Review: ‘Nope,’ starring Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Steven Yeun

July 20, 2022

by Carla Hay

Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer and Brandon Perea in “Nope” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Nope”

Directed by Jordan Peele 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Santa Clarita Valley, California, the sci-fi horror film “Nope” has a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white, Asian and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A brother and a sister, who work together on a horse ranch, join forces with a Fry’s Electronics salesman to visually document an unidentified flying object (UFO) in their area.

Culture Audience: “Nope” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Jordan Peele and stars Daniel Kaluuya and Keke Palmer, but this frequently monotonous and unimaginative movie is an unfortunate case of hype over substance.

Steven Yeun in “Nope” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

Does the sci-fi horror flick “Nope” live up to the hype? The title of this disappointing bore says it all. It’s a rambling, disjointed, self-indulgent mess that does nothing innovative for movies about UFOs. It’s obvious that writer/director/producer Jordan Peele got this movie made without anyone stepping in to question the very weak and lazy plot of “Nope,” and to ask for a screenplay rewrite to make drastic improvements that were desperately needed.

After the memorable originality of the previous two movies that Peele wrote and directed (2017’s “Get Out” and 2019’s “Us”), “Nope” looks like a movie that was made from a half-baked, unfinished screenplay draft that got greenlighted simply because Peele had enormous commercial and critical success with “Get Out” (which won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay) and “Us.” “Nope” was filmed for IMAX screens, but having a bigger screen doesn’t always make a movie better. Considering all the outstanding and classic movies about UFOs, “Nope” has the substandard story quality of a UFO movie that was thrown together for a fourth-tier cable TV network or a direct-to-video release. Yes, “Nope” is that bad.

One of the reasons why “Nope” fails to live up to the hype is because before the movie’s release, the plot was shrouded in secrecy, as if “Nope” were some kind of masterpiece whose details dare not be leaked out, in order not to reveal a brilliant plot. There is no brilliant plot or even a clever plot twist in “Nope.” It’s just a tedious, badly structured movie about some people who see a UFO in the sky and decide to visually document it because they think it will make them rich and famous.

Too bad it takes so long (not until the last third of the movie) for any real action to take place in “Nope,” which should have been an exciting sci-fi horror film, but it just drags on and on with no real substance. Just because “Nope” has some Oscar winners and the big-budget backing of a major studio, that doesn’t automatically mean that the movie is going to be good. Peele is capable of doing much better movies (as evidenced by “Get Out” and “Us”), but “Nope” just looks like a cynical cash grab from filmmakers coasting on Peele’s previous successes.

Making matters worse, the talented cast members of “Nope” are stuck portraying hollow characters with vague backstories and a lot of cringeworthy or monotonous dialogue. Keke Palmer’s Emerald Haywood character is the only one in “Nope” who comes close to having a fully formed personality, but her character is quickly reduced to being a bunch of one-note soundbites and wisecracks. Everyone else in “Nope” is written as an incomplete sketch.

Characters in “Nope” end up working together in implausible ways. “Nope” also telegraphs way too early which character will have the big “heroic” scene during the inevitable showdown in the movie’s climax. The movie’s visual effects are adequate, but definitely not spectacular for a movie concept of this scope. Intriguing subplots are dangled in front of the audience, only to be left hanging. And many of the action scenes have some horrifically subpar editing.

And why is this movie called “Nope”? It’s because during certain scenes that are supposed to be scary, one of the characters says, “Nope,” as in, “No, I’m not having this right now.” It’s supposed to be an engaging catch phrase, but it’s really very tired and unoriginal. Most of the so-called “comedy” in “Nope” is fleeting and often falls flat.

An early scene in “Nope” (which takes place in California’s Santa Clarita Valley) shows Emerald Haywood and her older brother OJ Haywood (played by Daniel Kaluuya) on the set of a TV commercial, where they have been hired as animal wranglers. OJ and Emerald have inherited a horse ranch called Haywood Ranch (in the desert-like Agua Dulce, California) from their deceased father Otis Haywood Sr. (played by Keith David, who has a flashback cameo), a groundbreaking horse wrangler who worked on a lot of Hollywood productions. The Haywoods rent out their horses in a family business called Haywood Hollywood Horses.

The siblings’ mother is not mentioned. Don’t expect to find out how long Otis has been dead. Don’t expect to find out why OJ and Emerald have a ranch with about 10 horses, but they’re the only workers on the ranch. (It’s very unrealistic.) Don’t expect to find out if OJ and Emerald really love their ranch jobs or if they’re just doing it out of family obligation. These are some of the many reasons why “Nope” is so frustratingly shallow and poorly written.

On this particular TV commercial (what the commercial is for is never stated in “Nope”), OJ and Emerald have a black horse named Lucky that has been hired to be in the commercial. The horse is being filmed indoors, in front of a green screen. It’s OJ and Emerald’s job to handle the horse and tell people on the set how to interact with the horse.

OJ and Emerald have opposite personalities. OJ is quiet and introverted. Emerald is talkative and extroverted. Kaluuya, who gave a compelling Oscar-nominated performance in “Get Out,” plays a dreadfully dull character in “Nope.” It’s not Kaluuya’s fault. The character was written that way. And it’s a waste of Kaluuya’s talent.

Emerald is so talkative that she gives a mini-lecture to all the assembled cast and crew members about how the very earliest moving picture is considered to be Eadweard Muybridge’s 1887 loop of cards titled “Animal Locomotion, Plate 626,” the very first scientific study to use photography. “Animal Locomotion,” an early example of chronophotography, featured an unidentified black man riding on a horse.

Emerald then asks the assembled group if they happen to know the name of the man who rode the horse. No one knows, of course. Emerald than proudly states that the man was actually an ancestor of Emerald and OJ, and his last name was also Haywood. There’s no way to verify if what Emerald is saying is true. And the people on this set don’t really seem to care. They just want to get the job done for this commercial.

There are some racial undertones to the cast and crew’s bored reaction to Emerald’s story, since OJ and Emerald are the only African American people on this set. It might be Peele’s way of showing that people who aren’t African American are less inclined to care about African American history. OJ seems slightly embarrassed and annoyed that Emerald is telling this story to people who obviously aren’t interested. Emerald also uses this moment to announce to everyone that she’s available for work as an actor, filmmaker, stunt person and singer.

