Review: ‘Joe Bell,’ starring Mark Wahlberg

August 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Reid Miller and Mark Wahlberg in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

“Joe Bell”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in various U.S. cities in 2013, the dramatic film “Joe Bell” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After his teenage son comes out as gay, a man goes on a cross-country mission to educate people about tolerance and to lecture against bullying, but he encounters some obstacles and emotional difficulties along the way.

Culture Audience: “Joe Bell” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in real-life stories that are told in a very hokey movie version.

Mark Wahlberg, Reid Miller and Connie Britton in “Joe Bell” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Roadside Attractions)

Emotionally manipulative and relentlessly cloying, “Joe Bell” has a few pivotal scenes in a corn field, which is symbolic of how densely corny this movie is. “Joe Bell” is based on a true story, but the movie throws in an unnecessary supernatural/psychological twist element that smacks of desperation to make this dramatic film look like some kind of M. Night Shyamalan shocker movie with a “surprise” reveal. “Joe Bell” is a sad example of how a movie with an important message can be sullied by filmmakers who think they have to resort to gimmicks to tell the story.

Diana Ossana and Larry McMurtry wrote the abysmal screenplay for “Joe Bell.” And it’s the first movie they’ve written together since they won an adapted screenplay Oscar for 2005’s “Brokeback Mountain.” Unfortunately, “Joe Bell” is nowhere near being an Oscar-caliber film. The movie is so dreadful, it’s more like a low-rent, direct-to-video release that looks like something the filmmakers kind of want to forget they made because the movie turned out worse than they expected.

It didn’t have to be this way. Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, “Joe Bell” has a very talented cast of people who are capable of doing better work. All of the “Joe Bell” actors are perfectly adequate in their roles. However, even the actors can’t save this ill-conceived mess that turns what should have been a unique inspirational story into a tedious “cranky dad on a road trip” movie—but with a twist that’s tasteless and insensitive to the real people who are portrayed in this movie.

Mark Wahlberg portrays the titular, hot-tempered character Joe Bell, who is ostensibly on a road trip for his gay teenage son and to teach people about acceptance of the LGBTQ community and other people who are often the targets of hate. But somehow—based on how the movie depicts what happened in real life—Joe Bell makes the trip all about Joe Bell. During this road trip, which takes place in 2013, Joe plans to walk across the United States within two years, with the goal to talk to as many people as possible about tolerance and the dangers of bullying.

Because Joe refuses to use any transportation vehicles for this trip, he carries his possessions in a backpack and a push cart. Joe is accompanied by his 15-year-old gay son Jadin Bell (played by Reid Miller), who is a vibrant and likable kid. Jadin is the inspiration for this road trip because of his experiences of being bullied at school. There are several flashbacks showing what happened before this trip.

In these flashbacks, viewers see that Joe and his loyal/long-suffering wife Lola Bell (played by Connie Britton) have a working-class life in La Grande, Oregon. (The movie never shows what they do for a living, but in real life, Joe worked at a plywood mill before he quit to go on the road trip.) Joe and Lola have another son named Joseph Bell (played by Maxwell Jenkins), who’s about 11 or 12 years old when this story takes place. Joseph is Joe’s favored child because, unlike Jadin, Joseph likes to play sports and is not as “effeminate” as Jadin.

Lola already knows that Jadin is gay and is being bullied at school. However, she’s fairly passive and waits to do something only after Jadin musters up the courage to tell Joe. Joe’s brusque reaction to Jadin coming out is to say that he still loves and accepts Jadin but that Jadin doesn’t need to “advertise” to anyone outside of the family that Jadin is gay. As for the bullying, Joe tells Jadin that he needs to fight back with violence, which is advice that Jadin refuses to take.

Jadin later overhears Joe talking to Joe’s friend Jimmy Crowder (played by David H. Stevens) about Jadin being gay. Jimmy comments to Joe about Jadin’s sexuality by saying that Jadin will probably “grow out of it,” because Jimmy says that some teenagers think it’s trendy to try to be gay. Jadin looks hurt and mortified when he sees that his father seems to agree.

