Review: ‘Deep Water’ (2022), starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas

March 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck in “Deep Water” (Photo by Claire Folger/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“Deep Water” (2022)

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the dramatic film “Deep Water” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A wealthy husband, who has an open marriage, becomes the main focus of suspicion when some of his wife’s lovers end up dead. 

Culture Audience: “Deep Water” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas, who are the main attractions in this frequently dull and formulaic crime thriller.

Jade Fernandez, Tracy Letts and Kristen Connolly in “Deep Water” (Photo by Claire Folger/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“Deep Water” is proof that it’s not enough to have good-looking people in a stylish-looking film. It has a basic mystery that’s not very suspenseful, in addition to monotonous mind games played by the central married couple. Perhaps most disappointing of all is that “Deep Water” does nothing new or clever in the seemingly endless stream of movies about marital infidelity that causes chaos in people’s lives.

“Deep Water” director Adrian Lyne has made a career out of these types of movies, with a filmography that includes 1987’s “Fatal Attraction,” 1993’s “Indecent Proposal” and 2002’s “Unfaithful,” his previous film before “Deep Water.” Zach Helm and Sam Levinson adapted the “Deep Water” screenplay from Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name. Unfortunately, the movie has a drastically different ending from the book. The movie’s conclusion is intended to be shocking, but it just falls flat.

Executives at 20th Century Studios obviously thought “Deep Water” was an embarrassing dud, because the movie’s theatrical release was cancelled. “Deep Water” was then sent straight to Hulu and other Disney-owned streaming services where Hulu is not available. It’s also not a good sign that the stars of “Deep Water” have distanced themselves from “Deep Water” by not doing any full-scale publicity and promotion for the movie.

Up until the ending, the “Deep Water” movie (which takes place in the early 2020s) adheres very closely to the book’s original story, with some modern updates and a change of location. Wealthy married couple Vic Van Allen (played by Ben Affleck) and Melinda Van Allen (played by Ana de Armas) live in New Orleans with their precocious 6-year-old daughter Trixie (played by Grace Jenkins), who has an interest in science and is somewhat fixated on the children’s song “Old McDonald.” (In the “Deep Water” book, the story takes place in a small, fictional U.S. town called Little Wesley.) The Van Allens seem to have a perfect life of privilege and leisure. Vic is a retired millionaire because he invented a computer chip that’s used in war drones. Melinda is a homemaker/socialite.

It’s common knowledge among Vic and Melinda’s close circle of friends that Vic and Melinda have an open marriage, although Vic and Melinda have never really come right out and told their friends the details of this arrangement. Melinda flaunts her extramarital affairs by inviting her lovers to the same parties where she and Vic will be. At these parties (the movie has several of these party scenes), Melinda openly flirts with her lovers and sometimes has sexual trysts with them at the parties. Vic ends up meeting these lovers and is mostly polite but distant with them.

Vic and Melinda’s close friends include musician bachelor Grant (played by Lil Rel Howery); married couple Mary Washington (played by Devyn A. Tyler) and Kevin Washington (played by Michael Scialabba); and married couple Jonas Fernandez (played by Dash Mihok) and Jen Fernandez (played by Jade Fernandez). Whenever these friends try to tactfully talk to Vic about Melinda indiscreetly showing off her lovers, Vic brushes off their concerns. Vic gives the impression that he doesn’t want to be a possessive and jealous husband, and that he and Melinda have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” agreement when it comes to any of her extramarital affairs.

During the course of the story, three of Melinda’s past and present lovers are shown in the movie: musician Joel Dash (played by Brendan Miller), who ends up moving away to New Mexico; lounge pianist Charlie De Lisle (played by Jacob Elordi), who has been giving piano lessons to Melinda; and real-estate developer Tony Cameron (played by Finn Wittrock), who is visiting the area to scout for some property. All three men are good-looking and younger than Vic, but Vic has a lot more money than they do. And at some point or another, all three of these lovers are separately invited into the Van Allen home for a social visit.

Melinda has apparently made it a habit to invite each of her extramarital lovers to parties and other social gatherings, but never so that all of the lovers are in the same place at the same time. At these events, Melinda introduces a lover as her “friend,” even though it’s obvious that he’s more than a friend. When Melinda and Vic are at these parties, Melinda spends more time and is more affectionate with her lovers than she is with her husband. Vic often just stands by and doesn’t confront her about it.

There are several scenes that show Melinda drunk at these parties, or coming home drunk, implying that she abuses alcohol. Some of the couple’s friends seem to feel sorry for Vic, because they think he doesn’t deserve to be a cuckold. More than once, Vic is told that he’s a “good guy” who’s well-respected in the community. Not much is told about Melinda’s background (she’s an immigrant who can speak English and Spanish), but several scenes in the movie show that Melinda thinks that she’s quite the seductress.

In the beginning of the movie, it’s mentioned that a man named Martin McCrae, who was one of Melinda’s lovers, has been missing for the past several weeks. Friends and acquaintances of the Van Allen spouses are gossiping that Vic could have had something to do with the disappearance. At a friend’s house party, where Melinda has invited Joel, the gossip goes into overdrive after Vic and Joel have a private conversation in the kitchen, and Vic tells Joel that he killed Martin. Joel can’t tell if Vic is joking or not, but he takes Vic’s comments as a threat, and he quickly leaves the party. Word soon spreads that Vic made this “confession,” and more people in the community begin to wonder if Vic could have murdered Martin.

Before Joel moves to New Mexico because of a job offer, he’s invited to dinner at the house of Vic and Melinda. Vic seems to delight in making Joel uncomfortable with snide remarks. Vic also makes backhanded insults at Melinda. When Vic and Joel are alone together, Vic once again tells Joel that he killed Martin by hitting Martin on the head with a hammer. However, Vic tries to make light of uneasy comments that he makes, by trying to pass them off as misguided sarcasm. Vic’s passive-aggressiveness is an obvious sign that Melinda’s extramarital affairs bother him.

Someone who doesn’t take Vic’s wisecracks lightly is fiction author/screenwriter Don Wilson (played by Tracy Letts), who has recently moved to the area. Don has had middling success by selling a few screenplays that haven’t been made into movies yet. One of these screenplays is about a man (whom Don based on his own personality/background) who uncovers a murder conspiracy in his town.

Vic and Melinda meet Don and Don’s much-younger wife Kelly Wilson (played by Kristen Connolly) at an outdoor party attended by many of the Van Allen couple’s friends. Don likes noir mysteries, so he fancies himself to be an amateur detective. Throughout the movie, Don lets it be known to anyone who’ll listen, including Vic, that he suspects that Vic has something to do with what happened to Martin, whose murdered body is later found shot to death.

Vic’s reputation appears to be saved when another man (who’s never seen in the movie) is arrested for Martin’s murder. However, Martin isn’t the only lover of Melinda’s who ends up dead. It’s enough to say that who’s responsible for the crimes is revealed about halfway through the movie. But even if that information didn’t happen until the end of the film, there are too many obvious clues. The only mystery in the story is if the guilty party will be caught.

One of the biggest failings of “Deep Water” is how it reveals almost nothing about how and why Vic and Melinda fell in love with each other, or even how long they’ve been married. Without this context, it might be difficult for a lot of viewers to care about this couple. Vic and Melinda’s marriage is presented as just a blank void, dressed up with a superficial parade of parties, squabbling and occasional sex. (Affleck and de Armas were a couple in real life when this movie was made, but they’ve since had a breakup that reportedly wasn’t very amicable.)

Vic and Melinda tell each other “I love you” several times, but viewers don’t see any credible passion or respect between these two spouses. The only thing that viewers will find out about what retired Vic likes to do in his free time at home is that he hangs out with his pet snails that he keeps in an aquarium room. The snails are supposed to be symbolic of how Vic acts in his marriage to Melinda.

