Review: ‘Cha Cha Real Smooth,’ starring Cooper Raiff, Dakota Johnson, Leslie Mann, Brad Garrett, Vanessa Burghardt and Evan Assante

January 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Cooper Raiff and Dakota Johnson in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute)

“Cha Cha Real Smooth”

Directed by Cooper Raiff

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Jersey and briefly in New Orleans, the comedy/drama “Cha Cha Real Smooth” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A recent college graduate struggles to find the right career path for himself as he falls in love with a divorced mother who is engaged to a lawyer. 

Culture Audience: “Cha Cha Real Smooth” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in post-college coming-of-age movies.

Leslie Mann, Cooper Raiff and Brad Garrett in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Filmmaker/actor Cooper Raiff is in danger of typecasting himself in his movies as a dorky man-child, but “Cha Cha Real Smooth” has enough charm about awkward romances and life transitions to make up for some of the movie’s annoying self-awareness. The comedy/drama “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is the second feature film written and directed by Raiff, who has repeated certain themes and character scenarios in his two movies so far. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Raiff’s first feature film was the comedy/drama “Shithouse,” which was supposed to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but all of SXSW was cancelled as an in-person event due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The 2020 SWSW Film Festival still awarded jury prizes, and “Shithouse” received the festival’s top award: Best Narrative Feature. Later that year, “Shithouse” had a limited theatrical release and became available on home video, with very little fanfare, although the movie got mostly positive reviews.

In “Shithouse,” Raiff plays a homesick Texas “mama’s boy” named Alex Malmquist, who’s a freshman at an unnamed Los Angeles university, where he meets and falls in love with his dorm’s resident assistant named Maggie Hill (played by Dylan Gelula), who plays “hard to get” in their relationship. In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” Raiff plays Andrew, a 22-year-old “mama’s boy” and recent Tulane University graduate, who moves back in with his unnamed mother (played by Leslie Mann) and stepfather Greg (played by Brad Garrett) in an unnamed city in New Jersey. Andrew falls in love with a divorced mother in her 30s named Domino (played by Dakota Johnson), who plays “hard to get” in their relationship. And in Domino’s case, she really is “hard to get”: She’s engaged to a workaholic lawyer named Joseph (played by Raúl Castillo), who travels a lot for his job.

Just like in “Shithouse,” the tone and pace of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” have meandering qualities that work well in many parts of the movie and not-so-well in other parts. And once again, Raiff plays a loner protagonist pining for a love interest who is less emotionally available than he is. In many ways, “Shithouse,” which is a very conversation-driven movie, seems like a college campus version of director Richard Linklater’s 2005’s romance movie “Before Sunrise,” starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” widens the scope of the protagonist’s world beyond a college campus and into the “real world” of a young adult living with parents while trying to find a full-time job.

Just like Linklater does in his movies about young people in America, Raiff has his young protagonists feeling a lot of yearning and discontent over how they’re living their lives, and the filmmaker blends this angst with party scenes and some goofy comedy. Unlike Linklater, Raiff is an actor who makes himself the star of the movies that he writes and directs. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” has more emotional depth and more character development than “Shithouse” does, with some hard-hitting real-life issues that are handled with sensitivity. However, there are moments in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” where Raiff’s ego is on display, because multiple times in the movie, different women tell the character he plays how adorable he is.

Andrew studied marketing at Tulane, and he hasn’t really figured out what career path he wants to take. His college sweetheart Maya (played by Amara Pedroso Saquel) has a Fulbright Scholarship to do graduate studies in Barcelona, Spain. An early scene in the movie shows Andrew and Maya at a party, shortly before graduating from Tulane. Maya asks Andrew what his post-graduation plans are, and he half-jokingly says that he wants to go to Barcelona. The expression on Maya’s face seems to say, “That’s not going to happen. And I don’t want it to happen.”

Andrew then says he’s thinking about finding a job at a non-profit. The movie then fast-forwards to Andrew, after he has graduated from Tulane. He’s working behind the counter at a fast-food place called Meat Stix, which sells meat on sticks, such as corndogs. Obviously, it’s a job that he didn’t expect to have after graduating from Tulane. Andrew’s graduation is never shown. It’s also never shown how Maya and Andrew decided to define their relationship before she moved to Barcelona.

But it should come as no surprise that Andrew thinks that he and Maya are more committed to each other than they really are. While he’s in Barcelona, Maya won’t answer his messages. And when Andrew checks Maya’s social media, he finds out that she’s been hanging out with a new guy, who’s probably her new boyfriend. Andrew soon meets another woman who preoccupies his thoughts.

One of the repeated themes of “Shithouse” and “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is that the protagonist has a tendency to fall for women who are older (even it’s by a few years), more experienced in dating, and/or more emotionally mature. The opening scene of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” foreshadows that Andrew has this preference, when he’s shown at 12 years old at a school dance. In this flashback scene, Andrew (played by Javien Mercado) has a crush on a woman in her 20s named Bella (played by Kelly O’Sullivan), one of the dance chaperones.

Andrew confesses to his mother that he’s in love with Bella. “I know she’s old, but I think she loves me too,” Andrew says. After the dance, Andrew asks Bella out on a date. She lets him down gently by telling him: “This is the most flattered I’ve ever felt, but I’m old.” A dejected Andrew pouts in the back seat of his parents’ car during their drive home, with his parents in the front seat, and his father (played by Chris Newman) driving. As the car is in motion, Andrew’s mother climbs in the back seat to comfort Andrew. Andrew’s father is never seen or mentioned in the movie again.

It’s open to interpretation why Andrew’s biological father is not discussed in the movie. He could be dead or divorced from Andrew’s mother. Either way, he’s definitely not in the family’s life anymore, and Andrew’s mother is now married to Greg, who’s an executive at a pharmaceutical company. In “Shithouse,” the father of the protagonist was dead, and the protagonist’s mother also didn’t have a name.

And just like in “Shithouse,” the protagonist of “Cha Cha Real Smooth” has a younger sibling who adores and looks up to him. In “Shithouse,” it’s a younger sister. In “Cha Cha Real Smooth,” it’s a younger brother. Andrew’s younger brother David (played by Evan Assante), who’s about 12 or 13 years old, is a good kid who’s insecure about how to date girls. It’s implied that David and Andrew have the same biological father, because they both call Greg by his first name, not “Dad.”

Andrew and Greg dislike each other, which is apparently how it’s been between them for years. They don’t get in violent fights, but they find ways to insult each other. Andrew is more blatant about it than Greg is. Greg isn’t impressed that Andrew doesn’t really know what he wants to do with his life. Andrew thinks that Greg is too uptight and judgmental. Andrew’s mother tries to keep the peace between Andrew and Greg, but she has her own issues: She happens to be medically diagnosed as bipolar.

Many of David’s schoolmates are Jewish boys who are bar mitzvah age, and he gets invited to these bar mitzvahs. It’s why Andrew, David, their mother and Greg are at a bar mitzvah, where Andrew first sees Domino. It’s “attraction at first sight” for Andrew. Domino is with her daughter Lola (played by Vanessa Burghardt), who is about 14 or 15 years old and somewhere on the autism spectrum. When Andrew finds out that Domino and Lola are mother and daughter, and not sisters, he’s amazed because he thinks Domino looks too young to be the mother of a teenager.