The cinematographer for this commercial is a jaded elderly man named Antlers Horst (played by Michael Wincott), who will end up encountering OJ and Emerald again much later in the movie. Also on the set is actress Bonnie Clayton (played by Donna Mills), whose job is to interact with the horse. Although it’s nice that the “Nope” filmmakers hired former “Knot’s Landing” star Mills for this movie, because she doesn’t get enough work that she deserves, her role really is a cameo, with screen time of less than five minutes.

Emerald and OJ advise everyone on the set to remain calm around Lucky. And it’s at that moment you know things are going to go wrong. Lucky gets nervous about something and starts bucking and lunging in a way that’s dangerous. Because the horse is deemed unfit to be on this set, Emerald and OJ are fired. OJ says that they need this job, but the decision has been made to let them go.

OJ and Emerald then go to Jupiter’s Claim, a California Gold Rush theme park owned and operated by Ricky “Jupe” Park (played by Steven Yeun), a former child star who often acts as a show emcee at this theme park. Jupe is married and has three sons, ranging in ages from about 7 to 12 years old. Jupe’s wife Amber Park (played by Wrenn Schmidt) works with him at Jupiter’s Claim. Their sons Colton Park (played by Lincoln Lambert), Phoenix Park (played by Pierce Kang) and Max Park (played by Roman Gross) have brief appearances in the movie.

OJ decides that he’s going to sell Lucky to Jupe. Emerald is upset by this decision, but OJ reassures her that he plans to buy Lucky back when he has the money to do so. It’s a transaction that OJ and Jupe have done before, so Jupe is aware that his ownership of Lucky will probably be temporary.

Jupe knows about OJ’s financial problems and has been offering to buy OJ and Emerald’s ranch, but so far the offer has been declined. Later in the movie, OJ explains he’s not willing to give up Haywood Ranch because he wants to continue his father’s legacy: “He changed the industry. I can’t just let that go.”

It’s during this horse-selling transaction scene that viewers find out a little bit more about OJ and Emerald. OJ is the main caretaker and operator of the ranch. Emerald considers the ranch to be her “side job,” but she doesn’t really have a permanent career, because she jumps around from job to job as her main source of income. Emerald is also the “partier” of these two siblings: She likes to vape and is open about her fondness of smoking marijuana.

The siblings have some unspoken resentment about responsibilities for the ranch, as well as unresolved feelings about the death of their father. Later in the movie, Emerald confesses to OJ that when they were children, she was jealous when their father asked OJ to help train a Haywood family-owned horse named Jean Jacket, a horse that Emerald says she hoped would be the very first horse she would train and own. Get ready to roll your eyes: Later in the movie, the outer space entity in “Nope” is given the name Jean Jacket.

Emerald is openly queer or a lesbian, because she often dates women she works with or meets through her jobs. OJ mildly scolds Emerald about it because he thinks it’s unprofessional for her to mix her love life with her work life. Emerald brushes off his concerns. Meanwhile, as an example of how “Nope” doesn’t have a lot of character development, nothing is ever mentioned about OJ’s love life or anything about his life that isn’t about the ranch.

As for Jupe, he has an interesting background that is sloppily explored in “Nope.” Jupe’s main claim to fame as a child actor in the 1990s was playing a supporting character named Jupiter in a big hit movie called “Kid Sheriff” and then starring in a TV comedy series called “Gordy’s Home,” which was on the air from 1996 to 1998. In the meeting that Jupe has with OJ and Emerald, Jupe shows them a secret room where he keeps “Kid Sheriff” memorabilia. Jupe proudly mentions that a Dutch couple paid him $50,000 just so the couple could spend a night in this room.

Jupe’s experience with “Gordy’s Home” is what led him to quit being an actor. In “Gordy’s Home,” Jupe played an adopted child in a white family of two parents and an older sister. The family had a pet chimp named Gordy, and a lot of the show’s comedy revolved around this monkey’s antics.

Something shocking and traumatic happened one day while filming an episode of “Gordy’s Home.” And as an adult, Jupe still doesn’t want to talk about it, based on how he reacts when it’s quickly mentioned in a conversation between Jupe and OJ. What happened on that fateful day on the set of “Gordy’s Home” was big news. And this incident is shown as a flashback in “Nope.”

However, the way this flashback is dropped into “Nope” is so random and out-of-place, it’s very mishandled. This flashback is then never referred to or explained again in the movie. It’s a suspenseful scene, but it almost has no bearing on the overall story of “Nope” and seems to be in the movie only for some shock value.

It doesn’t take long for “Nope” to show the UFO (a generic-looking saucer-shaped object), which is first seen by OJ when he’s at the ranch. After he tells Emerald about it (his description is vague, because OJ is written as someone who’s barely articulate), Emerald immediately thinks they should try to film the UFO so they can get rich and famous from the footage.

And so, Emerald and OJ go to Fry’s Electronics to stock up on video surveillance equipment. Fry’s Electronics and the company logo get so much screen time in “Nope,” it’s brand placement overload. (All of this promotion of Fry’s Electronics in “Nope” is not going to do Fry’s Electronics much good anyway. In real life, Fry’s Electronics went out of business in 2021, the same year that “Nope” was filmed.)

At the store, OJ and Emerald meet sales clerk Angel Torres (played by Brandon Perea), who is overly talkative and curious about why OJ and Emerald are getting so much video surveillance equipment. Angel correctly guesses that it’s because OJ and Emerald want to film a UFO, but OJ and Emerald deny it. Angel also happens to be the Fry’s employee who delivers the equipment and helps install it. And you know what that means: Angel eventually finds out the truth, and he teams up with OJ and Emerald in their quest.

Angel is prominently featured in “Nope,” but he’s another example of an underwritten character in the movie. Viewers will learn nothing about Angel except that he was recently dumped by an actress ex-girlfriend named Rebecca Diaz, who was in a relationship with him for four years. Angel overshares this information the first time that he meets OJ and Emerald while lamenting that Rebecca broke up with him to star in a TV series on The CW network. OJ and Emerald don’t care, and neither will viewers of “Nope.”