Jadin is the only male cheerleader on his school’s cheerleading squad, which also includes Jadin’s best friend Marcie (played by Morgan Lily), who knows that Jadin is gay and loves and accepts Jadin for who he is. One day, after Jadin came out as gay, Marcie and Jadin are practicing some cheerleading routines on the Bell family’s front lawn. Joe angrily orders Jadin to go in the backyard to practice.

Joe says it’s because he doesn’t want the neighbors to think that Jadin is showing off, but Jadin and Marcie really know it’s because Joe doesn’t want the neighbors to see Jadin being “effeminate.” It’s a humiliating moment for Jadin, who resists Joe’s orders at first, but then is resigned to do what Joe tells him because he doesn’t want Joe to yell at him anymore. Viewers of this movie will see plenty of Joe’s temper tantrums.

The flashbacks also include the school bullying that Jadin experienced and what has almost become a movie cliché about a bullied gay teenage boy in high school: Jadin has a secret crush on someone who is part of the same homophobic clique of male students who are doing the bullying. The group is led by a stereotypical alpha-male jock named Boyd (played by Blaine Maye), who picks on Jadin any chance that he gets. Jadin has a crush on the more laid-back Chance (played by Igby Rigney), who exchanges furtive glances of attraction with Jadin in the school cafeteria.

Chance and Jadin end up at the same costume party at someone’s house. (Jadin is dressed as the Brian Slade glam rock character from the 1998 film “Velvet Goldmine.”) Jadin and Chance eye each other some more at the party. And it should come as no surprise what happens next when Chance asks Jadin if he wants to go somewhere private to have a smoke. Jadin and Chance kiss each other for the first time, but that’s as far as it goes.

But do you think closeted Chance, who hangs out with and enables homophobic bullies, would suddenly go public and admit that he’s sexually attracted to Jadin? Of course not. It leads to an entirely predictable scenario where Jadin gets a vicious beating on the school’s campus, while Chance betrays Jadin and does nothing to stop it.

This assault is the last straw for Jadin and his parents, who have a meeting with the school principal to see what can be done to discipline these attackers. The meeting goes as badly as you think it would, considering that the bullies are star athletes at the school. It makes Jadin and his family feel like they can’t count on the school to protect him.

But Jadin is about to find out that his parents are part of the problem too. One evening, during a school football game that Joe and Lola are attending, some homophobic students in the stands start throwing things at Jadin and taunt him while he’s on the field with the other cheerleaders. Joe and Lola watch in horror, but do nothing. Instead, Joe and Lola look embarrassed and quickly leave the football game. Jadin helplessly sees what is essentially Lola and Joe acting ashamed that Jadin is their child. It’s a heartbreaking moment.

All of this is necessary background information to explain why Joe is trying to make amends on this cross-country road trip. Much of it is because of he feels guilty about not being as supportive of Jadin as he should have been in the past. If you don’t know what happened in real life, you might still notice that something is “off-kilter” about this road trip. Observant viewers will easily figure it out when they see the interactions that Jadin and Joe have when they’re in places with other people.

The “reveal” comes about halfway through the movie. And it’s meant to pack an emotional wallop, but it just comes across as tacky and manipulative. The rest of the movie is a mishmash of Joe going to various places to give trite lectures about tolerance. In one scene, he ends up talking to people at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

In another scene, Joe goes outside his comfort zone and visits a gay bar, where he meets with a gay man who wants to talk to Joe about Joe’s anti-bullying mission. At the bar, Joe ends up making the acquaintance of a drag queen (played by Jason Cozmo) who’s dressed like Dolly Parton. The drag queen flirts with Joe and takes a photo with him. The movie tries to make it a comedic moment because before going to the bar, Joe told Jadin that if he saw any drag queens there, he hoped one them would be as dressed at Dolly Parton, so he could at least look at some big breasts.

