Review: ‘Rustin’ (2023), starring Colman Domingo, Chris Rock, Jeffrey Wright and Audra McDonald

January 15, 2024

by Carla Hay

Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan and Colman Domingo in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

“Rustin” (2023)

Directed by George C. Wolfe

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, from 1960 to 1963, the dramatic film “Rustin” (based on real events) features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Openly gay activist Bayard Rustin battles people inside and outside the civil rights movement in his plans for a large-scale peaceful protest in Washington, D.C., while his personal life has various entanglements.

Culture Audience: “Rustin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a compelling but somewhat formulaic biography about an influential civil rights activist who has historically been overshadowed by more famous people.

Aml Ameen in “Rustin” (Photo by Parrish Lewis/Netflix)

Colman Domingo gives a commanding and charismatic performance in “Rustin,” a briskly paced drama that tells the story of underrated civil rights leader Bayard Rustin, who fought several public and private battles against racism and homophobia. It’s the type of movie that never lets you forget that you’re watching a drama, because the main characters often talk as if they’re giving speeches and lectures instead of having normal conversations. The movie delivers plenty of inspiration and heartfelt moments, but it zips around so much, some viewers will think that “Rustin” is a bit shallow and formulaic.

Directed by George C. Wolfe, “Rustin” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning screenwriter of 2008’s “Milk”) and Julian Breece co-wrote the screenplay for “Rustin.” The “Rustin” screenplay isn’t Oscar-worthy, but it has many memorable moments because of the way that the cast members interpret the dialogue. For the purposes of this review, the real Bayard Rustin (who died in 1987, at the age of 75) will be referred to by his last name, while the movie character of Bayard Rustin will be referred to by his first name.

“Rustin” is not a comprehensive biopic, since the story takes place only during the years 1960 to 1963. However, the movie capably shows how Rustin is an often-overlooked influence in the U.S. civil rights movement and was a driving force in the historic 1963 March on Washington. Not all of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios are believable, such as the way that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (played by Aml Ameen) becomes almost like a sidekick character whenever Bayard (played by Domingo) goes on rants about how Bayard wants things to be.

Although “Rustin” shows Bayard experiencing violent racism (shown mostly in quick flashbacks), the biggest conflicts he has in the movie is with other civil rights officials. “Rustin” takes a realistic look at how internal power struggles and feuds within the U.S. civil rights movement often caused damage to the movement and/or slowed down progress. And in case it isn’t obvious to viewers, Bayard points it out in a preachy comment after preachy comment that racism isn’t the only enemy to the civil rights movement.

Early on in the movie (which is told in chronological order), Adam Clayton Powell (played by Jeffrey Wright) tries to ruin Bayard’s reputation by spreading stories that Bayard (an openly gay bachelor with no children) and Martin (a married father) are secret lovers. Bayard vehemently denies this accusation and puts in his resignation notice with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), because he thinks that Martin will back up Bayard and publicly urge him not to leave the NAACP.

However, Bayard (who was based in New York City during this time) doesn’t get Martin’s support, and the NAACP accepts Bayard’s resignation. It leads to a period of estrangement between Martin and Bayard, who becomes disillusioned with the NAACP and other aspects of the civil rights movement. Congressman Powell is portrayed as a power-hungry liar, but he isn’t the only person who becomes an enemy of Bayard.

Bayard’s main adversary in the movie is NAACP executive secretary Roy Wilkins (played by Chris Rock), who disagrees with Bayard on almost everything. When Bayard comes up with the idea of having a massive protest that would bus in at least 100,000 people from around the United States, Roy tells anyone who’ll listen that it’s a terrible idea because Roy thinks the event would be too expensive and too hard to manage. The 1963 March on Washington ended up getting a crowd of about 250,000 people.

Roy (who is portrayed as egotistical and stubborn) also puts up a lot of resistance to Bayard’s plan to make it a two-day event, because Roy thinks a one-day event is more realistic. Bayard’s most loyal ally in these conflicts is union organizer A. Philip Randolph (played by Glynn Turman), who is like a father figure to Bayard. Bayard’s biological family is not part of the story. (It can be assumed he’s estranged from his family members because they disapprove of his sexuality.)

Meanwhile, although Bayard is open about his sexuality to the people who are closest to him, he struggles with finding a life partner because he’s a workaholic who’s afraid of committing himself to one person. In real life, Rustin often blurred his personal and professional lives, by hiring his lovers as his assistants. He also frequently dated younger men, many who were white. In the movie, the character of Tom (played by Gus Halper), a white worker for the NAACP who becomes Bayard’s assistant, isn’t based on anyone specific but is a composite of these types of men who would be sexually involved with Bayard.

Tom’s on-again/off-again relationship with Bayard gets sidelined in the story when Bayard has a deeper emotional connection with a closeted Christian preacher named Elias Taylor (played by Johnny Ramey), whose wife Claudia Taylor (played by Adrienne Warren) expects Elias to be the heir to her pastor father’s church. “Rustin” gives glimpses into Bayard’s nightlife activities, such as Bayard going to gay bars or cruising for sex partners on the street, but these are very fleeting glimpses. During this time when it was illegal in the U.S. to be homosexual or queer, the movie has one scene showing law enforcement raiding a gay bar that Bayard frequented. Bayard luckily avoids getting arrested in this raid because he wasn’t in the bar at the time.

