Review: ‘Easter Sunday’ (2022), starring Jo Koy

August 4, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front: Joey Guila, Elena Juatco, Jo Koy, Melody Butiu and Lydia Gaston in “Easter Sunday” (Photo by Ed Ariquel/Universal Pictures)

“Easter Sunday” (2022)

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar

Some language in Tagalog with no subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California’s Los Angeles County and Daly City, the comedic film “Easter Sunday” features a cast of predominantly Asian characters (with some white people and a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A struggling, divorced actor in the Los Angeles area is pressured to go to his family’s annual Easter Sunday dinner about 385 miles away in Daly City, on the same day that he might have to be in Los Angeles for an important event that could change his career for the better. 

Culture Audience: “Easter Sunday” will appeal primarily to people are are fans of star Jo Koy and any family comedy that wallows in mediocre and predictable stereotypes.

Jo Koy, Brandon Wardell and Carly Pope in “Easter Sunday” (Photo by Ed Ariquel/Universal Pictures)

The uninspired comedy “Easter Sunday” is like being served rotten Easter eggs that went stale years ago. It piles on over-used and tired clichés about family reunions, while dumping in a silly subplot about paying a debt to a vengeful criminal. This predictable tripe might have been more appealing if it had just stuck to the family issues. But instead, “Easter Sunday” goes off the rails toward the last third of the movie when it forces a ridiculous and horribly written crime caper into this already weak storyline.

Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar, “Easter Sunday” (which was written by Ken Cheng and Kate Angelo) can certainly be praised for having diversity in the movie’s cast and behind-the-scenes filmmaking team. However, that diversity doesn’t automatically mean that the movie is going to be any good. Unfortunately, “Easter Sunday” missed an opportunity to be a standout comedy film for having a truly original and amusing story. “Easter Sunday” has so many ripoffs and recycled tropes from similar comedy films, it’s embarrassing.

There’s the male protagonist who has a love/hate relationship with certain family members. There’s the big family reunion that’s supposed to cause him a lot of stress. There’s the goofy sidekick who gets the protagonist in all sorts of trouble. And that trouble usually involves cartoonish violence and hard-to-believe scenarios. All of these stereotypes are in “Easter Sunday,” which mostly fails to be funny, charming, bold or interesting.

In “Easter Sunday,” the protagonist is a struggling actor named Joe Valencia (played by Jo Koy), who is on the verge of getting his first big break in years: starring in a TV comedy series. Joe, who lives in Vernon, California (a suburb of Los Angeles), is a divorced father to a son who is about 16 or 17 years old. Joe’s son is also named Joe but is nicknamed Junior (played by Brandon Wardell), who is often estranged from Joe because Joe has a long history of being a flaky parent who avoids spending family time with Junior.

What makes Joe’s unstable parenting even worse is that Junior doesn’t live very far from Joe. Therefore, Joe has no real excuse for why he doesn’t spend time with Junior as much as Joe should. Joe’s ex-wife Catherine (played by Carly Pope), who is remarried, has custody of Junior. Catherine’s current husband Nick (played by Michael Weaver) is a player for the professional ice hockey team the Los Angeles Kings. Nick is good-looking, athletic, and makes a lot more money than Joe does. Nick and Junior also get along with each other.

And you know what that means: Joe is predictably jealous. This jealousy comes out in a scene where Joe makes a rare visit to Catherine and Nick’s home to pick up Junior for a father/son visit. Before they leave, Nick and Joe have a petty argument because Nick insists on making Joe a nutritious smoothie drink. Joe reluctantly takes the smoothie drink but then dumps it out on a street near the house as Joe is driving away. Joe deliberately does it in full view of Catherine and Nick, so that the couple can see Joe make this mess. It’s the first of many signs that Joe can be obnoxious and immature.