Andrew thinks the party DJ isn’t doing a very good job of getting people on the dance floor, so he requests that the DJ play Lipps Inc.’s 1979 hit “Funky Town.” And the next thing you know, Andrew is leading a group dance to “Funky Town.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Expect to see several dance scenes showing close-ups of Andrew bopping up and down, like he’s on a pogo stick, sometimes in slow-motion. He’s not a very good dancer, but that’s the point, because Andrew is so unapologetically dorky that it’s supposed to be endearing. Too bad Raiff has to constantly point this out by having women in the movie repeatedly tell Andrew how adorable he is.

Andrew will be going to some more bar mitzvahs in this movie, once he finds out he has a knack for choosing the right dance songs, mingling with party guests, and making sure that people at a party have a good time. Andrew introduces himself to Domino and Lola at the bar mitzvah where he first sees them. Andrew and Domino then mildly flirt each other. Andrew also develops an immediate rapport with Lola, who is socially withdrawn and is treated like an outcast by the other kids at the party. Because of her autism, Lola has been held back a few grades, so she’s a few years older than her classmates.

At one point in the evening, Domino bets Andrew $300 that he can’t get Lola to dance on the dance floor. Of course, Andrew wins the bet. It’s the beginning of Domino’s attraction to Andrew. She doesn’t tell him right away that she’s engaged to be married, but eventually she does tell him on another night. The movie also makes a point of mentioning that Domino and Andrew are not Jewish, but they keep seeing each other at bar mitzvahs.

Meanwhile, after the party where Andrew and Domino have met, about five mothers surround Andrew and tell him how adorable he is and that they want him to be a DJ at their children’s upcoming bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs. And that’s how Andrew starts his own party DJ business, which he calls Jig Conductor. Andrew enlists David to do a homemade promotional video for Jig Conductor, but the video doesn’t go as planned, in one of the movie’s contrived comedy scenes.

Greg is skeptical about Andrew being a party DJ as a job. When Greg asks Andrew how much Andrew will get paid for this type of work, Andrew sarcastically answers, “I think they said just under what an unhappy pharmaceutical exec makes.” Andrew makes other verbal digs at Greg in other scenes where Andrew essentially tells Greg that he thinks just because Greg is miserable, Greg doesn’t have to make Andrew miserable too.

Andrew sees Domino and Lola again at his first bar mitzvah job as a party DJ, but this event doesn’t go so well. First, Andrew gets fired before the party ends because he was rude to a rabbi who was at the party, and Andrew got involved in a fight with a boy who was bullying Lola. Second, something happens to Domino at the party which is a harrowing experience for her. Andrew finds out and comes to her rescue, which further deepens their growing bond.

Domino then hires Andrew to be a babysitter for Lola. The movie has several sweet-natured scenes of Andrew and Lola becoming friends. Lola is intelligent, kind and very socially awkward. Before Andrew comes into her life, her only friend was her beloved pet hamster Jerry. Lola is very honest, and Andrew likes her candor. Andrew also feels protective of Lola because he knows that she gets bullied by her schoolmates.

Domino and Andrew inevitably become closer too. When Andrew and Domino kiss for the first time, Domino is the one who makes the first move. But what about Joseph? He’s in Chicago a lot because of a client’s lawsuit. Andrew eventually meets Joseph, who is polite but somewhat emotionally closed-off and not very talkative. Joseph remains a mystery throughout the entire movie, with nothing really revealed about him except that he’s a very busy lawyer.

The rest of the movie is about Andrew falling in love with Domino, who sends mixed signals about how far she wants the relationship to go with him. At one point, Domino tells Andrew, “I feel very comfortable with you. I don’t know why.” Later in the movie, Domino says to Andrew: “You know what you look like now? You look like the sweetest person ever.”

However, there are some red flags that Andrew wants to ignore, such as Domino telling him that she would like to move to Chicago to start a new life and to possibly go to school to get her college degree. Domino says that Joseph would rather stay in New Jersey. (“Cha Cha Real Smooth” was actually filmed in Pennsylvania.) And there’s an age difference and lifestyle difference between Andrew and Domino that they don’t really discuss until much later in the movie.

Andrew takes the way that Domino gets emotionally close to him as a sign that Domino and Joseph are having problems in their relationship. Andrew doesn’t seem too concerned with finding out how long Domino and Joseph have been together, or when they plan to get married. Andrew doesn’t ask these questions, but Domino is also somewhat guarded about certain things in her life. She eventually tells Andrew that she has abandonment issues because her ex-husband (Lola’s father) left her and Lola. Domino also reveals that she’s been depressed ever since she was a child.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” gets its title from a line in DJ Casper’s 2000 hit “Cha Cha Slide,” a novelty tune that’s played in one of the movie’s bar mitzvah scenes. The movie has a few subplots, such as Andrew giving David romance advice because David has a crush on a classmate named Margaret (played by Brooklyn Ramirez), who might have a romantic interest in David too. Andrew also casually dates a former high school schoolmate named Macy (played by Odeya Rush), who was his crush in high school.

Maya isn’t too far from his mind, because Andrew confides in his mother that he’s saving his money to eventually go to Barcelona. Andrew claims his Barcelona trip has nothing to do with Maya, who’s been ignoring him, but Andrew’s mother looks like she doesn’t believe him. Andrew also applies for a job at a non-profit group called Hope Loves a Friend, which helps underprivileged and disabled kids.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” has characters with disabilities or mental illnesses, which are issues that weren’t in “Shithouse.” These issues are handled in “Cha Cha Real Smooth” with mixed results. Lola isn’t depicted as an offensive stereotype of autism, but as a fully developed human being with clear thoughts and feelings. The scenes with Lola and Andrew are among the best in the movie.

However, the bipolar condition of Andrew’s mother seems like a plot device that’s never realistically shown or explored in a meaningful way. It’s mentioned a few times in the movie that Andrew’s mother has had recent “manic” episodes in public, but these manic episodes and her depression are never shown. Instead, her entire personality in the movie is as an even-tempered, supportive mother.

It’s as Raiff just wanted to tack on a “mental illness” description for the mother to make it seem like this movie is deeper than it really is. At Andrew’s job interview with Hope Loves a Friend, Andrew mentions that his mother is bipolar as a way to prove that he’s qualified for the job. Then, he blurts out a lie about another member of his family having a mental disability, then he promptly admits that it’s a lie. It’s a moment when the movie namechecks a disability for a cheap laugh, especially when viewers find out if Andrew got the job or not.

Domino is another person in Andrew’s life who’s had a long history of depression. And that part of her life and personality are shown in fleeting moments. Mostly, Domino seems like someone who doesn’t really think she’ll find true happiness, but she wants stability, which she thinks she can get in her relationship with Joseph. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” doesn’t seem to want to show anything realistic when it comes to the hardest things people with depression or bipolar disorder have to deal with in their everyday lives.

Andrew can be compassionate, but he can be self-absorbed in many ways. For example, when things in Andrew and Domino’s relationship aren’t going the way that Andrew hoped they would, he takes his anger and frustration out on his brother David. When David asks Andrew for some love-life advice, Andrew snaps at David and verbally insults him in a very mean-spirited way. It’s supposed to show how “human” Andrew is and that this “nice guy” isn’t so perfect.