It could be a marriage of convenience. It could be that Vic and Melinda don’t want the hassle of getting a divorce. They are also devoted parents to Trixie—Vic is more patient with Trixie than Melinda is—and these spouses might not want their child to grow up with divorced parents.

Regardless of the reasons why Vic and Melinda have decided to stay married to each other, “Deep Water” is more concerned with staging repetitive scenes where Melinda tries to make Vic jealous with her lovers, and then she tries to take his mind off of her affairs by getting Vic to have sex with her. Melinda also makes rude comments to Vic such as: “Joel might be dumb, but he makes me enjoy who I am,” and “If you were married to anyone else, you’d be so fucking bored. You’d kill yourself.”

In one of the movie’s party scenes, Vic makes an attempt to show Melinda that he’s attractive to other women when he does something he almost never does at a party: He dances. And he asks Don’s wife Kelly to be his dance partner, as they twirl together and snuggle flirtatiously on the dance floor. Other people, including Melinda, notice the chemistry between Vic and Kelly. Predictably, Melinda gets jealous and tries to re-assert her status as the most desirable and sexiest woman in Vic’s life.

In addition to the superficiality of Vic and Melinda’s marriage, another aspect of “Deep Water” that makes it look phony is that the movie repeatedly tells viewers that Vic is supposed to be very rich, but Vic and Melinda apparently have no house servants, since no servants are ever seen working for this family. Melinda does the family’s cooking, which is not entirely unrealistic for someone of her marital wealth. However, Melinda being the family cook doesn’t ring true when Melinda comes across as a pampered trophy wife who can stay out all night and party with her lovers whenever she feels like it. It wouldn’t have that been hard to cast a few people as background extras to portray servants, since it’s hard to believe that Melinda and/or Vic do their own housecleaning and upkeep of their large home.

An underdeveloped characteristic of “Deep Water” that should have been explored in a more meaningful way is how some people tend to think that those who are wealthy are automatically better than people who aren’t wealthy. In the scene where Don meets Vic for the first time, Don impolitely tells Vic that Vic is probably the person most likely to have done something harmful to Martin. Grant, who is Vic’s most loyal friend, tries to diffuse the tension by smiling and saying: “The moral of the story is Vic is a genius. And he’s rich as fuck.”

Grant’s comment is a reflection of how some people think that being smart and wealthy is the equivalent of being a “good person,” without taking into account that being a “good person” has nothing to do with how much intelligence or money someone has. This false equivalence is a huge dismissal of core values that define people’s true characters and personalities. “Deep Water” seems to make a half-hearted attempt to show how some people are more likely to excuse or overlook bad conduct from someone who is intelligent and rich, but the movie ultimately takes the lazy route by just going for cheap thrills that have been in similar movies.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with the cast members’ performances, but there’s nothing that will make viewers feel any real emotional connection to any of these characters. Affleck and de Armas, regardless of their real-life romantic relationship while filming this movie, don’t have much that’s compelling about how they portray Vic and Melinda. After all, Affleck has played many privileged jerks on screen, while de Armas often has the role of a character who uses sex or sex appeal to get what she wants.

A chase scene toward the end of “Deep Water” is extremely hokey and not very believable. “Deep Water” was already paddling around in a sea of mediocrity for most of the movie. But by the time the movie reaches its terrible ending, it ruins any chances that “Deep Water” could have been a “guilty pleasure” thriller.

Hulu will premiere “Deep Water” on March 18, 2022.

Review: ‘I Love My Dad,’ starring Patton Oswalt, James Morosini, Claudia Sulewski, Amy Landecker, Lil Rel Howery and Rachel Dratch

March 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in “I Love My Dad” (Photo courtesy of I Love My Dad LLC/Hantz Motion Pictures)

“I Love My Dad”

Directed by James Morosini

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Augusta, Maine, the comedy film “I Love My Dad” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A divorced father, who is a pathological liar, tries to reconnect with his estranged, young adult son by creating a fake online profile where the father impersonates a woman who pretends to be romantically interested in the son.

Culture Audience: “I Love My Dad” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in quirky comedies that have incisive social commentary on “catfishing” (creating a fake online persona to deceive people) and dysfunctional family relationships.

James Morosini and Patton Oswalt in “I Love My Dad” (Photo courtesy of I Love My Dad LLC/Hantz Motion Pictures)

Inspired by a true story, “I Love My Dad” is the type of comedy that adeptly turns its most cringeworthy moments into its funniest moments. It’s not an easy challenge, considering that it’s a movie that will make many viewers uncomfortable. “I Love My Dad” has a double meaning, because it’s about a divorced father who pretends to be an attractive young woman online, so that he can lure his estranged son into an online emotional relationship. It’s all because this disturbed father is so desperate to reconnect with his son, he’s concocted this elaborate ruse, even if he knows it’s a disaster waiting to happen.

It’s the type of warped story that people might think could only be fabricated for a movie. However, it happened in real life to “I Love My Dad” writer/director James Morosini, who also stars as the hapless and beleaguered son in this movie. “I Love My Dad” had its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival, where it won the event’s top grand jury prize: Best Narrative Feature. As messy as the movie’s subject is, it’s also a wild and entertaining ride that’s made all the more poignant because it’s a deeply personal story.

“I Love My Dad” opens with a flashback scene of Chuck Green (played by Patton Oswalt) and his son Franklin Green (played by Seamus Callahan), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, taking home a stray black Labrador retriever that they found on the street. Eager to please his son, Chuck tells Franklin (who has no siblings) that they can keep the dog, which is male. Franklin asks, “What if he’s lost?” Chuck just shrugs.

As Chuck and Franklin walk home together with the dog, Chuck sees a “missing dog” flyer posted on a telephone pole. The dog in the flyer’s photo is the same dog that Chuck has taken, and the owner wants to find the dog. Out of Franklin’s sight and without any guilt, Chuck tears the flyer off the pole because he wants to keep the dog. It’s an indication of Chuck’s personality: impulsive, wanting immediate gratification, and very selfish.

The movie then fast-forwards to showing Franklin in his early 20s. His parents have been divorced for years, and Franklin is in therapy for anxiety and depression—mostly because his irresponsible and unreliable father Chuck has caused a lot of emotional damage to Franklin. Chuck is a chronic liar whose dishonesty was the main cause for the divorce.

Franklin is a misfit loner who lives with his mother Diane (played by Amy Landecker), who is very protective and concerned about Franklin’s mental health. Franklin is currently unemployed, but his dream job is to be a computer coder for a video game company. He spends a lot of time playing video games. The movie doesn’t mention where Franklin and Diane live, but it’s thousands of miles away from Chuck. Diane has not been in regular contact with Chuck for a long time—and she wants it to stay that way.

Meanwhile, Chuck (who lives in Augusta, Maine) is despondent because Franklin, whom he has not spoken to in about a year, has recently blocked Chuck from all of Franklin’s social media. Chuck is sulking about it at his office job (the movie never mentions what Chuck does for a living), and his mopey attitude is noticed by a co-worker named Jimmy (played by Lil Rel Howery). Jimmy asks Chuck why he looks so sad, and Chuck tells him about Franklin’s online snubbing.

Jimmy mentions to Chuck that when he was blocked online by an ex-girlfriend, all he had to do to continue following her on social media was to create a phony online persona and get on her online “friends” list again. Jimmy brags that the trick worked, and he was able to keep tabs on what this ex-girlfriend was doing. It’s an idea that Chuck takes to extremes.