Angel also goes on a mini-rant about how he doesn’t like how UFOs are now expected to be called UAPs (unidentified aerial phenomena), because he likes the term UFO more. And once again: OJ and Emerald don’t care, and neither will viewers of “Nope.” Angel isn’t too annoying, but he will get on some viewers’ nerves because of his condescending, know-it-all attitude.

Without going into too many details, “Nope” makes some weird decisions on what technology is used to visually document the UFO. Even with a lot of modern digital technology at their disposal, the people in this UFO-sighting group use some very outdated and clunky cameras that require film. The explanation provided is very phony and overly contrived.

Apparently, the “Nope” filmmakers thought it would like cool to have the characters using retro cameras that require film, even though film could be ruined a lot easier than digital footage. It makes no sense, except to add unnecessary hassles for the people trying to visually document this UFO. And yes, there’s a scene where a camera’s film needs to be inconveniently changed at a pivotal moment.

It should come as no surprise that the alien life form that’s hovering in the sky abducts living beings. The way this alien life form looks is not very original at all. However, even these abduction scenes are handled in an idiotic way in “Nope.” And none of it is truly terrifying.

There’s a scene where 40 people are abducted at the same time, but the abduction is mostly suggested and shown in brief flashes. This mass abduction makes the news. However, “Nope” has no realistic depictions of the huge investigations and military reactions that would ensue, or how much of a circus the abduction scene would be for the media and curiosity seekers.

When Emerald goes back to the abduction scene later in the movie, the place is deserted, and she has free access to the place, with no law enforcement, military, security personnel or media in sight of this notorious crime scene. It’s all just so stupid. And it’s very easy to predict which characters will survive during this mess, based on how often and how close the alien life form “chases” certain characters out in open fields (making them easy targets), but the alien life form never abducts them.

But the worst plot hole of all is that viewers are supposed to believe that for a certain period of time, only OJ and Emerald have witnessed this giant UFO that appears numerous times in the sky and would actually be seen for miles. It’s as if the “Nope” filmmakers want viewers to think that the only people who can see the UFO in the sky during these times are either at the ranch or looking at the ranch’s closed-circuit live surveillance footage, which Angel does because he’s nosy. It’s pathetic storytelling.

“Nope” also has pretentiously titled chapters, such as “Ghost” (named after the ranch’s white horse that doesn’t do anything but run away and come back a few times), “Clover,” “Gordy” and “Jean Jacket.” There’s not a consistent through line for these chapters, which are as haphazard as a mismatched jigsaw puzzle. The chapter titled “Gordy” is the one that shows the tragic incident that happened on the set of “Gordy’s Home.”

“Nope” has a few moments that effectively build tension for viewers to wonder what’s going to happen next. (There’s also a fake jump scare scene that would have been more interesting if it were real jump scare in the story.) But as a horror movie, “Nope” fails miserably to be frightening. There are parts of this movie that are so boring, some viewers will fall asleep. Don’t expect “Nope” to give a reason or a purpose for any life forms that come from outer space. In fact, don’t expect “Nope” to have a reason to exist other than to make blockbuster money and fool people into thinking that it’s a high-quality, entertaining movie.

Universal Pictures will release “Nope” in U.S. cinemas on July 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Lightyear,’ starring the voices of Chris Evans, Keke Palmer, Taika Waititi, Dale Soules, Peter Sohn, Uzo Aduba and James Brolin

June 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from bottom left: Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), Izzy Hawthorne (voiced by Keke Palmer), Mo Morrison (voiced by Taika Waititi), Darby Steele (voiced by Dale Soules) and Buzz Lightyear (voiced of Chris Evans) in “Lightyear” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

“Lightyear”

Directed by Angus MacLane

Culture Representation: Taking place in various part of the universe, the animated film “Lightyear” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing people and robots connected in some way to travel in outer space.

Culture Clash: In this prequel to the “Toy Story” movies, heroic astronaut Buzz Lightyear tries to make things right when he causes an accident that strands several human beings on a foreign planet that is frequently under attack.

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Toy Story” movie fans, “Lightyear” will appeal primarily to people interested in animated films about time travel in outer space, but should be prepared for a plot that’s more convoluted than the average family-oriented animated film.

Buzz Lightyear (voiced of Chris Evans) and Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) in “Lightyear” (Image courtesy of Disney/Pixar)

In the animated film “Lightyear,” the plot about time travel in outer space often gets messy, but the movie has good messages about teamwork and confronting the past without dwelling on the past. The movie’s title character is astronaut Buzz Lightyear, who became the basis of a talking toy character that is one of the main stars of the “Toy Story” series. “Lightyear” is the movie that shows his origin story and shows why the movie resulted in Buzz becoming a popular toy. It’s a “movie within a movie” premise that has some stumbling blocks, but it works out well enough to be entertaining overall for people who enjoy animated films that take place in outer space.

Directed by Angus MacLane (who co-wrote the “Lightyear” screenplay with Jason Headley), “Lightyear” could easily be a stand-alone movie that doesn’t require anyone to see any of the “Toy Story” films. That’s because, with the exception of Buzz and villain Emperor Zurg (who was first seen in “Toy Story 2”), all of the characters in “Lightyear” are being introduced to movie audiences for the first time. Tim Allen is the voice of Buzz in the “Toy Story” movies. Chris Evans is the voice of Buzz in “Lightyear,” which depicts a young-man version of Buzz in the beginning of movie. It’s a seamless transition, considering that the Buzz in “Lightyear” is not really the same Buzz who’s in the “Toy Story” movies.

The opening scene of “Lightyear” shows that Buzz is part of an exploratory mission in outer space where he and his fellow astronauts from Earth visit other planets in a spaceship nicknamed The Turnip, because Buzz thinks the ship looks like a “root vegetable.” The Turnip has an on-board computer called IVAN (voiced by Mary McDonald-Lewis), which has the type of artificial intelligence that can have conversations with people. Buzz is an astronaut called a Space Ranger, whose duties including peacekeeping and law enforcement in the universe.