“Rustin” gives only a very short acknowledgement that although women were valuable members of the civil rights movement, women were often overlooked and underappreciated when it came to who got the most power and the most glory in the movement. Dr. Anna Hedgeman (played by CCH Pounder) is depicted as the character who is the most outspoken about this sexism. Bayard temporarily appeases her by having her be a mid-level manager in the activities that he plans.

Although Bayard shows empathy and support for the women closest to him—including civil rights activist Ella Baker (played by Audra McDonald)—in the end, he doesn’t place a high priority on elevating qualified women into the highest positions of power. The movie has numerous scenes of meetings with African American civil rights leaders, and there are no women in the room. Almost all of the people whom Bayard personally mentors are other men, including an eager young activist named Courtney (played by Jeffrey Mackenzie Jordan), who has a platonic relationship with Bayard.

Meanwhile, most of the female actors in the movie are portraying characters who don’t have names and mostly do the work of assistants and secretaries. Martin’s wife Coretta Scott King (played by Carra Patterson), who doesn’t have much screen time in “Rustin,” is shown in the movie only as a housewife, which is what her husband wanted her to be. In real life, she had a college education and her own accomplishments outside of being a wife and mother. Da’Vine Joy Randolph makes a cameo as Mahalia Jackson performing at a rally led by Martin, but this scene-stealing appearance gives no further insight into Jackson’s involvement in the civil rights movement.

Because “Rustin” tends to make Bayard a forceful and dominating presence in every scene that he’s in, other important civil rights leaders are reduced to a handful of soundbites. They include John Lewis (played by Maxwell Whittington-Cooper), Medger Evers (played by Rashad Demond Edwards), Cleve Robinson (played by Michael Potts), Whitney Young (played by Kevin Mambo) and James “Jim” Farmer (played by Frank Harts). The obvious intention is to make Bayard look larger-than-life, but it’s often to the detriment of realism and development of other characters in the story that should have been depicted in a more meaningful way.

Some of the movie’s dialogue is a little hokey. For example, in a scene with Tom and Bayard in Bayard’s home, Tom is getting ready to smoke a marijuana joint. Bayard mildly scolds him by saying about smoking marijuana: “Last time I checked, that was illegal.” Tom replies, “Last time I checked, we were illegal.”

But the movie also delivers some memorable zingers, such as a scene where Bayard confronts Martin about homophobia among civil rights officials: “On the day I was born black, I was also born homosexual. They either believe in freedom and justice for all, or they do not.”

“Rustin” has a very talented cast, but it’s less of an ensemble movie and more of a showcase for Colman, who admirably brings a lot of soul and vigor to the role. Ameen is very good in the role of Dr. King, but the movie makes the Dr. King character become secondary to Bayard’s outspoken presence whenever they’re in the same room together. It’s a little hard to believe that Dr. King, who had his own strong personality, would be this subdued around someone with less power and less authority in making decisions for the civil rights movement. The movie gives credit to Rustin for influencing Dr. King to follow the non-violent philosophies of Mahatma Ghandi.

“Rustin” wants to make a point of how the real Rustin didn’t get enough credit for things he did behind the scenes in the civil rights movement. But by making him such a big personality who put himself at the center of conflicts, “Rustin” somewhat contradicts this movie’s message that the real Rustin was easily overlooked because he wanted to “fly under the radar.” It’s not until near the end of the movie that the character of Bayard shows humility in not seeking the spotlight for himself in the civil rights movement. A few more of these humble moments would have made the character more interesting and the movie more convincing in its premise that Rustin didn’t really want the widespread public recognition that he deserved.

Netflix released “Rustin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 3, 2023. The movie premiered on Netflix on November 17, 2023.

Review: ‘The Holdovers,’ starring Paul Giamatti, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Dominic Sessa

October 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Dominic Sessa, Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (Photo by Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

“The Holdovers”

Directed by Alexander Payne

Culture Representation: Taking place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971, the comedy/drama film “The Holdovers” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A professor, a student and a cook (who all are associated with an elite boarding school for boys) form an unlikely bond over their loneliness and personal problems during a Christmas holiday break.

Culture Audience: “The Holdovers” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of director Alexander Payne, star Paul Giamatti and above-average movies about unique characters who are find themselves spending time together under unexpected circumstances.

Dominic Sessa and Paul Giamatti in “The Holdovers” (Photo by Seacia Pavao/Focus Features)

Filled with acerbic wit and superb talent, “The Holdovers” is an engaging comedy/drama about finding personal connections with unexpected people. It’s more than a Christmas movie. It’s an authentic portrait of humanity. “The Holdovers” had its world premiere at the 2023 Telluride Film Festival and then had its Canadian premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it came in second place for TIFF’s top prize of the People’s Choice Award.