Shortly after getting cut off from Jimmy, Chuck goes to eat by himself at a local diner called Carl’s Kountry Kitchen. (“I Love My Dad” was filmed in New York state, and the movie includes the real Carl’s Kountry Kitchen, which is in Syracuse, New York.) Chuck’s server is a friendly young woman in her early 20s named Becca (played by Claudia Sulewski), who has a “girl next door” attractiveness about her.

When Chuck goes home, he looks up Becca on the Internet and finds all of her social media. And that’s when he gets the idea to pretend to be Becca and contact Franklin. Chuck steals Becca’s identity and many of her online photos to create fake online profiles of her. When Franklin accepts the fake Becca’s friend requests, Franklin asks her during a chat why he’s the only person she’s following.

As the fake Becca, Chuck quickly comes up with an excuse that “Becca” has new accounts because she deleted her previous accounts when she took a break from social media. Franklin believes this excuse. Over time, Franklin and “Becca” get closer, as they open up to each other about their emotions and family problems. And it should come as no surprise that Franklin ends up falling for “Becca,” as Chuck gets more caught up in this elaborate and twisted masquerade.

Chuck is ecstatic that Franklin is talking to Chuck again, even though it’s all based on Chuck’s concocted lies. Chuck confides in his co-worker Jimmy about the fake online persona. Jimmy warns Chuck not to continue this deception because Franklin might permanently cut Chuck out of Franklin’s life if Franklin finds out the truth. Chuck ignores this advice because he’s self-centered and has become accustomed to lying to get what he wants.

One of the funniest aspects of “I Love My Dad” is how it shows Becca appearing to exist in person with Franklin when he’s chatting with her online or having fantasies about her. But then, the camera suddenly switches to the reality that Chuck is talking to Franklin, so Chuck is shown doing the things with Franklin that Franklin is simultaneously imagining that Becca is doing with Franklin. This switch of perspectives is cleverly edited to bring many of laugh-out-loud moments for people watching the movie. Chuck has fantasies too, where he places himself in moments where he wants to emotionally bond with Franklin.

Franklin knows that “Becca” doesn’t live near him, but he eventually wants some kind of contact with her beyond words and photos on a screen. When he tries to set up an online video chat, “Becca” comes up with the excuse that her computer’s video camera is broken. Whenever Franklin becomes skeptical of “Becca” being real, Chuck thinks of something to continue the ruse.

At one point, Franklin insists on talking to “Becca” on the phone. And so, Chuck averts Franklin’s suspicions that “Becca” is a fake persona when Chuck enlists a neurotic co-worker whom he’s been dating named Erica (played by Rachel Dratch) to impersonate “Becca” over the phone. Erica is infatuated with Chuck, but she’s very reluctant to be a part of this deceit. Chuck lies to Erica by saying that it’s a prank that he and Franklin play on each other as a father-son tradition. Erica participates in this con only after she gets Chuck to agree to have sex with her at their office.

Of course, there’s a sexual component that becomes a part of Franklin’s online “romance” with “Becca.” It’s a part of the deception that makes Chuck the most squeamish and feeling very guilty about what he’s doing. But that doesn’t stop dishonest Chuck from making Erica an unwitting accomplice during a hilarious scene involving online sex talk.

To be clear: “I Love My Dad” does not condone incest or sexual abuse. Rather, it shows in amusing and unsettling ways how pathetic online liars can be with their con games. The people who know Chuck’s secret (his co-workers Jimmy and Erica) express their disapproval to Chuck, but Chuck is the type of person who will do what he wants, no matter what other people say about it being wrong. The movie makes it obvious that as much as Chuck thinks he’s too smart to get caught, he’s really the one who’s degrading himself the most.

“I Love My Dad” has some hilarious twists and turns as Chuck’s lies get bigger, and he goes to greater lengths to prevent his lies from being exposed. This movie works so well as a comedy, mainly because the story doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s really a “truth is stranger than fiction” movie that seems so absurd, it might as well be a comedy. Morosini admirably channels what must have been a very painful time in his life into a story that can not only entertain people but also provoke thoughtful discussions about healing from family dysfunction, deciding what to forgive, and choosing which family members to have in one’s life.

The lead performances by Morosini and Oswalt make this movie’s engine run with a crackling energy of two characters who are at odds with each other but also weirdly co-dependent on each other for emotional validation. Some viewers might not care for how “I Love My Dad” ends, while other viewers will love the movie’s ending. Either way, the intended message of “I Love My Dad” is that there’s sometimes no way to predict what people will do to be close to the ones they love.

UPDATE: Magnolia Pictures will release “I Love My Dad” in select U.S. cinemas on August 5, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on August 12, 2022.

Review: ‘National Champions,’ starring Stephan James, J.K. Simmons, Alexander Ludwig, Uzo Aduba, David Koechner, Jeffrey Donovan, Kristin Chenoweth and Timothy Olyphant

December 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

Stephan James, J.K. Simmons and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions”

Directed by Ric Roman Waugh

Culture Representation: Taking place during three days in New Orleans, the dramatic film “National Champions” features a cast of African American and white characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two football players for the fictional Missouri Wolves college team launch a boycott, right before a national championship game, in protest of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) policy that NCAA student athletes are not entitled to salaries, disability pensions and health insurance for playing in NCAA games. 

Culture Audience: “National Champions” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching well-acted movies about civil rights in athletics and in the workforce.

Uzo Aduba and David Koechner in “National Champions” (Photo by Scott Garfield/STX)

“National Champions” is a memorable sports movie where all the action and battles take place outside of the game. This tension-filled drama about a college student-athlete boycott features standout performances and a diverse look at various sides of the debate. How you feel about this movie will probably come down to how you answer these questions: Should student athletes of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) get salaries, disability pensions and health insurance? And should NCAA student athletes form their own union?

Those questions are at the heart of the issues that are contentiously argued about in “National Champions,” directed by Ric Roman Waugh and written by Adam Mervis. Although the story is fictional, it takes a realistic-looking “what if” approach in depicting what would happen if NCAA football players decided to boycott playing in games, in order to get the NCAA to change its longstanding policies over these issues. And what if that boycott was staged just three days before a national championship game?

Those are the high-pressure circumstances under which the movie opens. “National Champions” does not let audiences go from its tightly wound grip during this entire movie, which is a suspense-filled ride from beginning to end. Even though this is a fictional story where the outcome can easily be predicted, the movie’s intention is to draw attention to the issues that are intensely debated in the movie. People who are not aware of these issues before seeing “National Champions” probably won’t look at NCAA sports in the same way again after seeing this movie.

At the beginning of “National Champions,” which takes place entirely in New Orleans, NCAA football player LeMarcus James (played by Stephan James) is seen at 6:10 a.m. on the balcony of his hotel room, as he gears up for the biggest fight of his life. He’s about to hold a press conference announcing the boycott and the list of demands that he and his fellow boycotters want to be fulfilled by the NCAA, in order to end the boycott. The national championship game is being held in New Orleans, and LeMarcus is expected to be a star of the game.

LeMarcus, who is 21, is the current quarterback for the fictional Missouri Wolves. He recently won the Heisman Trophy. And he is widely predicted to be the first overall pick of the next National Football League (NFL) draft. LeMarcus is well-aware that by launching ths boycott, it will likely ruin his chances to play in the NFL, since he will be branded as a “troublemaker.” However, he is determined to fight for what he strongly believes in, no matter that the consequences.

LeMarcus knows he’s facing an uphill battle in this boycott. At this point in time, LeMarcus and his best friend Emmett Sunday (played by Alexander Ludwig), who is also a Missouri Wolves teammate, are the only two athletes who are solidly committed to this boycott. They both come from working-class backgrounds and have gotten full athletic scholarships to attend their university because of football.