Buzz and his commander Alisha Hawthorne (voiced by Uzo Aduba) are part of a crew of more than 1,000 scientists and technicians who are heading back to Earth for what they think has been a successful mission. They are about 4.2 million light years away from home when disaster strikes. Their space vessel picks up a signal that there’s a new planet called T’Kani Prime that hasn’t been explored yet for possible untapped resources. Buzz becomes curious about this unknown planet, so he makes the fateful decision to take a detour to visit T’Kani Prime.

The explorers find out too late that it’s an extremely hostile planet with dangerous vines and giant bugs that attack. While under attack, The Turnip sustains some damage, including damage to the hyper-speed crystal that allows the ship to travel to other dimensions. Buzz, Alisha and most of their crew survive, but they are now stranded in this strange and unwelcome world.

Up until this point, Buzz was an overconfident (and some might say arrogant) Space Ranger. However, he feels humility and tremendous guilt over his colossal error in judgment. He vows to make things right and to find a way to get everyone back home to Earth. But the hyper-speed crystal keeps malfunctioning and isn’t working at the speed it used to have. Buzz worries that this malfunction might leave everyone permanently stranded.

After every attempt to use the malfunctioning hyper-speed crystal with The Turnip in outer space, a dejected Buzz has to return back to T’Kani Prime. However, he finds out the first time this happens that four minutes of his time in outer space equal four years of time on T’Kani Prime. And so, every time Buzz comes back from a failed hyper-speed attempt, years have passed, while Buzz does not age at that same pace. Buzz also finds out that the faster he flies into outer space, the further into the future he travels.

After one of his early attempts to get back to hyper speed, Buzz returns to T’Kani Prime and is assigned a cat robot named Sox (voiced by Peter Sohn), who is described in the movie as an “emotional transition robot.” Sox is intuitive and acts as an all-around helper for physical tasks, getting encyclopedia information, and offering words of advice and comfort. During a few of the action scenes, Sox also has a recurring catch phrase/joke about buying time to stall any antagonists in the scene.

Buzz finds out after coming back from a failed hyper-speed trip that Alisha has fallen in love and gotten engaged to a female crew member named Kiko. He’s happy for the couple, but he also feels sad that the lives of other people are passing him by, and he still hasn’t found a way to get everyone back to Earth. Buzz’s frustration at not being able to achieve his goals as quickly as he thought he would is the movie’s obvious message about how life can have unexpected setbacks.

As shown in a montage sequence, Alisha and Kiko get married, and they have a son together. Their son gets married and has a daughter named Izzy (voiced by Keira Hairston), who from a young age, has been determined to follow in her beloved grandmother Alisha’s footsteps as a commander Space Ranger. As for what eventually happens to Alisha, that’s easy to predict, considering that T’Kani Prime is not a planet that can stop the aging process.

None of this is really spoiler information, because the majority of “Lightyear” is about what happens when Buzz ends up going on a mission with Izzy when she becomes a young woman (voiced by Keke Palmer) and other members of a motley crew of explorers. (This plot is in the “Lightyear” movie trailers.) What happened to cause this mission?

The stranded community’s gruff new commander Colonel Burnside (voiced by Isiah Whitlock Jr.) abruptly informs Buzz that Buzz’s most recent mission was his last one, because the program is being shut down. As part of the shutdown, Sox will be decommissioned and probably become part of a robot scrap heap. The stranded scientists have built a laser dome over their community for protection, because they’ve resigned themselves to thinking that they might never be able to leave T’Kani Prime—at least not in their lifetime.

Colonel Burnside orders that Sox get taken away from Buzz. However, Buzz can’t bear the thought of Sox “dying,” so he escapes with Sox in The Turnip. Through a series of circumstances, Buzz and Sox come back to T’Kani Prime, 22 years later. Izzy is now a young woman who’s part of a group of wannabe Space Rangers called the Junior Zap Patrol. And the planet has come under attack by giant robots, led by an entity named Emperor Zurg (voiced by James Brolin), who is somewhat of a generic villain.

Guess who’s going on a mission to save the planet and possibly the universe? Buzz and Sox join forces with Junior Zap Control members Izzy, goofy Mo Morrison (voiced by Taika Waititi) and sarcastic Darby Steel (voiced by Dale Soules) to often awkward results. That’s because the Junior Zap Control is untrained and often incompetent. And even though Izzy wants to be a Space Ranger, she’s terrified of being in outer space.

“Lightyear” has a few surprises, but the movie mostly sticks to a familiar formula in “heroes who save the world” sci-fi/fantasy stories. One of the movie’s greatest strengths is that it introduces characters with memorable personalities and quirks, with Sox being the one that viewers might be talking about the most. Some viewers might think Sox is adorable, while other viewers might think Sox is annoying. Either way, this character was clearly designed by the “Lightyear” filmmakers to sell Sox toys and other merchandise in the real world.

“Lightyear” falters in having a few characters that are somewhat useless or too predictable. Supporting characters such as Airman Díaz (voiced by Efren Ramirez) and Featheringhamstan (voiced by Bill Hader) seem very two-dimensional and underdeveloped. Some of the jokes are very simple-minded. And all of Buzz’s zipping back and forth between eras and dimensions doesn’t leave enough room for Buzz to slow down and develop relationships with other humans where he can connect with them without missing several years out of their lives.

The movie’s world building of T’Kani Prime is more focused on what the planet looks like, rather than the sociology of the planet. However, there’s one interesting dietary quirk that’s revealed about T’Kani Prime that different from how things are done on Earth: The descendants of the stranded community have developed a custom of preparing and eating sandwiches with bread on the inside instead of the outside.

“Lightyear” has the distinction of being the first Pixar Animation Studios movie made specifically for IMAX screens. The visuals are definitely up to Pixar standards, but the visual effects in “Lightyear” are not really game-changing or extraordinary. The voice actors bring a lot of spark to their roles, even if some of the movie’s dialogue is unremarkable and the plot gets a little muddled.

Some viewers will like the time traveling aspects of “Lightyear,” while others will not. And a big twist revealed in the last third of the movie could be divisive to audiences, depending on people’s expectations on how the movie’s characters should be. “Lightyear” spends so much effort trying to be way ahead of the audience, some viewers will feel annoyed by being expected to keep up with all the time jumping, while other viewers will be up for the challenge and enjoy the ride.