It’s as if Joe and this movie want to give unnecessary reminders that he’s straight. Based on how this movie depicts him, Joe is the type of macho guy who would want to wear a T-shirt that says, “Red-Blooded American Heterosexual Man—And Don’t You Forget It!” Therefore, the movie wants to make him look more noble for this road trip, just because he’s a straight guy who’s making personal sacrificies doing advocacy work for LGBTQ people. There’s a very self-congratulatory way that Joe is presented in this movie that’s very off-putting.

There are multiple scenes where Joe has to decide how to confront very homophobic people, even though he knows he probably won’t change their minds with a 30-second scolding. And there’s a poorly written scene in the beginning of the movie, when Joe is giving a lecture at a high school in Twin Falls, Idaho. His entire speech is extremely generic and literally less than two minutes.

One of the reasons why this movie is so ineffective is that Joe spends more time complaining about how hard it is for him on this road trip instead of Joe having a real impact on the bigoted people whose minds need to be changed the most. For the most part, the movie shows that he’s “preaching to the choir.” On the rare occasion that Joe confronts hardcore bigots, the most he does is give them his business card and/or utter something quickly that they either scoff at or ignore.

At one point, Lola and Joseph join him for a visit during this road trip. And it’s where the movie gets little bit off of its high horse to show the harsh realities of how this messianic road trip has taken a toll on Lola and Joe’s marriage. She’s very unhappy that he has almost drained their bank accounts to finance this trip.

Joe’s cross-country trip has gotten national media attention, so he gets some donations from the public. However, it’s still a trip funded mainly by Joe and Lola’s savings—and fueled by Joe’s self-righteous ego. One of the things that annoys Lola is how Joe seems to love the attention of being somewhat of a celebrity for going on this trip. Strangers come up to Joe to praise him and ask to take photos with him.

It doesn’t mean that Joe doesn’t experience self-doubt or despair. Joe has a brief moment in the movie where he thinks about quitting and going back home. But you know he won’t really quit, because it seems like Joe’s intentions aren’t just about showing support for Jadin.

It’s also about feeling guilty and trying to avoid going back to his hometown, where he would have to face some very difficult truths. The movie becomes less about Jadin’s painful experiences and more about what kind of comfort level Joe is feeling at any particular moment. Therefore, it all comes back to Joe and his ego.

Gary Sinise has a small supporting role as Sheriff Westin, a cop in Colorado who meets Joe when Joe is at a very low point on the trip because Joe is running out of money. The Sheriff Westin character seems to have been created for this movie to have yet another stranger be a sounding board for Joe’s self-pity. When the sheriff makes a discovery toward the end of the film, his reaction is so ridiculous and unrealistic, it would make any cop cringe.

“Joe Bell” was originally titled “Good Joe Bell.” It’s easy to see why the title was changed, because the character of Joe Bell in the movie—just like the movie itself—is very hard to like. And there isn’t anything “good” about a movie that shoves aside the meaning of this real-life inspirational journey, just so it can be a showcase for a guy who’s on an ego trip to make himself feel better.

Roadside Attractions released “Joe Bell” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.

Review: ‘I Still Believe,’ starring KJ Apa, Britt Robertson, Shania Twain and Gary Sinise

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

KJ Apa and Britt Robertson in "I Still Believe"
KJ Apa and Britt Robertson in “I Still Believe” (Photo by Jason LaVeris)

“I Still Believe”

Directed by Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin (The Erwin Brothers)

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in California and partially in Indiana, the faith-based drama “I Still Believe” has almost an exclusively white cast representing the middle-class (with a few African and Latinos in minor speaking roles) and has a story based on the real-life contemporary Christian singer Jeremy Camp at the beginning of his career.

Culture Clash: During his first year in college, Jeremy gets involved in a love triangle with a young woman who finds out that she has cancer.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to fans of Jeremy Camp and anyone who likes predictable, tear-jerking, faith-based movies.

