Review: ‘The Long Game’ (2024), starring Jay Hernandez, Julian Works, Jaina Lee Ortiz, Oscar Nuñez, Paulina Chávez, Cheech Marin and Dennis Quaid

May 20, 2024

by Carla Hay

José Julián (seated, second from left), Jay Hernandez (standing, at left) and Dennis Quaid (standing, at right) in “The Long Game” (Photo courtesy of Mucho Mas Media)

“The Long Game” (2024)

Directed by Julio Quintana

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in Texas, in 1956, the dramatic film “The Long Game” (based on true events) features a Latin and white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A former military man, who works as a high school superintendent, takes a group of five teens from the high school and helps transform them into the first all-Hispanic golfing team to compete in a U.S. national golf tournament for high schoolers. 

Culture Audience: “The Long Game” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, sports underdog stories, and historical drama about race relations in America.

Miguel Angel Garcia, Christian Gallegos, Gregory Diaz IV, Julian Works and José Julián in “The Long Game” (Photo by Anita Gallón/Mucho Mas Media)

“The Long Game” follows a familiar formula of sports underdog movies based on true stories, but the cast’s admirable performances make this inspirational drama worth watching. Many viewers will learn something about the Mustangs golf team that broke racial barriers.

Directed by Julio Quintana, “The Long Game” was written by Quintana, Jennifer C. Stetson and Paco Farias. The movie’s adapted screenplay is based on Humberto G. Garcia’s 2010 non-fiction book “Mustang Miracle.” “The Long Game” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival, where it won the Narrative Spotlight Audience Award.

“The Long Game” begins by showing the mentor who’s the story’s main protagonist. It’s 1956, and upstanding JB Peña (played by Jay Hernandez), a former infantry soldier in the U.S. Marines, has moved with his loving and supportive wife Lucy Peña (played by Jaina Lee Ortiz) to the small city of Del Rio, Texas. Like many residents of Texas, JB is of Mexican American heritage. He was born in the United States. JB has taken a job as a superintendent at San Felipe High School.

But the real reason why JB (who is an avid golfer) wants to live in Del Rio is so he can join the prestigious Del Rio Golf Club, which is considered one of the best private golf clubs in Texas. The problem for JB is that this is a country club that has white members only, and they don’t want to let anyone who isn’t white join the club. Like many places that have racist policies, no one who’s responsible for those policies comes right and out and admits that they’re racist.

When JB inquires with club leader Don Glenn (played by Richard Robichaux) about joining the club, Don tells JB what JB’s chances are of being accepted into the club: “I have to consider other members, and they’re just not used to seeing a Mexican on the golf course.” The only people who aren’t white who are allowed on the golf course for this racist club are those who are in subservient roles doing low-paying menial jobs, such as caddies, food servers and sanitation workers.

One of these caddies is a teenager named Joe Treviño (played by Julian Works), the rebellious and unpredictable leader of a tight-knit group of five friends who are all Latino. An early scene in the movie shows Joe in a street alley, chasing off three white teenage boys and throwing a fence picket at them because the white teenagers were harassing him.

Joe’s friends see the commotion when they arrive at the scene. Joe tells his pals about the fleeing teenage bullies: “They didn’t call me a wetback. They didn’t call me anything, but I bet they were thinking it.”

The other four teens in Joe’s circle of friends are dependable Lupe Felan (played by José Julián); obedient Gene Vasquez (played by Gregory Diaz IV); friendly Mario Lomas (played by Christian Gallegos); and easygoing Felipe Romero (played by Miguel Angel Garcia). Gene is the one in the group who is the most likely to follow rules and is the most nervous about getting into trouble.

Later, while Joe is working at the club’s golf course, Joe notices that a young white man, whose father is a club member, has kept the cash that was meant to be a tip for one of the Hispanic caddies. As revenge, Joe urinates on the privileged family’s car when the father and son aren’t looking.

JB first sees Joe and his pals under less-than-ideal circumstances on the day that JB is driving to meet with Don Glenn for the first time at the Del Rio Golf Club. Joe and his friends are practicing golf on a field when Joe hits a golf ball that accidentally smashes JB’s car window and causes a minor cut on JB’s face. The teens run away when they see the damage that was caused. JB decides to keep his appointment with Don Glenn anyway, despite JB’s noticeable bleeding injury. This is the meeting where JB gets rejected to join the Del Rio Golf Club.

