, who then lunges at Whitman and begins strangling him. It’s played for laughs in the movie, but the scene demonstrates how infuriating people like Whitman can be, because they think of themselves as “open-minded liberals” but they believe in the same racist stereotypes as close-minded conservatives. Radha is unapologetic for her outburst, but Archie is horrified. Archie tells Radha that he wants to smooth things over with Whitman, but Radha tells Archie not to bother.

Publicly, Radha is defiant. Privately, she’s wracked with self-doubt. In her small and dumpy apartment where she lives alone, she cries in despair and wails: “I just want to be an artist! Mommy, tell me what to do!”

Just then, Radha hears rap music playing nearby. She has a silent “a-ha” moment and suddenly feels inspired to write rap lyrics. The next day, Radha tells Archie that she’s going to try something new with her life: She wants to make a rap mixtape and see where it’ll take her in a possible career as a rapper.

Archie is incredulous and thinks Radha shouldn’t give up her career in theater. But Radha has already made up her mind. Whitman has decided to forgive Radha for physically attacking him, but he tells Archie that he should be a theater producer and that Archie shouldn’t be wasting his time with Radha, whom Whitman calls a “washed-up writer.”

Radha hears about a home recording studio in Brooklyn that works with aspiring rappers, so she goes there to see if she can find a producer who can make the music for her lyrics. When she goes to the cramped, smoke-filled apartment, she’s the only female in a roomful of guys in their 20s. A sullen-looking 26-year-old, who goes by the name D (played by Oswin Benjamin), is the producer/engineer operating the recording equipment. He barely acknowledges Radha in this first meeting.

The entire meeting is awkward because it’s obvious that these guys don’t take Radha seriously. When one of them asks Radha what her rap name is, she’s taken aback and makes up a name on the spot: RadhaMUSPrime. It’s a play on words of the “Transformers” robot hero character Optimus Prime.

Radha has the money to pay for a recording session. D seems reluctant to work with her though, because it’s obvious that he thinks she’s a joke. That is, until Radha starts rapping her song “Poverty Porn,” a scathing rebuke of greedy people who make money in entertainment by exploiting African American poverty. When D sees her perform and hears the lyrics, he shows signs of being impressed with Radha’s talent.

“Poverty Porn” is told from the point of view of the exploiter who would rather make entertainment showing African Americans as poor and down-trodden instead of showing the reality that most African Americans are not poor but are middle-class. The lyrics of the chorus include: “You regular blacks are just such a yawn. Yo, if I want to get on, better make me some poverty porn.”

Radha’s experience with Whitman is the obvious inspiration for “Poverty Porn,” but the lyrics suggest that Radha has had a lifetime of these racist experiences in trying to be a successful playwright. Later in the story, Whitman lets it be known that he still wants to be the lead producer of “Harlem Ave,” but only if Radha makes the changes that he wants. The offer comes when Radha is at a low point in her confidence and financial stability, so she has to make a choice on whether or not she will “sell out” and do the play with Whitman in charge.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” also has a subplot about two of Radha’s students who clash with each other almost every time that they’re in class together: a tough-talking butch lesbian named Rosa (played by Haskiri Velazquez) and a foul-mouthed diva named Elaine (played by Imani Lewis), who is sought-after by many of the boys in the school. Rosa has a crush on Radha and doesn’t try to hide it. For example, Rosa makes gushing comments about Radha such as, “She’s like Queen Latifah and Judge Judy rolled into one!”

Meanwhile, Elaine is often disrespectful to Radha and acts like being in Radha’s class is a waste of time. One day, Elaine insults Radha by calling her a failed playwright. Rosa jumps to Radha’s defense and gets in a brawl with Elaine. Rosa and Elaine are both punished by the school, but the two teens still act like enemies when they’re together in the classroom. Much later, Radha sees something in the school hallway which explains why Elaine is acting the way that she does.

As Radha spends more time with D to write and record her rap songs, she and D become closer, even though their personalities are almost polar opposites. Radha is talkative and high-strung. D is quiet and laid-back. There’s also their age difference and the fact that they have very different social circles.

Even though Radha is trying to be a rapper, she comes from the intellectual theater world, while D has more of a “street life” background. Both Radha and D have a strong sense of identity as African Americans, but their respective upbringings and educations have taken them on different paths. Their relationship is a situation where hip-hop really did bring them together.

Much of the absurdist comic relief in the story comes from recurring appearances of neighbors as a sort of “Greek chorus” who make funny and sometimes rude remarks separately to the camera, as if they’re speaking to or about Radha. These outspoken neighbors are an elderly African American woman (played by Jackie Adam), who’s called Snazzy in the film’s credits; a young Dominican woman (played by Cristina Gonzalez); an elderly Korean vendor (played Charles Ryu); and two of Radha’s students named Waldo (played by Antonio Ortiz) and Kamal (played by T.J. Atoms). When they’re asked what they think of Radha turning 40, the young woman replies, “When a single woman turns 40, she’s like fruit in the ground for the bugs to eat.”

There’s also a scene-stealing homeless man named Lamont (named Jacob Ming-Trent), who hangs out near Radha’s apartment building and lets her know that he watches all the comings and goings that happen to and from her home. During a pivotal conversation that Radha has on the street when she asks someone for help with her career, Lamont who’s watching nearby shouts: “Give the bitch a chance! Her desperation is making me nauseous! Although technically, you’ve got to eat something to throw up.”

Because “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a low-budget film, it’s fairly obvious that many of the cast members are not professional actors. Some of the cast members deliver their lines better than those whose acting is a little rough around the edges. But that’s part of the movie’s charm, since it looks like many of the people in the movie are really playing versions of themselves and aren’t doing a slick acting job. Of the main cast members, Blank and Kim fare the best in scenes that show the genuine and sometimes volatile friendship between Radha and Archie.

One of the best things about “The Forty-Year-Old” version is how it authentically reveals layers to the story without making it too cluttered. Viewers will get poignant glimpses into Radha’s family life and how her mother’s death affected her. Radha’s brother Ravi (played by Blank’s real-life brother Ravi Blank) wants her to help him decide what to do with their mother’s possessions, but Radha has been avoiding his phone calls. When the siblings eventually meet up, they have a heart-to-heart conversation that’s a standout scene in the movie.

It’s revealed in the story that Radha and Ravi’s parents were both artists but had to take day jobs to support the family. The siblings’ mother was a painter who worked as a teacher, while their father was a jazz drummer who worked as a plumber. Radha is single with no children, so she doesn’t have the family financial obligations that her parents had. However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” shows that one of her underlying fears is not being able to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional and respected artist.

At an age when most people are settled down and secure in their careers, Radha is restless and insecure in her chosen profession. What makes this story stand out is how she takes a bold risk to “blow it all up” to start over in hip-hop, which is a male-dominated and often-misogynistic industry. It’s a risk that most women in the same circumstances would never take. But “The Forty-Year-Old Version” accurately shows what happens when artists follow their instincts, despite any massive obstacles and naysayers in their way.

Thanks to her tour-de-force work in front of and behind the camera, Blank makes “The Forty-Year-Old Version” a truly unique gem of a film that feels very personal yet relatable to anyone who knows what it’s like to be underestimated or discriminated against simply because of race, gender or other physical characteristics. There are plenty of examples of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in the film.

However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” isn’t too heavy-handed about showing this bigotry, and Radha isn’t wallowing in a self-pity party. She just gets on with what she has to do. But there are also moments when Radha has to decide if she should listen to “rational” advice or follow what’s in her heart.

And any decision to go against the grain and listen to her inner voice requires her to be extremely vulnerable when it would be much easier to go along with what she’s pressured to do by other people. There’s a telling moment in the movie where Radha, who usually wears a do-rag that completely covers her hair, decides to take off this headpiece, and it’s symbolic of her shedding a self-protective shell and showing her true self.

“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is also an incisive commentary on artistic integrity and how it’s often at odds with financial offers that artists can get. At some point, artists who expect to be paid for their work must ask themselves: “Is this monetary offer in line with my values? If it isn’t, is it worth compromising my integrity for what I would be paid? And how much control of my work do I want to give to other people?”

The music of “The 40-Year-Old Version” is a mixture of mostly hip-hop and jazz, which perfectly exemplify the two artistic worlds that Radha inhabits in the story: the rough, street-oriented world of rap and the more refined, traditional world of theater. In addition to “Poverty Porn,” original songs with Blank’s lyrics include “This Is 40,” “F.Y.O.V.,” “Mamma May I,” “”Pound Da Poundcakes” and “WMWBWB,” which stands for “White Man With a Black Woman’s Butt,” a reference to a scene in a movie when Radha sees a white man with a very round and large bottom.

Other songs that are part of “The Forty-Year-Old Version” soundtrack include Queen Latifah’s “Wrath of My Madness,” Babs Bunny’s “I Want In,” Nai Br.XX’s “Adventure Time,” Quincy Jones’ “Love and Peace” and several tunes from jazz artist Courtney Bryan. Radha says in the movie that her song “F.Y.OV.” can stand for things other than “Forty-Year-Old Version,” such as “Find Your Own Voice,” “Find Your Own Vision” or “Fill Your Own Void.” They are all perfect descriptions of the movie’s overall impactful message.

Netflix premiered “The Forty-Year-Old Version” on October 9, 2020.

Review: ‘Promising Young Woman,’ starring Carey Mulligan

December 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Carey Mulligan in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“Promising Young Woman”

Directed by Emerald Fennell

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramedy film “Promising Young Woman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who dropped out of medical school because of a past trauma takes out her anger on unsuspecting people who are directly or indirectly related to this trauma.

Culture Audience: “Promising Young Woman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in a dark comedic twist on revenge stories.

Carey Mulligan and Bo Burnham in “Promising Young Woman” (Photo by Merie Weismiller Wallace/Focus Features)

It would be easy to assume that “Promising You Woman” is an angry feminist film where a woman pretends to be very drunk at different nightclubs, entices predatory men into trying to take advantage of her sexually, and then humiliates them when she reveals that she’s not drunk and that she just wanted to expose how these supposedly “nice” guys aren’t so nice after all. That’s what happens for a great deal of the movie and what’s shown in the movie’s trailer. But “Promising Young Woman” is not what it first appears to be, just like the movie’s central character Cassandra “Cassie” Thomas (played by Carey Mulligan), the smart but deeply troubled woman who’s hell-bent on a personal agenda for these potentially dangerous sexual games.

“Promising Young Woman” is the first feature film written and directed by Emerald Fennell, a multitalented entertainer who is also an actress. (Fennell portrays Camilla Parker Bowles in Netflix’s “The Crown” series and has an uncredited cameo in “Promising Young Woman” as a makeup tutorial YouTuber.) The story of “Promising Young Woman” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city that could represent any middle-class American suburb. As the story unfolds, viewers find out that Cassie was a talented student in medical school at the fictional Forrest Union University, when she abruptly dropped out because of something traumatic that still haunts her.

