Review: ‘National Champions,’ starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Uzo Aduba, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant

December 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place during three days in New Orleans, the dramatic film “National Champions” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two football players for the fictional Missouri Wolves college team launch a boycott, right before a national championship game, in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy that NCAA student athletes are not entitled to salaries, disability pensions and health insurance for playing in NCAA games. 

Culture Audience: “National Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted movies about civil rights in athletics and in the workforce.

Uzo Aduba and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions” is a memorable sports movie where all the action and battles take place outside of the game. This tension-filled drama about a college student-athlete boycott features standout performances and a diverse look at various sides of the debate. How you feel about this movie will probably come down to how you answer these questions: Should student athletes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) get salaries, disability pensions and health insurance? And should NCAA student athletes form their own union?

Those questions are at the heart of the issues that are contentiously argued about in “National Champions,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. Although the story is fictional, it takes a realistic-looking “what if” approach in depicting what would happen if NCAA football players decided to boycott playing in games, in order to get the NCAA to change its longstanding policies over these issues. And what if that boycott was staged just three days before a national championship game?

Those are the high-pressure circumstances under which the movie opens. “National Champions” does not let audiences go from its tightly wound grip during this entire movie, which is a suspense-filled ride from beginning to end. Even though this is a fictional story where the outcome can easily be predicted, the movie’s intention is to draw attention to the issues that are intensely debated in the movie. People who are not aware of these issues before seeing “National Champions” probably won’t look at NCAA sports in the same way again after seeing this movie.

At the beginning of “National Champions,” which takes place entirely in New Orleans, NCAA football player LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) is seen at 6:10 a.m. on the balcony of his hotel room, as he gears up for the biggest fight of his life. He’s about to hold a press conference announcing the boycott and the list of demands that he and his fellow boycotters want to be fulfilled by the NCAA, in order to end the boycott. The national championship game is being held in New Orleans, and LeMarcus is expected to be a star of the game.

LeMarcus, who is 21, is the current quarterback for the fictional Missouri Wolves. He recently won the Heisman Trophy. And he is widely predicted to be the first overall pick of the next National Football League (NFL) draft. LeMarcus is well-aware that by launching ths boycott, it will likely ruin his chances to play in the NFL, since he will be branded as a “troublemaker.” However, he is determined to fight for what he strongly believes in, no matter that the consequences.

LeMarcus knows he’s facing an uphill battle in this boycott. At this point in time, LeMarcus and his best friend Emmett Sunday (played by Alexander Ludwig), who is also a Missouri Wolves teammate, are the only two athletes who are solidly committed to this boycott. They both come from working-class backgrounds and have gotten full athletic scholarships to attend their university because of football.

While in New Orleans for the natonial championship game, LeMarcus and Emmett have planned to “go missing” from practice. They move around from hotel to hotel, so that they can’t easily be found. During the course of the movie, they only allow a select number of trusted people into their hotel room. LeMarcus is also battling a nasty cold, but it doesn’t deter his inner strength to fight for his cause. LeMarcus and Emmett are starting this boycott without any help from attorneys.

Emmett, who is the more laid-back of the two friends, doesn’t seem to like public speaking because he’s not seen in the movie making speeches or doing press conferences. Emmett is happy to let LeMarcus take the lead as the spokesperson for the boycott and as the one who articulates the demands that they want the NCAA to follow. Throughout the movie, Stephan James gives an effective performance that shows how LeMarcus has a powerful talent of persuasion and a steely determination to not give up in the face of several obstacles. LeMarcus’ stubbornness and refusal to compromise make him a formidable but very underdog opponent.

LeMarcus has his share of skeptics and naysayers. Before the press conference, a teammate named Orlando Bishop (played by Julian Horton) tries to discourage LeMarcus from going through with the boycott. Orlando tells LeMarcus that the NCAA system won’t change just because LeMarcus doesn’t play in the national championships. “Aint nobody marching in the streets for the number-one anchor. You’re going to embarrass yourself, bro,” Orlando comments. When the boycott is underway, someone else warns LeMarcus that LeMarcus is going to be blacklisted from professional football, just like former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who is outspoken in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the brief televised press conference, LeMarcus gives the list of demands that the boycotters want from the NCAA:

  • (1) NCAA will create of a non-revokable trust fund for every Division 1 varsity athlete.
  • (2) NCAA will contribute to a disability penision for Division 1 athletes who are injured in college athletics
  • (3) NCAA will recognize and collectively bargain with the proposed NCAA players’ union, submitting to all federally mandated guidelines of a unionized workforce.