Junior is close to being put on academic probation at the private school that he attends, but Joe doesn’t feel equipped to handle this problem. Still, Joe agrees to attend a parent-teacher meeting at the school with Catherine and Junior to discuss this issue. And it should come as no surprise that the meeting is on the same day that Joe has to audition for this sitcom, which is called “Great Scott.”

Joe is being considered for the TV show’s starring role, in which he would be portraying an attorney. Joe’s ambitious and smarmy agent Nick (played by “Easter Sunday” director Chandrasekhar) knows that this audition is the biggest thing that’s come along for Joe in years. This major opportunity leads to Nick putting enormous pressure on Joe to do whatever it takes to get the job.

Joe’s main claim to fame is starring in a beer commercial that aired years ago. In this commercial, he shouted the catch phrase, “Let’s get this party started, baby!” (with “baby” pronounced “baybay”), which became his signature line as an actor. The problem is that Joe has become pigeonholed as that “beer commercial guy,” and people who know he’s an actor always expect him to say that line. (And expect to hear people in “Easter Sunday” say “Let’s get this party started, baby!,” repeatedly, to annoying levels.)

The school meeting is scheduled to take place after the audition. During the audition, Joe’s racial identity becomes a point of discussion that borders on offensive. Just like Koy’s real-life racial identity and family backround, Joe is biracial. His mother is an immigrant from the Philippines, and his father is a white American, who abandoned the family when he was a child. In the audition, Joe is asked to make his voice sound more “half-Filipino.” Joe is insulted because he thinks he should play the role with his natural American accent.

However, the audition runs much longer than Joe expected. And so, Joe misses the parent-teacher meeting. Junior and Catherine are disappointed, but not surprised. Meanwhile, Nick tells Joe in multiple phone calls that Joe will get the role in “Great Scott,” but only if Joe does what the TV network wants for the “half-Filipino accent.” Joe is told to stand by and be available in case there needs to be a follow-up meeting with executives from the TV network.

In the midst of this potential career-changing opportunity, Joe gets a call from his domineering mother Susan (played by Lydia Gaston), who lives in Daly City, a San Francisco suburb that’s about 385 miles north of Los Angeles. Susan insists that Joe and Junior attend their family’s annual Easter Sunday reunion. Joe reluctantly agrees, even though he knows he could be called to have a last-minute meeting with TV executives in Los Angeles. And so, Joe and Junior take a road trip to Daly City.

The other family members attending the reunion are:

  • Teresa (played by Tia Carrere), Susan’s sister/Joe’s aunt, who has been feuding with Susan for years for a reason they both can’t remember. Teresa (who is vain and shallow) and Susan (who is cranky and judgmental) are highly competitive with each other to prove who’s the “best” family member.
  • Eugene (played by Eugene Cordero), Teresa’s ne’er-do-well son, who is always on the hustle for his next “get rich quick” scheme. Eugene greatly admires his older cousin Joe, who has recently invested $20,000 for Eugene’s new business venture.
  • Regina (played by Elena Juatco), Joe’s sensible younger bachelorette sister, who works as a nurse. Regina is slightly envious but happy that Joe got to follow his dreams to become an actor, while she felt pressured by their mother Susan to have a more stable profession.
  • Yvonne (played by Melody Butiu) and Manny (played by Joey Guila), Joe’s married aunt and uncle, who can be boisterous and opinionated at family events, but these spouses generally get along with everyone in the family. Yvonne and Manny (who is the brother of Susan and Teresa) try to stay out of the feud between Susan and Teresa.
  • Arthur (played by Rodney To), Joe’s eccentric bachelor uncle, who works as a mailman and likes to keep a secret arsenal of weapons hidden in his clothes. (You can bet that this weapons stash will be used for slapstick comedy in the movie.)

Eugene told Joe that Eugune’s new business venture would be a taco truck. But after Eugene took Joe’s money, Eugene changed his mind and decided the truck (which Eugene has named Hypetruck) would sell the latest fad games and toys. Bizarrely, Eugene also wants to sell trendy designer clothes and high-priced athletic shoes from the truck, without thinking that the image-conscious target customers for this type of apparel wouldn’t want to tackily buy these items from a truck. Joe isn’t happy when he finds out about this “bait and switch” scam that Eugene pulled on him.