Disney/Pixar Animation Studios will release “Lightyear” in U.S. cinemas on June 17, 2022. Disney+ will premiere the movie on August 3, 2022.

Review: ‘Alice’ (2022), starring Keke Palmer, Common, Gaius Charles, Alicia Witt, Jonny Lee Miller and Natasha Yvette Williams

January 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Keke Palmer in “Alice” (Photo by Eliza Morse/Vertical Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

“Alice” (2022)

Directed by Krystin Ver Linden

Culture Representation: Taking place in Georgia, the dramatic film “Alice” features a cast of African American and white characters (with some Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A young woman who has lived life as a slave in the 1800s antebellum South escapes from her plantation into a world where it’s 1973.

Culture Audience: “Alice” will appeal mainly to people who are interested in movies about slavery and civil rights in the U.S., but the movie is a poorly made story that terribly bungles its social justice intentions.

Keke Palmer and Common in “Alice” (Photo by Eliza Morse/Vertical Entertainment/Roadside Attractions)

“Alice” might have been intended to be a passionate social justice movie, but it’s racial exploitation junk that’s tone-deaf, cringe-inducing and downright insulting to African Americans. Because of a certain twist in the movie’s awful plot, “Alice” is going to get inevitable comparisons to the 2020 horror misfire “Antebellum.” Both movies are about a young African American woman who wants to escape from a slave plantation, and she finds out that her life isn’t what she thought it was. And both movies are bottom-of-the-barrel garbage.

Written and directed by Krystin Ver Linden, “Alice” is a slow-moving train wreck of a film that spends the first third showing repetitive scenes of slaves enduring abuse. “Alice” claims to be based on true events, but slavery abuse is the only realistic thing about this trashy sham of a film. “Alice” had its world premiere at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, and it’s proof that even a prestigious festival such as Sundance can sometimes choose crappy movies to showcase. At least “Alice” showed some restraint in the violent scenes, compared to “Antebellum,” which seemed to revel in showing scenes of slaves getting beaten, raped, strangled, and viciously murdered.

The title character in “Alice” is a house slave in Georgia who is shown getting secretly married to another slave named Joseph (played by Gaius Charles) in an early scene in the movie. Alice (played by Keke Palmer), who’s as feisty as she can be under these enslaved conditions, wants to lead an escape plan for the plantation’s slaves who want to run away. It’s exactly like what the female protagonist in “Antebellum” planned too. The opening scene of “Alice” actually shows Alice running away in the woods, where she stops and then lets out a scream. The movie then circles back by showing this scene again after viewers see what led up to this escape.

Alice wants to escape, but some of the other slaves on the plantation are more hesitant, including Joseph’s mother Ruth (played by Natasha Yvette Williams), who warns Alice that there are white men stationed everywhere who are ready to catch and possibly murder runaway slaves. Everything about the plantation is run like it’s sometime in the early 1800s, when slavery was legal in the U.S., and electricity hadn’t been invented yet. The plantation owner is a predictably cruel and sadistic racist named Paul Bennet (played by Jonny Lee Miller), who rapes Alice and forces her to read to him. Paul tells Alice that her reading duties are the only reason why he’s allowed her to know how to read.

Paul’s ailing mother Mrs. Bennet (played by Madelon Curtis) lives in the same house, where she’s often bedridden. She doesn’t have a first name in the movie, and she’s a useless character. The only memorable thing that happens with Mrs. Bennet is when Alice goes in Mrs. Bennet’s room and asks her in a fearful voice, “What’s out there?” Mrs. Bennet replies, “The whole world. Don’t you see?” Paul also has a son named Daniel (played by Jaxon Goldenberg), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, and an ex-wife named Rachel (played by Alicia Witt), who is not seen until much later in the movie.

Alice and Joseph are both brutally punished on separate occasions for various things. Paul has a right-hand man named Aaron (played by Craig Stark), who carries out a lot of the torture. At one point, Alice is tied up and her head is placed in a muzzle. You can bet that this punishment will be enacted again on someone else later in the movie. It’s all so predictable.

The plantation is all that Alice and the other slaves have experienced of the world. However, there’s a major clue that there’s something different about this plantation. The clue is revealed when Alice goes by herself to dig in the woods, as if she’s looking for something buried there.

She finds a jacket and a cigarette lighter buried in these woods. This cigarette lighter is one of the movie’s biggest clues indicating there’s going to be a “time-traveling” part of the story. A more subtle clue is a scene in the house, where Alice picks up the Leo Tolstoy novel “Anna Karenina” and looks at the cover. “Anna Karenina” was first published in 1878, which was 15 years after the Emancipation Proclamation that made slavery illegal in the United States.

After Alice escapes from the plantation, she finds herself running out of the woods into the middle of an expressway, where she almost gets hit by a delivery truck. The driver’s name is Frank (played by Common), who works with his brother at a farm that they co-founded named Florence Farms, in Springfield, Georgia. Frank stops and helps a terrified Alice into his truck. He says he’ll take her to a nearby hospital when he finds out that Alice seems very confused by her surroundings.

Frank tells Alice that she’s in Georgia, and that the year is 1973. And so, there’s a long stretch of the movie where Alice is frightened or curious about why she ended up in a future century. Alice has no last name and no birth certificate. But she hasn’t forgotten about the past and the people she left behind.

In the hospital waiting room, Alice sees Jet magazine with Pam Grier on the cover and Rolling Stone magazine with Diana Ross on the cover. Grier and Ross both have Afro hairstyles in these photos. Guess who’s going to change her hair into an Afro later in the movie? It’s a scene that looks as phony as the Afro wig that Palmer wears when Alice decides she wants to be the next Angela Davis.

Because, yes, this movie is about a slave who becomes a 1973 Black Power warrior. And it’s depicted in the most heavy-handed and ludicrous ways possible. When Frank finds out that the hospital is going to send Alice to a psychiatric facility, he takes her instead to the house that used to be owned by his late mother. And what a coincidence: His mother spent time in a psychiatric facility too, so Frank tells Alice that it’s definitely not the “happy place” that the hospital described it as.