The dialogue in this movie can sometimes be clunky, but there are also scenes where the dialogue is very realistic. Raiff, Burghardt and Assante stand out as giving believable performances. Johnson has played many coquettish types before, Mann has played many nurturing mothers before, and Garrett has played many grumpy characters before, so all three of these cast members don’t do much that’s new in this movie. It remains to be seen if Raiff is going to follow the Woody Allen path of filmmaking, by playing a version of himself in the movies where he’s the director, writer and protagonist star. Raiff seems capable of playing more than this type of neurotic lovelorn character, so it will be interesting to see if he can show more acting range in his future movies.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” has some unanswered questions that aren’t really plot holes, but they indicate that the screenplay needed improving. Viewers might wonder: “What happened to Andrew’s father?” “If Lola is such an outcast at her school, why does she keep getting invited to these bar mitzvahs?” (Lola and Domino go to three of them during the course of the movie.) “How have Andrew and David been affected by their mother’s bipolar condition?” By throwing in all of the issues and not adequately addressing them all, “Cha Cha Real Smooth” looks like it bit off more than it could chew. There was a simple clarity about “Shithouse” that’s missing in “Cha Cha Real Smooth.”

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is a series of scenes and vignettes that have just enough in each scene to resonate with viewers. Andrew is like a lot of recent college graduates who have to move back in with parents and who don’t have their entire lives figured out yet. He’s a flawed “nice guy” who likes to make people feel good about themselves, but he can also say mean and stupid things when he’s drunk. Raiff’s greatest strength as a filmmaker is showing these human frailties of people doing the best that they can to accept themselves in a world where they can get rejected and things don’t always go as planned.

UPDATE: Apple Studios will release “Cha Cha Real Smooth” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on June 17, 2022.

Review: ‘The Lost Daughter,’ starring Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley

December 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Olivia Colman in “The Lost Daughter” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix) 

“The Lost Daughter” (2021)

Directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal

Culture Representation: Taking place in Greece, England and Italy, the dramatic film “The Lost Daughter” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A British woman, who works as a comparative Italian literature professor, goes on vacation in Greece, where she has flashbacks of her troubled background as a young mother, after she encounters a young mother from a boisterous Italian American family who are staying in the same vacation villa spot. 

Culture Audience: “The Lost Daughter” will appeal primarily to fans of star Olivia Colman and expertly acted psychological dramas.

Jessie Buckley (center) in “The Lost Daughter” (Photo by Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix) 

“The Lost Daughter” upends the stereotype that mothers depicted in movies are supposed to think that parenthood is the greatest thing that ever happened to them. Much of the discontent in the movie has to do with doubts and insecurities that mothers have when they find out that motherhood doesn’t make them as happy as they were taught to believe it would. The movie might start off looking like a mystery thriller, but it’s really a psychological drama that takes viewers inside the restless and uneasy mind of woman during a tension-filled vacation and how she affects other people around her. Olivia Colman anchors the movie with a memorable and intriguing performance.

“The Lost Daughter” is the feature-film directorial debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, who wrote the adapted screenplay, which is based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name. It’s a fairly faithful adaptation of the book, but the movie changes the nationalities of the main characters and the coastal vacation setting from Italy to Greece. “The Lost Daughter” benefits from cinematic elements (such as production design and music) that very much enhance the mood and emotions conveyed in the story. Just like in the book, the movie centers on a vacation that is fraught with some psychological torment and guilt over motherhood issues.

In “The Lost Daughter,” Colman portrays Leda Caruso, a 48-year-old university professor of comparative Italian literature. Leda is originally from England: She grew up in Leeds and currently lives in Cambridge. Leda is on vacation in Greece, where she is renting a villa during this trip. (In “The Lost Daughter” book, Leda is an Italian native who is a university professor of English and vacationing in Italy.)

Leda is divorced with two adult daughters: 25-year-old Bianca and 23-year-old Martha, who are not seen in the movie but whose voices can be heard when they talk to Leda on the phone. Ellie James is the voice of the adult Bianca, while Isabelle Della-Porta is the voice of the adult Martha. At different points in the movie, Leda has flashbacks to when her daughters were underage children. In these flashbacks, Jessie Buckley plays young Leda, Robyn Elwell plays Bianca at approximately 7 or 8 years old, and Ellie Mae Blake plays Martha at about 5 or 6 years old.

Leda is looking forward to spending some quiet and relaxing time alone on this vacation. Two of the first people she meets are Lyle (played by Ed Harris), the middle-aged caretaker of the villa where’s staying, and Will (played by Paul Mescal), an Irish college business student who works at the resort during the summer as a lifeguard and general handyman. Lyle and Will are both friendly and accommodating. Lyle mentions that he’s been the villa’s caretaker for the past 30 years.

Leda’s plans for a tranquil holiday become disrupted when her vacation becomes anything but quiet and relaxing. Not long after Leda finds a space on a beach to settle down and get some sun, a large and very loud Italian American family shows up and interrupts Leda’s peace and quiet. There are about 12 to 15 people in this group of raucous newcomers.

Two of them are a married couple named Callie (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and Vassili (played by Panos Koronis), who ask Leda to move out of her spot on the beach to make room for some people in the group. Leda firmly says no. In response, a young man in the group calls Leda a derogatory and sexist name that rhymes with “punt.” Callie and Vassili walk away, visibly annoyed with Leda.

Needless to say, Leda and this family do not make a good impression on each other. From where Leda sits on the beach, she observes this family. Leda notices a strikingly good-looking couple who’s part of the group: They are Callie’s younger sister Nina (played by Dakota Johnson) and Nina’s husband Toni (played by Oliver Jackson-Cohen), who seem to have a passionate marriage, based on their public displays of affection. Nina and Toni have a daughter with them named Elena (played by Athena Martin Anderson), who’s about 5 years old.

Shortly after the awkward encounter with Leda, Callie approaches Leda again on the beach. This time, it’s to make an apology for the family being so rude. Callie brings a piece of cake as a peace offering, and she asks Leda about herself. Leda doesn’t really seem interested in making friends with anyone on this trip, but she reluctantly answers the questions, such as where she’s from and what she does for a living.

During this conversation, Callie is talkative and friendly. Callie says her family is from New York City, but they have other family members who’ve lived in this part of Greece for “300 years.” She mentions that she’s 42 years old and seven months pregnant with her first child, which the family already knows will be a girl. This talk abut motherhood makes Leda visibly uncomfortable. Leda comments to Callie: “Children are a crushing responsibility.”

During her observation of this family on the beach, Leda notices that Elena shows a strong attachment to a girl doll that Elena carries around. Elena also shows signs of possibly disturbed behavior because she bites the doll in an unusually aggressive manner. The doll and what happens next to Elena end up being the catalyst for most of what triggers Leda’s memories and actions during this trip.

While the family’s adults are partying on the beach, Elena suddenly goes missing. A frantic search ensues that takes a few hours, but Leda ends up finding Elena by herself in a wooded area near the beach. When Leda brings Elena back to her family, Leda is treated like a hero. But deep inside, Leda doesn’t feel like a hero.