Joe gets even more irritated when he finds out that Eugene owes $40,000 to a gun-toting shady character named Dev Deluxe (played by Asif Ali), who owns and operates a jewelry store called Jewelry Jamz in a Daly City shopping mall. But the store is just a money-laundering front for Dev’s illegal businesses, which aren’t named in the movie, but viewers can use their imagination. It doesn’t take long for Dev to show up with some of his thugs to threaten Eugene with bodily harm if Eugene doesn’t pay back the money in the short period of time that just happens to be the same period of time that Joe will be in Daly City.

The rest of “Easter Sunday” is an awkward mix of Joe and Eugene trying to come up with the money while attempting to make it to Susan’s home on time for the Easter Sunday dinner. It leads to a not-very-funny subplot of stolen boxing gloves that were worn by Manny Pacquiao; an encounter with actor Lou Diamond Phillips (playing a version of himself); and lots of bickering and nagging from Susan and Teresa.

Junior has taken up photography as a hobby (he has a vintage camera that uses film), which is how he meets his love interest Tala (played by Eva Noblezada), when Junior is taking some photos in a park. After a brief flirtation, Junior (who doesn’t have a lot of experience in dating) and Tala (who is sassily confident and sarcastic) start hanging out together. Junior shyly invites Tala to the Easter Sunday family dinner. It’s just an excuse for Tala to be with this family when some of the dumb shenanigans start happening.

And gee, what a coincidence: Tala works at Jewelry Jamz, the store owned by Dev, Eugene’s angry and violent debtor. “Easter Sunday” also has a clumsily written “coincidence” when Joe, Eugene, Tala and Junior end up in a high-speed car chase. The cop who pulls them over just happens to be Joe’s ex-girlfriend Vanessa Morgan (played by Tiffany Haddish), who is still bitter that the relationship ended because Joe cheated on her. This encounter with Vanessa is in the “Easter Sunday” trailer, and it’s just more of Haddish playing a tacky “angry black woman” stereotype that she keeps doing for most of her on-screen roles.

In the race against time to get the money to pay back Dev, “Easter Sunday” has a subplot about Joe and Eugene enlisting the help of an acquaintance named Marvin (played by Jimmy O. Yang), who sells black-market designer merchandise (mostly athletic shoes) in the back room of a store. Marvin’s role in “Easter Sunday” isn’t nearly as terrible as Vanessa’s role, but it’s still not a very interesting character. Yang is a skilled stand-up comedian whose talent is under-used in this fairly bland role.

“Easter Sunday” wastes some time where Koy, who’s best known as a stand-up comedian, has to have a scene where he does a version of his stand-up act. This inept scene takes place during a church service, where it goes from the priest Father Hildo (played by Rodney Perry) publicly shaming Joe for not donating enough money to the church, to Joe getting in front of the congregation and doing low-rent, stand-up comedy to win over the crowd. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

The movie’s ways of depicting Filipino culture and Filipino American culture are superficial at best and mishandled at worst. There are the expected close-up shots of Filipino food on dining tables, which is something that is very easy to do in a movie. What’s much harder to do, especially in a comedy, is depiciting Filipino cultural pride in an authentic way that doesn’t pander to negative clichés. For example, in the “Easter Sunday” subplot about Manny Pacquiao’s boxing gloves, Joe insists that only someone of Filipino heritage can own the gloves, which is just a phony and cumbersome way to drag out the hijinks related these boxing gloves.

The performances by the “Easter Sunday” cast members range from adequate to over-the-top hammy. Koy’s Joe character is just a formulaic retread of what stand-up comedians usually do when they have a starring role in their first major feature film: They play a character who’s a clownish screw-up in need of redemption and “important life lessons.” Wardell and Noblezada (as would-be couple Junior and Tala) fare the best at having the most naturalistic performances and the best comedic timing. Everyone else is just playing stereotypes.