LeMarcus doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks is going on with the NCAA having a policy forbidding NCAA athletes from being paid athletes: He calls it “slave labor,” where the athletes work for free and other people get rich off of them. “Slave labor” is a hot-button phrase, because it can’t be ignored that most of the NCAA football players are African American, while most of the NCAA officials who are millionaires because of their NCAA salaries are white.

The NCAA doesn’t pay NCAA athletes because of a policy that refuses to classify NCAA athletes as NCAA employees. The NCAA makes a bulk of its profits from licensing its games to television, as well as from collecting money from sponsors that pay the NCAA and individual teams for NCAA athletes to wear sponsor items or use sponsor equipment for free advertising. People who don’t want the NCAA to pay its athletes say it’s because NCAA athletes are college students, not working professionals, and if these athletes got paid, they’d be more likely to be corrupted and drop out of college to spend the money.

During the press conference, LeMarcus gives a damning example of the disparity between how the athletes are not compensated for their work and how the NCAA officials are being highly compensated. He mentions how the unpaid NCAA athletes have to pay for their own medical bills if they are injured during games, while high-ranking NCAA officials each get millions of dollars in salaries and employee perks, such as health insurance benefits, life insurance benefits and lucrative pensions. The billions of dollars that flow through the NCAA, after expenses are paid, end up mostly with an elite group at the top.

To make his point, LeMarcus names the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some high-ranking NCAA officials, including the salary of Missouri Wolves head coach James Lazor, who is not happy about having his salary being revealed for the whole world to know. By contrast, many NCAA athletes spend so much required time on their sport (which is usually more than a regular 40-hour work week) in additon to their academic requirements, they don’t have time to get salaried jobs, and many of them are financially struggling. NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept high-priced gifts and donations. However, in July 2021 (after “National Champions” was filmed), the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a monetary limit that the NCAA wanted to keep on student-athletes getting education-related gifts and benefits.

The fact that many NCAA athletes get their college tuition and living expenses paid for through scholarships (which usually comes from the athlete student’s college/university, not the NCAA) is of little comfort if it comes at a price of being injured from NCAA games or NCAA training, and the NCAA won’t help with health insurance or medical bills for the injuries. And if athletes in the NCAA have career-ending injuries, or if the athletes don’t make it to the professional leagues, then they are often stuck with paying for medical bills for injuries that they got while playing for the NCAA.

By the time athletes make it into the NCAA, they’re already at least 18 years old, in most cases. And because almost all NCAA athletes are legal adults and working full-time hours for the NCAA, many people believe that NCAA should be compensated like full-time employees. However, too many people are invested in keeping the status quo because they don’t want to share the NCAA’s wealth with the athletes.

These are harsh realities that many people don’t want to think about when they root for their favorite American college teams and athletes. However, as depicted in “National Champions,” people who believe in a boycott of the NCAA until things change in favor of athletes’ civil rights think that the only ways that these changes happen are if the public puts pressure on the NCAA and if activists play hardball with the NCAA. LeMarcus knows that he will probably ruin his promising football career with this boycott, and changes might not come in his lifetime, but he wants to get the ball rolling.

At first glance, it might seem that the plan to launch this boycott is poorly conceived, since only LeMarcus and Emmett seem to the only athletes who are part of the boycott. But the plan, although very risky, is actually a bold strategic move. And that’s because LeMarcus and Emmett plan to use the media to get the word out quickly to a massive audience and gain as much public support as possible.

If LeMarcus and Emmett had secretly tried to recruit other athletes for weeks behind the scenes, the word would’ve gotten out to the people who would want to stop the boycott. By staging the boycott right before the national championship game (the most lucrative football game for the NCAA), it would catch the NCAA off guard and force them to make a decision, or else possibly have the game cancelled. And because of the media attention, the NCAA has to make its decision publicly. LeMarcus and Emmett are fully prepared not to play in the game, but what other NCAA football players will join them?

The media blitz part of the plan works, because the boycott becomes big news. And there are some star NFL athletes who voice their support of the boycott, including Russell Wilson and Malcolm Jenkins, who portray themselves in cameos in the movie. These celebrity endorsements convince some other NCAA national championship football players to join the boycott too. The movie has a scene where LeMarcus gives a passionate speech in a hotel room that further convinces some of his fellow NCAA football players to join the boycott.