When this story takes place, it’s been seven years since Cassie has dropped out of medical school. She turns 30 years old during the course of this story, but it seems as if she doesn’t want to celebrate this milestone birthday or even be reminded of it. That’s because her life is stuck in a rut. It’s implied that Cassie has issues affecting her mental health.

By day, she works in a small coffee shop that’s owned by her sassy boss Gail (played by Laverne Cox), who doesn’t judge Cassie (who’s a sarcastic loner), except in believing that Cassie should be more optimistic about love and dating. Cassie is an only child who still lives with her parents Susan (played by Jennifer Coolidge) and Stanley (played by Clancy Brown), who are worried about Cassie’s life being at a standstill.

Susan is more vocally upset over it than Stanley is, because on Cassie’s 30th birthday (which Cassie claims to have forgotten, but her parents haven’t), Susan yells at Cassie in a moment of anger: “You don’t have any boyfriends! You don’t have any friends!” Cassie’s favorite color is pink, and the way her bedroom is decorated indicates that a big part of herself doesn’t want to grow up.

Stanley is more compassionate and accepting than Susan is about their daughter. He refuses to say any harsh words to Cassie and tries to encourage her to be the best person she can be. However, for Cassie’s 30th birthday, her parents give her a pink suitcase, as a not-so-subtle way of telling her that they really would like her to move out and get her own place.

At night, Cassie has a secret life of going to nightclubs and pretending to be so drunk that she can barely stand or remember her name. A man at the nightclub usually approaches her, with the pretense of being a “gentleman” who will “take care of her,” and escorts her back to his place. He inevitably tries to have sex with Cassie, who will protest and say no, but he will persist and maybe start to remove some of her clothing. Cassie will then shock him by revealing that she’s not drunk at all and that he can’t have sex with her.

Depending on the situation, Cassie will usually humiliate the guy by letting him know that he almost raped her. He usually reacts with surprise over being caught, denial over being labeled as a sexual abuser, and almost always anger by accusing Cassie of “tricking” or “trapping” him. Cassie then goes home and records each incident in a journal, by checking off each encounter with hangman numerical symbols. (These numerical symbols are shown in pink coloring at pivotal points in the story.)

In the beginning of the movie, Cassie is seen playing this game in two separate incidents: First, it’s with a guy named Jerry (played by Adam Brody), who is egged on by the pals he’s with at the nightclub to take advantage of her. Cassie also plays this game with a cocaine-snorting nerdy creep named Neil (played by Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who tries to blame his predatory actions on the cocaine.

Why is Cassie putting herself in these situations? She’s not an undercover cop trying to bust potential rapists. She’s acting out her own type of justice for something involving a sexual assault that happened when she was in medical school. It’s eventually revealed in the movie who was assaulted, what happened and who was responsible.

While Cassie is leading this double life, a customer comes into the coffee shop one day, and he changes Cassie’s outlook on possibly opening up her heart to romance. A former medical school classmate named Ryan (played by Bo Burnham), who is now a pediatric surgeon, is very surprised to see Cassie working in a coffee shop because he thought she would be doing something more prestigious with her life. Ryan immediately stammers and makes a profuse apology to Cassie when he realizes that he had a very condescending reaction to her job.

When Cassie asks him if he wants milk in his coffee, Ryan says, “You can spit in it. I deserve it.” Cassie obliges and spits in his coffee, which Ryan then drinks. It sets the tone for the rest of the relationship, where Ryan is awkward and eager to impress Cassie, while she is coolly sarcastic and hard to read about what she might be really feeling. Ryan tells Cassie that he’s had a crush on her since medical school. He asks her out on a date. She ignores his attempts to court her, until she says yes.

Cassie and Ryan’s budding romance has a dark cloud over it though. Cassie has become secretly consumed with the news that a former medical school classmate named Al Monroe is getting married. She finds out about the upcoming wedding on social media. Al Monroe’s name seems to trigger Cassie on a path that leads to her reliving the trauma she experienced in medical school.

Cassie had a best friend at the time named Nina Fisher, whom she knew since childhood, and they were like sisters to each other. Nina’s name is often brought up in the story in relation to Cassie’s experiences in medical school. Nina and Cassie had the type of friendship where people described Cassie and Nina as “inseparable.”

Some other people from Cassie’s past are in the story, including Madison McPhee (played by Alison Brie), who was a close friend of Cassie and Nina. All three of them were in medical school at the same university. Cassie also visits Nina’s mother Mrs. Fisher (played by Molly Shannon), Forrest Union University’s Dean Walker (played by Connie Britton) and an attorney named Jordan (played by Alfred Molina).

“Promising Young Woman” has moments of being a dramatic thriller (when it comes to Cassie’s nocturnal activities) and a romantic comedy (when it comes to Cassie and Ryan’s relationship), but it becomes clear as the story goes on that the overall tone of the story is a dark satire of how society often handles the complicated issues of sexual assault. The movie shows in realistic ways that women can be just as cruel as men when it comes to blaming and shaming victims of sexual assault.

It’s important to point that out because “Promising Young Woman” is not a man-bashing movie. Rather, the movie accurately shows how people can often blur the lines of what constitutes a sexual assault when intoxication from drugs or alcohol is involved in the incident. Was there consent given because inhibitions were lowered due to intoxication, or was consent taken away because someone wasn’t thinking clearly due to intoxication?

There’s also a culture of complicity and denial when someone accused of sexual assault has a certain “respectable” public image and is considered to be “too nice” to ever be the type of person who would commit this crime. At the same time, in most countries, the law is to consider someone innocent until proven guilty in a court of law. At what point should an accused person be judged by public opinion when that person hasn’t been arrested or convicted of the crime? There are no easy answers in many cases.

And what about people who witness a crime but do nothing about it? How guilty are they and how harshly should they be judged? Those are questions that will make this movie’s viewers think about all the past and present actions of certain characters, as “Promising Young Woman” reveals more of Cassie’s background and how it’s linked to certain people in the story.

“Promising Young Woman” has some interesting soundtrack music choices that successfully demonstrate the dichotomous lifestyle and mindset of Cassie. Two dance-pop songs in particular are put to great use in separate scenes. Britney Spears’ 2003 hit “Toxic” is heard when Cassie goes on the prowl in a pivotal part of the movie. Paris Hilton’s 2006 hit “Stars Are Blind” is heard when Cassie and Ryan playfully stroll through a drugstore and act like teenagers as they sing along to the song when it’s playing over the drugstore loudspeakers.

“Toxic” and “Stars Are Blind” are clever song choices, because of the pop culture context and how it relates to Cassie’s character. Spears and Hilton, who used to be close friends, had “party girl” images when these songs were released. (Spears had her notorious meltdown a few years after “Toxic” was a hit.) Both songs were released during Cassie’s teenage years, when Spears and Hilton probably would’ve made big impressions on Cassie and Nina, who was Cassie’s best friend from childhood.

“Stars Are Blind” and “Toxic” at first seem to be lightweight pop songs, but the lyrics have deeper meaning in the context of this story. As the public now knows, the fun-loving party image presented by Hilton and Spears during their tabloid heyday masked deep-seated emotional problems. It would be easy to speculate that these songs also represent the turbulent emotional journey that Cassie has been on too. She might have imagined as a teenager when these songs were hits that she would also be a fun-loving party girl in her 20s, but her carefree spirit was shattered and she’s been left with disillusionment and broken dreams.

Mulligan gives a memorable and effective performance as Cassie, who doesn’t see herself as a heroine as much as an emotionally damaged crusader. Burnham also shows a certain nuance in his role as the “nice guy” who’s able to thaw Cassie’s cynical heart. The story unfolds in layers, and there are some unexpected twists that upend the usual expectations that viewers might have for movies that cover issues related to sexual assault.

The fact that “Promising Young Woman” is bold enough to approach the subject matter in a satirical tone without making it an offensive mockery of sexual assault is an unusual and tricky feat. Is it an empowering feminist film? Is it too dark to be enjoyable, or is it too comical to be taken seriously? The best thing about the movie is that regardless of how it’s interpreted, it will make an unforgettable impact on people who watch it.

Focus Features released “Promising Young Woman” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is January 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Happiest Season,’ starring Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Alison Brie, Aubrey Plaza, Daniel Levy, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen

December 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kristen Stewart and Mackenzie Davis in “Happiest Season” (Photo by Jojo Whilden/Hulu)

“Happiest Season”

Directed by Clea DuVall

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Pittsburg area, the romantic comedy “Happiest Season” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A closeted lesbian invites her live-in girlfriend to a family Christmas gathering, and the girlfriends agree to keep their romance a secret from the family during this visit.

Culture Audience: “Happiest Season” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing a Christmas-themed comedy about families where the central couple happens to be members of the LGBTQ community.

Pictured from left to right (in front) Asiyih N’Dobe and Anis N’Dobe and (in back) Burl Moseley, Alison Brie, Kristen Stewart, Mackenzie Davis, Mary Holland, Victor Garber and Mary Steenburgen in “Happiest Season” (Photo courtesy of Hulu)

There’s a certain formula that romantic comedy films have when they take place during the Christmas holidays and much of the plot revolves around a family get-together: Siblings have rivalries, couples have relationship problems, and at least one person in the family has a big secret that they’re desperately trying to hide. “Happiest Season” (directed by Clea DuVall) follows a lot of the same formula, except that it’s a rare Christmas-themed movie that has lesbians as the central couple in the story. Sony Pictures Entertainment’s TriStar Pictures was going to release “Happiest Season” in theaters until the company sold the movie to Hulu.

In “Happiest Season,” which takes place in the Pittsburgh area, the big secret is that one of the women in the lesbian couple still hasn’t told her family that she’s a lesbian and in a live-in relationship with a woman whom her family thinks is a platonic, heterosexual roommate. Harper Caldwell (played by Mackenzie Davis) is a journalist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and she’s been living with her girlfriend Abigail “Abby” Holland (played by Kristen Stewart), who is working on getting her Ph. D. in art history at Carnegie-Mellon University. Abby and Harper have been dating each other for a little more than a year and have been living together for the past six months.

Harper and Abby are both in their late 20s, smart and very friendly, but Abby is a little more introverted than Harper is. They have a very loving and respectful relationship, but they come from different family backgrounds. Abby is an only child. Her parents, who died when she was 19, were completely accepting of her sexuality when Abby told them that she’s gay. Harper is the youngest of three sisters, and her parents are very traditional and image-conscious. Harper has been afraid to tell her family that she’s a lesbian because she thinks that her parents will disapprove and reject her.

Harper’s parents Ted Caldwell (played by Victor Garber) and Tipper Caldwell (played by Mary Steenburgen), who live in a suburb of Pittsburgh, raised their children to be over-achievers. And now, Ted (a city councilman) is running for mayor, so Harper becomes even more conscious of the scrutiny that her family will receive because of this political campaign. It’s one of the reasons why Harper wants to delay telling her family about being a lesbian and the true nature of her relationship with Abby.