That’s because Elena’s disappearance reignites a painful memory of when Leda’s elder daughter Bianca went missing on a beach when Bianca was about the same age as Elena. This memory and other things that happened in Leda’s past are presented as flashbacks in the movie. And that’s when it’s revealed that Leda didn’t really enjoy being a mother very much.

Slowly but surely, viewers find out how Leda was as a mother to two young children; what led to the demise of Leda’s marriage to her husband Joe (played by Jack Farthing); and what happened when a young Leda was accepted into grad school at a university in Italy. Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband Peter Sarsgaard has a supporting role as Professor Hardy, a charismatic professor of an Italian literature class that Leda took when she was in grad school.

Colman gives a compelling performance as Leda, who seems brittle on the outside but has emotional vulnerabilities on the inside. Elena’s doll and what happens to it are symbolic of clinging to youthful memories. As Leda’s memories from the past come flooding back, she also becomes increasingly caught up in what’s going in Nina’s life and the distress that’s caused when Elena’s doll goes missing.

At one point, Will warns Leda that Nina and her family are “bad people.” How dangerous are they? Leda finds out at least one big secret about Nina, who remains somewhat of a mystery throughout the entire movie. Buckley’s portrayal of a young Leda gives a necessary emotional depth to the older Leda, who wants to keep her inner turmoil hidden from the world.

“The Lost Daughter” is best enjoyed by audiences if people know from the beginning that this isn’t a movie filled with big action scenes or with any obvious villains. It’s a searing portrait of how one woman reflects on how she handled motherhood and how her personal encounters with another mother often feels like an eerie and upsetting reminder of the past. The title of the movie refers to a child who goes missing in two separate parts of the story, but the overall emotional arc is how a woman finds parts of herself that she wants to lose or forget.

Netflix released “The Lost Daughter” in select U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021. The movie premieres on Netflix on December 31, 2021.

Review: ‘The Nowhere Inn,’ starring St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein

October 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

St. Vincent and Carrie Brownstein in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn”

Directed by Bill Benz

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities, the comedy/drama mockumentary “The Nowhere Inn” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Experimental pop singer St. Vincent has conflicts with her best friend Carrie Brownstein, who has been hired to direct a documentary about St. Vincent. 

Culture Audience: “The Nowhere Inn” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars St. Vincent and Brownstein, as well as to people who enjoy unusual mockumentaries.

St. Vincent in “The Nowhere Inn” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Nowhere Inn” rambles, falters, and sometimes gets too meta for its own good. But it’s got enough quirky satire of celebrity documentaries to bring some laughs. You don’t have to be a fan of stars St. Vincent or Carrie Brownstein to enjoy “The Nowhere Inn,” but it might help during the parts of the movie where the pace tends to drag. Mostly, “The Nowhere Inn” is commendable for its attempt to be an original mockumentary, even if some of the comedy doesn’t serve the story very well.

In “The Nowhere Inn,” experimental pop singer St. Vincent (whose real name is Annie Clark) and Brownstein (a former star of the 2011-2018 comedy series “Portlandia”) portray versions of themselves and co-wrote the movie’s screenplay. Many parts of the movie look semi-improvised. “The Nowhere Inn” is the feature-film directorial debut of Bill Benz, a former editor, director and co-producer of “Portlandia.” People who are familiar with “Portlandia” should expect a similar tone to “The Nowhere Inn,” which brings an absurdist and deadpan spin to realistic situations.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a mockumentary within a mockumentary. On one level, it’s about the character of Carrie being convinced by her best friend St. Vincent to direct a tour documentary about St. Vincent. Footage from the documentary takes up most of the movie. But on another level, parts of the movie includes hindsight commentary from Carrie and St. Vincent about the documentary, whose production went through a lot of turmoil when the two pals became at odds with each other.

Interspersed with the off-stage footage is a lot of concert footage of St. Vincent. And so, the vast majority of the music in the movie is St. Vincent’s music. St. Vincent songs that are featured in “The Nowhere Inn” are “Year of the Tiger,” “Smoking Section,” “Pills,” “New York,” “Savior,” “Palm Desert,” “Los Ageless” and “Hang on Me.”

Because the experimental/alternative musical style of St. Vincent is so intertwined with the movie, “The Nowhere Inn” is not going to appeal to large masses of people, especially people who prefer more conventional films. However, people who know about the stereotypes of authorized celebrity tour documentaries will find parts of the movie amusing in how “The Nowhere Inn” makes a mockery of these clichés.

The movie opens with St. Vincent as a passenger in the back of limo, where an unnamed middle-aged driver (played by Ezra Buzzington) tells her that he knows that she’s famous for something, but he isn’t shy about telling her that he’s not sure what her claim to fame is: “I drive a lot of famous people,” he says. “I’ve never heard you before.”

While he’s driving, the limo driver calls his son, who’s an aspiring musician in a band, and talks to his son on speaker phone. He asks his son if he’s heard of St. Vincent. The son says no, but he mentions that he’s in a band and wonders out loud if St. Vincent could possibly help him in his music career. During this awkward conversation, she is gracious and humble and doesn’t expect to be treated like a star.

The limo driver then asks St. Vincent to sing one of her songs, to see if his son will recognize the song. St. Vincent sings “New York,” and when she gets to the part of the song where the line is “you’re the only motherfucker in the city,” the driver’s son sounds offended and asks, “Whoa! Did she just say ‘MF’?” The driver then abruptly ends the call and tells St. Vincent, “Don’t worry. We’ll find out who you are.”

The driver doesn’t really get a chance though because the limo stops shortly afterward. When St. Vincent gets out of the limo to see what’s going on, she finds that the driver’s door is open and he’s nowhere in sight. What happened to the driver and where did he go? Don’t expect any answers because it’s an example of some of the random weirdness in the movie.

St. Vincent is then seen on screen talking about the unfinished documentary that she made with Carrie as the director. St. Vincent comments, “All I can say is that things went terribly wrong.” The majority of “The Nowhere Inn” shows flashbacks to the making of the untitled documentary. Viewers are supposed to get a sense that what they are seeing is previously unreleased footage.

At first, filming of the documentary goes very well, as Carrie is given almost complete creative control. Carrie’s only request for St. Vincent is “Just be yourself” because the documentary is supposed to be a “fly on the wall experience.” St. Vincent’s shows are well-attended and she has plenty of adoring fans.

In the “hindsight” footage, St. Vincent says, “It was supposed to be a music documentary … I guess I wanted people to know who I am. I don’t want it to be a random fantasy. I wanted it to be intimate and revealing.”

But how intimate and how revealing? And more importantly to Carrie: How truthful? Over time, St. Vincent’s ego takes over, and she wants to turn the documentary into a series of staged scenes that fabricate aspects of her life. How much of a dictator does St. Vincent become during the making of the documentary? At one point in the movie, she tells Carrie: “From now on, I need more say in how other people are going to act.”

When did St. Vincent go from being a down-to-earth singer to a bossy diva? The turning point comes when a print journalist named Holly (played by Rya Kihlstedt) interviews St. Vincent while the documentary cameras are rolling. During the interview, Holly becomes distracted because her live-in girlfriend has broken up with Holly by text during the interview.