It isn’t long before so many Wolves team members are boycotting the game, the team is in danger of having mostly inexperienced freshman left as available team members. An emergency meeting takes place with the key players who will put up the fight in trying to squash the boycott. The people in this meeting are:

  • Coach James Lazor (played by J.K. Simmons), the hard-driving leader of the Missouri Wolves, who sees his athletes as his surrogate sons.
  • Richard Everly (played by David Koechner), the arrogant, sexist and crude leader of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • Wes Martin (played by Tony Winters), a Big 12 Conference executive who has some sympathy for the boycotting athletes.
  • Kevin McDonald (played by David Maldonado), director of communications for College Football Playoff (CFP), who is loyal to his employer and has to run interference with the media.
  • Mike Titus (played by Jeffrey Donovan), senior vice-president of championships for Division 1 NCAA Football, who is calm and level-headed.
  • Katherine Poe (played by Uzo Aduba), who describes herself as “outside counsel,” and seems to have a specialty in crisis management.

In this initial meeting, the men do almost all of the talking, while Katherine mostly sits quietly and listens in the background. But as time goes on, Katherine proves to be a fierce competitor in this boycott war. And she’s willing to do what it takes to win, including digging up some of LeMarcus’ secrets that could hurt his credibility. Coach Lazor wants the boycott to end, but he’s reluctant to play dirty in ways that could ruin LeMarcus’ life and reputation.

In a cast of very talented actors, Aduba and Simmons give outstanding performances not only because their characters are so strong-willed and outspoken but also because Coach Lazor and Katherine have their own unique charisma and flaws. Aduba and Simmons give two of the best monologues in the movie. The screenwriting for “National Champions” is mostly solid, and these cast members definitely elevate the material.

Coach Lazor’s big moment comes when he assembles the remaining Wolves team members in a hotel conference room and gives a rousing and emotional speech about how money doesn’t make someone happy and that he’s not a coach for the NCAA because of the money. He shares a story about his personal background and how his dreams to become professional football player were dashed, but he found a way to channel his passion for football by coaching. Coach Lazor says that money shouldn’t be these athletes’ motivation, but glory should be the main motivation.

Katherine’s impactful monlogue comes in a scene when Emmett accuses her of being heartless. It’s in this scene where Katherine, who comes across as obsessed with her job and somewhat mysterious up until this point, unleashes a tirade to show her human vulnerabilities and emotional pain. She also reveals that she’s not siding with the NCAA because it’s her job, but also because she truly believes that the boycott will hurt NCAA funding for lower-profile sports that don’t get as much attention as football and men’s basketball.

Katherine is probably the most interesting and complex character in this movie. There are many sports movies that show clashes between athletes and authority figures. However, almost all of these movies are about ego conflicts between men. Katherine embodies every woman who’s in a male-dominated job who is constantly underestimated because of her gender. She also happens to be African American, which is adds another layer of discrimination that she no doubt has experienced for her entire life.

It’s this type of life experience that makes her more clear-eyed and prepared for the times when people’s worst natures come out, compared to people who are unprepared and gullible because they go through life never having to experience real discrimination or hatred. Katherine’s way of dealing with opposition can be too extreme, by a lot of standards. She wants to win at all costs, even if she gives up a lot of compassion or empathy that she might have.

“National Champions” is at its best when it focuses on the characters of LeMarcus, Coach Lazor and Katherine. The movie tends to falter when it goes off on other tangents. There’s a soap opera-like subplot about Coach Lazor’s philandering wife Bailey Lazor (played by Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover Elliott Schmidt (played by Timothy Olyphant), a college professor who decides that he’s going to take a job in Italy. The movie shows if Bailey decides to run off with Elliott or not, in the midst of this boycott crisis.

Meanwhile, some supporting characters are introduced in the movie, but their character development is non-existent. Lil Rel Howery portrays Ronnie Dunn, the Wolves’ defensive coordinator coach, who might have to step in for Coach Lazor during the championship game when Coach Lazor seems to be on the verge of having a personal meltdown. Tim Blake Nelson is Rodger Cummings, the head of the Missouri Wolves boosters club, who is not about to let all the booster donations that were poured into the team possibly go down the drain with a boycott that could cost the Wolves the championship game. Andrew Bachelor portrays Taylor Jackson, another wealthy booster of the Wolves.