One evening, Abby and Harper take a romantic stroll during a guided Christmas tour of the neighborhood. Harper impulsively steers Abby on a detour to hop up on a stranger’s rooftop so they can get a romantic view of the city and make out with each other. But the occupants of the house hear people on the roof and almost catch Abby and Harper.

Abby barely escapes when she slips on the rooftop and finds herself hanging from the eaves of the roof. Harper tries to rescue Abby, but Abby falls into an inflatable Santa Claus in the front yard. The two women are able to run off just as the occupants of the house go outside and see the two intruders. This slapstick moment is a foreshadowing of some of the wacky-but-predictable physical comedy that happens in other scenes in the movie.

After this rooftop misadventure, Harper invites Abby to meet Harper’s family for the first time during the Christmas holidays. They plan to stay at Ted and Tipper’s family home for five days. Even though Abby says that she’s “not much of a Christmas person,” she agrees to the visit because she wants to meet Harper’s family.

Abby had committed to pet sitting for some friends during this period of time, so she has to find someone who can substitute for her on short notice. She enlists the help of her openly gay best friend John (played by Dan Levy), who is a literary agent. He agrees to take on the responsibility of pet sitting while Abby goes on this family visit that will be a turning point in her relationship with Harper.

John is somewhat stereotypical of a sassy and flamboyant gay man who usually has the role of a “tell it like it is” sidekick. However, John is also a confidant who has a lot of compassion and knows the true meaning of loyalty in a friend. Abby is going to need it, considering what she goes through in this story.

Abby tells John a secret: She plans to propose to Harper during this family holiday visit. John is skeptical of marriage, which he calls an “archaic institution,” but he’s happy for Abby and he wants the best for her. Abby explains to John why she wants to marry Harper: “It’s not about owning [her]. It’s about building a life with her.”

During Harper and Abby’s car trip to Ted and Tipper Caldwell’s home, Harper finally confesses to Abby that she’s been lying to her about what Harper’s family knows about Harper’s sexuality. Harper tells a shocked Abby that not only is her family unaware that Harper is a lesbian who’s been dating Abby, the family also doesn’t know that Abby is a lesbian too. As far as Harper’s family knows, Harper and Abby are two heterosexual women who are platonic roommates.

At first, Abby wants to back out of the trip, but Harper convinces her not to because she promises Abby that she will tell her family the whole truth after the holiday season and after the mayoral election. Harper says that she couldn’t live with the guilt if she thought her father would lose the election simply because some people wouldn’t vote for a mayor who has a child from the LGBTQ community. It’s fairly obvious that the city where Ted wants to become mayor has a lot of politically conservative voters.

At the Caldwell family home, Abby meets Ted and Tipper (who is obsessed with getting perfect photos for her Instagram account), who are somewhat condescending to Abby. They repeatedly call her “the orphan” and show gushing sympathy to her, as if she’s a little lost child. And because Tipper doesn’t know that Abby and Harper are sleeping together, Tipper tells Abby that she will be staying in a separate bedroom, which predictably leads to a few scenes of Abby and Harper sneaking into each other’s bedroom and trying not to get caught.

Ted is consumed with his mayoral campaign. One of his goals is to get the endorsement of a high-powered and influential donor named Harry Levin (played by Ana Gasteyer), who gives the impression of being a rich snob. One of the people who works with Ted in his campaign is Carolyn McCoy (played by Sarayu Blue), who is described as super-efficient and someone who is very concerned about the image projected by Ted and his family.

Because Ted and Tipper have had high expectations for their children, it’s created a fierce rivalry between Harper and her oldest sister Sloane (played by Alison Brie), who has inherited her parents’ fixation on presenting an image of having a perfect life. Sloane and her husband Eric (played by Burl Moseley) have twins who are about 7 or 8 years old: son Magnus (played by Anis N’Dobe) and daughter Matilda (played by Asiyih N’Dobe), who live such a regimented life, they come across almost like little robots.

Sloane and Eric used to be high-powered attorneys, but they gave up their jobs in the legal profession to make gift baskets for a living. However, pretentious Sloane refuses to call them gift baskets. Instead she uses this description when talking about her and Eric’s job to Abby: “We create curated gift experiences inside handmade, reclaimed wood vessels.” She also brags that Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle website Goop “picked us up and sales have been through the roof ever since.”

Harper’s other sister is Jane (played by Mary Holland, who co-wrote the “Happiest Season” screenplay with director DuVall), who has a bubbly personality but is somewhat nerdy and socially awkward. Jane, who is single with no children, has been working on a sci-fi fantasy novel for the past 10 years. Although it’s not said out loud, Ted and Tipper think of Jane as the “disappointing” child because she’s not as accomplished as her two sisters are and she has a tendency to be clumsy. Her parents think that Jane is handy when it comes to figuring out computer problems and Internet access in the house, but that’s about it.

Of course, a romantic comedy about a couple with honesty issues usually has additional complications, such the presence of ex-lovers who might or might not want to rekindle a past romance. In “Happiest Season,” Harper has not one but two people from her dating past who cause discomfort in different ways for her. The appearances of these two exes will have an effect on Abby too.

First is Harper’s ex-boyfriend Connor (played by Jake McDorman), whom Harper dated when she was in college. Connor doesn’t know that Harper broke up with him because she’s a lesbian, and he still has lingering feelings for her. Harper’s other ex who comes into the picture is a doctor named Riley (played by Aubrey Plaza), who was Harper’s first girlfriend when they were in high school together. Harper and Riley’s breakup, which is described in the movie, was very painful and it set the pattern of Harper being dishonest about her true sexuality to most of the people in her life.

And what do you know, both of these exes just happen to be at the same restaurant at the same time when the Caldwells and Abby are there for a family dinner. Connor was secretly invited by Tipper, who wishes that Harper and Connor would get back together. Riley is at the restaurant by sheer coincidence. Riley and Connor end up in other social situations with Harper and Abby, together and separately. And, as expected, Abby is jealous of Connor, while Harper gets uncomfortable when she sees Abby and Riley becoming friendly with each other.

Except for the lesbian aspects of the movie, “Happiest Season” doesn’t do much that’s different from a lot of predictable romantic comedies. There’s some over-the-top slapstick in the movie that might or might nor be amusing to viewers. This type of cheesy physical comedy somewhat lowers the quality of the movie, but it’s nothing that’s too detrimental to the story.

The romance between Harper and Abby is convincing, with Davis and Stewart handling their roles with great aplomb. Abby’s character is written with more realism and grace than Harper’s character, who is very selfish and immature during some pivotal moments in the story. Some of the best scenes in the film are those between Abby and John, as well as Abby and Riley.

“Happiest Season” works best when it touches on issues about the true meaning of family and the cost of living a lie. The movie doesn’t have any heavy-handed preaching though, and there are plenty of comical scenarios to balance out the more emotionally dramatic moments. “Happiest Season” isn’t an exceptionally well-made romantic comedy, but it has enough charm and entertaining performances to please viewers who like sentimentality with some slapstick.

Hulu premiered “Happiest Season” on November 25, 2020.

Review: ‘My Dad’s Christmas Date,’ starring Jeremy Piven

December 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jeremy Piven and Olivia-Mai Barrett in “My Dad’s Christmas Date” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“My Dad’s Christmas Date”

Directed by Mick Davis

Culture Representation: Taking place in York, England, the comedy/drama “My Dad’s Christmas Date” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old British girl tries to help her lonely widower American father by signing him up for a dating service without his permission.

Culture Audience: “My Dad’s Christmas Date” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about father/daughter relationships that blend semi-realistic comedy with sentimental drama.

Joely Richardson and Jeremy Piven in “My Dad’s Christmas Date” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The comedy/drama “My Dad’s Christmas Date” (directed by Mick Davis) is not as sappy and predictable as it first appears to be, but there are still some blatant formulaic, tearjerking moments in this family dramedy that’s elevated by a memorable performance by Olivia-Mai Barrett. The concept of the movie isn’t very original (a child plays matchmaker for a single and available parent), and any movie with the word “Christmas” in the title is almost guaranteed to have some schmaltz. Considering how badly it could’ve turned out, “My Dad’s Christmas Date” competently serves its purpose of offering inoffensive family entertainment without being too corny.

One of the better things about the movie is that it does not fall into the same predictable trap that comedic films tend to do when a teenager is one of the main characters: The teen is either a precocious brat or someone who’s too good to be true. Julia “Jules” Evans (played by Barrett), the 16-year-old at the center of “My Dad’s Christmas Date,” is neither. She’s a lot like girls her age: She’s embarrassed and frustrated by parental figures, and she’s just starting to find her identity when it comes to relationships.

Jules lives in York, England, with her American widower father David (played Jeremy Piven), a businessman who is lonely and sad enough to frequently drown his sorrows in plenty of alcohol. (He’s not an alcoholic though.) Jules and David are both grieving over the death of David’s wife/Jules’ mother, Claire Evans (played in flashbacks/hallucinations by Megan Brown), who passed away in a car accident two years before this story takes place.

Because Claire and David got married in York, it’s implied that David stayed in England permanently because of his relationship with Claire. (It’s never revealed in the movie how this couple met.) The marriage was very happy, and so Claire’s death has upended the lives of David and Jules.

Throughout the movie, David sees visions of Claire, and he goes in an almost trance-like state when he sees her. But thankfully, it’s not too over-the-top because Piven depicts it as someone basking in the glow of happy memories. The implication is clear though: David has had a hard time moving on with his life. And he thinks of Claire as an image of perfection that he doesn’t think he’ll be able to find again in another romantic partner.

Jules goes to a tuition school that requires that the students wear uniforms. Her best friend is an upbeat but gossipy fellow student at the school named Emma (played by Hadar Cats), who knows one of Jules’ biggest secrets: Jules has been dating her longtime crush Ben (played by Felix Butterwick), who has a reputation in the school for being a playboy. Later, it’s revealed in the story that Emma had been infatuated with Ben for at least two years before she and Ben started dating each other.

Jules isn’t sleeping with Ben, and there are big hints in the movie (based on what she says) that Jules is still a virgin and she wants to take things slow with Ben. Jules hasn’t told David about Ben being her boyfriend because she doesn’t know how to talk to her father about dating and the physical changes that are part of becoming a woman. She also thinks that David wouldn’t approve of Ben or any guy that she dates because David still wants to think of Jules as his little girl.

Jules is also at an age when she has to start thinking about future plans that she’ll have after she graduates from high school. Her desire for adult independence yet still being legally a child manifests in a frustration that’s very common with underage teenagers, when they argue with authority figures and act very embarrassed by what their own parents say or do. This parent/teenager bickering happens throughout “My Dad’s Christmas Date.”

For example, in an early scene where David is driving Jules to school, it’s close to the Christmas holiday season, and the arguing starts when Jules doesn’t want David to keep the car radio on while “Jingle Bells” is playing. The disagreement escalates into David expressing concern over Jules possibly making decisions because of peer pressure. “I want you to feel comfortable questioning things,” David tells Jules.