JB has an ally in the meeting: Frank Mitchell (played by Dennis Quaid), who served in the same U.S. Marines infantry as JB. Frank is a member of the Del Rio Golf Club and is the one who set up the meeting with JB and Don. Frank’s girlfriend Gayle Baker (played by Gillian Vigman) works as a secretary at this country club. Frank is disappointed that JB won’t be accepted into the country club. However, there’s nothing Frank can do about it except voice his disapproval about this racism, in an era when the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not exist yet, and it was legal for businesses to discriminate based on race.

After the window-breaking incident, JB sees Joe and his friends again at a school assembly, where JB is introduced as the new superintendent. That’s how JB finds out these teens are students at the same school where he works. JB confronts the five teens, who don’t deny that they were involved in this accidental vandalism.

JB is impressed enough with Joe’s powerful golf swing to ask Joe and his friends to let JB watch them play golf. Joe is the best golfer in the group. When JB sees that the five pals have raw, untapped talent as golfers, JB comes up with an idea to make up for the teens being involved in breaking his car window: The teens can either mow his lawn on Saturdays, or they can become the first members of the San Felipe High School golf team, which will be called the Mustangs.

At first, all of the pals except for Joe choose the golf option. That’s because Joe’s father Adelio Treviño (played by Jimmy Gonzales) thinks golf is a game for pampered wimps. Adelio expects Joe to follow in his footsteps and skip college to have a working-class job. Later, Adelio does something extreme to show Joe how much Adelio disapproves of Joe wanting to play golf.

Joe changes his mind about joining the golf team after JB has a heart-to-heart talk with Joe and asks Joe what Joe really wants to do with his life. Joe joins the team, but he keeps it a secret from hs father Adelio. Joe later starts dating a classmate named Daniela (played by Paulina Chávez), who wants to become a writer and join a university writing program in Austin, Texas. Daniela thinks that Joe should get a college education in Austin too.

San Felipe High School doesn’t have the money to fund the new golf team; any coach of the team will have to be an unpaid volunteer. JB can’t quit his full-time superintendent job because he needs the money, and he doesn’t have time to be the golf team’s coach. And so, JB asks retired Frank to be the team’s coach. Frank agrees. JB is the school’s team sponsor and essentially has the role of assistant coach. Joe has a volatile temper, so Lupe is made the team’s captain.

The Mustangs play against all-white teams. JB and the Mustangs experience the expected racism, including racist comments and blatant exclusion or unfair treatment based on race. At one of the Mustangs’ first golf games, a white official reacts with surprise when he sees JB in person and says JB looks different than the official expected because JB sounded “American” on the phone. JB politely tells this racist that JB is American because he was born in the United States. Other racist reactions to JB and the team are much more hostile.

JB is fully aware that the Mustangs will be treated as outsiders by racists, so he advises the team members to assimilate when they’re in places where they will encounter racism: “I don’t want to hear Spanish on the [golf] course,” JB says. “We’ve got to look and act like we belong here.”

Frank is a white ally who sticks up for the team as much as possible. Later in the story, a law official named Judge Milton Cox (played by Brett Cullen) makes a huge decision that affects the Mustangs. JB also has to make some important decisions that will decide the fate of the team.

San Felipe High School’s Principal Guerra (played by Oscar Nuñez) is supportive and mostly stays out of the team’s way. Principal Guerra likes to appear tougher than he really is to the students. In an amusing scene, he tells JB that he doesn’t want the students to see him smile because the students are less likely to take the principal seriously if he’s seen smiling or laughing.

JB is also friendly with a Del Rio Golf Club groundskeeper named Pollo (played by Cheech Marin), who secretly lets the Mustangs practice on the property during off-hours when no one will catch them. Most of the movie’s comic relief come from Pollo and his wisecracks. JB and Pollo (and Frank, to a certain extent) treat the Mustangs as their surrogate sons. Because of the racism issues, JB and Pollo are able to speak to the team with more knowledge and experience about being Hispanic/Latino in places dominated by white people who are often racist.

“The Long Game” has some very good scenes that show an appreciation for the sport of golf. However, viewers shouldn’t expect absolute accuracy in all of the golf scenes, since the movie’s actors aren’t professional golfers, and the Mustangs are still supposed to be learning how to play golf. It’s a sports movie that’s not just about learning the game but also about learning life lessons.