Holly is so distraught that she drags St. Vincent into this breakup mess by asking St. Vincent to call her now-ex-girlfriend and leave a voice mail to try convince the ex that Holly is not only a good person but the best thing that ever happened to the ex. It puts St. Vincent in a very awkward position, but she obliges, in order to be polite.

After manipulating St. Vincent to get involved in her personal life, Holly then cuts the interview short, as if she’s done using St. Vincent for the day. Before this annoying journalist leaves, Holly complains to St. Vincent that Holly wasn’t given a “plus one” (to get an extra ticket) when Holly was put on the guest list for the St. Vincent concert happening later that evening.

Holly says that her cousin Sarah is a fan of St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that she’d like Sarah to be her “plus one.” St. Vincent tries not to act offended by the disrespectful way that Holly has been acting, but this entire uncomfortable interaction was caught on the documentary’s cameras. Later, when St. Vincent sees Holly and Sarah (played by Cass Buggé) at a concert after-party, the shift in St. Vincent’s attitude becomes very clear.

St. Vincent suddenly wants to do a documentary that will make her look more interesting. In one of the funnier scenes in the movie, St. Vincent introduces Carrie to her lover Dakota Johnson (playing a version of herself), while St. Vincent and Dakota are clad in lingerie and lounging on a bed together. (St. Vincent is openly queer in real life.) And the next thing you know, St. Vincent wants Carrie to film a sex video of Dakota and St. Vincent, right then and there.

An embarrassed Carrie tries to stall and suggests that they get an intimacy coordinator before filming the scene. However, St. Vincent says it’s not necessary because she and Dakota won’t be faking it. There’s no actual sex or nudity in “The Nowhere Inn,” because the movie wants what isn’t shown in this sex scene to be more amusing than what could be shown.

Another hilarious scene in the movie is when Carrie decides to go over to some St. Vincent fans who are standing in line outside the concert venue and randomly invites a young adult fan to go back with her to St. Vincent’s dressing room. The fan, whose name is Kim (played by Gabriela Flores), is overwhelmed by this surprise and bursts into tears when she sees St. Vincent in person. Kim predictably fawns over St. Vincent and tells St. Vincent that her music saved Kim’s life.

Kim tells St. Vincent that Kim’s boyfriend from high school gave St. Vincent’s 2011 album “Strange Mercy” to Kim as a birthday present. The boyfriend tragically died in a car accident two nights before their graduation. Kim says that St. Vincent’s music has helped Kim through tough times when she was feeling depressed and didn’t want to live anymore.

This sad story makes St. Vincent cry too. And she cries so much about how much the story affected her that Kim ends up comforting St. Vincent in the dressing room. It’s an amusing parody of how narcissistic celebrities can somehow make a fan’s personal tragedy all about the celebrity.

During the course of the documentary, St. Vincent becomes obsessed with wanting to appear humble and relatable in front of the cameras. But behind the scenes, she becomes a egomaniacal tyrant and almost starts acting like the documentary’s director. St. Vincent goes as far as fabricating a backstory for herself. She pretends that she grew up on a Texas ranch with a big family, and she hires actors to play these roles.

As Carrie says early on in the movie, St. Vincent is really an only child whose father is in prison. This is a plot hole in “The Nowhere Inn,” because in this Internet age, it would be hard for a celebrity such as St. Vincent to hide her family background and get away with hiring a cast of actors to portray her family in what’s supposed to be documentary. That’s why “The Nowhere Inn” takes a misstep toward the end of the movie when St. Vincent goes through an entire charade of trying to look like a Texas cowgirl from a large family.

Not surprisingly, Carrie is increasingly put off by St. Vincent trying to make a phony documentary. Carrie finds herself sidelined as a director and not being consulted on important decisions. Carrie quits the documentary at least once, which isn’t spoiler information, since St. Vincent says in the beginning of the movie that the documentary hasn’t been completed.

During all of this friendship turmoil, Carrie is also dealing with the fact that her unnamed father (played by Michael Bofshever) is dying of cancer. He’s very proud that she’s directing this documentary, and she feels obligated to finish the film so that he won’t be disappointed in her. Meanwhile, St. Vincent seems oblivious and insensitive to Carrie’s stress over her father’s health condition.

“The Nowhere Inn” includes some footage of the people in St. Vincent’s entourage, including her band members: eccentric Japanese bass player Toko (played by Toko Yasuda); “nice guy” Australian guitarist Neil (played by Chris Aquilino); and party-loving American drummer Robert (played by Drew Connick). St. Vincent’s easygoing tour manager Brian (played by Kash Abdulmalik) also gets some screen time.

However, these supporting characters don’t add much the story. “The Nowhere Inn” is really about how Carrie and St. Vincent’s once-solid friendship becomes turbulent because of disagreements over the documentary. In the production notes for “The Nowhere Inn,” it’s mentioned that Brownstein and Clark were both influenced by two movies about jaded pop stars: directors Nicolas Roeg’s and Donald Cammell’s 1970 drama “Performance” (starring Mick Jagger) and director Peter Watkins’ 1967 mockumentary “Privilege,” starring Paul Jones.

Taking cues from both of those movies, “The Nowhere Inn” has some psychedelic-looking surrealistic sequences that aren’t quite hallucinations, but they’re nevertheless part of the line blurring of reality and fiction that this mockumentary intends to spoof. “The Nowhere Inn” is at its most potent in its satire when it pokes fun at the image-obsessed trap that many celebrities fall into when they achieve a certain level of fame.

What’s less effective are the aforementioned fake Texas family scenes and the movie’s tendency to over-rely on making Carrie look like a forlorn doormat who’s shocked by what goes on during St. Vincent’s concert tour. By making Carrie so naïve in this movie, it just leads viewers to wonder how well Carrie really knows her “best friend” St. Vincent. And the subplot about Carrie’s father having cancer is a clumsy fit for this story.

Brownstein has her own real-life experiences as a music artist (she’s a singer/guitarist in the rock band Sleater-Kinney), but that background is completely erased in the movie. It would’ve been more interesting if the Carrie character had been written as someone who has experience being in a semi-famous band and is therefore better-equipped to handle St. Vincent’s egotistical shenanigans during the tour. Their arguments would’ve been more entertaining to watch.

“The Nowhere Inn” is a flawed but unique film that is going to interest some people and turn off other people. People who know what showbiz is like behind the scenes will find at least something to laugh at in “The Nowhere Inn,” even if those laughs might be occasional for some viewers. The movie is not meant to have a joke in every scene. “The Nowhere Inn” won’t be considered a classic mockumentary, but it’s worth a watch if viewers are willing to go on a sometimes bizarre but very original ride in an alternate reality created by Brownstein and St. Vincent.

IFC Films released “The Nowhere Inn” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on September 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Our Friend,’ starring Casey Affleck, Dakota Johnson and Jason Segel

January 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Casey Affleck in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

“Our Friend”

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite

Culture Representation: Taking place from 2000 to 2014 in Fairhope, Alabama; New Orleans; and briefly in Pakistan, the dramatic film “Our Friend” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A married couple and their male best friend go through ups and downs in their relationship, especially after the wife gets ovarian cancer and the best friend temporarily moves in the family home to help the spouses take care of their two young daughters.

Culture Audience: “Our Friend” will appeal primarily to people interested in emotionally authentic, dramatic movies about loyal friendships and how cancer affects relationships.