And what do you know: Frank and his mother were civil rights activists. And so, the house is filled with books, magazines and newspapers where Alice can get caught up on what’s been happening to African Americans in the 100+ years that she skipped on the way to almost being hit by Frank’s truck and not knowing that slavery was abolished. Palmer does some melodramatic acting when Alice cries after finding out about the Emancipation Proclamation.

And somehow, when Alice turns on the TV, she just happens to see a montage of clips of Malcolm X, Fred Hampton and Davis giving passionate speeches about black people’s empowerment. Alice also learns to use a phone, which leads to one of the dumbest parts of the movie: Alice goes through the phone book to try to find someone from her past who would be long dead if Alice really thought that she came from the 1800s.

This “Alice” movie has a semi-obsession with showing Grier as the prototype of what Alice is supposed to look like, because there are images of Grier throughout the film that almost fetishize her. The first time that Alice and Frank go to a movie together, it’s to see Grier’s 1973 blaxploitation action film “Coffy.” Clips from the movie are shown of gun-toting Grier going on a rampage in revealing clothing and snarling about how she’s going to go after white people.

Not surprisingly, at one point in the movie, Afroed Alice is shown ripping up her slave dress and then strutting in the type of midriff-baring top and tight leather pants that Grier would wear in one of the many blaxploitation action flicks starring Grier in the 1970s. This movie is so badly written, if it had any subtlety, Alice would stomp all over it in her 1973 platform heels.

While all of this is happening in Alice’s “transformation,” music that’s supposed to sound like funky 1970s black music keeps playing as part of the movie’s soundtrack. An exception is a scene where Alice changes her hair into an Afro. In this scene, the music soundtrack blares Diana Ross & the Supremes’ 1966 hit “Reflections,” as a “too on the nose” emphasis pointing out that Alice is a woman without a home and seemingly without an identity, but she’s a Strong Black Woman who’s going to find her identity and a way back home. (A line in the song’s chorus is “Reflections of the way life used to be.”)

As soon as Alice tells Frank she wants to go back to the plantation to rescue her husband and the other slaves, you know where this horrendous dreck is going. And just like in “Antebellum,” there’s a scene involving fire as part of a revenge plot. “Alice” is such an idiotic movie, there’s a scene with a raging fire that’s rapidly spreading, but people just stand around and don’t try to escape.

Palmer and Common look like they’re making sincere efforts to be convincing in the “thriller” aspects of the movie, but there’s no thrill to be found when everything is telegraphed in such a clumsy and racially condescending way. The other cast members in the movie either play caricatures or have characters with no real personalities. Alice is not even written as a fully developed person. She’s just a stereotypical avatar for what racially condescending filmmakers think African American women are supposed to be like when confronting oppression and racism.

The atrocious dialogue in this movie would be almost laughable if it wasn’t in a movie that’s supposed to be about a very serious subject. For example, Alice declares to Frank at one point: “Just so you know: Doing the right thing is never wrong.” In another scene, Alice confronts slave master Paul’s racist ex-wife Rachel, who screams at Alice: “You’ll never understand freedom!” Alice shouts back, “I am freedom!”

Usually when a movie badly mishandles the issues of slavery or racism against black people, it’s because the production team consists mostly of people who aren’t black. The filmmakers’ hiring practices also show that they don’t care about working with enough black people on a project that is about racism against black people. That’s definitely the case with “Alice.”

“Alice” writer/director Ver Linden and nearly all of the behind-the-scenes crew she hired for “Alice” are white. Most of the black people hired for the movie were actors playing slaves. “Alice” star Palmer has the title of executive producer, which is a title given to someone who might have some creative input but not any say in how the movie was financed or who got to direct the project. That’s the job of someone with the title of producer. And for “Alice,” the only person with the producer title is a white man named Peter Lawson.

Normally, it would not be necessary to point out the race of the filmmakers in a movie review. But in this case, when slavery and racism against black people are being used in a story to sell this horrible film, it’s important for audiences to know who’s responsible for this racially exploitative mess. Everyone involved in making “Alice” should be ashamed of themselves.

Some people might automatically think that any movie that condemns racism has to be a good movie. Some people might think they’ll get Black Lives Matter credibility if they recommend seeing a movie like “Alice.” The problem is that “Alice” is neither a good movie, nor is it a movie that genuinely cares about treating issues about racial equality and civil rights with any real respect. “Alice” is just a tacky cash grab that uses the trauma of slavery and racism as a way for filmmakers to make money from black people’s real-life pain.

Vertical Entertainment and Roadside Attractions will release “Alice” in select U.S. cinemas on March 18, 2022.

2020 MTV Video Music Awards: Keke Palmer hosting; performers include Miley Cyrus, Lady Gaga, Ariana Grande, The Weeknd, Roddy Ricch, BTS, Doja Cat, J Balvin, Maluma, CNCO

August 24, 2020

Keke Palmer (Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for IFP)

Miley Cyrus is set to perform her new single, “Midnight Sky,” which she released to rave reviews.

Lady Gaga will bring her chart-topping album, Chromatica, to life at this year’s 2020 “VMAs” for the world premiere televised performance of her latest release. This marks her first return to the “VMAs” stage since 2013.

Ariana Grande to join Lady Gaga for performance of “Rain on Me.”

First-time performances from BTS and Roddy Ricch; second-ever appearance from The Weeknd, who last took the “VMAs” stage in 2015.

This will be BTS’ TV debut of their new, English-only single, “Dynamite,” set to be released on August 21.