The movie’s performances (with Hernandez and Works as the standouts) give “The Long Game” an emotional credibility and that makes it a solid movie, even if viewers know exactly how the story is going to end. (There are very few surprises along the way.) It’s not a groundbreaking movie, but “The Long Game” is a worthy tribute to the real-life golfers who overcame big obstacles. These are stories that need to be told and stand as examples of what perseverance and courage can be accomplish.

Mucho Mas Media released “The Long Game” in U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘The American Society of Magical Negroes,’ starring Justice Smith, David Alan Grier, An-Li Bogan, Drew Tarver, Michaela Watkins, Aisha Hinds, Rupert Friend and Nicole Byer

March 16, 2024

by Carla Hay

Justice Smith and David Alan Grier in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” (Photo courtesy of Focus Features)

“The American Society of Magical Negroes”

Directed by Kobi Libii

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles (and briefly in New York City), the comedy/drama film “The American Society of Magical Negroes” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and a few Asian and Latin people) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A struggling artist is recruited to work for the secretive American Society of Magical Negroes, whose purpose is to make white people comfortable, in order to prevent black people from getting harassed and killed.

Culture Audience: “The American Society of Magical Negroes” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching inept and boring racial satires.

An-Li Bogan and Justice Smith in “The American Society of Magical Negroes” (Photo by Tobin Yelland/Focus Features)

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” could have been a clever and incisive comedy/drama about how racial stereotypes on screen can affect people in real life. Unfortunately, this dull and mishandled racial satire has bland characters, a weak story and stale jokes that repeatedly miss the mark. This terrible misfire also fails at spoofing romantic comedies.

Writer/director Kobi Libii makes his feature-film debut with “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” which had its world premiere at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” squanders the talent of its impressive cast by putting them in a movie that is as timid and insecure as its lead character. A movie poking fun at racial stereotypes needs to be bold and self-assured in what it has to say, instead of lazily filling up the story with derivative and unfunny scenes that have nothing interesting to say. Many of the movie’s cast members who are supposed to have chemistry with each other don’t have any believable chemistry, resulting in too many awkwardly acted scenes. That’s mostly the fault of the director and anyone else who made the casting decisions.

In “The American Society of Magical Negroes,” Aren Mbado (played by Justice Smith) is a 27-year-old struggling artist who is based in Los Angeles. Aren’s specialty is making sculptures out of yarn. The movie’s first scene shows Aren at an art gallery exhibiting his work. At this gallery event, there are hardly any buyers. The spectators don’t seem to understand Aren’s art. It doesn’t help that constantly stammering Aren has trouble articulating to people what his art is all about.

Aren (who is African American) experiences a racial microaggression when a white male attendee (played by James Welch) mistakenly assumes that Aren is a waiter, not the artist whose art is on display. Gallery owner Andrea (played by Gillian Vigman) notices this insult and tells Aren, “If you don’t stick up for your art, I can’t do it for you.” Because the exhibit is a sales flop, Andrea also threatens to cancel Aren’s exhibit before the end of its scheduled run. Aren begs Andrea not to cancel because he says he spent more than $3,000 on yarn and can’t afford any more.

Aren (who is a graduate of the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design) didn’t think his life would turn out this way. Aren is nearly broke, and he has no other job prospects. He doesn’t want to do work that doesn’t involve his artistic skills. Someone who is quietly observing Aren at the gallery is a bartender, who is also African American. The bartender will eventually introduce himself to Aren and reveal why he has been watching Aren.

After leaving the event, Aren goes to an outdoor ATM in a dark alley and sees he only has $17.31 in his bank account, which is below the minimum ATM withdrawal of $20. A young white woman named Lacey (played by Mia Ford) walks up to the ATM to make a transaction, but she’s having trouble using her ATM card. She asks Aren to help her. It turns into a very clumsily written scene of Lacey loudly accusing Aren of trying to steal her ATM card.

Just at that moment, two young white men named Brad (played by Eric Lutz) and Ryan (played by Kees DeVos) happen to be walking by and they come to the “rescue” of Lacey, as Aren vehemently denies that he was doing anything wrong. It’s supposed to be the movie’s way of showing a “Karen” incident, where a white woman wrongfully accuses a person of color (usually someone black) of a crime, and the white woman is automatically believed.