Expect to see a lot of pouting and preening from Gaston and Carrere as feuding sisters Susan and Teresa. The way this family feud is handled in “Easter Sunday” plays into outdated and sexist perceptions of women as “catty” and “difficult” if they’re obnoxious, but irresponsible men like Joe and Eugene are supposed to be thought of as “funny” and “freewheeling” if they’re obnoxious. Unfortunately, the very talented Phillips is not in “Easter Sunday” as much as people might think he’s in the movie. His “Easter Sunday” screen time is less than 15 minutes.

“Easter Sunday” does make an attempt to have some heartfelt family moments, but they are too often marred by making these family members look very dorky—and not in a good way. There’s an extremely cringeworthy karaoke scene involving the family singing Black Eyed Peas’ over-played 2009 hit “I Gotta Feeling,” as if they’re the coolest family in California. This scene will just make viewers wonder what year this moldy and out-of-touch “Easter Sunday” screenplay was completed.

Sometimes, a movie can have a scene-stealing villain who makes the film more entertaining to watch. “Easter Sunday” doesn’t have this type of villain. Dev is just a complete buffoon who has some of the worst lines in “Easter Sunday.” Dev’s last few scenes in the movie are just a sloppily edited and witless atrocity that looks like the “Easter Sunday” filmmakers ran out of ideas for this foolish character.

At the same time, “Easter Sunday” tries to cram in too many subplots with the Joe character and ends up over-relying on lackluster and predictable ways to try to resolve these subplots. Easter Sunday is a religious holiday about a miracle. This hackneyed “Easter Sunday” movie needed a miracle to make it a throroughly entertaining comedy.

Universal Pictures will release “Easter Sunday” in U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022.

Review: ‘Yellow Rose,’ starring Eva Noblezada, Dale Watson, Princess Punzalan and Lea Salonga

October 9, 2020

by Carla Hay

Eva Noblezada in “Yellow Rose” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films)

“Yellow Rose”

Directed by Diane Paragas

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of Texas, the dramatic film “Yellow Rose” has a cast of Filipino and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenager, who’s a talented country singer/songwriter, has her life turned upside down when her widowed mother, who’s an undocumented immigrant, is arrested by immigration authorities.

Culture Audience: “Yellow Rose” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted dramas about aspiring artists and the plight of undocumented immigrants in the United States. 

Princess Punzalan and Eva Noblezada in “Yellow Rose” (Photo courtesy of Stage 6 Films)

There used to be a time when movies rarely showed the issues faced by undocumented immigrant children of undocumented immigrants in America. But with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Act, also known as the Dreamer Act, fiercely debated in a country that’s politically divided over immigration laws, these children’s stories have more urgency than ever before in American history. And even when these stories are depicted in a movie with fictional characters, such as “Yellow Rose,” they give people an idea of the very real effects that DACA and other immigration legislation have on human beings.

Directed by Diane Paragas, “Yellow Rose” tells the story of Rose Garcia (played by Eva Noblezada), a Filipina teenager who’s about 16 or 17 years old. Rose lives in suburban Texas with her widowed mother Priscilla Garcia (played by Princess Punzalan), who works as a live-in maid at a run-down motel. Priscilla and Rose are undocumented immigrants who could be deported, which Rose finds out the hard way later in this story. Paragas wrote the “Yellow Rose” screenplay with Annie Howell and Celena Cipriaso.

Rose is an introverted person who expresses her emotions through her singing, guitar playing and songwriting. She loves country music and is a very talented artist, but Rose hides her talent because she’s too shy to perform in public. She’s also limited by being underage and not having the funds or resources that she thinks she would need if she wanted to become a professional country singer. Therefore, Rose has resigned herself to thinking of her music activities as a “hobby.”