Directed by Alexander Payne and written by David Hemingson, “The Holdovers” takes place in Massachusetts, from December 1970 to January 1971. (The movie was filmed on location in Massachusetts.) “The Holdovers” is a very impressive feature-film debut for screenwriter Hemingson, whose previous experience has been in television, with credits that include the TV series “Whiskey Cavalier” and “Kitchen Confidential.” “The Holdovers” was originally conceived as a pilot (test episode) for a potential TV series.

In “The Holdovers,” the three characters at the center of the story all have a connection to an elite boarding school for boys called Barton Academy, which is located in an unnamed suburb of Boston. Adjunct professor of ancient history Paul Hunham (played by Paul Giamatti), a longtime Barton Academy faculty member, is grouchy, strict and very demanding. Angus Tully (played by Dominic Sessa), a 17-year-old student, excels in Paul’s class, but Angus is a moody and rebellious loner who is often rude and sarcastic to people. Mary Lamb (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the chief chook at Barton Academy, is sassy but compassionate and generous.

Through a series of circumstances, this unlikely trio of misfits find themselves alone for the Christmas holiday season at Barton Academy, while almost everyone else has gone away on vacation. The people who are left behind at Barton Academy during this vacation period have the unflattering nickame of “the holdovers.” It’s considered a stigma to be stuck on campus during this holiday break, because the assumption is that people in this situation don’t have any loved ones or friends who want to be with them for the holiday season.

Paul, Angus and Mary find out that they are all in emotional pain, in different and similar ways. Paul is a very cynical bachelor with a troubled past. Paul lives alone, has never been married, and he has no children. Angus (who is an only child) feels abandoned and neglected by his mother Judy Clotfelter (played by Gillian Vigman), who would rather spend this holiday season on a honeymoon with her new husband Stanley Clotfelter (played by Tate Donovan).

Mary is a single mother who is grieving over the recent death of her college-age son (and only child) Curtis, a Barton Academy alum who was drafted into the Vietnam War and died in combat. Curtis’ father Harold, who was Mary’s fiancé, died in a shipyard job accident when Curtis was very young. Harold and Curtis both died before they were the age of 25. Mary doesn’t want a lot of people to see her suffering, so she’s been somewhat avoiding her loved ones, including her boyfriend Danny (played by Naheem Garcia) and her sister Peggy (played by Juanita Pearl), who lives in Boston.

“The Holdovers” has sharp writing, directing and acting throughout the movie, but it takes a while before the movie gets to the best scenes. The first third of “The Holdovers” is a series of scenes establishing the personalities of the three main characters, while the last two-thirds of the movie unpeel some of the layers of their lives, thereby revealing flaws, secrets and emotional damage that they’ve experienced. As already shown in the trailer for “The Holdovers,” there’s a point in the story where Angus and Paul spend time alone together, and Paul starts to feel like a fatherly mentor to Angus.

Giamatti has played many curmudgeonly and jaded characters before (including in Payne’s Oscar-winning 2004 dramedy “Sideways”), but Giamatti’s performance in “The Holdovers” is probably the best of the bunch. Sessa makes a very admirable feature-film debut as the complicated Angus. Randolph gives a performance that is both amusing and heartbreaking.

The first third of the movie shows these three characters within the context of how they want to present themselves to other people in Barton Academy culture. But as more Barton Academy people go away for the holidays, the vulnerabilities of Paul, Angus and Mary start to become more apparent. And these three characters become more open among themselves in showing these vulnerabilities.

There are some interesting side characters in “The Holdovers,” but their impact on the story isn’t as powerful as the relationship that evolves between Paul, Angus and Mary. Barton Academy employee Miss Lydia Crane (played by Carrie Preston) is one of the few people at the school who likes unpopular Paul. She invites Paul and Angus to her home for a crowded holiday party, where Paul and Angus start to see different sides to each other.

Paul’s boss Dr. Hardy Woodrup (played by Andrew Garman), who is Barton Academy’s headmaster, is often frustrated with stubborn and ill-tempered Paul, who is harsh and tactless in the way he communicates. However, Paul prides himself on having high ethical standards: He is the type of professor who doesn’t give special treatment to his students, based on the clout and income of the students’ parents. An early scene in the movie shows Hardy and Paul having a tense conversation, where Hardy says he disagrees with Paul’s past decision to flunk a student son of a senator, who is one of the school’s biggest donors.

Angus has a contentious or aloof attitude toward his fellow students. The student he clashes with the most is a racist bully named Teddy Kountze (played by Brady Hepner), who is a spoiled and entitled rich kid. Other student characters who are featured in “The Holdovers” include a long-haired star athlete named Jason Smith (played by Michael Provost), an amiable introvert named Alex Ollerman (played by Ian Dolley) and a quiet immigrant named Ye-Joon Park (played by Jim Kaplan). Alex is a holdover because his parents are Mormon missionaries who are busy traveling. Ye-Joon is a holdover because is parents are in Korea, and they think he is too young to travel by himself to Korea.

“The Holdovers” is filmed as if it’s a time capsule from the early 1970s (the opening title card sequence is a tribute to this era of cinema), but the themes explored in this gem of a film are timeless. It’s the type of story that doesn’t need to be made into a TV series, as it was originally conceived. The conclusion of this film is just right the way that it is.