Just as it looks like there might be an altercation and police might be called, someone comes to Aren’s rescue: the bartender from the gallery event. He had been secretly following Aren and now is able to smooth-talk Lacey, Brad and Ryan, by showing them it was all a misunderstanding. As a way to placate them, this mysterious stranger starts talking about how great the neighborhood is and recommends that they go to his favorite barbecue restaurant nearby. Lacey, Brad and Ryan then amicably leave.

Aren thanks the stranger, who then reveals who he is and why he is there. He says his name is Roger (played by David Alan Grier), and he is a recruiter for the American Society of Magical Negroes, a secret group of black people whose purpose is to make white people comfortable and less likely to cause harm to black people. As Roger says to Aren, the “most dangerous animal” on Earth is “a white person who is uncomfortable,” especially around black people. Roger also says that “officially,” the society is a “client services industry.” But “unofficially, we’re saving the damn world.”

Roger tells Aren that Aren seems to have the qualities to be an ideal member of the American Society of Magical Negroes. Aren has to go through a vetting process first. Aren is very skeptical about what Roger is saying, until Roger teleports them to the headquarters of the American Society of Magical Negroes, which looks a lot like an African American version of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from the “Harry Potter” book/movie series.

In real life, the term “magical Negro” was invented by filmmaker Spike Lee as a way to describe a black character whose main purpose is to help and uplift the central white character in a story. This “magical Negro” usually has extraordinary abilities that are implemented to make the white protagonist’s life better. Some examples include the characters played by Will Smith in 2000’s “The Legend of Bagger Vance” and 2005’s “Hitch”; Whoopi Goldberg in 1990’s “Ghost”; and Michael Clarke Duncan in 1999’s “The Green Mile.”

At the American Society of Magical Negroes, the recruits are told that their white clients don’t know and aren’t supposed to know that they are clients. The recruits are taught what a “magical Negro” is supposed to do and are shown hologram-like examples, which are usually not-very-funny scenes of black men being subservient and fawning to white men. Oddly, and with no explanation, the movie has multiple scenes of black men grabbing white men’s crotches in these “magical Negro” scenes. There’s also a magical amulet that is used to gauge the level of “white tears” that a white person has, in order to determine how likely the white person will cause a racist incident that will make the white person look sympathetic.

The main teacher for these classes is a stern instructor named Gabbard (played by Aisha Hinds), while the society’s president is a wizard-like character named Dede Booker (played by Nicole Byer), who looks and acts like a low-rent fortune teller. Gabbard says of white people: “The happier they are, the safer we are.” Roger tells Aren: “White discomfort is your nemesis.” The number-one rule for the American Society of Magical Negroes is to keep the client happy.

One of the reasons why “The American Society of Magical Negroes” is so poorly written is that it never really shows why Aren is an ideal candidate for this group. The opening scene at the gallery is supposed to be the movie’s questionable “proof” that Aren would be perfect for this “magical Negro” job. But all the scene really shows is that Aren is a sad sack who’s terrible at selling his art. Nothing about Aren’s family background or social life is shown or explained, except a brief mention that his father is black and his mother is white.

The recruits for “The American Society of Magical Negroes” are told that if at any time, they show negative emotions to the white people who are assigned to them, then they will be expelled from the society and lose their magical powers. It’s supposed to mean that these expelled people will be more vulnerable to getting racist harm from white people. Dede tells the recruits that black people who aren’t part of the American Society of Magical Negroes will have a shorter life expectancy. It’s a faulty concept from the start, because racist harm can happen under a variety of circumstances, no matter how nice people are to the racists who want to harm them.

During a break from these training sessions, Aren goes to a coffee shop, where he accidently bumps into a woman in her 20s, and her coffee spills all over her clothes. They exchange banter in a “meet cute” conversation, where Aren tries to deny that he’s flirting with her, and they both try to act like they aren’t immediately attracted to each other, even though it’s obvious that they are. And then, Aren suddenly leaves without getting her name. You know where all of this is going, of course.

Aren needs the money that this “magical Negro” job is offering, so he agrees to be part of the tryout process, with Roger as Aren’s wryly observing mentor. One of these tests involves (not surprisingly) a white male cop named Officer Miller (played by Tim Baltz), who feels easily threatened in the presence of black men. It leads to some moronic, time-wasting scenes where Officer Miller needs help with masculine confidence, including being able to gain entrance into an exclusive, trendy nightclub.