All the other football players depicted in the movie aren’t given enough screen time for viewers to see if they have distinctive personalities. Cecil Burgess (played by Therry Edouard), who has the nickname the Haitian Hammer, is another star athlete for the Missouri Wolves. However, Cecil only has a few brief scenes, mainly to show that he’s staying loyal to the NCAA, and he thinks the boycott is a mistake. Emmett is portrayed as a nice guy, but his personality is fairly bland.

Despite some of the flaws in the “National Champions” screenplay, the movie is directed, filmed and edited in a way that makes this an engaging thriller for people who want to watch movies about the business side of sports. “National Champions” might disappoint people who think they’re going to see a lot of football playing in the movie. But for other people who appreciate what the film is actually about, they’ll understand that it’s about real-life stakes that are much higher than a championship game.

STX will release “National Champions” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 28, 2021.

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

February 13, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“The Right One”

Directed by Ken Mok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘The Dark Divide,’ starring David Cross and Debra Messing

September 28, 2020

by Carla Hay

David Cross in “The Dark Divide” (Photo courtesy of Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios)

“The Dark Divide”

Directed by Tom Putnam

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1995, primarily in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state, the drama “The Dark Divide” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Native Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lepidopterist (a person who studies butterflies and moths) defies the expectations of skeptics by going on a scientific exploration that involves camping outdoors for several weeks by himself in a remote forest area.  

Culture Audience: “The Dark Divide” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies about camping, hiking and dealing with the death of a loved one.

David Cross and Debra Messing in “The Dark Divide” (Photo courtesy of Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios)

The first scene of the entertaining and occasionally emotionally moving drama “The Dark Divide” is of lepidopterist Dr. Robert “Bob” Pyle (played by David Cross) running in fear somewhere in Gifford Pinchot National Forest in Washington state. Is he running for his life? Is he being chased by Bigfoot, the creature that’s alluded to throughout the movie? The answer comes in the last third of the film.

But before then, “The Dark Divide” (written and directed by Tom Putnam) takes a compelling and sometimes meandering journey with a character who goes on this getaway trip to look for butterflies and moths, but he’s really looking for a way to process his grief over the death of his wife, who was a naturalist and artist. “The Dark Divide” is inspired by the real-life experiences of Bob Pyle, whose wife Thea died of cancer in 2013. Pyle authored the 1995 book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide.”

In the movie, which takes place in 1995, Bob’s wife Thea (played by Debra Messing) dies about halfway through the film (this is not spoiler information, since her death is the catalyst for Bob taking this fateful trip), after she had a long battle with cancer. The movie isn’t in chronological order, but it’s easy to figure out the order in which things happened. The first third of the movie shows Bob and Thea’s home life. They don’t know it yet but it will be the last year of Thea’s life.

Thea (who has been going through chemotherapy) and Bob try to have as normal as an existence as possible. They attend a cocktail party that has several of Bob’s scientist colleagues who are also in attendance. As a lepidopterist, Bob is interested in trying to save the endangered species of butterflies and moths that he studies. At the party, Bob tells two of his male colleagues—Professor Trimble (played by Shelly Lipkin) and Professor Keasey (played by Tony Doupe)—that he’s thinking about going to Gifford Pinchot National Forest to find any of these endangered species.

“Unless we catalogue all the species there, how do we know if the numbers are dwindling?” Bob asks the colleagues. The colleagues agree, but they react with skepticism that Bob is qualified to do this kind of field work by himself. They ask him what his experience is with camping, and he admit it’s minimal and that he hasn’t really gone camping since he was a child. And he’s never done any training on how to survive in a remote, outdoor area.

Meanwhile, back at home, Thea and Bob have moments of despair about her cancer. Bob can only comfort Thea when he does heartbreaking things like help her in the bathroom when she vomits or when he accompanies her to doctor appointments for her cancer treatment. Thea is generally more accepting of her cancer diagnosis than Bob seems to be. She makes it clear to Bob and anyone else that she doesn’t want their pity.

One day, Bob is working on his front-door porch with his typewriter, and all he can type is the word “cancer.” Thea notices Bob is in a mopey mood and she says to him, “Bob, why don’t you dial back on being miserable?” He replies, “I’m sorry but my wife is …” He can’t finish saying the words he wants to say, so Thea finishes the sentence with what she wants to say: “Alive.”