While in New Orleans for the natonial championship game, LeMarcus and Emmett have planned to “go missing” from practice. They move around from hotel to hotel, so that they can’t easily be found. During the course of the movie, they only allow a select number of trusted people into their hotel room. LeMarcus is also battling a nasty cold, but it doesn’t deter his inner strength to fight for his cause. LeMarcus and Emmett are starting this boycott without any help from attorneys.

Emmett, who is the more laid-back of the two friends, doesn’t seem to like public speaking because he’s not seen in the movie making speeches or doing press conferences. Emmett is happy to let LeMarcus take the lead as the spokesperson for the boycott and as the one who articulates the demands that they want the NCAA to follow. Throughout the movie, Stephan James gives an effective performance that shows how LeMarcus has a powerful talent of persuasion and a steely determination to not give up in the face of several obstacles. LeMarcus’ stubbornness and refusal to compromise make him a formidable but very underdog opponent.

LeMarcus has his share of skeptics and naysayers. Before the press conference, a teammate named Orlando Bishop (played by Julian Horton) tries to discourage LeMarcus from going through with the boycott. Orlando tells LeMarcus that the NCAA system won’t change just because LeMarcus doesn’t play in the national championships. “Aint nobody marching in the streets for the number-one anchor. You’re going to embarrass yourself, bro,” Orlando comments. When the boycott is underway, someone else warns LeMarcus that LeMarcus is going to be blacklisted from professional football, just like former NFL star Colin Kaepernick, who is outspoken in his support of the Black Lives Matter movement.

During the brief televised press conference, LeMarcus gives the list of demands that the boycotters want from the NCAA:

  • (1) NCAA will create of a non-revokable trust fund for every Division 1 varsity athlete.
  • (2) NCAA will contribute to a disability penision for Division 1 athletes who are injured in college athletics
  • (3) NCAA will recognize and collectively bargain with the proposed NCAA players’ union, submitting to all federally mandated guidelines of a unionized workforce.

LeMarcus doesn’t sugarcoat what he thinks is going on with the NCAA having a policy forbidding NCAA athletes from being paid athletes: He calls it “slave labor,” where the athletes work for free and other people get rich off of them. “Slave labor” is a hot-button phrase, because it can’t be ignored that most of the NCAA football players are African American, while most of the NCAA officials who are millionaires because of their NCAA salaries are white.

The NCAA doesn’t pay NCAA athletes because of a policy that refuses to classify NCAA athletes as NCAA employees. The NCAA makes a bulk of its profits from licensing its games to television, as well as from collecting money from sponsors that pay the NCAA and individual teams for NCAA athletes to wear sponsor items or use sponsor equipment for free advertising. People who don’t want the NCAA to pay its athletes say it’s because NCAA athletes are college students, not working professionals, and if these athletes got paid, they’d be more likely to be corrupted and drop out of college to spend the money.

During the press conference, LeMarcus gives a damning example of the disparity between how the athletes are not compensated for their work and how the NCAA officials are being highly compensated. He mentions how the unpaid NCAA athletes have to pay for their own medical bills if they are injured during games, while high-ranking NCAA officials each get millions of dollars in salaries and employee perks, such as health insurance benefits, life insurance benefits and lucrative pensions. The billions of dollars that flow through the NCAA, after expenses are paid, end up mostly with an elite group at the top.

To make his point, LeMarcus names the multimillion-dollar annual salaries of some high-ranking NCAA officials, including the salary of Missouri Wolves head coach James Lazor, who is not happy about having his salary being revealed for the whole world to know. By contrast, many NCAA athletes spend so much required time on their sport (which is usually more than a regular 40-hour work week) in additon to their academic requirements, they don’t have time to get salaried jobs, and many of them are financially struggling. NCAA athletes are not allowed to accept high-priced gifts and donations. However, in July 2021 (after “National Champions” was filmed), the U.S. Supreme Court lifted a monetary limit that the NCAA wanted to keep on student-athletes getting education-related gifts and benefits.

The fact that many NCAA athletes get their college tuition and living expenses paid for through scholarships (which usually comes from the athlete student’s college/university, not the NCAA) is of little comfort if it comes at a price of being injured from NCAA games or NCAA training, and the NCAA won’t help with health insurance or medical bills for the injuries. And if athletes in the NCAA have career-ending injuries, or if the athletes don’t make it to the professional leagues, then they are often stuck with paying for medical bills for injuries that they got while playing for the NCAA.

By the time athletes make it into the NCAA, they’re already at least 18 years old, in most cases. And because almost all NCAA athletes are legal adults and working full-time hours for the NCAA, many people believe that NCAA should be compensated like full-time employees. However, too many people are invested in keeping the status quo because they don’t want to share the NCAA’s wealth with the athletes.

These are harsh realities that many people don’t want to think about when they root for their favorite American college teams and athletes. However, as depicted in “National Champions,” people who believe in a boycott of the NCAA until things change in favor of athletes’ civil rights think that the only ways that these changes happen are if the public puts pressure on the NCAA and if activists play hardball with the NCAA. LeMarcus knows that he will probably ruin his promising football career with this boycott, and changes might not come in his lifetime, but he wants to get the ball rolling.

At first glance, it might seem that the plan to launch this boycott is poorly conceived, since only LeMarcus and Emmett seem to the only athletes who are part of the boycott. But the plan, although very risky, is actually a bold strategic move. And that’s because LeMarcus and Emmett plan to use the media to get the word out quickly to a massive audience and gain as much public support as possible.

If LeMarcus and Emmett had secretly tried to recruit other athletes for weeks behind the scenes, the word would’ve gotten out to the people who would want to stop the boycott. By staging the boycott right before the national championship game (the most lucrative football game for the NCAA), it would catch the NCAA off guard and force them to make a decision, or else possibly have the game cancelled. And because of the media attention, the NCAA has to make its decision publicly. LeMarcus and Emmett are fully prepared not to play in the game, but what other NCAA football players will join them?

The media blitz part of the plan works, because the boycott becomes big news. And there are some star NFL athletes who voice their support of the boycott, including Russell Wilson and Malcolm Jenkins, who portray themselves in cameos in the movie. These celebrity endorsements convince some other NCAA national championship football players to join the boycott too. The movie has a scene where LeMarcus gives a passionate speech in a hotel room that further convinces some of his fellow NCAA football players to join the boycott.

It isn’t long before so many Wolves team members are boycotting the game, the team is in danger of having mostly inexperienced freshman left as available team members. An emergency meeting takes place with the key players who will put up the fight in trying to squash the boycott. The people in this meeting are:

  • Coach James Lazor (played by J.K. Simmons), the hard-driving leader of the Missouri Wolves, who sees his athletes as his surrogate sons.
  • Richard Everly (played by David Koechner), the arrogant, sexist and crude leader of the powerful Southeastern Conference (SEC).
  • Wes Martin (played by Tony Winters), a Big 12 Conference executive who has some sympathy for the boycotting athletes.
  • Kevin McDonald (played by David Maldonado), director of communications for College Football Playoff (CFP), who is loyal to his employer and has to run interference with the media.
  • Mike Titus (played by Jeffrey Donovan), senior vice-president of championships for Division 1 NCAA Football, who is calm and level-headed.
  • Katherine Poe (played by Uzo Aduba), who describes herself as “outside counsel,” and seems to have a specialty in crisis management.

In this initial meeting, the men do almost all of the talking, while Katherine mostly sits quietly and listens in the background. But as time goes on, Katherine proves to be a fierce competitor in this boycott war. And she’s willing to do what it takes to win, including digging up some of LeMarcus’ secrets that could hurt his credibility. Coach Lazor wants the boycott to end, but he’s reluctant to play dirty in ways that could ruin LeMarcus’ life and reputation.

In a cast of very talented actors, Aduba and Simmons give outstanding performances not only because their characters are so strong-willed and outspoken but also because Coach Lazor and Katherine have their own unique charisma and flaws. Aduba and Simmons give two of the best monologues in the movie. The screenwriting for “National Champions” is mostly solid, and these cast members definitely elevate the material.