Focus Features will release “The Holdovers” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023, with a wider expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on November 28, 2023. Peacock will premiere “The Holdovers” on December 29, 2023.

Review: ‘Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,’ starring the voices of Antonio Banderas, Salma Hayek, Olivia Colman, Harvey Guillén, Samson Kayo, Wagner Moura, John Mulaney, Florence Pugh and Ray Winstone

November 27, 2022

by Carla Hay

Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”

Directed by Joel Crawford; co-directed by Januel Mercado 

Some language in Spanish with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional world populated by classic fairy-tale characters and original DreamWorks Animation characters, the animated film “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” features a racially diverse voice cast (Latino, white and black) portraying humans and talking animals.

Culture Clash: Outlaw pirate cat Puss in Boots goes on a quest with friends and competes with enemies to find a magical Wishing Star that can grant one last wish to whomever gets to the star first.

Culture Audience: “Puss in Boots” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s voice cast members; the “Puss in Boots” and “Shrek” franchises; and movies that are family-friendly, thrilling stories with a lot of heart.

Pictured clockwise, from far left: Baby Bear (voiced by Samson Kayo), Papa Bear (voiced by Ray Winstone), Mama Bear (voiced by Olivia Colman) and Goldilocks (voiced by Florence Pugh) in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is a fun-filled adventure packed with comedic moments, poignant life lessons and some wacky surprises. This sequel is an instant classic that charms with a talented voice cast, stunning visuals and a very entertaining story. “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is more than a worthy follow-up to 2011’s “Puss in Boots.” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” could easily be considered one of the best movies from DreamWorks Animation.

Directed by Joel Crawford and co-directed by Januel Mercado, “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” is the type of sequel where it’s not necessary to see the original movie to understand the story. Most viewers will probably know already that the swashbuckling, outlaw pirate cat known as Puss in Boots (voiced by Antonio Banderas) first made an appearance in 2004’s “Shrek 2” and subsequently appeared in 2007’s “Shrek the Third” and 2010’s “Shrek Forever After.” The first “Puss in Boots” movie was his origin story. Also part of the “Puss in Boots” franchise are the 2012 short film “Puss in Boots: The Three Diablos,” the 2015-2018 Netflix series “The Adventures of Puss in Boots” and the 2017 Netflix interactive special “Puss in Book: Trapped in an Epic Tale.”

In “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Puss goes on a quest to the Black Forest to find a magical Wishing Star that can grant one last wish to anyone who finds the star first. He’s got some help from friends and some competition from enemies. Before he gets to the Black Forest, the movie has a meaningful subplot about Puss facing his own mortality. This character development shows a vulnerable side to Puss, whose swaggering confidence and bravery are tested throughout the story.

In the beginning of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” Puss is his usually lovably arrogant self, and he’s still a fugitive from the law who’s wanted for a bank robbery that he was tricked into committing. (The first “Puss in Boots” movie goes into more details about this robbery.) Puss barrels his way into a foreign land, where he ends up in a palace, and slides down the portrait painting of the ruling governor (voiced by Bernardo De Paula), who watches in horror as Puss’s claws drag through the painting and ruin it. Puss then fights and defeats a tree monster, but Puss is soon knocked unconscious by a giant bell that falls on him.

Puss wakes up in the office a man who describe himself as the local medical doctor (voiced by Anthony Mendez), who explains that he also works as a barber, a veterinarian and a witch doctor. The doctor tells Puss that Puss actually died but was able to be revived. The doctor knows that cats have nine lives, so he asks Puss how many lives Puss has used up already. Puss has never really thought about it before, but after some reflection, Puss realizes that he has used eight of his nine lives. After Puss dies in his ninth life, Puss will be dead forever.

The doctor gives Puss this advice that Puss doesn’t want to hear: “You need to retire.” The doctor recommends that Puss go to a home of an animal rescuer named Mama Luna (voiced by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), who operates a cat sanctuary out of her house called Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue. Puss refuses to take that advice and quickly leaves the office. The doctor says these parting words to Puss: “Death comes for us all.”

While Puss contemplates his next move, he says to himself while he looks in a mirror: “You’re too good-looking to retire.” Puss goes to a saloon to drink some of his sorrows away. And it’s there that he meets a bounty hunter called the Big Bad Wolf, also known as Wolf (voiced by Wagner Moura), who has been looking to capture Puss. And you know what happens next.

During their fight, Puss is armed with his trusty fencing sword, while Wolf has two scythes that he uses in each hand. Puss’ life flashes before his eyes during this battle. And for the first time in his life, Puss experiences true fear that makes him temporarily freeze. Puss runs into a room, where Wolf traps him by locking Puss inside the room. However, Puss finds a way to escape.

The panic attack that Puss experienced unnerves him so much, he decides to take the doctor’s advice. Puss doesn’t really want to retire, but he’s more afraid of dying in his next fight. Before Puss goes to Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue, he buries his pirate clothes in a shallow grave and gives a mournful retirement speech out loud that no one can hear except Puss.

Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue is crowded with dozens of cats that Mama Luna knows is a violation of health code laws. A running joke in Mama Luna’s dialogue is that she’s constantly paranoid about getting in trouble with animal care officials for all the cats that she keeps indoors. Mama Luna is a bachelorette with a big personality, and she seems to run the sanctuary all by herself. She loves her cats and takes good care of them, but she appears dangerously close to being a cat hoarder.