Priscilla and Rose are still grieving over the death of Rose’s father, whose cause of death is not mentioned in the movie. In one of the first scenes in “Yellow Rose,” Priscilla tells Rose that when Rose was a baby, Rose’s father used to play guitar and sing to Rose to get her to go to sleep. Rose says to her mother about their life in near-poverty: “Mom, this isn’t the life you wanted.” Her mother replies, “It doesn’t matter. It will be better for you. I promise.”

Rose is at an age where she wants more independence. She gets around by bicycle, and her mother sometimes admonishes Rose for going to places without telling her where she’s going. It’s mentioned in the movie that Rose is in high school, but the movie never shows her in school and gives no indication of what type of student she is. However, one thing is clear at the beginning of the movie: Rose doesn’t have any friends, and her mother is the most important person in her life.

One day, when Rose is at a local store that sells musical instruments, she has a brief conversation with a store clerk named Elliot Blatnik (played by Liam Booth), who is a few years older than Rose and obviously attracted to her. Elliot knows her as a guitar customer, so he asks Rose if he can hear her play sometime. Rose shyly tells him there’s very little chance of that happening.

Elliot then asks Rose if she’s interested in going to a concert with him in Austin, which is several miles away. Rose tells him that she can’t go because her overprotective mother probably won’t let her. Elliot then tells Rose that it’s not a date and that they would be going with a group of his friends. (As soon as he says that, you know he’s probably lying, but he wants Rose to feel comfortable with going to the concert with him.)

Rose says she’ll ask her mother. Elliot seems like a gentleman, and he agrees to have dinner at Rose’s place so he can meet her mother and assure her that Rose will be safe with him. The dinner goes well and Priscilla gives Rose permission to go to the concert, as long as she is back home at a reasonable time. Sure enough, there are no other “friends” who are going on this road trip. It’s just Elliot and Rose.

Even though Rose is aware that Elliot is attracted to her, she wants their relationship to be platonic, and he respects that wish. Rose and Elliot have fake IDs that get them into the 21-and-over nightclub. And they immediately start drinking alcohol in the club. Elliot and Rose get comfortable with each other and have a good time dancing together and with other people.

While hanging out near a jukebox before the headlining act goes on stage, a tipsy Rose is deciding what to play, when a white-haired man strikes up a conversation with her. They begin talking about Willie Nelson, and the man is impressed that Rose knows so much about Nelson and country music in general. He tells Rose that he didn’t think “someone like you” would be such a fan of country music. Instead of being offended by this racially tinged comment, Rose cheerfully replies, “There are all kinds of fans.”

Elliot walks up just as the conversation ends and the white-haired man is walking away. A star-struck Elliot tells Rose that she was just talking to Dale Watson, one of the show’s performers. (Watson portrays himself in the movie.)

Wait, isn’t Rose supposed to be a country music aficionado? How could she not know she was talking to one of the performers she was there to see? It’s a minor plot hole that doesn’t really affect the story overall, but it’s an example of how there could’ve been improvements in the story’s screenplay.

Although it’s not made completely obvious in the movie, Rose is the only person of color in the entire audience. However, she doesn’t get curious stares or rude comments, which would a more realistic scenario in this situation. On the other hand, it’s Austin, which is one of the most liberal big cities in Texas. 

Still, this movie’s biggest flaw is how unrealistically it shows how everyone Rose encounters in the country music community is immediately accepting of Rose, when we all know that there would be a lot of people who wouldn’t accept her because of her race. She might not have people doing overtly cruel things to her, but she would definitely be stared at, shunned, and looked at by some racist people as a “freak” who doesn’t deserve to be a country star just because she isn’t white. 

Later in the movie, Rose reveals to someone that she got the nickname Yellow Rose when she was younger and had entered a talent contest where she sang country music. The nickname has a double meaning: It could refer to the famous song “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” Or, as Rose implies when she tells this story, she was called that name because of the racially derogatory meaning that the word “yellow” has when it’s used to describe an Asian person. The movie’s title is a way of reclaiming that name in a context of praise.