When Aren passes the necessary tests, he becomes an official member of the Society of Magical Negroes. Aren is then assigned his first client: a design engineer named Jason (played by Drew Tarver) at a social media company called Meetbox, which is obviously a parody of Facebook. Aren magically gets a job at Meetbox as a graphic designer who happens to have his desk workspace right next to Jason’s desk workspace.

Almost everyone at Meetbox doesn’t seem like a real person but is portrayed in the movie as a stereotype. Jason is a tech dweeb with mediocre talent and almost no charisma, but the movie makes several un-subtle points that Jason is perceived as better than he really is, just because Jason is a white male. Jason has an attractive co-worker named Lizzie (played by An-Li Bogan), who just happens to be the same woman who met Aren at the coffee shop. More awkward conversations ensue.

The founder/CEO of Meetbox is an egotistical Brit named Mick (played by Rupert Friend), while the immediate supervisor of Lizzie, Jason and Aren is prickly Linda Masterson (played by Michaela Watkins), who cares more about being a sycophant to Mick than being a good boss. Meetbox gets embroiled in a racial scandal when people in Ghana get rejected from joining Meetbox because Meetbox’s facial recognition technology gives preference to white people. The movie never explains why only Ghana has this problem, as if black people only live in Ghana.

Several situations occur that show how Jason is unaware of how his white male privilege gives him advantages. Jason feels entitled to being thought of as superior to a more talented co-worker such as Lizzie, who wants the same job promotion that Jason wants. The movie shows that Linda is part of the problem too, since she uses coded terms such as Jason is a “better fit” than Lizzie to give an important presentation for an idea that came from Lizzie. Jason has no qualms about being unfairly chosen to lead this presentation.

Not surprisingly, Jason shows a romantic interest in Lizzie. Much of the movie is about a love triangle where “magical Negro” Aren isn’t supposed to let Jason know that he’s also interested in dating Lizzie. It all becomes so tiresome and tedious, because a lot of the movie’s dialogue and scenarios have no wit or charm.

Lizzie’s racial identity is not mentioned in the movie, except for Jason calling Lizzie “ethnic.” However, actress Bogan’s ethnicity in the movie’s production notes is described as Taiwanese/Irish. If “The American Society of Magical Negroes” really wanted to have more edge to its limp satire, it would’ve made the Lizzie character unambiguously white, in order to increase the racial tension between Aren and Jason.

It should come as no surprise that “The American Society of Magical Negroes” makes Jason a racist who doesn’t think that he’s racist. You can do a countdown to the “big racial confrontation” scene where someone goes on a rant about racism, as white people in the room get uncomfortable and try to deny racism. This scene falls flat, because Aren still ends up being sheepish and apologetic.

“The American Society of Magical Negroes” then goes off the rails into fantasy with teleporting scenes, as it seems to forget all about the movie’s original concept, and then takes a silly detour into wrapping up the conflicts over the love triangle. The performances in the movie aren’t terrible, but they aren’t impressive either, mainly because the writing and directing are so substandard. A “twist” at the end is an underwhelming commentary on sexist stereotypes. “The American Society of Magical Negroes” wants to tell some hard truths about racism, but the movie’s approach is woefully inadequate and lacking in credibility.

Focus Features released “The American Society of Magical Negroes” in U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024.

Review: ‘Snack Shack,’ starring Conor Sherry, Gabriel LaBelle, Mika Abdalla, Nick Robinson and David Costabile

March 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Gabriel LaBelle and Conor Sherry in “Snack Shack” (Photo courtesy of Republic Pictures and Paramount Global Content Distribution)

“Snack Shack”

Directed by Adam Rehmeier

Culture Representation: Taking place in Nebraska City, Nebraska (and briefly in Iowa), the comedy/drama film “Snack Shack” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latin people and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two 14-year-old boys, who are best friends and who want to be “get rich quick” entrepreneurs, rent a concession stand at a public swimming pool for a summer, and they compete for the affections of a visiting teenage girl. 

Culture Audience: “Snack Shack” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching teen movies set in the early 1990s and don’t mind if the movie can’t figure out what it wants to be in its very inconsistent storytelling.