Coach Lazor’s big moment comes when he assembles the remaining Wolves team members in a hotel conference room and gives a rousing and emotional speech about how money doesn’t make someone happy and that he’s not a coach for the NCAA because of the money. He shares a story about his personal background and how his dreams to become professional football player were dashed, but he found a way to channel his passion for football by coaching. Coach Lazor says that money shouldn’t be these athletes’ motivation, but glory should be the main motivation.

Katherine’s impactful monlogue comes in a scene when Emmett accuses her of being heartless. It’s in this scene where Katherine, who comes across as obsessed with her job and somewhat mysterious up until this point, unleashes a tirade to show her human vulnerabilities and emotional pain. She also reveals that she’s not siding with the NCAA because it’s her job, but also because she truly believes that the boycott will hurt NCAA funding for lower-profile sports that don’t get as much attention as football and men’s basketball.

Katherine is probably the most interesting and complex character in this movie. There are many sports movies that show clashes between athletes and authority figures. However, almost all of these movies are about ego conflicts between men. Katherine embodies every woman who’s in a male-dominated job who is constantly underestimated because of her gender. She also happens to be African American, which is adds another layer of discrimination that she no doubt has experienced for her entire life.

It’s this type of life experience that makes her more clear-eyed and prepared for the times when people’s worst natures come out, compared to people who are unprepared and gullible because they go through life never having to experience real discrimination or hatred. Katherine’s way of dealing with opposition can be too extreme, by a lot of standards. She wants to win at all costs, even if she gives up a lot of compassion or empathy that she might have.

“National Champions” is at its best when it focuses on the characters of LeMarcus, Coach Lazor and Katherine. The movie tends to falter when it goes off on other tangents. There’s a soap opera-like subplot about Coach Lazor’s philandering wife Bailey Lazor (played by Kristin Chenoweth) and her lover Elliott Schmidt (played by Timothy Olyphant), a college professor who decides that he’s going to take a job in Italy. The movie shows if Bailey decides to run off with Elliott or not, in the midst of this boycott crisis.

Meanwhile, some supporting characters are introduced in the movie, but their character development is non-existent. Lil Rel Howery portrays Ronnie Dunn, the Wolves’ defensive coordinator coach, who might have to step in for Coach Lazor during the championship game when Coach Lazor seems to be on the verge of having a personal meltdown. Tim Blake Nelson is Rodger Cummings, the head of the Missouri Wolves boosters club, who is not about to let all the booster donations that were poured into the team possibly go down the drain with a boycott that could cost the Wolves the championship game. Andrew Bachelor portrays Taylor Jackson, another wealthy booster of the Wolves.

All the other football players depicted in the movie aren’t given enough screen time for viewers to see if they have distinctive personalities. Cecil Burgess (played by Therry Edouard), who has the nickname the Haitian Hammer, is another star athlete for the Missouri Wolves. However, Cecil only has a few brief scenes, mainly to show that he’s staying loyal to the NCAA, and he thinks the boycott is a mistake. Emmett is portrayed as a nice guy, but his personality is fairly bland.

Despite some of the flaws in the “National Champions” screenplay, the movie is directed, filmed and edited in a way that makes this an engaging thriller for people who want to watch movies about the business side of sports. “National Champions” might disappoint people who think they’re going to see a lot of football playing in the movie. But for other people who appreciate what the film is actually about, they’ll understand that it’s about real-life stakes that are much higher than a championship game.

STX will release “National Champions” in U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on December 28, 2021.

Review: ‘Free Guy,’ starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery and Taika Waititi

August 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in “Free Guy” (Photo by Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios)

“Free Guy”

Directed by Shawn Levy

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the action comedy film “Free Guy” features a predominantly male, mostly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and one Māori/indigenous cast member) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A video game’s simulated city becomes the focus of conflict from the game’s characters and the gamers in the real world who want to manipulate actions in this simulated city.

Culture Audience: “Free Guy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in comedic action movies that revolve around video game culture and put more emphasis on style over substance.

Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Joe Keery in “Free Guy” (Photo by Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios)

“Free Guy” looks like an outdated idea for a video game movie that would’ve worked better when the SimCity video game was first released in 1989. It’s a dumb action comedy that tries to be clever with convoluted video game scenarios to dress up its very weak plot and cringeworthy jokes. The movie overloads on tech jargon and formulaic action scenes as gimmicks that can’t hide this movie’s lazy banality.

Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, “Free Guy” was obviously made to appeal to video game enthusiasts as a target audience. However, because video games have progressed immensely since the early years of SimCity—especially when it comes to world building, visual effects and multilayered outcomes—much of the video game that’s at the center of “Free Guy” looks simplistic and boring. The only real nod to 21st century gaming that this movie has is that people worldwide have the ability to play the game simultaneously over the Internet.

The video game in “Free Guy” is called Free City, which is about a simulated city called Free City that’s supposed to be a mid-sized American city where chaos and destruction can happen at any moment. (“Free Guy” was actually filmed in Boston.) Players of Free City get more points and can advance to the next level (also known as “leveling up”), based on acts of unprovoked hostility and violence that they can put in the game.

Every day, an armed robbery takes place at Free City Bank. This financial institution is the place of employment for cheerful bank teller Guy (played by Ryan Reynolds) and his wisecracking best friend Buddy (played by Lil Rel Howery), who’s a security guard. It’s a scenario that plays out with such routine predictability that Guy has come to expect it.

Guy, who is the voiceover narrator and protagonist of the movie, explains that in Free City, laws are like “mild suggestions.” The “heroes” in Free City can be identified by wearing special eyeglasses. Later, Guy finds out what happens when someone in Free City puts on these special eyeglasses. But in the beginning of the movie, Guy is just a character that’s supposed to stick to the same routine every day.

Guy is stuck in a rut and doesn’t even know it at first. When he wakes up in the morning, he says and does the same things. When he goes to a local coffee shop before heading to work, he places the same order: coffee with cream and two spoons of sugar. Guy is the type of character who says, “Coffee: It’s like losing my virginity, but in my mouth.”

Almost everyone in Free City has a daily routine. The city is so basic that there are no tourist attractions, and anyone who doesn’t have the special eyeglasses is just supposed to fade into the background. In other words, whoever thought up this video game has terrible world building skills and gave the players very limited options what they could do. In this city, people are either aggressors or potential targets for that aggression.

However, one day, Guy’s life takes an unexpected turn. At the local coffee shop, he orders a cappuccino instead of his usual coffee with cream and sugar. The barista named Missy (played by Britne Oldford), who always serves the same order to Guy, freaks out because she doesn’t know what to do because Guy has ordered cappuccino.

On that same day, when the bank robbery occurs at Guy’s job, instead of handing over money to the robber, Guy gets into a fight with the thief, takes the thief’s gun, and shoots the thief. During the altercation, Guy takes the thief’s special eyeglasses. And that’s when Guy can see and experience Free City in a whole different way. He immediately notices that when he wears the glasses, he has superhuman strength and things appear in his sight that he wouldn’t be able to see without wearing the glasses.

While wearing the glasses, Guy sees a medical bag floating in front of him. And when he takes the bag, the wounds he sustained during the bank robbery fight (such as cuts, bruises and a broken nose) are automatically healed. When Guy goes to an ATM to get money from his bank account, he sees that the money he had in the account (less than $150) has turned into thousands of dollars, because the ATM now acts like a jackpot machine.