Isabella Kai, Jason Segel and Violet McGraw in “Our Friend” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions/Gravitas Ventures)

The tearjerker drama “Our Friend,” which is inspired by a true story, departs from the usual formula of a family coping with cancer. When someone in a family has this disease, cancer dramas usually focus on how a spouse, parent or child is dealing with it. Those aspects are definitely in “Our Friend,” but there’s also the unusual component of a male best friend moving into the family household to be a nurturing supporter. Thanks to heartfelt performances from the main cast members, “Our Friend” is a genuine and relatable film, despite being the type of drama where it’s easy to predict exactly how it’s going to end.

Directed by Gabriela Cowperthwaite and written by Brad Ingelsby, “Our Friend” is based on a 2015 Esquire magazine essay titled “The Friend,” written by journalist Matt Teague. (“The Friend” was the original title for this movie.) In this deeply personal article, he described the generosity of Dane Faucheux, the longtime best friend of Matt and his wife Nicole Teague. After Nicole was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, Dane (who was a bachelor at the time) put his life on hold in New Orleans to temporarily move in with the couple in Fairhope, Alabama, to help them take care of their household and the couple’s two young daughters Molly and Evangeline, nicknamed Evie.

The movie “Our Friend” expands on that essay by jumping back and forth in time to show how the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane evolved over 14 years, including the highs, lows and everything in between. The movie’s story spans from the year 2000 (when the three of them met) to the year 2014, when Nicole’s cancer was at its worst. The cinematic version of the story avoids a lot of nauseating details that are in the Esquire essay about bodily functions of a cancer patient. Instead, the movie focuses on showing this intense friendship from the individual perspectives of Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Nicole and Dane met each other while living in New Orleans in their early 20s, when she was one of the stars of a local musical theater production and he was a lighting operator in the crew. Nicole is open-hearted, compassionate and the type of person whom a lot of people feel like could be their best friend. Dane is socially awkward and somewhat introverted but an overall good guy who has some immaturity issues.

In the movie, Nicole was already married to Matt when she met Dane, who didn’t know that Nicole was married when he asked Nicole out on a date. Dane’s courtship mistake is never shown in the movie, but it’s mentioned in conversations. Once Nicole told Dane about her marital status, they were able to overcome this minor embarrassment and became good friends. Dane and Nicole are comfortable enough with each other that talk about their love lives with each other.

Dane is thoughtful and generous (he gives homemade mix CDs to Nicole), and he and Nicole love to talk about music, even when they agree to disagree. She thinks Led Zeppelin is “the greatest band ever,” while he doesn’t really care for Led Zeppelin. The Led Zeppelin reference in the movie is significant because two of Led Zeppelin’s original songs—”Ramble On” and “Going to California”—are used in emotional montage scenes in “Our Friend.”

By making Nicole an actress who loves musical theater, “Our Friend” gives Johnson a chance to showcase her singing skills, which are very good but not outstanding. Johnson sings two songs in the movie: “Hands All Hands Around” (from the musical “Quilters”) and a cover version of the Grateful Dead’s “If I Had the World to Give.” Johnson also did some singing in her 2020 movie “The High Note,” so maybe this is her way of demonstrating that she wants to be a professional singer too.

One day, Dane asks for Nicole’s advice about how to approach a theater co-worker named Charlotte (played by Denée Benton) whom he wants to ask out on a date. Unbeknownst to him, Charlotte isn’t attracted to Dane and has already been dating the theater’s stage manager named Aaron (played by Jake Owen). Minutes after Dane confides in Nicole that he’s going to ask Charlotte on a date, Charlotte tells Nicole in a private conversation that she suspects that Dane has a crush on her but Charlotte isn’t interested in dating Dane. It’s one of many examples in the movie that show how Nicole is a trusted confidante to many people in her life and she knows how to make people feel special.

Of course, Dane eventually finds out that Charlotte and Aaron are dating. Dane mopes about it for a little bit when he sees Charlotte and Aaron showing some heavy public displays of affection at a bar on the night that Nicole introduces Matt to Dane. The first time Matt and Dane meet, it’s at this bar, and Dane makes an apology to Matt for asking Nicole out on a date. Matt tells Dane not to worry about it and says that he has no hard feelings.

While Dane watches Charlotte and Aaron from a distance at the bar, Dane seem to takes their coupling way more personally than he should. He grumbles to Nicole and Matt that Charlotte seems to be rubbing her feelings for Aaron in Dane’s face. It’s a sign (one of many) that one of Dane’s flaws is that he can be emotionally insecure and overly needy.

As the movie skips back and forth in time, it’s eventually shown that Charlotte and Aaron have gotten married and have two children together. Charlotte and Nicole remain very close friends, even after Matt and Nicole move to Fairhope. Matt and Nicole relocated to Fairhope so that Nicole could be close to her parents. The parents of Matt and Nicole parents are never seen in the movie. After Nicole finds out that she has cancer in 2012, Matt tells Dane that Nicole has been afraid to tell her parents about the cancer diagnosis.

By the time that Nicole and Matt are living in Fairhope during her cancer ordeal, it’s shown in the movie that their daughter Molly (played by Isabella Kai) is about 11 or 12 years old, while their daughter Evie played by Violet McGraw) is about 5 or 6 years old. Molly is sometimes moody and quick-tempered, while Evie is generally a happy-go-lucky kid. Molly’s personality is more like Matt’s, while Evie is more like Nicole.

Over the years, it’s apparent that Aaron likes to make snide, condescending comments about Dane to other people whenever Dane isn’t around to defend himself. Aaron always makes digs about Dane working in dead-end jobs (such as a sales clerk at an athletic clothing store) and Dane not seeming to have an career goals or any real direction in life. Dane (who has a goofy sense of humor) has tried to be a stand-up comedian, but these dreams never really go anywhere, mainly because he just isn’t that talented. However, when Dane practices his stand-up routine for Nicole, she politely laughs at his corny jokes, and it makes him feel good.

Dave has financial problems, to the point where he’s sometimes temporarily homeless and has to stay at friends’ places or has to move back home with his parents, and he seems unsure of his purpose in life. B y contrast, Matt’s career as a journalist is flourishing. One of Matt’s first jobs was as a reporter at the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where he felt stifled and bored with covering fluffy local news. Matt’s real goal is to be a globetrotting journalist, where he gets to cover what he calls “important” news, such as wars and politics, that can make a big difference in people’s lives.

Matt gets his wish and his career is thriving as a freelancer covering war news for publications such as The New York Times and The Atlantic. But all that traveling has taken a toll on his marriage to Nicole. In 2008, while Matt is on assignment in Pakistan, he and Nicole have an argument on the phone because he took an assignment to go to Libya without discussing it with Nicole first.

Matt doesn’t think that he did anything wrong, because he says that the family needs the money. Nicole, who’s now a homemaker, tells Matt that she feels like she’s a “single parent” and complains to him: “I feel like I married a war correspondent, not a journalist.”

Matt goes home for a few days before he has to go to Libya. And he gets unsolicited advice from Dane to not take the assignment in Libya and stay with the family. This leads to an argument between Matt and Dane where Dane points out Matt’s personality flaws, while Matt insults Dane for having a directionless life with no real career.