Mika Abdalla in “Snack Shack” (Photo courtesy of Republic Pictures and Paramount Global Content Distribution)

Erratic and unfocused, “Snack Shack” is a silly comedy for the first two-thirds of the movie and then tosses in serious drama in the last third of this sloppily edited film. It’s a derivative teen buddy tale that makes all of the female characters annoying. The movie’s abrupt turn into tearjerking territory looks very out of place, because it’s an obvious and unearned attempt for “Snack Shack” to manipulate emotions out of viewers, before the movie shrugs it off and ends in a “business as usual” way.

Written and directed by Adam Rehmeier, “Snack Shack” takes place in 1991, and was filmed in Nebraska City, Nebraska, where the story occurs. Rehmeier says in the movie’s production notes that “Snack Shack” was inspired by memories of his own teen years in the 1990s in Nebraska City. Those memories seem to be very fragmented, based on the choppy narrative of this substandard movie. Scenes are built up with suspense and then abruptly cut away to the next scene. It happens enough times to be noticeable and aggravating.

“Snack Shack” begins by showing the two 14-year-old guys who are best friends and are at the center of the story. AJ Carter (played by Conor Sherry) is gangly, awkward and mild-mannered. Bruce “Moose” Miller (played by Gabriel LaBelle) is bossy, arrogant and short-tempered. Yes, it’s another buddy movie where the two best pals have opposite personalities. “Snack Shack” mostly takes place during the boys’ summer break from school.

Moose and AJ both have dreams of being business partners in a “get rich quick” scheme. The problem is that they haven’t figured out yet what type of business they should have to become wealthy. First, they travel to Iowa to go to an off-track betting parlor to try to make some cash. But someone who knows AJ’s parents sees Moose and AJ at the betting parlor, and reports it to AJ parents. AJ had lied to his parents by saying that he and Moose were on a field trip.

When AJ and Moose go back to AJ’s house, AJ’s parents yell at them about crossing state lines to gamble, and then they tell AJ that he’s grounded. AJ’s mother Jean (played by Gillian Vigman) is overprotective, but she’s depicted as an irritating nag who’s ready to punish without trying to find out the real reason for a child’s discontent. AJ’s equally strict and rigid father (played by David Costabile) is a county district court judge. His first name is never mentioned in the movie; he’s just called Judge by AJ and other people.

AJ has a sister named Chrissy (played by June Scarlett Gentry, also known as June Gentry), who is about 12 or 13. Chrissy is so one-dimensional, her only purpose in the movie is to tattle on AJ to get him in trouble, and then gloat when he does get in trouble. If Moose has any siblings, they’re not seen or mentioned in the movie. The only glimpse into Moose’s family life is a brief scene of Moose’s mother Sherry (played by Kate Robertson Pryor) encountering AJ’s mother Jean in a grocery store while AJ and Moose are with their respective mothers.

AJ and Moose are friendly with a man in his late 20s named Shane (played by Nick Robinson), who gives them rides in his truck and encourages them to rebel. There’s a brief mention of Shane being on leave from the military, which is why he’s never shown in the movie working at any job. Shane is never shown hanging out with adults, only teenagers.

“Snack Shack” doesn’t mention or acknowledge how it’s creepy and weird for a man in his late 20s to be spending so much of his free time and his social life with these 14-year-old boys. That’s because the movie aggressively pushes the narrative that Shane is supposed to be a “cool older guy” whom AJ and Moose look up to and respect.

Shane is also conveniently there when AJ needs advice on dating, even though the movie presents no evidence that Shane knows what it’s like to be in a healthy love relationship. And who in their right mind would want to date a man who hangs out so much with underage teenagers for his social life? But don’t tell that to the people who made “Snack Shack,” because it would ruin the narrative that Shane is supposed to be a quasi-hero of the story.

“Snack Shack” repeatedly shows and tells that Moose and AJ are supposed to be “rebellious” because they smoke marijuana and nicotine cigarettes. Shane is the one who gives AJ and Moose their first marijuana experiences. Shane also gives alcohol to AJ and Moose and invites them to underground parties.

Somehow, Shane has fooled AJ’s parents into thinking that Shane is a responsible role model, but it still doesn’t explain how the parents don’t see it as odd that Shane doesn’t seem to have any friends his own age and is hanging out so much with these children. Later in the movie, Shane invites AJ to go with Shane on a road trip to Alaska for the following summer, in July and August 1992. Shane tells AJ that the trip will cost AJ about $2,000.