Meanwhile, Guy has “infatuation at first sight” when he sees a mysterious woman (played by Jodie Comer) on a motorcycle and armed with a gun on the street. She wears the special eyeglasses. She seems to be independent and fearless. And she’s wearing an outfit (white button-down shirt with black trousers, suspenders and thigh-high boots) that looks like a costume rejected by Charlize Theron’s badass assassin character in 2017’s “Atomic Blonde.”

Guy is convinced that this mystery female on a motorcycle is the woman of his dreams. Guy and this woman eventually meet. She calls herself Molotov Girl, but she’s really a British avatar for an American video game developer named Millie Rusk. Molotov Girl wears her black hair worn in a bob, while Millie has long blonde hair.

In the real world, Millie is embroiled in a messy lawsuit with Soonami Studios, the video game company that released Free City, a game that has become a big hit for Soonami. Millie is suing because she claims that Soonami stole intellectual property that is the basis of Free City. Back in 2015, Millie and her former business partner Walter “Keys” McKeys (played by Joe Keery) were considered hot up-and-coming video game developers of a game called Life Itself.

Soonami’s greedy and corrupt founder/CEO named Antwan (played by Taika Waititi) bought the rights to Life Itself (one of the most boring video game titles in history) for Soonami, and then promptly shelved Life Itself, only to release the game under the name Free City. Why isn’t Keys suing Soonami too? Because he now works for Soonami as a programmer, but he spends much of his work time actually being a customer support representative. Keys’ best friend at the company is a coder with a sarcastic personality named Mouser (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar), who worships Antwan and does pretty much anything Antwan tells Mouser to do.

Why is Millie spending so much time playing Free City using the avatar Molotov Girl? Because she secretly wants to find certain proof that the game has the intellectual property that was stolen from Millie and Keys. Meanwhile, Guy becomes emboldened by his newfound powers due to the special eyeglasses. He starts doing things (many of them heroic) of his own free will, and his character becomes a worldwide sensation. Free City game players around the world have given him the nickname Blue Shirt Guy because of the blue shirt that Guy wears to work every day.

Not everyone is a fan of Blue Shirt Guy, of course. Antwan is furious because he thinks Blue Shirt Guy is a major “bug” (or error) in the game. There’s a kind of a silly sequence of Keys and Mouser disguising themselves with avatars to go into the Free City game and to try find out why Guy, a non-player character (also known as an NPC), seems to be acting of his own free will. Keys is dressed as a cop, while Mouser is dressed up in a ridiculous-looking pink rabbit costume. Why is Mouser dressed like he’s at a kids’ costume party? Just because he felt like it.

In fact, much of “Free Guy” consists of half-baked ideas thrown in between the hackneyed action scenes. There’s a stretched-out subplot about getting to a certain person’s stash house. There’s another subplot about how Soonami is about to release a Free City sequel called Free City: Carnage (also known as Free City 2), so there’s a race against time involving the release date.

The budding romance between Guy and Molotov Girl looks kind of icky because he comes across more like her dorky, much-older brother rather than a potential boyfriend. Guy is in his 40s, while Molotov Girl/Millie is in her 20s. It’s yet another Hollywood movie where the male lead actor gets a female love interest who’s at least 15 to 20 years younger.

In an attempt to gloss over this big age difference, there’s monotonous repetition of how Guy and Millie have some superficial things in common. They both love Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit song “Fantasy,” bubblegum ice cream and playing on swings. How old are these people again? Twelve? “Fantasy” is played enough times in the movie that it will get stuck in your head after the movie is over. And that’s not a good thing if you don’t like the song.

“Free Guy” is yet another Hollywood action movie where the cast members who get top billing are several men and only one woman. Comer is the only woman with a significant speaking role in the movie, and her Moltov Girl/Millie character is severely underdeveloped. Moltovgirl/Millie doesn’t have a life outside of anything to do with how the male characters affect her.

The featured male characters in “Free Guy” have friends and/or co-workers, while Millie does not. And the movie tries to make Millie look like some kind of feminist gaming prodigy, but everything she’s shown accomplishing in this movie is because she got help from a man. People who are fans of Comer because of her stellar, Emmy-winning work in “Killing Eve” will be disappointed at how limited her character is in “Free Guy.” The character of Millie, just like Molotov Girl, is just a hollow avatar who was created to be a sidekick for a male character who gets most of the glory.

As for Keys, he is portrayed as a wimpy and shy “nice guy.” But looking at his actions, Keys really has dubious morals and shaky loyalty, because he will go along with anyone who will benefit him in some way. He betrayed Millie by working for their enemy, and he doesn’t support her in her lawsuit to get justice for all the hard work that they did. And to make matters worse, Keys wasn’t even given a lofty position at Soonami. He’s now essentially a low-paid customer service representative at Soonami, where he is treated like dirt by rude and condescending Antwan.

It’s supposed to make viewers feel sorry for Keys, because the company is wasting his talent. But it just makes Keys look like a fool who’s being taken advantage of because his own bad choices. There are other companies he could work for besides the one that screwed over Keys and Millie. But if he worked for another company, there wouldn’t be the predictable “inside man” plot development that you know is part of this movie. There’s a trite character arc for Keys that’s extremely phony and doesn’t feel deserved.

There are fundamental plot holes in “Free Guy,” because it’s obvious that the filmmakers don’t want anyone watching the movie to think too much. For example, if Free City is so popular worldwide, and the point of the game is for players to create as much violent chaos as possible in Free City, then there would be a lot more death and destruction in Free City than what’s presented in this movie. Free City looks too pristine and orderly, as if hardly anyone is playing this game, which contradicts the movie’s premise that Free City is supposed to be a worldwide hit.

Much of the plot is based on Millie’s lawsuit against Soonami, but “Free Guy” purposely keeps things vague. Don’t expect any mention of the fact that it’s very common for corporations to buy the rights to intellectual property from independent creators and then just shelve it. And buying the rights also means buying any patents associated with the intellectual property and the right to release the intellectual property under a new name. In all likelihood in the real world, Millie doesn’t have a legitimate case for her lawsuit.

“Free Guy” also muddles the logic of how Millie needs to be an avatar in a video game in order to find the coding proof that she needs. Any good computer programmer/video game developer would have kept that coding proof, even after the intellectual property had been sold. But this movie isn’t about being realistic or logical. And that’s excusable if the characters and story had been much better than the unimaginative stereotypes and uninspired dialogue in “Free Guy.”

Keery and Ambudkar play the typical video game nerds. Howery plays the typical loyal best friend. Waititi plays the typical over-the-top villain. Waititi, who is naturally funny, tries to do his best with terrible lines of dialogue, but even he can’t overcome how stilted and awkward everyone looks in what are supposed to be hilarious scenes.

Reynolds has done plenty of action films and comedies where his character starts out as an underdog and then becomes a celebrated hero. It’s all so mind-numbingly monotonous, because he doesn’t do anything new as an actor in “Free Guy,” which is far from his best movie. The stale jokes in “Free Guy” seem like they were programmed by a computer from the 1990s.

The movie’s action scenes and visual effects are so basic and forgettable. One of the “Free Guy” trailers revealed that Guy fights a giant He-Man-ripoff version of himself, so this trailer reveal ruins that surprise. There are a few “surprise” celebrity cameos in the movie that don’t have much of an impact. Channing Tatum pops up in a scene, but he wears out his welcome with his one-note character. Chris Evans has a cameo that lasts a few seconds and should get some quick laughs.

“Free Guy” (from 20th Century Studios) is such a soulless and corporate movie that it has shameless plugging of movies from other Disney-owned studios. There’s “Star Wars”-influenced light saber fighting, in a nod to Disney-owned Lucasfilm. And there’s a reference to Captain America, the superhero character that Evans portrayed in several movies from Disney-owned Marvel Studios. No references to Disney princesses though, because the filmmakers of “Free Guy” want men to dominate in this movie.