Jules snaps back, “Just because I’m a woman, I can’t think for myself, right?” David replies, “This has nothing to do with you being a woman. You know that.” Although the character of Claire is somewhat of a mystery in this story, there are signs that she influenced Jules to have a strong feminist sensibility, because it comes out in different ways throughout the story.

At school, Jules has a meeting with the headmaster Mr. Thompson (played by Roger Ashton-Griffiths), who expresses concern that Jules’ grades have gone downhill ever since her mother’s death. Mr. Thompson even has the trouble saying any words associated with the word death. It’s an awkward conversation, and Jules responds with her typical sarcasm, which she clearly inherited from her father.

Jules’ best friend Emma knows that Jules and David haven’t had a very good relationship lately. Emma thinks that David is sad and lonely and suggests that David should get set up with someone for a date. At first Jules thinks it’s a bad idea, but she later changes her mind because she decides if David has the distraction of a new love, maybe he’ll be a happier person and he won’t on her nerves as much as he does now.

Meanwhile, David is seen having a drink in a pub with his ex-girlfriend Sarah (played by Joely Richardson), who has reconnected with David since Claire died. For reasons that are never really explained in the movie, Claire despised Sarah, but David remained friendly with Sarah after he and Sarah ended their romantic relationship. Sarah is separated from her husband Mike (played by Michael Maloney), and they are co-parenting their two kids (a girl and a boy), who look like they’re about 7 or 8 years old.

David complains to Sarah that he and Jules used to get along well, but now they constantly argue. He’s not sure if it’s because of typical teen rebellion, the death of Claire or both. David asks Sarah, “What’s the cure?” Sarah quips, “Menopause.”

Jules puts her plans into motion to find David a girlfriend or at least a date for the Christmas holiday season. Without David’s knowledge or permission, she signs him up for an online dating service. Jules also pretends to be David when she’s communicating with potential dates. While impersonating David, she makes arrangements for the women to meet David in public places while Jules is there too, so she can evaluate their potential.

It’s a scheme that results in women randomly coming up to David and knowing a lot about him but he doesn’t know who they are. Of course, these shenanigans can only last for so long before David finds out the reason for these not-so-random encounters. His reaction leads to even more drama, but it makes David confront some harsh realities that he’s been using Claire’s death as an excuse to feel sorry for himself and deprive himself of trying to find happiness.

Does that mean he’ll fall in love with someone new in this story? That question is answered in the movie, which doesn’t follow the usual stereotypes of what people think might happen. Jules also goes through some relationship drama with Ben. And there comes a time when she has to decide what she wants and deserves in a romance, as well as confront the reasons why she’s been afraid to hide her relationship with Ben from her father.

“My Dad’s Christmas Date” was written by Brian Marchetti, Jack Marchetti and Toby Torlesse, who strike the right balance of a screenplay that can appeal to different generations of people. However, this movie is nowhere near being a masterpiece and has many elements of a made-for-TV movie, including a musical score that sometimes sounds like it was lifted from a generic sitcom. The movie could’ve veered into some insufferable slapstick, but thankfully, the story is mostly grounded in realism.

The father/daughter relationship is at the heart of the story. And what will appeal most to viewers is how relatable David and Jules are most of the time. Piven is known for playing sarcastic characters, but his role in the movie shows his range to portray vulnerability and someone who is damaged by grief. Barrett has the harder role, which she adeptly handles, because she has to express some very adult emotions for Jules without being too worldly for a relatively sheltered teenager.

David is not a perfect dad. He’s often gruff and cranky. Jules can be too. But it’s clear that they both love each other, and their communication problems are rooted in not being able to fully express the grief they have over the death of Claire. And if there’s a happy ending to this story, it might not be the perfect fantasy, but it’s a lot closer to real life than most other movies with the word “Christmas” in the title.

Gravitas Ventures released “My Dad’s Christmas Date” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020.

Review: ‘Fatman,’ starring Mel Gibson and Walton Goggins

December 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Mel Gibson in “Fatman” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Fatman”

Directed by Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms

Culture Representation: Taking place in Alaska and other parts of the United States, the dark comedy film “Fatman” features a predominantly white cast (with a few black people) representing the middle-class, working-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a 12-year-old bratty rich kid gets a lump of coal for Christmas, he hires a hit man to murder Santa Claus, who is a grouch dealing with his own personal issues.

Culture Audience: “Fatman” will appeal primarily to people who like movies that put a dark comedic twist on Christmas folklore, but the movie’s humor and action fall flat in too many scenes.

Walton Goggins in “Fatman” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“Fatman” is a Christmas-themed film that tries to be inventive and funny, but just ends up being not inventive enough and not funny enough to be considered a great movie. The “Fatman” plot often wanders and gets very dull. It’s as if the filmmakers want this movie to be a cult classic like 2003’s “Bad Santa” (starring Billy Bob Thornton as the title character), but they couldn’t come up with enough clever ideas to make it happen.

Written and directed by brothers Eshom Nelms and Ian Nelms, “Fatman” is essentially one in a long list of Mel Gibson movies where he plays a grouch who can get violent if anyone tries to mess with him. In “Fatman,” Gibson portrays Chris Cringle, also known as Santa Claus, a crusty curmudgeon who’s experiencing a financial crisis. Because the world has become more cynical, there are less people in the world who believe in Santa Claus. And so, the demand for his services has plummeted.

In this particular Christmas season that takes place in “Fatman,” Chris and his loyal and loving British wife Ruth Cringle (played by Marianne Jean-Baptiste) have to decide whether or not to take a government subsidy to help offset the couple’s expenses, in order to keep the Cringles’ elf-populated factory in business. (Instead of the North Pole, the Cringles live in North Peak, Alaska.) The subsidy is to pay for the elves to make control panels for FJ63 fighter jets, and Chris is very reluctant to have his factory used for this type of military work. The subsidy also isn’t very appealing to Chris because it’s only half of what he and Ruth need to get them out of their financial hole.

This dilemma is a big part of the “Fatman” plot, but it takes a while to get to that point, because so much of the story is unfocused and wastes time during the first third of the movie. Expect to see a lot of scenes with Chris just walking around being stubborn and miserable. He’s the type of “anti-hero” Santa Claus who doesn’t wear the traditional red and white suit and hat, but instead looks more like a scruffy trucker in flannel shirts, jeans and ski caps.

Although he appears to be self-absorbed and short-tempered, Chris has a “psychic” side to him, because he has the ability to know everything about people’s lives without anyone telling him. And so, when he encounters people he’s never met before, Chris often likes to catch them off guard by telling them personal details about their lives that he would have no reason to know unless he had these “psychic” abilities. He also has the ability to self-heal quickly from physical wounds, which is an obvious sign that he’s not a “regular” human being.

As an example of his “psychic” abilities, one day Chris goes inside a bar where his platonic female friend Sandy (played by Susanne Sutchy) works as a bartender. Chris sees a trucker named Mike (played by John Tokatlidis) sexually flirting with Sandy, who expresses interest in meeting up with Mike later for a tryst. While Sandy goes in another part of the bar where she can’t see Chris, he approaches Mike, even though they’ve never met before, and tells him, “Hello, Mike, I hope Nicole and the kids are doing well.”

Mike is startled and asks Chris if they know each other. Chris won’t say, but he essentially shames Mike by informing him that he knows that Mike is married with kids and shouldn’t be trying to hook up with Sandy, who doesn’t know that Mike is married. Mike is so unnerved by how this stranger knows so much about him that he quickly leaves the bar.

When Sandy comes back to where Mike was sitting, she has no idea why Mike left, but she makes a comment about how something keeps going wrong with her “dates” whenever Chris is around. It’s an example of the clunky humor in the story. The “Fatman” filmmakers seem to want this Santa Claus to be a “badass” Santa, by making this movie geared to adults (there’s foul language and bloody violence), but there are many scenes in “Fatman” where this Santa Claus’ bark is a lot worse than his actual bite when it comes to confronting or scaring people.

On the one hand, “Fatman” wants to be a dark and edgy comedy. On the other hand, there’s a lot of corny and uninteresting dialogue in the film. For example, there’s a scene where Chris and Ruth are discussing the government’s offer to pay the subsidy.

Chris says, “We are a business. And don’t kid yourself, Ruth. Altruism is not a deductible on their bottom line.” Ruth replies, “Don’t put it all on them. You’ve changed too.”

Chris continues, “You might be right. Maybe I’m just like them.” In response, Ruth says in an encouraging tone of voice, “You’ve still got it.” Chris says in a world-weary tone, “All I have is a loathing for a world that’s forgotten.”

And why is this movie called “Fatman,” even though this Santa Claus isn’t fat? Because that’s the derogatory name given to Chris by the people in the story who want him dead. One of those people is the eccentric and off-kilter assassin (played by Walton Goggins) who’s hired to murder Chris. The assassin is given the name Skinny Man in the movie’s credits (although no one actually calls him Skinny Man in the movie), and his real name is revealed toward the end of the film.

Skinny Man is one of those assassins who’s been seen in many types of dark comedies before: He’s cold as ice but he has unexpected quirks that show he has a soft spot for certain things. John Travolta’s Vincent Vega character from the 1994 classic film “Pulp Fiction” was an obvious influence for the Skinny Man character, who isn’t nearly as amusing or fun to watch as Vincent Vega.

One of the quirks that Skinny Man has is that when he drives his car, he likes to keep his pet mouse in the passenger seat. He will go to certain lengths to make sure that the mouse is comfortable. He also has a fixation on items that have a label that shows that it was made in Santa’s workshop. It’s explained later in the movie why Skinny Man is so attracted to these items.

Skinny Man was hired to kill Santa Claus by a sociopathic wealthy kid named Billy Wenan (played by Chance Hurstfield), who is 12 years old and lives in an unnamed part of the U.S. that isn’t Alaska. Billy is supposed to come across as a “poor little rich boy” because his workaholic single father is rarely at home and he neglects Billy. (Billy’s father is never seen in the movie. Billy’s mother is not seen or mentioned.) Even though Billy is essentially a loner who’s mostly ignored by his father, Billy is really just an entitled and vindictive brat who goes to extreme lengths to get what he wants.

Billy has a collection of Best of Show blue ribbons that he won in science fairs. He is so proud of these ribbons that he shows them off on the lapels of his suit blazers that he likes to wear, even around the house. Billy’s ailing grandmother Ann Marie (played by Deborah Grover) is his main caretaker. However, because of her physical condition (she has an oxygen tube and often uses a wheelchair), Anne Marie can’t keep track of all that Billy does, and she basically lets him do whatever he wants. Ann Marie also mistakenly thinks that Billy is a good and obedient child.