Because the movie’s timeline is not in chronological order, viewers have to piece together the ebbs and flows of the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane. There are hints that Dane struggles with his mental health, especially in an extended scene taking place in 2010 that shows Dane abruptly packing up and leaving his parents’ house so he can go camping by himself in remote Southwest canyons. Before he leaves, Dane’s older brother Davey (played by Richard Speight Jr.) asks Dane if Dane is having one of his “episodes.”

During this solitary excursion, Dane meets a friendly German camper named Teresa (played by Gwendoline Christie), who’s also traveling by herself. Teresa asks Dane to join her on her hikes. Dane is standoffish at first, but Teresa insists on hanging out with Dane, and he eventually warms up to her a little bit. Teresa senses that Dane is deeply troubled and unhappy with his life, so she shares with him a very personal experience that changes his perspective. It’s one of the better scenes in the movie, proving that not all of the emotional gravitas in “Our Friend” has to do with Nicole’s cancer diagnosis.

However, “Our Friend” is still very much a cancer movie. There’s the heart-wrenching scene showing Matt and Nicole deciding how they are going to break the news to their children that Nicole is going to die from cancer. There’s the predictable scene where Nicole makes a “bucket list” of things she wants to do before she dies, with Matt and Dane frantically trying to make some of the more difficult things on the list (such as being grand marshal of the next Mardi Gras parade) come true for Nicole. And then there are the expected scenes of Nicole having medication-related meltdowns.

The Teague family members also have the misfortune of their beloved pet pug Gracie being diagnosed with cancer around the same time that Nicole gets sick with cancer. While Matt spends time with Nicole in the hospital, Dane has the task of taking Gracie to the veterinarian, who tells Dane that it’s best if the terminally ill dog undergoes euthanasia. Dane, who is not the owner of the dog, is put in the awkward position of having to represent the Teague family when the dog is permanently put to sleep. Dane also has to tell Molly and Evie the bad news about Gracie’s death, because Matt and Nicole are too preoccupied in the hospital.

During all of this cancer drama, Dane gets some pushback and criticism for deciding to move in with Matt and Nicole. At the time of Nicole’s cancer diagnosis, Dane was living in New Orleans and had been dating a baker named Kat (played by Marielle Scott) for about a year. Dane and Kat’s relationship has progressed to the point where Kat has given him spare keys to her home.

At first, Kat was fine with Dane going to visit the Teagues in Fairhope (which is about 160 miles away from New Orleans), as a show of support for the family. But the visits became longer and longer, until Dane eventually moved in with the Teagues. And Kat wasn’t so okay with that decision. Aaron also makes snarky comments to the Teagues’ circle of friends about Dane being a freeloader, until Matt eventually puts Aaron in his place for being such an unrelenting jerk about Dane.

The movie also shows that Matt and Nicole have other challenges in their lives besides her cancer. Before she was diagnosed with cancer, their marriage hit a rough patch due to issues over jealousy and infidelity. And before and during Nicole’s cancer crisis, Molly was feeling resentment toward Matt because of his long absences from home. Molly sometimes lashes out at Matt and makes it clear that she thinks Nicole is a much better parent than Matt is.

The biggest noticeable flaw about “Our Friend” is there seems to be a gender double standard in how the three main characters physically age in the movie. Nicole looks like she’s barely aged throughout the entire movie, even though the story takes place over the course of 14 years. It’s a contrast to how Matt and Dane age over the years, particularly with their hair. In the early years of the friendship, Segel wears a wig to make Dane look younger, while in the later years, he sports his natural receding hairline. Likewise, Affleck’s natural gray hair is seen in the later years of the friendship.

This discrepancy has a lot to do with the fact that in real life, Johnson is 14 years younger than Affleck, and she’s nine years younger than Segel. The real Nicole, Matt and Dane were much closer to each other in age. This movie’s unwillingness to show a woman aging over 14 years and casting a much-younger female co-star as the love interest of the leading male actor are part of bigger age discrimination issues that make it harder for actresses over the age of 35 to be cast as a love interest to someone who’s close to their age.

And when Nicole has cancer, the physical damages from cancer are barely shown. There’s the typical “dark circles under the eyes” look with makeup, as well as mentions of Nicole’s hair falling out because of chemotherapy. (At various times, she wears a headband or a wig.)

But the movie could have used a little more realism in showing the devastating physical toll that cancer can take. More often than not in the cancer scenes, the movie makes Nicole just look like she’s hung over from a wild night of partying, instead of looking like a real cancer patient who’s deep in chemotherapy. It’s not as if Johnson had to lose a scary amount of weight to look like a convincing cancer patient, but more could have been done with makeup and/or visual effects to make it look more realistic that her character was dying of cancer.

However, the filmmakers (including film editor Colin Patton) should get a lot of credit for taking the non-chronological scenes and making everything into a cohesive story that’s easy to understand. “Our Friend” is not the type of movie that can be watched while distracted by something else, because the year that a sequence takes place is shown on the screen to guide viewers. People watching this movie have to pay attention to these milestone year indicators to get the full scope of the story.

“Our Friend” is a well-cast movie where all the actors do convincing portrayals of the emotions expressed in the movie. (Cherry Jones has a small but important role as a hospice nurse named Faith Pruett.) As much as the movie is about Matt and Nicole’s marriage, it’s also very much about the friendship between Matt, Nicole and Dane.

Even though Nicole and Dane were friends before Dane and Matt knew each other, Nicole and Dane’s friendship starts to wane a little bit, the more debilitated with cancer she becomes. There’s a noticeable brotherly bond that develops between Matt and Dane, especially when they have to face the reality of life without Nicole. It doesn’t diminish Nicole’s role in the film, but it realistically shows how relationships can change when people have to prepare for the end of a loved one’s life. “Our Friend” is not an easy film to watch for anyone who hates to think about dying from cancer, but the sadness in the movie is balanced out by the joy of having true love from family and friends.

Roadside Attractions and Gravitas Ventures released “Our Friend” in U.S. cinemas, on January 22, 2021, the same date that Universal Pictures Home Entertainment released the movie on digital and VOD.

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

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

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

“The High Note”

Directed by Nisha Ganatra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2019 Hollywood Film Awards: recap and photos

November 3, 2019

Al Pacino (left), winner of the Hollywood Supporting Actor Award, and “The Godfather” director Francis Ford Coppola at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

The following is a press release from Dick Clark Productions:

The 23rd Annual “Hollywood Film Awards” brought together Hollywood’s elite to honor the year’s most talked about and highly anticipated actors, actresses and films, and those who helped bring them to life. The awards ceremony, celebrating its 23rd anniversary as the official launch of the awards season, was hosted by actor and comedian Rob Riggle, and took place at The Beverly Hilton in Beverly Hills. In its 23-year history, over 340 of the world’s biggest stars and filmmakers have been highlighted at the “Hollywood Film Awards” and more than 140 of the honorees have gone on to garner Oscar nominations and/or wins.

Rob Riggle  at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for HFA)

Host Rob Riggle infused the ceremony with heart and humor, proving to be a steadfast guide through the evening’s many memorable moments. There was no shortage of standing ovations for both presenters and honorees alike, who included some of the most iconic members of the Hollywood community. Al Pacino took time to acknowledge many of his fellow honorees and friends in the room as he accepted the “Hollywood Supporting Actor Award.”