Movies like 1982’s “Tron” and 2018’s “Ready Player One” have shown how it’s possible to be creative in a movie about people who transport themselves into a video game and end up having real connections with characters in the game. “Free Guy” could have brought a clever comedic spin to this concept, but the movie is just a messy compilation of lousy jokes and garbled plot developments. There are lot of video games that are better than a junkpile movie like “Free Guy.”

20th Century Studios will release “Free Guy” in U.S. cinemas on August 13, 2021.

2021 Academy Awards: presenters and performers announced

April 23, 2021

The following is a combination of press releases from ABC:

Oscar® nominee Steven Yeun will join the ensemble cast slated to present at the 93rd Oscars®, show producers Jesse Collins, Stacey Sher and Steven Soderbergh announced today. “The Oscars” will air live on Sunday, April 25, 2021, on ABC.

“Surprise! We’re so excited to welcome Steven to the crew, and he completes our Oscars cast. No, really, this is it,” said Collins, Sher and Soderbergh.

The previously announced lineup includes Riz Ahmed, Angela Bassett, Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Bryan Cranston, Viola Davis, Laura Dern, Harrison Ford, Bong Joon Ho, Regina King, Marlee Matlin, Rita Moreno, Joaquin Phoenix, Brad Pitt, Reese Witherspoon, Renée Zellweger and Zendaya.

Celeste, H.E.R., Leslie Odom Jr., Laura Pausini, Daniel Pemberton, Molly Sandén and Diane Warren will perform the five nominated original songs in their entirety for “Oscars: Into the Spotlight,” the lead-in to the 93rd Oscars. One performance will be recorded in Húsavík, Iceland, and four at the Dolby Family Terrace of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures in Los Angeles. Hosted by actors Ariana DeBose (“Hamilton”) and Lil Rel Howery (“Bad Trip”), the 90-minute “Oscars: Into the Spotlight” will highlight the nominees’ journey to Hollywood’s biggest night, give fans around the world the ultimate insiders’ sneak peek to the party and, for the first time, bring Oscar music to the festivities. The show will feature a special appearance by DJ Tara. “Oscars: Into the Spotlight” will air Oscar Sunday, April 25, at 6:30 p.m. EDT/3:30 p.m. PDT.  

The 93rd Oscars will be held on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station Los Angeles and the Dolby® Theatre at Hollywood & Highland Center® in Hollywood, and international locations via satellite.  “Oscars: Into the Spotlight” will air live on ABC at 6:30 p.m. EDT/3:30 p.m. PDT. “The Oscars” will be televised live on ABC at 8 p.m. EDT/5 p.m. PDT and in more than 200 territories worldwide.  “Oscars: After Dark” will immediately follow the Oscars show.

ABOUT THE ACADEMY
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is a global community of more than 10,000 of the most accomplished artists, filmmakers and executives working in film. In addition to celebrating and recognizing excellence in filmmaking through the Oscars, the Academy supports a wide range of initiatives to promote the art and science of the movies, including public programming, educational outreach and the upcoming Academy Museum of Motion Pictures.

Review: ‘Tom and Jerry,’ starring Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña, Colin Jost, Rob Delaney and Ken Jeong

March 2, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jerry and Tom in “Tom and Jerry” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Tom and Jerry”

Directed by Tim Story

Culture Representation: Set in New York City, the live-action/animated film “Tom and Jerry” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Longtime “frenemies” Tom (a stray cat) and Jerry (a pesky mouse) find themselves causing mischief at an upscale hotel, which will be the site of a major celebrity wedding.

Culture Audience: “Tom and Jerry” will appeal primarily to fans of the original “Tom and Jerry” cartoon series or people who want something for their young children to watch, but this clumsily made and boring film can’t come close to the exuberant spirit of the original “Tom and Jerry” cartoons.

Goldie, Jerry, Chloë Grace Moretz, Michael Peña and Rob Delaney in “Tom and Jerry” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

Animation technology has come a long way since the “Tom and Jerry” franchise was created in 1940 with a series of short films by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera. But having better technology still can’t replace good storytelling. And in that respect, the live-action/animated film “Tom and Jerry” (directed by Tim Story) is vastly inferior to all the “Tom and Jerry” films that came before it. Even if the movie might have been “dumbed down” with the intent of making it easier for very young children to understand, it’s still an insult to children’s intelligence to make this such a dull and awkward film.

Written by Kevin Costello, “Tom and Jerry” is a movie that looks like a haphazard collection of short sketches that were forced into a flimsy overall plot. In the movie, main characters Tom (an animated cat) and Jerry (an animated mouse) wreak havoc at an upscale New York City hotel that’s the venue for a high-profile celebrity wedding. Tom and Jerry are famously mute, while other animated animal characters in their world can talk. It’s too bad that no one muted this lazy and unimaginative movie by not making the movie at all.

What’s supposed to pass as comedy in this film is very stale. The action sequences are forgettable. And there’s no suspense in this story because everyone, except for people who’ve never seen cartoons before, will know exactly how this movie is going to end. The live-action actors all look like they did this movie for their paychecks, not because their hearts are in it.

“Tom and Jerry” takes place in New York City, where Tom and Jerry have known each other for an undetermined period of time and have crossed paths on the streets of New York City, where they live. Jerry is the “brattier” one of the two. In an early scene in the movie, a marquee sign at Madison Square Garden shows that Tom is a keyboardist who’s supposed to be appearing as an opening act for John Legend.

But, as an example of how poorly written this movie is, Tom is then shown playing his keyboard in a park, busking for change to a small group of people and pretending to be a blind musician. It doesn’t make sense that an artist who’s reached the level of playing Madison Square Garden, even as an opening act, would have to stoop to the level of doing these small-time con games. The marquee could have been Tom’s fantasy but it’s presented in the movie as real.

Jerry knows that Tom isn’t really blind, so it isn’t long before he causes some mischief and exposes Tom for being a fraud. It’s one of many “back and forth” acts of revenge that the cat and mouse play on each other throughout the story. None of these acts is particularly inventive or exciting in this movie. Tom has two imaginary alter egos that can talk and represent his inner thoughts: an “angel” that represents Tom’s “good side” and a “devil” that represents Tom’s bad side. Both characters are voiced by Lil Rel Howery.

As Tom chases Jerry for ruining Tom’s “blind keyboardist” act, they both crash into Mackayla “Kayla” Forester, a temp worker in her 20s who was on her way from picking up dry cleaning in her work as a personal assistant. Of course, the clothes go flying in different directions and get dirty.

The next thing you know, Kayla is on the phone with her boss (played by Craig Stein) at the employment agency, and he tells her that she’s suspended. She begs for another chance and offers to be his personal assistant. He refuses and says she might not be suited for this type of work. She agrees and quits on the spot.

Kayla is apparently having financial problems because she’s been going to the Royal Gale Hotel by pretending to be a guest and getting free meals at the buffet-styled dining area. The hotel’s main doorman Gavin (played by Daniel Adegboyega) knows that she’s been doing this freeloading. The next time he sees Kayla arrive at the hotel one morning, he asks if she’s back for the free food.

After getting some free breakfast, Kayla is in the lobby when she sees a prim and proper woman who looks like she might be able to afford a personal assistant. The woman is seated by herself in the lobby. Kayla sits down next to the woman, who is a Brit named Linda Perrybottom (played by Camilla Arfwedson), and strikes up a conversation.

Kayla is wearing a black leather jacket and tight black jeans, so she’s not as well-dressed as most of the hotel’s usual clientele. Linda notices it immediately, and she’s a little standoffish when Kayla tries to figure out if she can finagle her way into this stranger’s life for some money. Kayla asks Linda if she needs a personal assistant, and the answer is no.