How cruel is Billy? When he comes in second place at a recent science fair, he publicly congratulates the winner—a fellow classmate named Christine Crawford (played by Ellison Grier Butler)—but privately, he plots his revenge. Billy ends up hiring Skinny Man to kidnap Christine, who is held captive and ordered by Billy to give up her winner’s title for the science fair. He concocts a plan for Christine to lie to the science fair authorities by making a false confession that she cheated in her winning science fair project. Billy figures that the authorities will then take the winner’s title away from Christine, and then Billy will be named the winner by default.

On Christmas Day, Billy’s father isn’t at home because he’s working somewhere. Billy is essentially alone when he unwraps his presents. And he finds that because Santa Claus knows that Billy has been “naughty,” Billy has received nothing but a lump of coal from Santa Claus. Billy is so angry that he goes outside in the snow and yells to the sky, “You just messed up big time, Fatman!”

When Billy hires Skinny Man to murder Santa Claus, they both use the name Fatman to describe Santa Claus. Billy steals some of his grandmother’s checks and forges her signature in order to pay the assassin. It’s very stupid to leave this kind of easily traced paper trail for an assassin payment—one of many unnecessary plot holes in this sloppily written movie. Ever hear about paying in cash? And the person whose checks were stolen can eventually find out about the stolen money through bank records.

“Fatman” isn’t even that much of an action movie, since the only real showdown happens in the last 20 minutes of the film. And even that confrontation is predictable and filmed in a very “by the numbers” formulaic way. And really, when the movie shows way in advance that Santa Claus has a supernatural ability to heal quickly from physical wounds, there’s no suspense in what will happen if he gets shot or injured in vital organs.

Goggins seems to be having some fun with his mysterious assassin character, but the rest of the cast members appear to be just going through the motions. There are supporting characters in the movie that come and go with no real purpose or have wasted potential, and the main characters are often one-note and predictable. For example, a U.S. military official named Captain Jacobs (played by Robert Bockstael) makes frequent visits to the Cringle home and factory. This character, which could have been hilarious or memorable, is as bland as bland can be.

At this point, Gibson has played so many gruff characters in movies, he can do it in his sleep. “Fatman” might offer some mild and occasional laughs to people with low expectations. Just like the bad gift that Billy gets in “Fatman,” the movie is like a Christmas present that looks enticing on the outside, but once you unwrap it, you find out it’s really just a disappointing and useless piece of coal.

Saban Films released “Fatman” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020, and on digital and VOD on November 24, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment will release “Fatman” on Blu-ray and DVD on January 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Half Brothers,’ starring Luis Gerardo Méndez and Connor Del Rio

December 4, 2020

by Carla Hay

Luis Gerardo Méndez and Connor Del Rio in “Half Brothers” (Photo by John Golden Britt/Focus Features)

“Half Brothers”

Directed by Luke Greenfield

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico and the United States, the comedy film “Half Brothers” features a cast of Latino and white characters representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two half-brothers—one who’s Mexican and the other who’s American—have conflicts with each other when they’re forced to go on a road trip together as part of their father’s dying wish.

Culture Audience: “Half Brothers” will appeal primarily to people who like dumb comedies with obnoxious main characters.

Juan Pablo Espinosa and Ian Inigo in “Half Brothers” (Photo by John Golden Britt/Focus Features)

What does it say about a movie when a goat is the most appealing character in the film? A goat is used as a “cute pet” gimmick in the awful and dimwitted comedy film “Half Brothers,” which takes a very unoriginal comedy concept (two opposite people who don’t get along are forced to spend time together) and shoves it in viewers’ faces in extremely annoying levels. The movie is also filled with hateful stereotypes about Mexican and American cultures without any sense of witty irony. And the movie becomes so repetitious that many viewers will be bored enough to fall asleep.

“Half Brothers” (directed by Luke Greenfield and written by Eduardo Cisneros and Jason Shuman) is the type of movie that seems like it could’ve been a made in a previous century when people were more accepting of stupid comedies that rely too heavily on broad ethnic stereotypes. What’s worse is that “Half Brothers” is one of those movies that thinks it’s funny but it’s not, so it uses the same type of ethnic jokes for the entire movie. That’s not to say that racial and nationality differences can’t be used in comedy, but there has to be some intelligence behind it or something that will make people think about race and nationality in a more important context, instead of just spewing hate.

Everything about “Half Brothers” reeks of toxic masculinity and the misguided idea that being loud-mouthed or a jerk automatically means that you’re funny. And this is one of those movies where almost all of the women with speaking roles are literally only in the movie to play characters who either marry the men, work for the men, or be nuns. It’s just such a disgusting display of small-minded, outdated and idiotic sexism.

There’s supposed to be a big “treasure hunt” aspect to the story that has an outcome that is incredibly predictable to anyone smart enough to notice the obvious recurring theme about the father/son relationships in this movie. The beginning of the film takes place in San Miguel De Allende, Mexico. Viewers see a father named Flavio Murguía (played by Juan Pablo Espinosa) watching while his son Renato (played by Ian Inigo), who looks like he’s about 10 or 11 years old, is flying a remote-controlled toy plane.

Flavio (who is an aviation engineer) and Renato both love planes, and Flavio promises Renato that one day, he will build a real plane for Renato. However, Renato is quite the little brat because he likes to fly his toy plane as a way for it to pester people, scare unsuspecting victims, or do property damage. Flavio thinks it’s hilarious that Renato uses the remote-controlled plane to cause mischief, and he encourages his son to irritate people with pranks. Sometimes Flavio gets in on the pranks too. Flavio also lets his underage child drink beer with him. It’s all Flavio’s way of bonding with Renato, who is Flavio’s only child at this point.

Renato is too young to know that any parent who acts this irresponsibly is going to end up hurting people emotionally. And that’s exactly what happens to Renato, as well as Flavio’s wife Rene (played by Bianca Marroquin), who is Renato’s mother. She’s one of those passive wives who has a “boys will be boys” attitude when she sees how her husband is teaching their son some questionable morals.

San Miguel De Allende is hit hard by an economic depression. Businesses in the area are shut down, and unemployment is high. The Murguía family sees a news report on TV that the demand for the U.S. dollar is much greater than the Mexican peso. Flavio ends up reluctantly leaving his family to travel to the United States with a group of other Mexicans to try and find work.

When Flavio arrives in the U.S., life is tough for him because he doesn’t speak English at first. In the movie, it’s implied that he’s an undocumented immigrant. Therefore, he can’t get a job in his chosen profession. He has to do menial jobs with other Mexican immigrants.

There’s a scene where Flavio is in a group of Mexican immigrants who are hired on a farm as cheap labor to replace the American workers. The scene literally shows the Mexican immigrants walking past the laid-off American workers, who stare at the Mexicans with hatred. This movie is not subtle at all about its intentions to fan the flames of bigotry in many of its scenes.

It’s not shown right away in the movie, but it’s eventually revealed that Flavio has learned English and gotten a job working for an American aviation company in Chicago. Because he’s supposed to be “brilliant,” according to this movie, Flavio comes up with some clever engineering ideas that catches the eye of a woman whose family owns the company. Her name is Katherine (played by Ashley Poole), and she and Flavio end up having an affair.

Flavio has feelings of guilt about the affair and plans to go back to Mexico to his family. But Katherine gets pregnant (Flavio is the father) and gives birth to a boy named Asher. Through a serious of circumstances, Flavio never goes back to Mexico, and he essentially abandons his first family to start a new life with Katherine and Asher. Flavio also becomes a successful executive at the airplane company.

Flavio dumps his wife Rene over the phone. She and Renato are devastated to find out that Flavio is not coming home as promised. Rene and Flavio eventually get divorced. Flavio marries Katherine and spends the rest of his life in Chicago with her and their son Asher, who is the only child they have together. However, Asher is a strange and hyper kid, and Flavio isn’t that great of a father to him either. Flavio doesn’t really emotionally connect with Asher, who grows up feeling doubts that his father truly accepts him.

Years later, Renato (played by Luis Gerardo Méndez) is now a 35-year-old ambitious and aggressive entrepreneur who has started his own successful aviation company in Mexico. He is engaged to be married to a single mother named Pamela (played by Pia Watson), whose son Emilio (played by Mikey Salazar), who’s about 7 or 8 years old, is someone Renato feels uncomfortable being around because he thinks Emilio is too weird. Emilio does things like walk around wearing gory Halloween masks, and he uses squirt guns filled with green goo on Pamela and Renato. It’s an obvious cry for attention, but Renato just treats the kid like a pest.

The adult Renato is also extremely prejudiced against Americans. He hates America so much that he refuses to expand his company into the United States. In an early scene in the movie with the adult Renato, he’s doing an interview with an American female reporter (played by Shira Scott Astrof), and Renato spews a lot of hateful rhetoric about Americans. Renato’s publicist Perla (played by Nohelia Sosa Crisafulli), who is there during the interview, nervously tries to change the subject.

Renato’s rant includes him telling the reporter his list of reasons for why he despises Americans: “They’re entitled, they’re ignorant, they think Mexico is just a bunch of drug cartels and Cancún. They’re idiots. And you know what else? They’re fat!”

Even after this incredibly xenophobic tirade, this movie excuses Renato’s ignorant mindset by having the two women laugh it off. It makes all of them look stupid. And it’s a gross display of how the filmmakers think it’s funny too.

At home, Renato is just as insufferable as he is at work. While going over the guest list for their wedding, his fiancée Pamela points out to Renato that he only has three guests, while she has 60 guests. She half-teasingly comments that Renato has no friends. It’s one of the few things in this movie that makes sense, because Renato is a self-centered and arrogant bigot.

Meanwhile, when Pamela mentions to Renato that her son Emilio is being bullied at his school, she asks Renato to give Emilio a pep talk to make Emilio feel better. Renato reluctantly talks to Emilio, and Pamela notices that Renato makes only half-hearted and awkward efforts to bond with her son. Pamela wonders out loud to Renato if she should marry someone who can’t really love her son like a father should.

The wedding is five days away when Renato gets an unexpected call from Katherine, his father’s second wife. Katherine tells Renato that Flavio is dying (she never says what kind of illness he has), and she asks Renato to come to Chicago to see Flavio before he passes away. Renato’s immediate reaction is to say no, but Pamela talks him into going on the trip.

When he arrives in Chicago, Renato’s rideshare driver Irene (played by Mona Malec), who picks him up at the airport, is his worst nightmare because she’s every stereotype that he thinks about Americans: She’s overweight and ignorant about Mexican culture. Upon hearing that Renato is from Mexico, Irene starts speaking to him louder and slower (as if he can’t understand English) and then asks him what Cancún is like. Irene is also shocked to hear that Renato has never ziplined in his life, because she thinks that ziplining is the main leisure activity in Mexico.

At a coffee shop, Renato is standing in line when he sees a loudmouthed red-haired man doing a livestream on his phone, as if he’s some kind of social-media star. After he finishes his livestream, the man gets behind Renato in line and asks him for money to buy a donut. A disgusted Renato says no, but the man keeps pestering Renato to give him money.