Puss, who is naturally a loner, is miserable at this cat sanctuary. He’s bored in his new home and dislikes the communal meals that he is forced to have with the other cats. During Puss’ forlorn “retirement,” the Doors song “This Is the End” (sung by Dan Navarro, a co-writer of the movie’s original songs) plays to comedic effect.

Puss soon meets an unlikely friend at this sanctuary: a small, talkative dog disguised as a cat. His name is Perro (voiced by Harvey Guillén), but Puss eventually gives him the nickname Perrito. (In Spanish, the word “perro” means “dog,” and the word “perrito” means “little dog.”) Perrito is humble, very optimistic, and eager to make friends. In other words, he’s almost the complete opposite of Puss.

There would be no “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” if Puss stayed at the cat sanctuary for the rest of the movie. His time at Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue comes to an end with the arrival of four home invaders: Goldilocks (voiced by Florence Pugh) and the three Bears: Mama Bear (voiced by Olivia Colman), Papa Bear (voiced by Ray Winstone) and Baby Bear (voiced by Samson Kayo), who has some rivalry going on with Goldilocks, whose nickname is Goldi.

Just like in the fairy tale, Goldilocks is a human orphan who has been adopted into this bear family. But unlike the fairy tale, Goldi is now a tough young woman who is in the bounty-hunting business with her bear family. All four of them have tracked Puss to Mama Luna’s Cat Rescue with the intent to capture Puss.

During this attempted capture, Puss and Perrito also find out that Goldi and the Three Bears are also looking for the map to the Wishing Star. It’s how Puss and Perrito find out that this Wishing Star will grant one last wish to the first person who finds the star. It doesn’t take a genius to know that Puss now wants to find the Wishing Star too, because his wish is to live forever.

Puss and Perrito manage to escape outside from Goldi and the Three Bears. Puss decides he’s coming out of retirement to find the Wishing Star. He gathers his clothes, his sword, and brings Perrito (a willing sidekick) along for this new adventure. Perrito doesn’t have a wish. He’s just happy he’s found a new friend.

Along the way, Puss and Perrito find out that another outlaw is in search of the Wishing Star: Jack Horner (voiced by John Mulaney), a wealthy underworld boss who operates in the back of a bakery. Jack hasn’t lost his bratty ways since he was a child known as Little Jack Horner, who famously ruined a pie by sticking his thumb in it. Jack is now a ruthless villain who has several minions helping him find the map to the Wishing Star. Jack’s wish is to become the most powerful person in this fairtyale universe.

During the journey that Puss and Perrito take to the Black Forest to find the Wishing Star, Puss unexpectedly reunites with his on-again/off-again love Kitty Softpaws (voiced by Salma Hayek), who reveals that she was hiding in a trunk. Puss and Kitty haven’t seen each other in years. And let’s just say that they have “unfinished business.” Kitty, who is very cynical about many things, prides herself for being just as brave and stubborn as Puss, so naturally this on-again/off-again couple will clash.

“Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” doesn’t overstuff the movie with too many characters, thereby giving room for the movie to develop all the principal characters in ways that are better than the average animated adventure film. Puss is now prone to having a few panic attacks, which can throw him off his usually fearless game. Kitty struggles with learning to know the difference between being independent and being mistrustful. The relationship between Kitty and Puss goes through a realistic evolution during this adventure.

Perrito is a mixture of being innocent and wise about life, but not in a contrived and cloying way. He is by far the most adorable and sincere character in the movie, so expect kids (and quite a few adults) to want Perrito toys and other Perrito merchandise after seeing this movie. When Perrito tells his tragic backstory about his human family making numerous attempts to abandon him, Perrito chooses to remember it with so much optimism, he describes these abandonment attempts as the family playing pranks on him.

Goldi has her own family issues: Even though the bears raised her as one of their own, she still feels like a misfit because she’s a human in a family of bears. Jack is an unfortunate example of someone who was bullied as a child but then grew up to be a bully. As for Wolf, he might not be what he first appears to be, and his actions in the movie might not be as easy to predict as some people might think.

All of the cast members give very good performances, with Banderas, Hayek, Guillén and Pugh as the standouts. They all make their characters sound like they have fully formed personalities instead of being two-dimensional cartoon characters reciting lines. The movie’s snappy dialogue can be enjoyed by people of all ages (open-minded adults will appreciate the cheeky almost-cursing in the movie), while the plot has some predictability but also some innovation that’s unexpected.

“Puss in Boots” might disappoint some people expecting to hear more original songs in the movie. However, the centerpiece original song (“Fearless Hero”), which is heard at different times in the movie, is catchy and memorable. Navarro, Heitor Pereira and Paul Fisher co-wrote “Fearless Hero,” which at one point is performed by Banderas and Pereira in the movie. Navarro and Daniel Oviedo co-wrote “La Vida Es Una,” performed by Karol G during the movie’s end credits.