In addition to not properly acknowledging the racial barriers that exist in country music, the movie could have been more realistic in depicting sexism in country music. Many of today’s country radio stations blatantly discriminate against women, by having policies that limit the number of female artists who can be played on the radio. It’s also no coincidence that most new female country artists have to look a certain way (in other words, have sex appeal) in order to get a recording contract.

Rose being underage would also be an issue for how she’s marketed and the types of nightclubs where she could perform. All of these issues are not adequately addressed in the movie when it becomes obvious that certain people want to help Rose break into the country music industry.

Whether or not Rose gets her big break in country music is secondary to the problems that she faces when she comes home from the concert with Elliot and sees her mother being arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. Rose ends up grabbing her own most valuable and essential possessions and running away from the motel because she doesn’t want to be placed in the foster care system. She’s scared and confused because her late father was a naturalized U.S. citizen, and Rose assumed that his citizenship status applied to her and her mother Priscilla.

Days later, when Rose finally gets a chance to talk to her mother, who calls from an ICE detention center, Priscilla admits that they have been living as undocumented immigrants. Her mother, who will probably be deported, apologizes for lying to Rose about their immigration status. Rose’s feelings of sadness are compounded by anger because she hates that she was deliberately kept in the dark about this life-changing issue.

Priscilla then begs Rose to go live with Priscilla’s estranged younger sister Gail (played by Lea Salonga), who is married to an American and has a young daughter. It will be the first time that Rose will meet Gail. When Rose goes to Gail’s address that was provided by Priscilla, Rose is shocked to find out that Gail is living a very comfortable upper-middle-class life, and Gail’s spacious and upscale home isn’t far from the dumpy motel where Priscilla and Rose were living.

Gail is reluctant to talk about why she and her sister Priscilla became estranged, and will only say vaguely that they drifted apart. Still, Rose expresses some anger and disappointment that Gail never bothered to help her and Priscilla when they needed it. Gail tells Rose that Rose can live with Gail and her family if Gail’s husband says it’s okay.

The rest of the story shows Rose’s tumultuous experiences as she deals with the stresses of her mother’s probable deportation and Rose’s own precarious immigration status. Priscilla asks Rose to go back to the Philippines with her. Rose has to decide whether she will go with her mother or stay in the United States, the only home she’s ever really known. It isn’t made clear what age Rose was when her parents immigrated to the United States, but it was at an age when she was too young to remember living in the Philippines.

Noblezada, who is known as a star of the Broadway musicals “Miss Saigon” (which also starred Salonga) and “Hadestown,” makes an admirable feature-film debut as Rose, who goes through a lot of traumatic experiences in this film. Rose has some people who are willing to help, but there’s only so much they can do because her status as an underage, undocumented immigrant is limiting a lot of her options. Noblezada obviously has the talent to handle the musical aspects of the movie, but she also proves that she can adeptly handle the dramatic acting too.

All of the supporting actors are also very good in their roles, but the movie’s heart and soul is with Rose. Watson and Paragas wrote the original songs in the “Yellow Rose” soundtrack, and they’re all quite good and fairly memorable. “Square Peg,” the soundtrack’s first single, is the obvious standout. (Rose sings parts of the song several times throughout the movie.)

Overall, “Yellow Rose” gives an emotionally effective portrayal of how Dreamer children in the U.S. can be caught in terrible situations over their immigration/citizenship status and possible separation from their parents or other family members. The movie takes a critical look at the system without being exploitative of the devastation that happens when situations like the ones depicted in the movie happen in real life. “Yellow Rose” falters when it glosses over the rampant discrimination issues in country music, but the overall message of the film is that standing up to oppression is better than doing nothing at all.

Sony Pictures Entertainment’s Stage 6 Films released “Yellow Rose” in select U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020.

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