The motormouth redhead notices that the barista behind the counter has a nametag with the name Beatrice, but he insists on pronouncing her name as Beat Rice. When Renato gets to the counter, he tells the barista Beatrice (played by Teresa Decher) that he wants to buy all the donuts in the shop, and he wants her to immediately throw the donuts away. He flashes a wad of cash to make it happen, while the pesky redhead behind him tells Renato that what he just did is cruel. Renato just smirks.

But is this the last time that Renato will see this irritating loser? Of course not. When Renato goes to the hospital to visit Flavio on his death bed, who walks in the room just a few minutes later? The redhead from the coffee shop. And it should come as no surprise to anyone but Renato that this guy is his half-brother Asher (played by Connor Del Rio), who becomes more and more obnoxious as the story goes on.

After Flavio very awkwardly introduces the brothers to each other, he tells them that he has a gift for them. It’s an envelope with a message that leads to some clues for a hunt to what Flavio hints is a big treasure. They have to find someone or something Eloise at the end of the trip. And Flavio insists that the only way they can get the treasure is if they do the hunt together.

And of course, it’s a cross-country trip because there would be no “Half Brothers” movie without a contrivance of these two cretins being stuck together for days during this road trip. The brothers are too greedy not to find out what this treasure is. And there’s a “race against time” because Renato needs to get back to Mexico in time for his wedding.

Keep in mind that Renato met Asher just five days before his wedding. Flavio dies very soon after Renato and Asher meet each other. But somehow, this moronic movie crams in Flavio’s funeral too, even though it would take at least a few days for the funeral to be prepared, thereby taking time away from the road trip. Therefore, the timeline of the road trip doesn’t add up. But the “Half Brothers” filmmakers think people watching this movie are too stupid to notice a big stinking plot hole like this one.

During the road trip, Renato takes on the role of the “smart” brother, who is condescending to “dumb” brother Asher, whose job experience includes being a “brand ambassador” (someone who hands out flyers) and a failed waiter at Chili’s. Renato likes meticulous planning. Asher is impulsive. You get the idea of how the rest of the movie is going to go.

The goat comes into the picture early on in the road trip, when Renato makes the mistake of falling asleep while letting Asher drive the bright orange Mercedes-Benz 300TD Turbodiesel that they take on the trip. When Renato wakes up, he sees Asher running away from a farm with a young goat in his arms. Some angry farm employees are chasing after Asher, but he’s able to put the goat in the car and drive away before he can get caught.

Asher stole the goat because he thought the goat was silently speaking to him to free it from the farm. And why did Asher stop at the farm in the first place? He saw a road sign advertising that the farm was open to visitors. Renato is furious when he finds out that Asher took a detour of more than 100 miles to go to the farm. The goat is really the only adorable thing about this terrible movie.

“Half Brothers” is a series of these not-very-funny scenarios that usually involve Asher doing something idiotic that causes a setback, and Renato getting angry at him and trying the fix the mess that Asher made. The brothers get into predictable fist fights too. And as for Eloise, this movie can’t even come up with a good mystery in this treasure hunt because it’s so obvious what the “treasure” is, if you think about what a guilt-ridden Flavio would give as his final gift for his sons to find.

Aside from the terrible jokes in “Half Brothers,” the movie’s road trip is very unimaginative and doesn’t show much appreciation for the different locales that are visited. The personalities of these two louts don’t get better as the trip goes on. They get worse, until the movie tries to cram in some phony sentimentality at the end that anyone with a brain can see coming. It’s enough to say that the ending of “Half Brothers” is as creatively bankrupt as the rest of the movie.

Focus Features released “Half Brothers” in U.S. cinemas on December 4, 2020.

Review: ‘The Twentieth Century,’ starring Dan Beirne, Sarianne Cormier, Catherine St-Laurent, Mikhaïl Ahooja, Brent Skagford, Seán Cullen and Louis Negin

November 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sarianne Cormier and Dan Beirne in “The Twentieth Century” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“The Twentieth Century”

Directed by Matthew Rankin

Culture Representation: Taking place in in Canada in the late 1910s to early 1920s, the comedic film “The Twentieth Century” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: William Lyon Mackenzie King encounters several personal and professional obstacles in his eventual rise to power as prime minister of Canada.

Culture Audience: “The Twentieth Century” will appeal primarily to people who would be interested in very offbeat films that have satirical commentary about Canadian culture and politics.

Catherine St-Laurent and Mikhaïl Ahooja in “The Twentieth Century” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

The unconventional satire “The Twentieth Century” takes a madcap, sometimes gender-bending look at the rise of the political career of William Lyon Mackenzie King, who served as the 10th prime minister of Canada for three non-consecutive terms, from 1921 to 1926; 1926 to 1930; and 1935 to 1948. Viewers don’t have to know any Canadian history to enjoy the movie, although this type of historical knowledge does help. “The Twentieth Century” is not recommended for anyone who isn’t interested in any movie that can be described as “weird.” But for people who are open to seeing a very original and sometimes bizarre retelling of King’s political origins, buckle up for a wild and wooly ride.

Written and directed by Matthew Rankin, “The Twentieth Century” is his feature-film debut, and it makes a bold statement that Rankin doesn’t want to conform to the usual expectations of first-time independent filmmakers. The movie is structured and designed to almost look like a play. Cinematically, “The Twentieth Century” pays homage to the “soft glow” look of movies that were released during the 1910s and 1920s, the era when this story takes place. And the screenplay, which is divided into 10 chapters, goes off in some unexpected tangents that don’t always land well when it comes to comedy, but they’re at least memorable and attempt to show originality.

Dan Beirne portrays King, who goes by the name Mackenzie, as someone who’s not only very ambitious but also a sad sack who’s browbeaten by his domineering mother (played by Louis Negin, in one of several gender-bending roles in the film) into fulfilling her prediction of Mackenzie becoming prime minister of Canada, or at least having a high-ranking position in the Canadian government. In the movie, Beirne looks under the age of 40, when in reality, King (who was a member of the Liberal Party) first became prime minister of Canada at the age of 47. The real King died in 1950, at the age of 75.

Mackenzie’s father (played by Richard Jutras), who is somewhat of an outcast in his own home, lives downstairs while his bedridden, cranky wife lives upstairs. The father’s only companion is a white cockatoo named Giggles, which is an obvious puppet in the movie. Mackenzie has promised his father a prestigious position in the government if Mackenzie rises to a leadership position as planned.

Canada’s colonial histories with the United Kingdom and France are exemplified by the two “loves” of Mackenzie’s life in the story. He falls for a British beauty named Ruby Elliott (played by Catherine St-Laurent), when he first sees her. She’s playing a harp, and Mackenzie has never heard music before. There’s a running joke in the movie that Mackenzie keeps mistakenly calling a harp a “trumpet” because he doesn’t know the difference between the two musical instruments.

Ruby is the daughter of Lord Muto (played by Seán Cullen), the new autocratic governor general of the land. No sooner does Mackenzie try to court Ruby and try to gain clout with Lord Muto, Ruby goes away to fight in the war, which is not named but is presumably World War I. Mackenzie is disappointed that he won’t get to woo Ruby, but he’s got other things that occupy his time until Ruby can return home to Canada.

Although Mackenzie has Ruby very much on his mind, another woman comes into his life who could also become his love interest: a French nurse named Ernestine Lapointe (played by Sarianne Cormier), who works for Mackenzie’s mother but is fired when his mother gets very irritated with Nurse Lapointe for a petty mistake. Ernestine Lapointe is a character that is an obvious nod to King’s real-life political aide Ernest Lapointe. Ernestine is immediately smitten with Mackenzie, but it takes a while for him to warm up to her.

Throughout the story, Mackenzie checks in with a sick, bedridden child named Charlotte (played by Satine Scarlett Montaz), who is in a large hospital room with other sick, bedridden children. At the beginning of the movie, Charlotte asks Mackenzie if he will outlaw tuberculosis when he becomes the leader of Canada. He promises her that he will. Although it’s not stated in the movie, these hospital patients could be part of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which was going on at the time this movie takes place.

While Ruby is away at war, Mackenzie enters a political competition for a “test of leadership.” The challenges include ribbon cutting; leg wrestling; waiting your turn; being blindfolded and identifying smells; urinating in snow and spelling out your name in the snow while urinating; endurance tickling; and clubbing of baby seals. (Real animals are not used in the movie.)

Mackenzie ends up tied for second place with Arthur Meighen (played by Brent Skagford), who becomes his political rival for the rest of the movie, as Meighen (another former Canadian prime minister) was a rival to King in real life. The person who won the competition is Henry Albert “Bert” Harper (played by Mikhaïl Ahooja), who cedes his candidacy and recommends that Mackenzie be declared the winner, but the judge in charge refuses this request. In real life, Harper was a journalist who became an ally of King’s.

And now for the really weird stuff: Mackenzie has a shoe fetish. There are some scenes where he masturbates while inhaling into a shoe. For whatever reason, every shoe that he masturbates to looks like a woman’s work ankle boot.

Mackenzie hates seeing shoes that are randomly placed somewhere. When a female neighbor places her work shoes in the hallway, he complains about it being “unsanitary.” And in another scene, when a female construction worker drops one of her shoes near Mackenzie and asks him to return the shoe by tossing it back up to her, he instead runs away with the shoe and masturbates to it.

There’s a character named Dr. Milton Wakefield (played by Kee Chan), who gives Mackenzie a cactus plant. This cactus eventually grows so large that it almost reaches the ceiling of Mackenzie’s bedroom. And every time Mackenzie masturbates and climaxes, the cactus erupts with liquid substances that won’t be described in this review.

In real life, there’s a Canadian politician named Milton Wakefield, who was the Saskatchewan Party member of the Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan for the constituency of Lloydminster from 1999 to 2007, long after King died. There seems to be no plausible explanation for why there’s a character named Milton Wakefield in the story and why this character is interacting with King, because in real life, King died when Wakefield (who was born in 1939 or 1940) was a child.

One of the more memorable characters in the movie is Lady Violet (played by Emmanuel Schwartz), who is Lord Muto’s eldest daughter and Ruby’s sister. There’s a scene at a dinner party where Lord Muto attempts to play matchmaker with Violet and Mackenzie. Violet is brutally sarcastic and very jaded. She says lines like, “Canada is just one failed orgasm after another.”

Throughout the movie, Rankin keeps a very off-kilter tone that will thrill viewers who like unique wackiness but will turn off viewers who just don’t see the point of many of the movie’s scenes. Beirne carries the movie with a lot of admirable gusto, while the rest of the cast members give fairly good performances. “The Twentieth Century” is not a satire that makes any meaningful political statements about Canada. However, it does have enough oddball unpredictability, sly metaphors and eye-catching visuals that make it hard to look away.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “The Twentieth Century” in select U.S. cinemas on November 20, 2020. The movie’s release date on digital and VOD is December 11, 2020.