Everything in “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish: is well-paced, with the action scenes particularly fun to watch. When Puss in Boots first made an appearance in “Shrek 2,” he was a true scene-stealer. With “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish,” the Puss in Boots franchise is now stealing some of the thunder from the better-known “Shrek” movies. And the high quality and engaging story of “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” make it the type of movie that can be considered a beloved treasure by fans of animated films.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation will release “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” in U.S. cinemas on December 21, 2022. A sneak preview of the movie was shown in U.S. cinemas on November 26, 2022.

Review: ‘On the Come Up,’ starring Jamila C. Gray, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Lil Yachty, Sanaa Lathan and Cliff ‘Method Man’ Smith

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jamila C. Gray, Justin Martin and Mike Epps star in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

“On the Come Up”

Directed by Sanaa Lathan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional inner-city U.S. neighborhood of Garden Heights and briefly in Atlanta, the dramatic film “On the Come Up” features a predominantly African American cast of characters (with some white people and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old girl, who’s an aspiring rapper involved in rap battles, has to decide if she will follow her manager’s advice to present a false image of herself as a “gangster rapper,” in order to become popular and get a record deal.

Culture Audience: “On the Come Up” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of hip-hop culture and coming-of-age stories where teenagers try to define their identities.

Michael Cooper Jr. and Jamila C. Gray in “On the Come Up” (Photo by Erika Doss/Paramount+)

Based on Angie Thomas’ 2019 bestselling novel of the same name, “On the Come Up” is a fairly entertaining but predictable drama about a 16-year-old inner-city girl who wants to become a rapper and gets involved in her local rap battle scene. There are better movies about aspiring rappers who do rap battles, but at least “On the Come Up” centers on a rare female perspective that’s refreshing from the cliché machismo in rap. The movie’s appealing performances overcome some flawed film editing.

“On the Come Up” is the feature-film directorial debut of Sanaa Lathan, who helmed the movie with a lot of heart, but the movie needed some technical finesse. Some of the scenes are choppily edited, so that instead of appearing seamless, the scene transitions look abrupt and don’t flow well with the story. However, the movie (whose adapted screenplay was written by Kay Oyegun) excels when it comes to the correct casting choices, since all of the cast members give believable performances. “On the Come Up” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

The protagonist of “On the Come Up” is 16-year-old Brianna “Bri” Jackson (played by Jamila C. Gray, making an impressive feature-film debut), a talented writer who wants to pursue a career as a rapper. She lives in an unnamed U.S. state in the South in an inner-city neighborhood called Garden Heights. Bri is polite but outspoken and not afraid to stand up for herself.

Bri and her older brother Trey (played by Titus Makin) spent much of their childhood in foster care, because their single mother Jada “Jay” Jackson (played by Lathan) abandoned them and was a heroin addict for many years. Jay has now been clean and sober for the past three years and has regained custody of Bri, but Jay is struggling financially. Trey, who is now in his early 20s, quit a master’s degree program to get a job to help with the family finances. He currently works at a low-paying job at a restaurant called Sal’s.

Bri’s father was a semi-famous rapper called Lawless, who died when she was a very young child, so Bri never got to know him. His cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. Jay met Lawless (whose real name was Lawrence) when she was hired to be a “video vixen” in one of his music videos. Lawless was the type of rapper who was on his way to becoming a big star, but he never quite reached those heights and therefore never became wealthy.

In Garden Heights though, Lawless is kind of a legend in the neighborhood. Garden Heights even has a street mural dedicated to Lawless that Bri often passes when she’s walking down that street. As an aspiring rapper, Bri feels that she’s living in the shadow of her deceased father, but she’s also proud of being his daughter. That’s why her chosen rap name is Lil Law. Even though rap is a big part of her life, Bri has a geeky side to her, because she’s a self-described “Star Wars nerd.”

Bri is currently a student at Helen McCoy High School, which has a racial integration program, where low-income kids (who are usually African American and Latin) are bused to the school, which has a large population of middle-class white students. To make some money, Bri sells candy to some of her classmates. Her two best friends are also her schoolmates: laid-back Malik (played by Michael Cooper Jr.) and gossipy Sonny (played by Miles Gutierrez-Riley), who is very caught up in social media and viral videos that are trending.

Jay’s younger sister Patricia, who’s nicknamed Aunt Pooh (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), supports Bri’s dreams to become a famous rapper, and has volunteered to become Bri’s manager. Aunt Poo is also struggling financially, so she sees Bri as a potentially big ticket to a better life as the manager of a rich and successful rapper. Aunt Poo is inexperienced as an artist manager, but she tries to make up for that inexperience with a lot of sassy bravado and street smarts.

In Garden Heights, people gather on a regular basis for rap battles, which are set up like boxing matches. But instead of throwing punches, the opponents in the ring throw insults at each other in impromptu rap lyrics. The winner (whoever gets the louder cheers from the audience) receives a three-figure cash prize, usually $500. A local radio DJ named DJ Hype (played by Mike Epps) is the main emcee for these rap battles in Garden Heights. Bri compares getting in this rap battle ring to being like “‘The Hunger Games’ of hip-hop.”