AJ and Moose try starting their own homemade beer company called Real Beer, but that idea (just like the storyline for it) goes nowhere. The plans to start their own beer company end up being demolished when a neighbor angrily tells AJ’s father that the two teens have been illegally tapping into his pipe water supply to make the beer. Before the beer company idea went kaput, AJ and Moose gave Shane a sample taste of their homemade beer, which Shane described as “drinkable as fuck.”

There are a few very contrived and not-very-funny scenes of AJ mowing the front lawn of his family house as part of his chore punishment, but he keeps sneezing, because apparently AJ is allergic to the smell of freshly mowed grass. It’s during one of these sneezing bouts that AJ first sees the teenage girl who will be his love interest for the entire movie. Her name is Brooke (played by Mika Abdalla), who is supposed to be 16 or 17, but she looks like she’s in her 20s.

LaBelle as Moose also looks too old for his “Snack Shack” character’s age. He is never convincing as a 14-year-old in this movie. Sherry (who resembles a teenage Justin Bieber) was also in his 20s when he filmed “Snack Shack,” but he’s believable as a 14-year-old because of his baby face and the way he portrays AJ as an insecure and vulnerable teenager.

Brooke is visiting Nebraska City, and is temporarily staying with her cousin: a teenage girl named Leah (played by April Clark), whose family lives next door to AJ and his family. (Cue the predictable scenes of AJ being a voyeur when he’s ogling Brooke as he looks at her from his bedroom window.) Leah is supposed to be about 14 or 15 years old. Leah’s barely-there personality is only on display in a scene where she whines about being afraid to jump off a diving board into a swimming pool.

Brooke’s father is in the military, so Brooke moves around a lot. Brooke mentions at one point that it’s hard for her to maintain relationships because of all these relocations. It’s supposed to make viewers feel sympathy for Brooke, but it doesn’t excuse her frequently obnoxious personality.

Brooke happens to be outside when she sees AJ having one of his sneezing fits while he’s mowing the lawn. She immediately taunts AJ and calls him “shit pig,” which is what she calls him during the entire movie. Brooke thinks she’s being cute and clever with this derogatory name, but she’s just being disrespectful and stupid. She does a lot of things in this movie that are thoughtless and cruel, but “Snack Shack” wants viewers to ignore all that because Brooke is supposed to be the movie’s “dream girl” just because she looks physically attractive.

AJ is instantly smitten with Brooke, and she knows it. Brooke’s nasty attitude with AJ sets the tone for most of their relationship. She does what can be described as “insult flirting,” where she tries to get a rise out of a guy she likes by pretending that she doesn’t really like him and insulting him to his face. Brooke doesn’t even tell AJ what her name is until after they’ve talked to each other a few times. Brooke takes photos as a hobby and likes to snap pictures of people when they’re caught off-guard.

Moose and AJ gripe to Shane about their woes in finding a way to make money for the summer. That’s when Shane tells AJ and Moose that the local public swimming pool called Steinhart Pool has a concession stand called Snack Shack, which is owned by the city and overseen by the city’s parks and recreation department. (In real life, Steinhart Pool’s name is Steinhart Aquatic Center.) Snack Shack is up for rental to the highest bidder every summer. Whoever wins the bid is responsible for operating Snack Shack for the summer.

In one of the movie’s most illogical plot holes, Shane says Moose and AJ are too young to be lifeguards at the pool (the minimum age to be a lifeguard is 16), so he suggests that Moose and AJ bid for the Snack Shack instead. The movie wants viewers to not know or forget that people under the age of 18 (even in 1991) can’t get a contract for this type of business without a parent or guardian’s permission and co-signature. Needless to say, AJ and Moose don’t want their parents to know about their plans to bid for Snack Shack.

But there would be no “Snack Shack” movie if these realistic details about contracts were in the movie. Moose and AJ scheme to outbid two local brothers named Jeff Bravo (played by Dawson Mullen) and Chris Bravo (played by Christian J. Velez), who are in their 20s and who have been operating Snack Shack for the past few years. Moose and AJ meet up with Jeff and Chris to find out how much they plan to bid, without letting the Bravo brothers know that AJ and Moose want to bid on Snack Shack too.