Review: ‘The Climb’ (2020), starring Michael Angelo Covino and Kyle Marvin

November 17, 2020

by Carla Hay

Kyle Marvin and Michael Angelo Covino in “The Climb” (Photo by Zach Kuperstein/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Climb” (2020)

Directed by Michael Angelo Covino 

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and France, the comedy/drama film “The Climb” has an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two men, who are longtime best friends, have ups and downs in their relationship, which is often affected by jealousy and personal rivalries.

Culture Audience: “The Climb” will appeal primarily to people who like seeing low-budget films that take a bittersweet and comical look at a close male friendship.

Kyle Marvin, Michael Angelo Covino and Gayle Rankin in “The Climb” (Photo by Zach Kuperstein/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Climb” is the type of dramedy movie that doesn’t really get made much anymore: It’s about two regular guys and their longtime friendship, with the movie taking place over the course of about 10 years. That’s it. There’s no real gimmick or hook, although there’s the predictable love triangle that threatens to permanently ruin their relationship. “The Climb” isn’t a barrier-breaking movie, but it has moments that are mostly relatable, even if they might teeter at times on the brink of absurd.

The two American friends at the center of “The Climb” are portrayed by the real-life pals who wrote the movie: “The Climb” director/co-writer Michael Angelo Covino plays Mike, while “The Climb” co-writer Kyle Marvin plays Kyle. “The Climb” is based on Covino and Marvin’s short film of the same name. Their real-life friendship helps with their acting in the movie, which at times is a tad amateurish, but it still has that underlying authenticity that shines through the acting. The ages of the Mike and Kyle characters aren’t stated in the movie, but it appears that the story is about the lives of these two characters from their late 20s to late 30s.

“The Climb” is not biographical, although in the production notes for “The Climb,” Covino and Marvin say that elements of their personalities are reflected in the characters that they portray in the movie. As Covino states in the production notes: “In the movie, there are heightened, extreme versions of traits we both have that aren’t necessarily our best traits—I’m not that big of an asshole, and Kyle is not that big of a pushover.”

It’s apparent from the first scene in “The Climb” that the character of Mike is the dominant “alpha male” in the friendship, while Kyle is the passive “beta male.” Mike and Kyle are riding bicycles up a rigorous incline in the French Alps. They’re supposed to be bike riding for “fun,” but it’s clear from all the strenuous effort put into their bike riding that there’s a silent competition between them to see who’s the better and stronger cyclist during this ride.

The friendly rivalry mood is broken when Mike tells Kyle that he has slept with Kyle’s fiancée, who is a French woman named Ava (played by Judith Godrèche). Mike downplays this affair by saying that it happened three years before Kyle and Ava began dating, but Kyle is still understandably shocked and upset that this secret is just now being revealed. And then Mike eventually admits that he slept with Ava after she and Kyle became a couple.

Mike has a tendency to be bossy and arrogant, because he always likes to be in control of a situation. He tells Kyle to keep pedaling, even after Kyle has heard this upsetting news about Mike and Ava’s affair. Mike also has a quick temper, because during this bike ride, he gets into a road-rage incident that lands him in the hospital. Shortly after Mike confesses to Kyle about the affair, a car drives up behind them on the road, and the car’s driver beeps the horn impatiently because Kyle and Mike are blocking the car’s way.

Mike’s response is to yell at the driver to drive around him and Kyle. The driver complies by driving past the two friends, but Mike won’t let things go, and he chases after the car on his bike. To Mike and Kyle’s surprise, the driver reacts by getting out of the car and beating up Mike, who is no match for the fighting skills of the driver. You’d think that Mike would be humbled by this experience. But no.

At the hospital, Ava shows up to visit. Although she seems to feel guilty that Kyle knows that she cheated on him with his best friend, Mike tries to shrug off everything and acts like Kyle will eventually get over it. Viewers will get the impression that a big part of Mike’s attraction to Ava is because she’s with Kyle, and Mike gets some kind of selfish and competitive pleasure out of being able to sleep with his best friend’s lover.

At any rate, Mike and Ava admit that don’t want to stay away from each other and they start to passionately kiss in Mike’s hospital room. And guess who walks by and sees them right at that moment? Kyle, of course.

The movie then fast-forwards to a funeral in the United States. The funeral has taken place an untold number of years later, perhaps three or four years after that scene in the hospital. It’s revealed that the funeral is for Ava, whose cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. In the years since Kyle found out that Ava and Mike had an affair behind his back, Mike and Kyle’s friendship soured. Ava and Mike got married, and then she died.

At the funeral, Mike and Kyle have obviously not seen each other for quite some time. Their “reunion” is awkward, to say the least. And then at the funeral, a hot-tempered Mike gets into a physical fight with a local gravedigger over the burial of Ava. Kyle, who has a “peacemaker” type of personality, intervenes in the fight and is able to stop it before things get really ugly. Mike then tells Kyle that he’s sorry about the affair with Ava. And it looks like Kyle and Mike sort of reconcile.

Since breaking up with Ava, Kyle moved on to another love: a no-nonsense, opinionated woman named Marissa (played by Gayle Rankin), who is the dominant one in the relationship. It’s never stated exactly how long Marissa and Kyle have been dating each other after his relationship with Ava ended, but Kyle and Marissa have known each other since high school and one thing is clear: Kyle’s mother Suzi (played by Talia Balsam), who is also strong-willed and domineering, doesn’t like Marissa. Kyle’s father Jim (played by George Wendt) is as easygoing as Suzi is uptight.

Kyle seems afraid to stand up to his mother, because when viewers first see Marissa and Kyle together, they are in the basement at Jim and Suzi’s house, and Marissa is giving Kyle a pep talk where they both practice saying “no” to Suzi. The family has gathered for Thanksgiving dinner. And it’s where Kyle and Marissa make a big announcement: They’re engaged to be married.

Suzi isn’t thrilled, but there’s nothing she can do about it. And then she tells Kyle something that makes him uncomfortable: She’s invited Mike over for the family’s upcoming Christmas dinner because Mike “has no family.” It’s never explained in the movie why Mike has no family members.

Mike is now a bitter and lonely widower who drinks heavily. He once had an athletic body, but his toned physique is gone, and now he has a flabby “beer gut” and an unkempt beard. And when he shows up at the Christmas dinner, he gets drunk and embarrasses himself. You know what that means in movies like this: A Christmas tree, a Christmas gift or fill-in-the-blank will be unlucky enough to be in the path of destruction of the drunk person.

The rest of the movie follows Mike and Kyle as they mend their friendship and adjust to new dynamics in their relationship after Kyle and Marissa become parents to a son named Otis, and then Kyle and Marissa get married. Mike is the type of guy who isn’t used to being a lonely bachelor, so he has some jealousy over Kyle falling in love and making Marissa a top priority in his personal life. Will Mike try to sabotage Kyle and Marissa’s relationship?

Things aren’t completely rosy in Kyle and Marissa’s relationship. After Mike comes back into Kyle’s life, Marissa often feels like a “third wheel” when Mike and Kyle hang out together. And there are hints that Marissa might not be in love with Kyle as much as he’s in love with her.

Although “The Climb” has some slightly amusing moments, one of the biggest issues that people might have with this movie is that it doesn’t give much background information on Kyle and Mike. Backstories for these two friends would go a long way in explaining why Kyle puts up with so much of Mike’s obnoxiousness. The movie never really answers this question: Why does Kyle show so much loyalty to Mike, who doesn’t show much loyalty in return?

Some people stay friends with someone longer than they should because they’ve known each other since childhood or because family or money matters would make it awkward or inconvenient to end the friendship. But there’s really no reason for Kyle to keep Mike in his life. They don’t work together, they don’t seem to have much in common except for a shared interest in sporting activities, and they both have very different outlooks and priorities in life.

Someone as selfish and toxic as Mike is an example of that old cliché: “With friends like these, who needs enemies?” But Mike isn’t a complete villain. He has a charming side to him and is the type of person who knows how to exploit people’s weaknesses, which is why Kyle is easily manipulated by Mike.

Still, the movie skimps on a lot of details. During the course of the several years of the friendship that’s shown on screen, it’s not really made clear what Kyle and Mike do for a living. (They’re obviously middle-class.) Mike’s home life as a widower is also a big mystery. Whenever Mike and Kyle are hanging out together, they’re usually at Kyle’s place or they’re out doing some activity together, such as bike riding or skiing.

Covino’s direction of the movie can best be described as “good but not great,” because the tone sometime veers into sitcom-ish territory. A more naturalistic comedic tone works better for the movie and should have been the overall consistent approach to the film. For example, there are a few things that happen during Kyle and Marissa’s wedding ceremony that are just a little too over-the-top, like a TV comedy that’s desperate for a “laugh track” moment.

The movie is divided into seven chapters with titles such as “I’m Sorry,” “Let Go,” “Thanks,” “It’s Broken,” “Fight On,” “Grow Up” and “Fine.” It’s an interesting creative choice, but because there are huge blocks of time missing from the story, structuring the movie like a book with chapters just calls more attention to these omissions and how many questions are left unanswered. (For example, viewers never get to see what kind of marriage that Ava and Mike had.)

The cinematography by Zach Kuperstein makes much of the story engaging. During the Christmas dinner scene, there’s a memorably long tracking shot that works really well, with the camera placed outside but viewers still being able to hear what’s inside. And the scenes with outdoor activities give viewers an immersive sense of being right there with the actors. (It helps to see this movie on the biggest screen possible.)

Above all, the banter between Kyle and Mike is the main reason to watch “The Climb,” because they have the type of friendship that will make people wonder how long it’s going to last and if there’s anything that Mike will do that Kyle wouldn’t be able to forgive. There are issues of masculinity and maturity that are just underneath the surface in almost everything they say or do. Kyle might be the “wimp” and the more easily manipulated one of this duo, but Mike has a lot of growing up to do. Viewers might have different answers on whether Mike or Kyle is the more co-dependent one in the relationship.

As for the women in the movie (namely, Marissa and Suzi, since Ava is barely in the film), they mainly exist to show that Kyle has outspoken women in his life whom he loves but they can also hurt him deeply. It’s too bad the movie doesn’t give Mike any context for how and why he acts the way that he does. It’s not necessarily about making him more likable, but it would give viewers more insight into his personality flaws.

There are vague inferences that Mike’s romantic relationships are often based in chaos. But because the movie shows almost nothing of Mike’s life except when it relates to Kyle, there’s a missed opportunity to show Mike as a more well-rounded human being instead of someone who exists to hang out with Kyle and to sometimes push Kyle’s emotional buttons. It would’ve been interesting for the movie to further explore how Mike’s mother or other women might have influenced his outlook on male/female relationships.

Despite some of the problems in story’s structure and character development, “The Climb” has an unpretentious, almost goofy tone that will endear it to people who want to see a good movie about male friendship without making it about over-aggerated machismo or slapstick buffoonery. There’s a familiarity to a lot of the movie’s material, but Covino and Marvin make a notable impression as “everyday guys” without being generic. “The Climb” is a movie about a friendship that’s more like “chosen family,” even when that choice sometimes get in the way of happiness.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Climb” in select U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020.