KJ Apa and Britt Robertson in “I Still Believe” (Photo by Michael Kubeisy)

Bring on the Christian melodrama. “I Still Believe,” which tells the story of how real-life contemporary Christian singer Jeremy Camp met and fell in love with his first wife Melissa, has enough weepy and sentimental moments to make a Hallmark Channel movie look downright cheerful in comparison. Because this dramatic film is based on true events that fans of Camp already know about (he’s written songs about it and done numerous interviews over the years about this period of time in his life), there really isn’t anything new that will be revealed here for his die-hard fans.

However, for everyone else, there are many indications of how this movie will go, from the cutesy lovebird moments to the emotionally distraught hospital scenes. “I Still Believe” is based on Camp’s 2011 memoir of the same name. Brother directors Jon Erwin and Andrew Erwin directed the movie (they also directed the 2018 biopic “I Can Only Imagine” about MercyMe singer Bart Millard), while Jon Erwin co-wrote the “I Still Believe” screenplay with Jon Gunn.

As the story begins, it’s September 1999 in Lafayette, Indiana (Camp’s hometown), and Jeremy (played winningly by a charismatic KJ Apa) is packing up his car to leave behind his supportive and loving parents and two younger brothers, as he heads off to California to attend college for the first time. (The college isn’t named in the movie, but in real life, Camp attended and graduated from Calvary Chapel Bible College in Murrieta, California.)

Before Jeremy leaves, his parents Tom Camp (played by Gary Sinise) and Teri Camp (played by Shania Twain) give him a brand-new guitar as a gift. They know he’s a talented singer and musician, so they’re encouraging him to use that talent in the best way that he can. (It should be noted that Sinise and Twain are in the movie for only about 20 minutes, since most of the story takes place when Jeremy was a college student in California.)

One of the first things that happens when Jeremy arrives on campus is he meets a personal hero: Jean-Luc (played by Nathan Dean), a French Canadian contemporary Christian singer who graduated from the school years earlier and has returned to do a concert on campus. Because Jean-Luc has “made it” as a successful artist, Jeremy approaches him backstage before the show to tell Jean-Luc how much he admires him and to ask for his career advice.

Jean-Luc tells him the best advice he could give is that being an artist isn’t about “making it” but what an artist’s songs give to people. Jean-Luc also tells Jeremy that songwriting is about authenticity. He confides in Jeremy that he’s been writing love songs lately with a special girl in mind.

To Jeremy’s surprise and delight, Jean-Luc then asks Jeremy to tune his guitar. The next thing you know, Jeremy is an instant guitar tech who gets to go on stage and hand Jean-Luc the guitar when it’s time for Jean-Luc to switch instruments. While giving Jean-Luc the guitar, Jeremy sees a pretty young student in the crowd who seems enraptured as she sings along to the music. And then she and Jeremy lock eyes with each other. It’s a “love at first sight” moment for Jeremy that is as sweetly sentimental as you would imagine it to be.

Jeremy is so smitten that when he sees her hanging out in the theater after the show, he goes up and introduces himself to her. They have a cautiously flirtatious conversation. Her name is Melissa Henning (played by Britt Robertson, in an emotionally believable performance), and she invites Jeremy to hang out with her and some friends at the beach after the show.

It turns out that Melissa is a close friend of Jean-Luc, who’s also there at the beach, to Jeremy’s surprise. Melissa is so close to Jean-Luc that she says that she and Jean-Luc are “best friends.” As Jeremy lets this information sink in (and it becomes obvious that this is the “special girl” that Jean-Luc is writing love songs about), he still tries to figure out a way to date Melissa.

At the beach, Jeremy has brought his guitar, so that’s how Melissa first finds out that he can sing and play. And since she seems to have a thing for musicians, Jeremy’s talent probably makes him even more attractive to her. She plays it cool, but her reaction to him singing and playing shows how much Jeremy has piqued her interest. (Apa does his own singing in the movie. And he’s pretty good.)

When Jeremy is alone with Melissa, he asks her point-blank if she and Jean-Luc are dating. She says no, but she admits that Jean-Luc might have romantic feelings for her that aren’t mutual. Jeremy doesn’t waste time in expressing that he’s available and interested in dating Melissa, but she tells him that she promised God and her protective older sister Heather that this semester that she wouldn’t have any distractions from her studies and that Jeremy is definitely a distraction.