It leads to a moronic sequence of events where Chris and Jeff tell Moose and AJ that they plan to bid $3,000. Moose and AJ go to a bank to withdraw $3,000 from AJ’s savings account that had money saved for his future college tuition. AJ and Moose arrive at the bank “disguised” in matching business suits and sunglasses to look like adults, but they just really look like pathetic teen Blues Brothers wannabes. And what is the point of these disguises when the bank employees don’t seem to care that Moose and AJ are under 18 and withdrawing this amount of cash?

Moose and AJ go to the city council meeting, where the bidding will take place. Moose and AJ bid $3,001—and find out too late that the Bravo brothers bid only $300. This isn’t spoiler information since all of the movie’s marketing materials show that AJ and Moose end up operating Snack Shack.

AJ’s parents find out that he foolishly blew his savings on this overinflated bid. They get even angrier with AJ over this screw-up than they did about the homemade beer and gambling fiascos, but that doesn’t stop AJ from eventually coming and going as he pleases. What happened to AJ being grounded? Don’t expect any answers to that question. There are so many inconsistencies and plot holes in this mindless movie, it’s ridiculous. That’s why it looks completely unbelievable when AJ’s mother makes vague threats to send AJ to military school.

To make matter worse, dimwits AJ and Moose bid on Snack Shack before even knowing what it looked like on the inside. They find out that they’re stuck with a filthy dump that has no refrigerator and no stove. Moose and AJ end up getting these appliances by buying them as used discounts. The refrigerator they buy is dirty and was previously used by a mortuary. Ick.

In addition to buying appliances, AJ and Moose have to pay for the food and drinks they’re gong to sell. The movie never really explains where they get the extra start-up money. Moose sees himself as the “alpha male” wheeler dealer and AJ as the “beta male” who’s supposed to take orders from Moose. AJ ends up cleaning up Snack Shack by himself during the refurbishing process, while Moose vaguely says he has to be somewhere else to “make deals.” You will see a lot of AJ being treated like a doormat in this movie.

And what a coincidence: Brooke mentions to AJ that she’s looking for a summer job, shortly after AJ finds out that Steinhart Pool has a job opening for a lifeguard. Guess who will be the lifeguard at Steinhart Pool for the summer? It’s all just a contrivance so that Brooke will be close by on the job when the inevitable love triangle happens.

The movie is titled “Snack Shack,” but most of the movie does not take place at Snack Shack. Don’t expect “Snack Shack” to show anything substantial about the customers who are regulars at Snack Shack, because this unimaginative movie isn’t about any interesting relationships that AJ and Moose could have developed by getting to know their customers. Don’t expect anyone in the movie to question why a city would allow two 14-year-old, inexperienced children to operate a city-owned concession stand by themselves. (Can you say, “Insurance disaster waiting to happen”?)

“Snack Shack” doesn’t care about those pesky, realistic details. It’s too preoccupied with regurgitating teen movie stereotypes. At least half of the story is about the rivalry that AJ and Moose have over Brooke. Moose knew from the beginning that AJ had a crush on Brooke, but Moose puts the moves on Brooke anyway. Brooke plays mind games with both of them. Arguments and a lot of pouting ensue. It all becomes so tedious after a while.

And here comes another teen movie cliché: the bullies who are supposed to get their comeuppance. In “Snack Shack,” these lunkheads are muscular brothers Randy Carmichael (played by Michael Bonini) and Rodney Carmichael (played by Christian James), who both have some kind of past feuding with AJ and Moose that’s never really explained in the movie. You just know that every time one or both of the Carmichael brothers show up, it’s only to start a fight with AJ and Moose.

Because AJ is the only one of the two pals whose home life is shown, and because he’s such a passive pushover when it comes to his relationships, viewers are obviously supposed to root for him the most. Of all the “Snack Shack” cast members, Sherry gives the best performance in a sea of mostly mediocre performances. However, “Snack Shack” goes overboard in pushing the sympathy card for AJ before you start to wonder if he has any kind of self-esteem deserving of respect. AJ has trouble finding a spine, just like “Snack Shack” doesn’t have a backbone of a cohesive and well-written story that doesn’t fumble the balance that was needed for the movie’s comedy and drama.

Republic Pictures and Paramount Global Content Distribution will release “Snack Shack” in select U.S. cinemas on March 15, 2024. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on April 2, 2024.

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.

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