Review: ‘Freaky,’ starring Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton

November 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vince Vaughn and Kathryn Newton in “Freaky” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Freaky”

Directed by Christopher Landon

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. city of Blissfield, the horror comedy “Freaky” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old girl and a middle-aged serial killer swap bodies in a freak magical spell accident. 

Culture Audience: “Freaky” will appeal primarily to people who like teen-oriented horror with adult humor and who have a high tolerance for bloody gore.

Kathryn Newton, Celeste O’Connor and Misha Osherovich in “Freaky” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The horror comedy “Freaky” is a zany and often-raucous ride that puts a gruesome but memorable spin on the body-swapping concept. The entire premise of the movie is “Freaky Friday” meets “Friday the 13th.” Directed by Christopher Landon (who co-wrote the screenplay with Michael Kennedy), “Freaky” delivers as many laughs as it does explicitly brutal scares with all of the violent murders that happen throughout the entire story.

“Freaky” also cleverly lampoons many of the clichés and over-used tropes in teen comedies and horror movies. “Freaky” is from Blumhouse Productions, the same production company behind Landon-directed horror flicks “Happy Death Day” and “Paranormal Activity: The Marked Ones.” Blumhouse movies have been “hit or miss,” in terms of quality. “Freaky” is a definite hit.

The movie begins in the fictional U.S. city of Blissfield, with four teenagers hanging out and partying at night at the upper-middle-class home of one of the teens. The house belongs to the parents of Ginny (played by Kelly Lamor Wilson), who looks like a popular blonde cheerleader type. Ginny’s parents are away on a trip, which is why Ginny and her friends have the house to themselves. The other three teenagers at the house are Ginny’s boyfriend Evan (played by Mitchell Hoog); Sandra (played by Emily Holder); and Isaac (played by Nicholas Stargel). Evan and Isaac are athletic types, while Sandra is a sensible brunette type.

It’s Wednesday, November 11. While the teens are gathered in the living room and drinking alcohol, they start talking about the urban legend of the the Blissfield Butcher, also known as The Butcher, a mysterious serial killer who began murdering people, especially teenagers during homecoming season, back in the 1990s. This serial killer, who seems to have stopped his murder spree in the 2000s, was never caught.

Is he dead? Is he in prison for another crime? Or did he just disappear and become a law-abiding citizen? No one seems to know, but the teens have a laugh at how “geriatric” the killer would be if he were still alive. It’s at this point that horror aficionados know that the killer will be somewhere in the house and ready to go on a rampage.

Sure enough, The Butcher (played by Vince Vaughn) has somehow snuck in the house. (He wears a mask, just like a prototypical serial killer such as Jason Vorhees from the “Friday the 13th” movies or Michael Myers from “Halloween” movies.) And one by one, The Butcher kills all four teenagers, who each have vicious deaths. The Butcher ambushes Isaac in a wine cellar and rams a wine bottle down his throat. The killer then traps Sandra in a bathroom and repeatedly slams a toilet seat on her head, in order to beat her to death.

The Butcher than chases Evan onto to the home’s tennis court, breaks a tennis racket in two, and uses both ends to simultaneously stab Evan on both sides of his head. As for Jenny, she manages to hide and elude the killer for a while, but he eventually finds her and impales her on the wall of the living room. That gives you an idea of how over-the-top the murders are. And The Butcher has stolen a rare dagger in a glass case that’s in the living room.

The next day (Thursday the November 12), a widowed mother and her two daughters, who all live in the same house, are gathered around the dining table for breakfast. Coral Kessler (played by Katie Finneran), who’s a sales clerk at a department store called Discount Bonanza, has been a widow for about a year. (It’s never stated how her husband died.) Coral’s older daughter Charlene Kessler (played by Dana Drori) is in her 20s and is a police officer in Blissfield. Carol’s younger daughter Millie Kessler (played by Kathryn Newton) is 17 years old and a senior at Blissfield Valley High School.

There’s tension in the household because Charlene disapproves of how Coral has been overprotective of Millie and has been using Millie as an emotional crutch. Coral has also been drinking heavily and tries to keep it a secret, but her daughters know that Coral has been drinking so much that she sometimes passes out. Coral goes to great lengths to hide her depression by putting on a falsely chipper demeanor.

Blissfield Valley High School is having a homecoming dance, but Millie tells Charlene that she won’t be there. Why? Because Millie and Coral made plans to see a regional production of “Wicked” together. Coral thinks that homecoming dances are just excuses for teenagers to get drunk or cause mischief, so she’d rather have Millie be safe and keep her company. Charlene thinks it’s pathetic that Coral won’t let Millie have any fun in ways that teenagers in high school are supposed to have fun.

Millie’s two best friends at her school are smart and outspoken Nyla Chones (played by Celeste O’Connor) and openly gay and sassy Josh Detmer (played by Misha Osherovich), who think that Millie is also missing out on a lot of fun by catering to Coral’s needs over her own. Millie is very introverted and too shy to do anything about her crush on a fellow student named Booker (played by Uriah Shelton), who sits next to her in their woodworking class.

The instructor of the woodworking class is Mr. Fletcher (played by Alan Ruck), who belittles Millie any chance that he gets. Every teen-oriented horror movie seems to have clique of bullies. In “Freaky,” there’s not one but two of these cliques.

The “mean girls” clique is led by a queen bee named Ryler (played by Melissa Collazo), who corners Millie at her locker to make snide comments about Millie’s discount clothes. Ryler is a stereotypical, conceited snob who cares more designer labels and other superficial things instead of someone’s character. She’s also a gossip who like to get “dirt” on other people and use it to her advantage.

The “bullying jocks” clique—Phil (played by Magnus Diehl), Squi (Tim Johnson) and Brett (played by Ezra Sexton)—make sexist and crude comments about Millie. (One of them says they would only have sex with Millie if she had a paper bag over her head.) Booker is a friend to these lunkheads, but he doesn’t participate in bullying Millie. However, Booker doesn’t exactly stop his pals from making mean-spirited comments to Millie either.

Early on in the movie, before Millie goes through a transformation, certain students at the school make offhand comments implying that Millie a mousy plain Jane. It’s a little hard to believe, given that Newton looks like a pretty Hollywood actress throughout the entire movie. The way that some of the mean girls treat her, you’d think that she comes to school in rags, but Millie’s wardrobe isn’t out of the ordinary.

It isn’t long before news spreads all over the high school about the four murdered teens who were killed the night before. However, the homecoming football game that night isn’t about to be cancelled. Millie is a beaver mascot for the school’s football team, the Blissfield Valley Beavers. It’s a thankless job and she gets no respect for it. In fact, some of the “cool kids” make fun of Millie when she wears the costume.

We get it. Millie is bullied by a lot of people at school. And that means when a serial killer inhabits her body, watch out.

The body swap happens after the football game, when everyone has gone home and Millie is stuck on a bench outside the football field, waiting for her mother to pick her up. Coral hasn’t been answering Millie’s calls and text messages because she’s passed out drunk. It’s late at night, there’s a killer on the loose, and Millie is getting scared because her phone battery has died. Right before her phone stopped working, Millie was able to call home and talk briefly with her sister Charlene, who had just arrived at the house and told Millie that their mother was passed out drunk again.

It’s now past midnight. And it’s Friday the 13th. And then, just like a typical serial killer in a slasher movie, The Butcher appears from out of nowhere and chases after Millie. He catches up to her in the football field and stabs her in the shoulder with the dagger that he stole. The heavens open up and some strange mystical things happen because that particular dagger has been used.

By this time, The Butcher has his mask off and is about to kill Millie. Just then, Charlene shows up (because she knew that Millie needed a ride home) and sees Millie being attacked. Charlene fires her gun, the killer runs away, but the dagger is accidentally left behind. The dagger is brought to the police station as evidence.

The next morning, Millie wakes up in her bed. It must be the fastest recovery ever from a stab wound. There’s no mention of Millie ever being in a hospital to get the wound treated. Maybe that’s because the hospital would’ve found out the same thing that this person who’s woken up in Millie’s bedroom has found out: Although the body looks like Millie’s, the person inside the body is the Blissfield Butcher. Likewise, Millie has now discovered that she is in the body of the Blissfield Butcher, who lives in a creepy loft-like place that’s filled with morbid-looking souvenirs and decorations.

When Millie finds out that she now looks like The Butcher, she goes to school to tell Josh and Nyla about the transformation. Nyla and Josh are predictably freaked out and don’t believe it first. There’s a big chase scene where they think The Butcher is trying to kill them. A police sketch of the serial-killer suspect, which was presumably based on Charlene’s eyewitness description, has been shown in the media and it’s a pretty good composite drawing of The Butcher.

While Josh and Nyla run through a school hallway to try to escape what they think is The Butcher, Josh shouts to Nyla, “You’re black! I’m gay! We are so dead!” It’s snarky commentary on the stereotype of someone from a minority group dying first in a horror movie.

Millie ends up convincing Josh and Nyla that she really is in The Butcher’s body, by telling them things only Millie would know. Through basic research, the three pals find out something important about the dagger that was used in the attack on Millie: The dagger is an ancient Aztec artifact called The Dola, which was used in ritual sacrifices. If two souls swap bodies while The Dola is being used, the souls have 24 hours to get back in the correct bodies—using The Dola in the same way that it was used when the souls were transferred—or else they will be trapped in the wrong bodies forever.

And so begins the race against time to get the The Dola dagger. The expected hijinks ensue about mistaken identity. And because the two people in this body-swapping comedy are of opposite genders, there are the predictable gags about male/female body parts and sexually suggestive situations that happen with people who don’t know about the body swap.

Because so much of “Freaky” has a lot of teen slang and of-the-moment technology, the movie is eventually going to look very dated. But the performances from the cast will make “Freaky” a crowd-pleaser for generations to come. Newton and Vaughn are hilarious to watch as they inhabit the personalities of Millie and The Butcher who are trapped in the wrong bodies. The humor goes a long way in taking some of the disturbing edge off of the horrific murders that are depicted in the movie.

Meanwhile, Osherovich is a total scene stealer who has some of the best lines in the movie. Some people might take issue with how his Josh character might be perceived as a flamboyant gay stereotype. However, Osherovich brings a lot of authenticity and respect to the role, which shows what it’s like to be a teenager who’s proud to be gay. Rather than being marginal tokens, Josh and Nyla actually do a lot of heroic things in the movie.

“Freaky” does a great balancing act of embracing horror clichés in a satirical way while rejecting other horror clichés in a defiant way. And there are a few surprisingly sweet sentimental moments. “Freaky” has some plot holes and very predictable scenes, but that doesn’t take away from how well the cast members portray these characters under the competent direction of Landon. The violence in the movie is cruel, but the movie has an underlying message of tolerance in showing how people shouldn’t be judged by their appearances alone.

Universal Pictures released “Freaky” in U.S. cinemas on November 13, 2020.