Undeterred, Jeremy persists in asking Melissa out on a date every time he runs into her on campus, until finally she says yes to one date. She agrees on the condition that she and Jeremy see each other in secret because she doesn’t want to hurt Jean-Luc’s feelings.

On their first date, Melissa and Jeremy go to a planetarium. While in the Hubble Space Telescope room, Melissa turns out to be very knowledgeable about astronomy trivia. After she rattles off some facts about outer space, Melissa says, “I’m just one star in an infinite galaxy.” And Jeremy replies as he looks at her meaningfully, “Well, some stars shine brighter than others.” Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

One date turns into two and then into more dates. And soon, it’s obvious that Jeremy and Melissa have fallen in love, but Melissa still wants to keep their relationship a secret because she’s afraid that it will ruin her friendship with Jean-Luc. This deception bothers Jeremy, but he goes along with it because he doesn’t want to lose Melissa.

Meanwhile, Jean-Luc has been acting as a mentor to Jeremy and has even offered to help Jeremy make a demo recording that could lead to a record-label contract. Jean-Luc has also offered to pass along the demo to the right people to help speed up the process. In other words, this love-triangle situation has turned into something even more complicated than when it started.

According to the movie’s production notes, there was no real-life love triangle between Jeremy, Melissa and Jean-Luc, who is based on real-life French Canadian musician Jean-Luc La Joie, the lead singer of the Christian rock band The Kry. In real life, Jean-Luc and Melissa were just friends, and Jean-Luc really did help Jeremy, early on in Jeremy’s career. But the filmmakers decided to make the Jean-Luc character in the movie as a combination of the real person and the numerous guys who were also pursuing Melissa during the time that she and Jeremy began dating.

Whether or not Jean-Luc finds out about the secret love affair turns out to be the least of Jeremy and Melissa’s problems. Just as Jeremy’s career is taking off, Melissa finds out that she has cancer. The rest of the movie shows how this devastating diagnosis affects their relationship. (And if you know what happened in real life, then you already know how this movie is going to end.)

All of the actors do a fine job with their performances. As the central characters in the film, Apa and Robertson (who also played a young couple in love in 2017’s “A Dog’s Purpose”) have natural chemistry together that makes them convincing as two people who’ve fallen hard and fast for each other. But there are moments in the movie that are so melodramatic and cliché-ridden that they’re downright cringeworthy. And there might be some non-religious people who could be offended at the idea that prayer can cause medical miracles. But this isn’t a movie for atheists or people who don’t like Christian movies. “I Still Believe” will definitely be a crowd-pleaser for the film’s intended audience. For everyone else, proceed with caution or avoid the movie altogether.

Lionsgate released “I Still Believe” in U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Lionsgate Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “I Still Believe” to March 27, 2020.

2018 National Memorial Concert: Gary Sinise, Joe Mantegna, Allison Janney, Cynthia Erivo, Leona Lewis among celebrity guests

May 3, 2018

Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna
Gary Sinise and Joe Mantegna (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for Capitol Concerts)

The following is a press release from Capital Concerts:

On the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day, PBS’ multi award-winning NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT returns live from the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol hosted by Tony Award-winner Joe Mantegna and Emmy Award-winner Gary Sinise. The 29th annual broadcast of the NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT airs live on PBS Sunday, May 27, 2018, from 8:00 to 9:30 p.m., before a concert audience of hundreds of thousands, millions more at home, as well as to our troops serving around the world on the American Forces Network.