The following performers are also 2020 “VMAs” nominees:

Ariana Grande: 9 nominations (Video of the Year, Song of the Year, Best Collaboration [“Rain on Me”], Best Collaboration [“Stuck with U”]. Best Pop, Best Music Video From Home, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Choreography)

Lady Gaga: 9 nominations (Video of the Year, Artist of the Year Song of the Year, Best Collaboration, Best Pop, Best Quarantine Performance, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, Best Choreography)

The Weeknd: 6 nominations (Video of the Year, Artist of the Year, Best R&B Video, Best Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Editing)

J Balvin4 nominations (Best Collaboration, Best Latin x3)

BTS3 nominations (Best Pop, Best K-Pop, Best Choreography)

Roddy Ricch3 nominations (Song of the Year, PUSH Best New Artist, Best Hip-Hop Video)

Doja Cat3 nominations (Song of the Year, PUSH Best New Artist, Best Direction

CNCO2 nominations (Best Quarantine Performance, Best Choreography)

Maluma1 nomination (Best Latin Video)

Chloe x Halle, Jack Harlow, Lewis Capaldi, Tate McRae and Machine Gun Kelly featuring Travis Barker and Blackbear, are set to perform during the 2020 “VMAs” Pre-Show airing on Sunday, August 30 at 6:30pm ET/PT. Hosted by Nessa and Jamila Mustafa, the 90-minute event will include jaw-dropping performances, celebrity interviews and coast-to-coast coverage from celebrity correspondents, Kevan Kenney and Travis Mills.

This year’s show will honor “Everyday Heroes: Frontline Medical Workers,” brought to you by EXTRA® Gum, celebrating the best performances by first responders – doctors, nurses, and other frontline medical workers – who kept everyone going with their impromptu and off-the-cuff performances. Nominees include:

Dr. Elvis Francois and Dr. William Robinson – “Imagine”

Dr. Nate Wood – “Lean on Me”

Jefferson University Hospital’s Swab Squad – “Level Up”

Jason “Tik Tok Doc” Campbell

Lori Marie Key – “Amazing Grace”

PUSH Best New Artist, presented by Chime BankingThe top three finalists include: Doja Cat, Lewis Capaldi and YUNGBLUD. Fans can vote for their favorite artist by direct messaging @VMAs on Twitter until August 28.

Social Categories: 

BEST GROUP: Fans can vote until August 26 for “Best Group” by swiping up on MTV’s Instagram Story. Nominees include:

5 Seconds of Summer

The 1975

BLACKPINK

BTS

Chloe x Halle

CNCO

Little Mix

MONSTA X

Now United

Twenty One Pilots

SONG OF THE SUMMER: Starting August 26, fans can vote for the “Song of the Summer” in a bracket-style voting on MTV’s Instagram Story. Nominees include:

BLACKPINK – “How You Like That”

Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion – “WAP”

DaBaby featuring Roddy Ricch – “Rockstar”

DJ Khaled featuring Drake – “Popstar”

Doja Cat – “Say So”

Dua Lipa – “Break My Heart”

Harry Styles – “Watermelon Sugar”

Jack Harlow – “Whats Poppin”

Lil Baby featuring 42 Dugg – “We Paid”

Megan Thee Stallion featuring Beyoncé – “Savage (Remix)”

Miley Cyrus – “Midnight Sky”

Pop Smoke featuring 50 Cent & Roddy Ricch – “The Woo”

SAINt JHN – “Roses”

Saweetie – “Tap In”

Taylor Swift – “Cardigan”

The Weeknd – “Blinding Lights”

NOMINATIONSAriana Grande and Lady Gaga lead this year’s nominations with nine nods each, closely followed by Billie Eilish and The Weeknd with six nominations. Full nominee list here.

VOTINGFans can vote for their favorites across 15 gender-neutral categories, including “Video of the Year,” “Artist of the Year,” “Best Quarantine Performance,” and more by visiting vma.mtv.com through August 23, 2020. Voting for “PUSH Best New Artist, Presented by Chime Banking,” will remain open until August 28.

PRODUCTION CREDITS: Bruce Gillmer and Den of Thieves co-founder Jesse Ignjatovic are Executive Producers for the 2020 “VMAs.” Barb Bialkowski is Co-Executive Producer. Alicia Portugal and Jackie Barba serve as Executives in Charge of Production. Wendy Plaut is Executive in Charge of Celebrity Talent. Lisa Lauricella is Music Talent Executive.

SPONSORSOfficial sponsors of the 2020 “MTV Video Music Awards” include Burger King®, Chime Banking, Coors Light, EXTRA® Gum, and PEPSI® .

Review: ‘2 Minutes of Fame,’ starring Jay Pharoah and Katt Williams

June 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

RonReaco Lee and Jay Pharoah in “2 Minutes of Fame” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Codeblack Films/Lionsgate Films)

“2 Minutes of Fame”

Directed by Leslie Small

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and Birmingham, Alabama, the comedy film “2 Minutes of Fame” has a predominantly African American cast (with a few white people and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring stand-up comedian has to decide between chasing his dreams or getting a “real job” to help support his family, and he gets entangled in a feud with a superstar comedian.

Culture Audience: “2 Minutes of Fame” will appeal primarily to people who like simple, predictable and often-raunchy comedies.

Keke Palmer, Jonny Berryman, Jay Pharoah and RonReaco Lee in “2 Minutes of Fame” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Codeblack Films/Lionsgate Films)

A lowbrow, low-budget comedy film like “2 Minutes of Fame” is usually so terrible that there’s hardly anything funny about it. But “2 Minutes of Fame,” despite being very predictable, has an endearing sweetness at the core of its raunchy humor. The movie (directed by Leslie Small) works best when it focuses on the competitive world of stand-up comedy rather than the relationship/family problems of the protagonist.

In “2 Minutes of Fame,” Jay Pharoah portrays Deandre McDonald, an aspiring stand-up comedian who’s been struggling to make a living in Birmingham, Alabama. Even though Deandre has 1 million followers on social media (he has his own YouTube comedy channel), his live-in girlfriend Sky (played by Keke Palmer) is carrying the financial weight of being the main income earner for their household. In addition to working full-time at a hospital, Sky is a nursing student. Deandre and Sky have a son named Jaylin (played by Jonny Berryman), who’s about 9 or 10 years old.

The movie begins with Deandre making a YouTube video ridiculing a superstar comedian named Marques (played by Katt Williams) who used to be respected and edgy but Marques has currently been making horrible movies that have unflattering stereotypes of African Americans. How big of a star is Marques? He can command $20 million a movie, but he’s the very definition of a “sellout,” since his movies make him look like a complete buffoon.