Martin Scorsese at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

After a presentation from her mentor Martin Scorsese, “Hollywood Producer Award” recipient Emma Tillinger Koskoff delivered an emotional speech, offering a tear-filled thank you to the legendary director and producer. “Hollywood Filmmaker Award” honoree Bong Joon Ho, spoke in his native tongue to deliver a universal message that “we use only one language of cinema.”

Nicole Kidman and Charlize Theron at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images for HFA)

In a touching moment between “Hollywood Career Achievement Award” presenter Nicole Kidman and this year’s honoree Charlize Theron, Kidman remarked that “we don’t get to choose our heroes, but through this journey, I got to work with one of mine!”

Antonio Banderas and Dakota Johnson at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

Dakota Johnson took the stage to present Antonio Banderas with the “Hollywood Actor Award,” and reflected upon her realization that Banderas has become one of the most influential people in her life. He accepted by dedicating the award to Dakota, and his daughter Stella, who was in the room to share the night with him.

Cynthia Erivo at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

Viola Davis presented Cynthia Erivo with the “Hollywood Breakout Actress Award,” calling her “fearlessness personified” as she takes on the role of Harriet Tubman. Ray Romano brought the laughs as he showered praise upon “Hollywood Breakout Actor” honoree Taron Egerton, pointing out how unfair it is that Egerton is not only endlessly talented, but funny as well.

Robert Downey Jr. and Shia LaBeouf at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019 . (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HFA)

Christian Bale and Matt Damon turned up to honor their “Ford v Ferrari” director James Mangold, while Robert Downey Jr. was on hand to laud “Honey Boy” actor and screenwriter Shia LeBeouf with the “Hollywood Breakthrough Screenwriter Award.”  Former co-stars Jennifer Garner and Olivia Wilde celebrated Wilde’s “Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award,” each sharing humorous tales of their adventures together on set.

Olivia Wilde at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for HFA)

Kevin Feige and Victoria Alonso joined together to accept the “Hollywood Blockbuster Award,” thanking their amazing writers, directors, and awe-inspiring cast, including presenter Mark Ruffalo. Alicia Keys began her tribute to “Hollywood Song Award” honoree Pharrell Williams by recognizing all of the love in the room, before Williams delivered a powerful speech focusing on the unparalleled contributions made by “The Black Godfather” subject, Clarence Avant. He said that he has opened doors when others would glue them shut and has consistently demanded equality throughout his career.

Finn Wittrock, Renée Zellweger and Jessie Buckley at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

“Judy” co-stars Finn Wittrock and Jessie Buckley were on hand to recognize their leading lady Renée Zellweger with the “Hollywood Actress Award.” She said that the experience of playing Judy Garland was “one of those rare opportunities that essentially make no sense at all, but becomes your greatest accomplishment!”

Laura Dern and Willem Dafoe at the 23rd Annual Hollywood Film Awards at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, on November 3, 2019. (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for HFA)

After an earnest tribute from Jon Hamm, “Hollywood Screenwriter Award” honoree Anthony McCarten joked about finding success when he strayed from his teacher’s advice to write what he knows. He advised others to write what they want to know, that curiosity is what drove him to this project. Willem Dafoe presented his friend and colleague Laura Dern with the “Hollywood Supporting Actress Award,” praising the inspiring way in which she connects to audiences through her compassion.

This year’s award show honored the following:

“Hollywood Career Achievement Award”
Charlize Theron, presented by Nicole Kidman

“Hollywood Actor Award”
Antonio Banderas for Pain and Glory, presented by Dakota Johnson

“Hollywood Actress Award”
Renée Zellweger for Judy, presented by Finn Wittrock & Jessie Buckley

“Hollywood Supporting Actor Award”
Al Pacino for The Irishman, presented by Francis Ford Coppola

“Hollywood Supporting Actress Award”
Laura Dern for Marriage Story, presented by Willem Dafoe

“Hollywood Producer Award”
Emma Tillinger Koskoff for The Irishman, presented by Martin Scorsese

“Hollywood Director Award”
James Mangold for Ford v Ferrari, presented by Christian Bale & Matt Damon

“Hollywood Filmmaker Award”
Bong Joon Ho for Parasite, presented by Sienna Miller

“Hollywood Screenwriter Award”
Anthony McCarten for The Two Popes, presented by Jon Hamm

“Hollywood Blockbuster Award”
Avengers: Endgame, presented by Mark Ruffalo

“Hollywood Song Award”
Pharrell Williams for Letter To My Godfather, presented by Alicia Keys

“Hollywood Breakout Actor Award”
Taron Egerton for Rocketman, presented by Ray Romano

“Hollywood Breakout Actress Award”
Cynthia Erivo for Harriet, presented by Viola Davis

“Hollywood Breakthrough Director Award”
Olivia Wilde for Booksmart, presented by Jennifer Garner

“Hollywood Breakthrough Screenwriter Award”
Shia LaBeouf for Honey Boy, presented by Robert Downey Jr.

“Hollywood Animation Award”
Toy Story 4

“Hollywood Cinematography Award”
Mihai Malaimare Jr. for Jojo Rabbit

“Hollywood Film Composer Award”
Randy Newman for Marriage Story

“Hollywood Editor Award”
Michael McCusker & Andrew Buckland for Ford v Ferrari

“Hollywood Visual Effects Award”
Pablo Helman for The Irishman

“Hollywood Sound Award”
Donald Sylvester, Paul Massey, David Giammarco, & Steven A. Morrow for Ford v Ferrari

“Hollywood Costume Design Award”
Anna Mary Scott Robbins for Downton Abbey

“Hollywood Make-Up & Hair Styling Award”
Lizzie Yianni-Georgiou, Tapio Salmi, & Barrie Gower for Rocketman

“Hollywood Production Design Award”
Ra Vincent for Jojo Rabbit

Honoree Portraits are available on the show’s Twitter and Instagram pages. For all information and highlights, please visit the website for the Hollywood Film Awards.

For the latest news, follow the “Hollywood Film Awards” on social and join the conversation by using the official hashtag for the show, #HollywoodAwards.

Twitter: @HollywoodAwards
Facebook: Facebook.com/HollywoodAwards
Instagram: @hollywoodawards

About Dick Clark Productions
Dick Clark Productions (DCP) is the world’s largest producer and proprietor of televised live event entertainment programming with the “Academy of Country Music Awards,” “American Music Awards,” “Billboard Music Awards,” “Golden Globe Awards,” “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve with Ryan Seacrest” and the “Streamy Awards.” Weekly television programming includes “So You Think You Can Dance” from 19 Entertainment and DCP. DCP also owns one of the world’s most unique and extensive entertainment archive libraries with over 60 years of award-winning shows, historic programs, specials, performances and legendary programming. DCP is a division of Valence Media, a diversified and integrated media company with divisions and strategic investments in television, film, live entertainment, digital media and publishing. For additional information, visit www.dickclark.com.

About the Hollywood Film Awards
The Hollywood Film Awards, founded in 1997, were created to celebrate Hollywood and launch the awards season. The recipients of the awards are selected by an Advisory Team for their body of work and/or a film(s) that is to be released during the calendar year. For additional information, visit www.hollywoodawards.com.

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