A 29-year tradition unlike anything else on television, America’s national night of remembrance takes us back to the real meaning of the holiday through personal stories interwoven with musical performances. This year’s program features the following stories:

  • The show will recognize the story of two buddies – Joe Annello and Hiroshi “Hershey” Miyamura – dear friends now for 68 years, who helped each other survive deadly combat during the Korean War, endured the unimaginable as POWs, and became American heroes – one receiving the Silver Star and the other the Medal of Honor. This national moment of remembrance will recognize our Korean War veterans with performances by Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG Award-nominated actor John Corbett (MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING) and star of CHICAGO MED Brian Tee.
  • Women have served our nation in times of war and peace since our country’s founding – even before they were officially allowed to enlist. To mark the 70th anniversary of the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act, the concert will pay tribute to the contributions of women in our military throughout history, including the story of Silver Star recipient Leigh Ann Hester, the 1st woman to receive the Silver Star for combat. The segment will conclude by honoring women representing generations of service since WWII from the 5 branches of the military on stage. Academy Award®, Golden Globe and Emmy Award winning actress Allison Janney (I, TONYA, MOM, THE WEST WING) and Tony-nominated actress and star of TV’s FALLING WATER,THE WEST WING and LOADED, Mary McCormack will participate in this segment.
  • This year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Khe Sanh, one of the fiercest battles of the Vietnam War. The show will feature the story of Bill Rider, who was part of the battalion known as “The Walking Dead.” Bill’s story will focus on his return home to fight a different war…that of post-traumatic stress. As part of his healing process, Bill found a way to pay it forward by dedicating his life to helping generations of service men and women who have experienced the trauma of war. Bill’s story will be told by Academy Award-nominated actor Graham Greene (DANCES WITH WOLVES, WIND RIVER).
  • 2018 marks the 150th anniversary of Memorial Day, originally known as Decoration Day and first commemorated at Arlington National Cemetery.

The all-star line-up also features distinguished American leader General Colin L. Powell USA (Ret.)and musical performances by actor and country singer Charles Esten (NASHVILLE); Tony, Grammy and Emmy Award-winning actress and singer Cynthia Erivo (THE COLOR PURPLE); three-time Grammy Award-nominee singer/songwriter Leona Lewis; Tony-nominee and star of NBC’s hit TV show SMASH, Broadway and TV’s Megan Hilty; acclaimed tenor and Broadway star Alfie Boe (LES MISÉRABLES); and Gary Sinise & The Lt. Dan Band, marking 15 years and over 400 concerts entertaining our troops, veterans and military families; in performance with the National Symphony Orchestra under the direction of top pops conductor Jack Everly.

Also participating in the event are the U.S Joint Chiefs of Staff with The U.S. Army Herald Trumpets, The U.S. Army Chorus and Army Voices, The Soldiers Chorus of the U.S. Army Field Band, The U.S. Navy Band Sea Chanters, The U.S. Air Force Singing Sergeants, the Armed Forces Color Guard and Service Color Teams provided by the Military District of Washington, D.C.

The concert will also be live-streamed on PBS, You Tube, Facebook and www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert and available as Video on Demand, May 28 to June 10, 2018.

The program is a co-production of Michael Colbert of Capital Concerts and WETA, Washington, D.C.  Executive producer Michael Colbert has assembled an award-winning production team that features the top Hollywood talent behind some of television’s most prestigious entertainment awards shows including the GRAMMY AWARDS, COUNTRY MUSIC AWARDS, TONY AWARDS, SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE, and more.

About Capital Concerts
Capital Concerts is the nation’s leading producer of live patriotic television shows, including PBS’s highest-rated performance specials: NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT and A CAPITOL FOURTH, the premier celebrations of America’s most important holidays broadcast from the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C.  For more than 35 years, these two award-winning productions have become national traditions, bringing us together as one family of Americans to celebrate our freedom and democratic ideals and to pay tribute to those who defend them.  The holiday specials have been honored with over 80 awards including the New York Film Festival Award, the Golden Cine Award, and the Writer’s Guild of America Award.

Underwriters
The NATIONAL MEMORIAL DAY CONCERT is made possible by grants from the Lockheed Martin Corporation, the National Park Service, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Department of the Army, General Dynamics, PBS and public television stations nationwide.  Air travel is provided by American Airlines.

Visit the program website at http://www.pbs.org/national-memorial-day-concert/home/

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SOURCE Capital Concerts

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