On his YouTube channel, Deandre makes fun of the movie trailer for Marques’ latest garbage movie, which is called “Secret Service Man.” In the trailer, Marques plays a bumbling Secret Service agent who takes a non-fatal bullet for a U.S. president who’s an obvious parody of Donald Trump. (Darrell Hammond plays the president in a very brief cameo.) Deandre has this reaction to the trailer by commenting on Marques’ role in the film: “How can I make the most money while selling out our people while still being terrible?”

Deandre’s video goes viral (116,000 views in one day), and Marques finds out about it. When a lackey asks Marques if they should get revenge on Deandre, Marques says Deandre isn’t worth the trouble because Deandre only has 1 million followers on social media, while Marques has 30 million. But will Deandre and Marques cross paths in real life? Of course they will.

Before that happens, Deandre is miserable and bored in his day job working as a clerk at a supermarket that resembles Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. He’d rather tell stand-up comedy jokes to customers than stock the shelves. When his manager Zena (played by Jess Hilarious) tries to get Deandre to go back to work, he and Zena get in a food fight where they throw fruit and vegetables at each other. Needless to say, Deandre gets fired.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Deandre to lose his job because he and Sky are running out of money. Their son Jaylin is taunted by his peers in his piano class for not having a piano at home. Deandre has been behind on a lot of payments, but he’s too proud to admit to anyone outside of his family that he’s nearly broke.

When Deandre picks Jaylin up from a piano class session, Jaylin’s piano teacher Ms. Ellyn (played by Valery Ortiz) tries to tactfully tell Deandre that Jaylin has fallen behind the rest of the students because Jaylin doesn’t have a piano at home to use for practice. Ms. Ellyn (whose hair is styled with huge bouffant bangs) could have been trying to be helpful, but she comes across as condescending, and Deandre is insulted.

“You need help with those bangs in front of your face,” he angrily tells Ms. Ellyn. While he storms out he also calls her a “broke-ass Rosie Perez” and a “Puerto Rican version of Janelle Monáe.” But getting Jaylin a piano is not going to happen at the moment because Deandre and Sky have bigger bills to pay. Not surprisingly, Sky is furious when she finds out that Deandre lost his job at the supermarket.

However, there’s a sliver of hope for Deandre to make money doing what he loves. His wisecracking best friend Eddie (played by RonReaco Lee) has surprised Deandre by telling him that he entered Deandre into a talent contest for aspiring stand-up comedians called Laugh Out Loud Comedy Showcase. The winner of the grand prize will get to go on a Laugh Out Loud world comedy tour with established comedians. The contest takes place in Los Angeles at the Laugh Out Loud nightclub, which will pay the travel/hotel expenses of the contestants from outside the Los Angeles area.

When Deandre finds out he’s been selected as one of the contestants, Sky is skeptical that Deandre can win the contest. She wants him to stay home and find another job instead. Deandre wants to go to Los Angeles and pursue his dream. Sky and Deandre get into a big argument about it. She gives Deandrea an ultimatum by saying that if he goes to Los Angeles, their relationship will probably be over when he gets back.

Deandre and Eddie go to L.A., but of course they face some major obstacles. Eddie (who’s been acting as Deandre’s manager) is horrified and embarrassed to find out that Deandre sold their first-class hotel accommodations, so they end up having to sleep in the vehicle that was provided for them on the trip. Next, they find out that Deandre’s got really stiff competition.

Luckily, he’s met someone who can help. Her name is Taylor (played by Andy Allo), who works as a hostess at the Laugh Out Loud comedy club where the contest is taking place. Taylor scores Deandre a last-minute late-night spot at another comedy club called the Comedy Basement, where he can try out his material before the contest.

Taylor and Deandre are immediately attracted to each other. He doesn’t tell her that he has a live-in girlfriend and son at home. All he’ll say about his relationship status is that “it’s complicated.” Will this cause problems later in the story? Of course it will.

The best parts of “2 Minutes of Fame” are the scenes involving the contest. The stand-up comedy scenes are realistic and the comedians are very funny. It’s obvious that the movie got real stand-up comedians (including Pharoah) instead of actors portraying stand-up comedians. That authenticity goes a long way.

Aside from jokes told on stage, “2 Minutes of Fame” also realistically addresses the generation gap between comedians who started their careers before social media existed and comedians who started their careers after social media existed. There’s a hilarious L.A. nightclub table conversation with Sinbad, Lunell and George Wallace (all playing themselves) talking with Marques about how many young comedians today think they can make it big just by being on YouTube instead of paying their dues in front of live audiences.

Sinbad comments on the days when he was a young comedian: “You know what a ‘follow’ used to be? Someone was going to kill you or [it meant] a sexual predator.” And in another scene, Taylor (who’s close to Deandre’s age) also agrees that the “old school” way is the better way to become a famous comedian, when she tells Deandre: “Y’all YouTubers don’t understand what an art stand-up is.”

The movie also does a good and sometimes hilarious job of addressing the racial and cultural issues that African American stand-up comedians face when they have to represent for their communities but not compromise their credibility by doing anything that would be considered “sell-out” or “race traitor” material. The movie also touches a little bit (but not enough) on the sexism that women experience in the male-dominated world of stand-up comedy. However, since the screenplay (written by Devon Shepard and Yamara Taylor) has a male protagonist and most of the cast members are men, it’s a pretty accurate reflection of today’s typical demographics for stand-up comedy.

All of the cast members do a good job with their roles. Pharoah’s Deandre character is kind of an irresponsible screw-up, but Pharoah makes him likable enough that his immaturity doesn’t become too grating. Williams is not everyone’s cup of tea, especially since some people find his speaking voice to be very annoying, but he’s believable as a jaded celebrity. Palmer does just fine in a somewhat typical role as an exasperated love partner.

“2 Minutes of Fame” is definitely not for very young children or people who are easily offended by cursing and vulgar humor. But for people who are mature enough and don’t mind this type of raunchiness, the movie gives a better-than-expected look at stand-up comedy on the nightclub level and has some genuine laugh-out-loud moments that will keep viewers reasonably entertained.

Lionsgate released “2 Minutes of Fame” on DVD, digital and VOD on June 16, 2020.

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