Bri’s very first rap battle is a disaster for her, because she’s too nervous and freezes up when it’s her turn to speak. Unfortunately, some people in the audience took videos of this embarrassing moment. The videos go viral. Instead of being defeated by this setback, Bri is determined to win in her next rap battle.

Her opponent in this next battle is an up-and-coming rapper in his late teens or early 20s named Milez (played by Justin Martin), who is the son of a smooth-talking, successful music manager named Supreme (played by Cliff “Method Man” Smith). Supreme is at the rap battle that has Bri and Milez facing off with each other. It just so happens that Supreme has an indirect connection to Bri, because he used to be the manager of her late father, Lawless.

The outcome of the rap battle between Bri and Milez won’t be revealed in this review (it’s easy to guess), but it’s enough to say that Supreme is so impressed with Bri’s rapping skills, he offers to become her manager. Supreme tells Bri that he can take her career to the next level by getting her a record deal and making her a star. Bri accepts Supreme’s offer. Where does that leave Aunt Poo? Feeling rejected and bitter.

Meanwhile, “On the Come Up” has a subplot about law enforcement brutality by security officers at Helen McCoy High School. One day, Bri is walking in a school hallway, when two security officials named Officer Long (played by Malachi Malik) and Officer Tate (played by Cuyle Carvin) approach Bri and demand to see what’s in her backpack. Bri exercises her right to refuse, since these security officers don’t have a warrant or any reason to search her personal belongings.

Officer Long (who is African American) and Officer Tate (who is white) immediately escalate the situation. Officer Long, who is the more aggressive one, ends up tackling Bri in the hallway, and he places handcuffs on her. It’s unlawful brutality (especially since Bri is unarmed), but the school sides with the security officers and gives Bri a two-week suspension.

There are racial overtones to the unfair way that Bri was treated. In a meeting with the school’s Principal Rhodes (played by L.A. Winters), who is white, the principal talks to Bri and her mother Jay in a condescending manner. The principal, who seems to have a “guilty until proven innocent” attitude toward Bri, says that teachers have been complaining that Bri is disruptive in class. These are vague accusations that the principal never backs up with evidence.

When Bri tells Principal Rhodes that the school’s security officers target African American and Latin students more by than the white students. the principal is dismissive of this complaint. Bri finds out Officer Long felt he had a right to search Bri’s backpack because of rumors that Bri is a drug dealer. Bri vehemently denies that she’s involved with drugs (she’s telling the truth), and she says that she only sells candy out of her backpack. The principal shows a racial bias by seeming skeptical of Bri, but Principal Rhodes offers to do an investigation.

Jay is outraged that Bri has gotten suspended when Bri didn’t do anything wrong. Malik and Sonny want to have student protests against law enforcement brutality, and they want to start a viral video campaign showing Bri getting unlawfully manhandled by Officer Long. Bri refuses, because she thinks getting involved in protests will damage her rap career. During her two-week suspension, Bri’s career progresses, and she begins to wonder if going back to high school is really necessary when she could start being a full-time rapper.

Bri ends up making some money by winning rap battles. The money (which Bri gives to her mother) comes in handy, because Jay has recently been laid off from her church job due to budget cuts. Jay is having a hard time finding a new job. Things have gotten so bad, the apartment’s electricity has been turned off due to non-payment of this ultility bill.

Supreme dazzles Bri with big promises and sets up her very first recording session after he whisks away Bri, Malik, Sonny and Milez to a trip to Atlanta. During this trip, Bri meets an up-and-coming rapper named Infamous Millz (played by Lil Yachty), who is also from Garden Heights. And two romances develop between the young people in the story. One romance is more predictable than the other.

Bri’s blossoming rap career comes at a high price though: Supreme has convinced her to create a fake image of being a gangster rapper. Bri doesn’t carry guns, is not involved with crime, and has never been arrested. However, Supreme tells Bri that most people who buy rap music are suburban white kids, and the only way to become a successful rap artist is to make the type of music that will scare these kids’ parents. Needless to say, Bri’s family members and friends think she’s making a big mistake by not being her authentic self as an artist. Lathan and Gray have some well-acted scenes together when Jay and Bri have some disagreements with each other.

“On the Come Up” has some realism in how the music business works when it comes to rap, but the movie definitely takes a glossy view of how much sexism is ingrained in rap, a music genre that’s dominated by black male artists. There’s only one scene in the movie that shows a female rapper other than Bri. It’s when Bri and a young woman named Latrondra (played by Samantha Peel)—who uses the rap name Mystique and looks like a Nicki Minaj wannabe—do a spontaneous rap battle against each other in a parking lot. Latrondra/Mystique is never seen or heard from again in the movie.

Bri also doesn’t struggle much before she signs with an influential and experienced manager. As an attractive underage teenager, Bri would definitely be a target for predatory people in the music business. However, “On the Come Up” presents a very sheltered version of the harassment and discrimination that Bri would face as a teenage girl who wants to become a rapper. She gets a few snide and sexist comments, but that’s about it.