Thea tells Bob to “go with your girlfriend Marcia to look for specimens, scribble down that poetry you keep threatening to write, and just get away from me for a while.” (Marcia is the nickname for Bob’s butterfly net.) Bob takes her advice, but while out camping, he soon finds out that his colleagues were right: He doesn’t know much about survival in the outdoors.

When some Girl Scouts walk past his campsite, one of the girls tells Bob how he stored his food in the wrong way. He needed to use branches to hang the food so that bears couldn’t get to it. You know you’re ill-equipped to be go camping in the woods when a Girl Scout knows more than you do. Later, Bob nearly falls down a cliff while trying to catch a butterfly in his net.

Bob and Thea have a loving relationship, and Thea tries to lift his spirits during the cancer ordeal with her dry sense of humor. In one scene, when they are home alone together, Thea says to Bob: “Knock, knock.” Bob replies, “Who’s there?” Thea answers, “Death.”

Bob says, “That’s not funny.” Thea responds, “I’m sorry. It was a little funny.” Bob reluctantly admits that the joke was “a little funny,” and they both have a laugh over it. This tender moment is referenced later in the movie to great emotional effect when Bob has a life-or-death situation and he doesn’t know if he’s going to make it out alive.

After Thea dies, Bob gets a letter in the mail informing him that he’s gotten a Guggenheim grant for $11,000 to study the endangered species at Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The grant is his motivation to go back to the forest. The trip is also his way of honor Thea after she died, since Bob and Thea’s relationship was strengthened by their common passion for nature and animals. (Cross and Messing are very good in their roles as Bob and Thea. The couple’s marriage is the soul of this movie.)

Before he heads into the very remote area of the woods, Bob stops off at a convenience store to buy food and supplies. He sees a newspaper tabloid in the store with a front page story titled “I Was Bigfoot’s Love Slave.” The store clerk named Monty (played by Cameron Esposito) notices Bob glancing at the tabloid story and says, “Tourists go nuts for that crap.”

Bob has a map and asks the clerk for directions on where he needs to go. Monty looks at Bob and tells him that the trail where he wants to go is “no joke” and that Bob doesn’t look very well-equipped to handle the treacherous terrain. The warning doesn’t really scare Bob, who is determined to achieve his goals to look for the specimens that he wants to find.

The rest of the movie shows Bob experiencing a series of mishaps and some strangers during his mostly lonely trip. Some of the strangers are friendlier than others. Some of them (such as a group of construction workers in the forest) are hostile to environmentalists, so Bob is careful about who he tells that he’s very much a pro-conservation person who believes in protecting endangered species as much as possible.

Bigfoot is a possible looming presence in the area. Many of the people who are in the forest believe that Bigfoot exists, while Bob doesn’t believe in Bigfoot or any creature that can’t be scientifically explained or proven. One of the most memorable encounters that Bob has is with a family of hikers, who almost shoot him because they think he might be Bigfoot.

Bob ends up briefly hanging out over a campfire at night with this family, which consists of a middle-aged married couple named Teresa (played by Kimberly Guerrero) and Shayne (played by David Koechner); Teresa’s young-adult son Billy (played by Dyami Thomas) from a previous relationship; and Teresa’s mother Marie (played by Harvest Moon), who was the one who was convinced that Bob could’ve been Bigfoot when the family first saw him in the woods.

Billy and Marie are the two people in the family who are the most convinced that the legend of Bigfoot is true. (Everyone in the family is Native American except for Shayne, who is white.) Over the campfire, Billy says, “When white man gets too greedy, Bigfoot smashes his truck as revenge.”

Not long after Bob amicably parts ways with this family, he sees that a construction work site in the woods has been vandalized. Bob gets falsely accused by some of the workers of causing the damage, but he convinces them he didn’t do it. And in another scene, Bob sees an ape-like footprint that’s twice the size of a man’s footprint. Coincidence?

“The Dark Divide” isn’t really a story about Bigfoot conspiracy theories or legends. Instead, the movie (which has stunning cinematography by Sean Bagley, especially the sweeping aerial views of nature) is often a meditative piece that shows Bob communing with nature and being alone with his thoughts. Because he encounters his own precarious situations on this trip, it gives him a new appreciation of life. People should not expect a fast-paced wilderness adventure story with this quietly effective movie because it’s about facing grief and inner demons instead of any dangerous creatures in the woods.

Strike Back Studios and REI Co-op Studios released “The Dark Divide” in select U.S. cinemas on September 18, 2020. The movie’s VOD release is on November 10, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2022 Culture Mix