Because “On the Come Up” is rated PG-13 (suitable for people ages 13 and up) by the Motion Picture Association of America, the language in the movie is very tame compared to the langauge of hip-hop culture in real life. Therefore, the lyrics in the rap battles are sometimes a little corny in “On the Come Up.” For uncensored and more adult-oriented lyrics in a rap battle movie, check out the 2017 drama “Bodied,” or for a more mainstream option, the Oscar-winning 2002 drama “8 Mile,” starring Eminem in a semi-autobiographical role.

Much of what holds “On the Come Up” together is the winning performance of Gray. Even with Bri’s realistic flaws, viewers will constantly be rooting for Bri to succeed. It’s a typical underdog story in many ways, but “On the Come Up” presents a unique and engaging story of a female rapper—the type of artist who rarely gets to be the star protagonist in a feature film.

Paramount Pictures released “On the Come Up” in U.S. cinemas and on Paramount+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘The Lost City’ (2022), starring Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum

March 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum in “The Lost City” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Lost City” (2022)

Directed by Aaron Nee and Adam Nee

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed parts of the world, the comedy film “The Lost City” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A famous, jaded and reclusive romance novelist is kidnapped by a wealthy treasure hunter, and the male model for her book covers goes on a mission to rescue her. 

Culture Audience: “The Lost City” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Sandra Bullock and Channing Tatum’s comedy skills, but they are the biggest assets to this formulaic movie.

Daniel Radcliffe and Héctor Aníbal in “The Lost City” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

Completely predictable on every level, “The Lost City” is saved by the considerable comedic talents of its starring cast members. It’s breezy and lightweight entertainment that doesn’t try to be anything else. It’s the first slapstick comedy film in years for many of “The Lost City” stars. And while the movie is not a complete triumph, it’s not a total embarrassment either. “The Lost City” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

Directed by brothers Aaron Nee and Adam Nee, “The Lost City” checks all the boxes we’ve come to expect in predictable romantic comedies. The female protagonist and the male protagonist have personality clashes and try not to pretend there’s sexual tension between them. (Or they have a platonic friendship where they pretend that they’re not going to get romantically involved.) There’s usually at least one sidekick who’s a best friend or close colleague. And then, there’s some reason why the bickering, would-be couple have a reason to keep running into each other and/or they get thrown together for a common goal.

In “The Lost City” (written by the Nee brothers, Dana Fox and Orien Uziel), the basic concept is that prickly and reclusive author Loretta Sage (played by Sandra Bullock), a widow whose specialty is romantic adventure novels, reluctantly goes on a book tour to promote her latest book called “The Lost City.” Loretta is not pleased at all to find out that the guy who is the hunky model for her book covers will be on this book tour too. Loretta thinks that he’s shallow, vain and no match for her intellect.

The name he uses as a model is Dash (played by Channing Tatum), but his real name is Alan McMahon. And he wears a long-haired blonde wig for his modeling assignments as Dash. Dash/Alan is as freewheeling as Loretta (whose real name is Angela) is uptight. Loretta’s support team includes her loyal and outspoken book publisher Beth Hatten (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Loretta’s eager-to-please social media manager Allison (played by Patti Harrison), who has the Nervous Nellie role in the movie.

At a meet-and-greet appearance with Loretta’s mostly female fans, Dash gets a lot more attention than Loretta, just as she feared and predicted. (Bowen Yang has a cameo as a Q&A moderator named Ray.) Loretta doesn’t have long to gripe about Dash’s popularity though, because she’s kidnapped from the hotel by a wealthy superfan named Abigail Fairfax (played by Daniel Radcliffe), who takes himself, some of his goons and Loretta by private plane to a tropical island, where he expects her to find the treasure that she wrote about in “The Lost City.” Alan feels bad about his conflicts with Loretta, so he decides to come to her rescue.

Dash/Alan recruits a rescue expert named Jack Trainer (played by Brad Pitt), who is ridiculously over-the-top with his action hero stunts. Jack isn’t in the movie for long, for every reason that you think that an A-list star like Pitt wouldn’t add his usual eight-figure actor’s salary to this movie’s production budget, if he had more screen time. More shenanigans ensue in a jungle, and the movie ends exactly how most people will think it ends.

One of the main reasons why “The Lost City” is tolerable despite its utter triteness is because of the comedic timing and chemistry of Bullock and Tatum, who thankfully do not take themselves seriously at all. Their characters’ back-and-forth banter isn’t very witty, but they do land some memorable zingers here and there. During one of their many arguments, Loretta tells Alan in a prickly manner why she can’t give sexist condescension: “I’m a woman. I can’t mansplain anything.” Alan snaps back: “I’m a feminist, and I think a woman can do anything a man can do.”

Radcliffe also has some amusing moments, as does Randolph, although Randolph does have the type of “You go, girl!” dialogue that’s kind of a cringeworthy stereotype of an African American female sidekick. Oscar Nuñez as has an inconsequential role as a man named Oscar, who becomes infatuated with Beth. “The Lost City” is exactly what it needs to be for a movie that wisely kept its total running time to a little under two hours. (Stick around for a surprise during the mid-credits scene.) Unless someone is in an extremely bad mood when watching “The Lost City,” there are some laughs to be had with this entertaining but insubstantial comedy film.

Paramount Pictures will release “The Lost City” in U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2022, with sneak previews in select cinemas on March 23, 2022.

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