It turns out that Linda is not a guest at the hotel, but she’s applying for a temp job in the hotel’s events department. Linda tells Kayla that she wants the job so that she can work on the upcoming wedding ceremony of a celebrity couple named Preeta Mehta (played by Pallavi Sharda) and Ben Jacobson (played by Colin Jost), who are famous enough to be on the cover of a gossip magazine that Linda shows to Kayla. It’s implied that Preeta and Ben are in the entertainment business, probably as actors.

Although Linda seems wary of Kayla, Linda ends up talking too much and giving away too much information about herself. Kayla sees an opportunity to steal Linda’s identity by first lying to Linda and saying that she’s an undercover supervisor who works for the hotel and was testing Linda to see how she treats strangers at the hotel. Kayla tells Linda that she failed the test because Linda was rude and indiscreet about Preeta and Ben’s wedding.

Kayla then asks Linda to see her résumé and tells Linda that she didn’t get the job. And just like that, Kayla takes Linda’s résumé, goes to a copy center to replace Linda’s name with her own. The résumé is so impressive that Kayla is hired on the spot for the job that Linda wanted. Needless to say, Kayla has no experience in hotel hospitality work or in event planning.

Kayla’s immediate boss is Terence Mendoza (played by Michael Peña), the hotel’s events manager. Terence reports to Henry Dubros (played by Rob Delaney), the hotel’s general manager. They both meet Kayla for the interview and put her immediately to work.

Terence is a smarmy character who becomes suspicious of Kayla’s qualifications early on, so she has to always keep one step ahead of him to prevent him from finding out that she’s a fraud. Terence is more likely to dismiss Kayla’s ideas, while Henry is more open-minded and willing to give Kayla a chance. Terence is desperate for Henry’s approval, so he’s often two-faced in how he deals with employees, depending on how well he thinks it will help further his career and impress Henry.

During Kayla’s first day on the job, she’s introduced to some of the other hotel employees who are featured in the movie. Chef Jackie (played by Ken Jeong) is a cranky taskmaster who likes to yell at his subordinates. Joy (played Patsy Ferran) is a nervous and socially awkward bellhop. Cameron (played by Jordan Bolger) is a laid-back and friendly bartender, who ends up giving Kayla some pep talks when certain things start to go wrong for her.

The first problem that Kayla encounters is finding out there’s a mouse loose in the hotel. The mouse is first spotted in one of the worst places to find a mouse: in the kitchen. And we all know who the mouse is. Tom the cat is lurking around too, so Kayla decides to “hire” Tom to capture Jerry. There’s a scene where Tom is literally wearing a bellhop cap, as if that is automatically supposed to be funny.

The rest of the movie is just more run-arounds, mishaps and sight gags, leading up to the big wedding. There’s a very dull subplot about how Ben ignores that Preeta wants a simple ceremony, and he becomes caught up in the idea of making the wedding more and more elaborate. It’s supposed to be a traditional Indian wedding, but Ben has taken over the wedding planning, as if he wants it to be a big movie production.

Ben is also very nervous about getting the approval of Preeta’s stern father (played by Ajay Chhabra), who acts like he can barely tolerate Ben. There are some humorless scenes where Ben and Mr. Mehta interact with each uncomfortably. Preeta’s mother (played by Somi De Souza) and Ben’s parents (played by Patrick Poletti and Janis Ahern) are also there, but their characters are written as very non-descript and unremarkable.

Ben’s obsession with wanting a lavish wedding reaches a point where he gets two elephants and a tiger for the ceremony. The idea is to have Ben and Preeta ride in on the two elephants, whose names are Cecil and Malcolm. All of the wild animals in the movie are animated characters. So too are the movie’s many domesticated animals, including Ben and Preeta’s pets: a bulldog named Spike (voiced by Bobby Cannavale) and a pampered cat named Toots.

The other animal characters in “Tom and Jerry” are three alley cats that are members of a gang that sometimes menace Tom: gang leader Butch (voiced by Nicky Jam), red-haired Lightning (voiced by Joey Wells) and diminutive Topsy (voiced by Harry Ratchford). There’s also Goldie, a goldfish that lives in Henry’s office and becomes a hunting target for Tom. And there’s a rapping bird named Pigeon (voiced by “Tom and Jerry” director Story) that acts as a narrator.

Because “Tom and Jerry” is a live-action/animation hybrid, the movie relies heavily on how convincing the actors look next to these animated characters. Moretz fares the best in putting the most effort in expressing different emotions with these imaginary animals. Peña at times looks uncomfortable, while Jeong dials up his angry and sarcastic persona to the highest and campiest notches.

There are some very predictable hijinks that ensue that often happen in movies with a wedding as the center of the action. A ring goes missing, a cake is in danger of being destroyed, and certain characters will inevitably have a big fight. It’s nothing that hasn’t already been done in other movies.

In addition to the formulaic plot developments, the dialogue and gags are often cringeworthy. When Kayla first meets Preeta and Ben, she gushes over them and tells them what a cute couple they are. Kayla also compliments Preeta on Preeta’s enormous engagement ring: “That rock! You can see it from outer space!” Ben smugly replies, “You can see our love from outer space.”

And it should come as no surprise that Spike the bulldog character is used for the inevitable fart and defecation jokes that every kids-oriented animal film seems to have these days. Spike eats a burrito that doesn’t agree with his intestinal system. And there’s a scene where Terence has to walk the dog after the dog ate the burrito. Enough said.

The direction and tone of “Tom and Jerry” are best described as a movie that doesn’t have any clever ideas and jumps around too much from antic to antic, in order to distract people from the very weak plot. The alley cat gang, which could have been used for more comedy, is very under-used in the film. Tom and Jerry do their expected slapstick shenanigans, but they’re surrounded by human characters that are just too bland.

And the movie’s visual effects aren’t very impressive, since some of the animation looks really out-of-place with the live actors. An example of a live-action/animation hybrid that did everything right is 1988’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” which didn’t have a lot of the animation technology that exists today. “Tom and Jerry” isn’t the worst animated film ever. But considering that people have so many better options, this movie is not essential viewing. It’s just not worth watching if you’re interested in engaging entertainment that’s truly fun to experience.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Tom and Jerry” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on February 26, 2021.

Review: ‘Judas and the Black Messiah,’ starring Daniel Kaluuya and LaKeith Stanfield

February 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

LaKeith Stanfield (in front) and Daniel Kaluuya (in back) in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah”

Directed by Shaka King

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Chicago in 1968 and 1969, the drama “Judas and the Black Messiah” features a predominately African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing people involved in the civil rights movement and law enforcement.

Culture Clash: The Black Panther Party, including Illinois chapter chairman Fred Hampton, was the target of FBI investigations that included hiring an African American paid informant named Bill O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party to help the FBI bring down Hampton and his colleagues.

Culture Audience: “Judas and the Black Messiah” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies about the civil rights movement for African Americans.

LaKeith Stanfield and Jesse Plemons in “Judas and the Black Messiah” (Photo by Glenn Wilson/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which is based on true events, mostly succeeds as presenting a rousing and riveting depiction of a troubling side of the U.S. civil rights movement that is rarely seen as the central plot of a movie: How African Americans were used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation to betray African American civil rights leaders who were labeled as “troublemakers” by the FBI. It’s a necessary and sometimes uncomfortable examination of specific people in the late 1960s history of the civil rights movement, even though “Judas and the Black Messiah” has some awards-bait dramatics that were obviously manufactured for the movie.

Directed by Shaka King (who co-wrote the screenplay with Will Berson), “Judas and the Black Messiah” shows two very different sides of the African American experience with the civil rights movement. On the one side is the urgent activism embodied by Fred Hampton, the chairman of the Illinois chapter of the Black Panther Party. On the other side, is the passive political apathy of William “Bill” O’Neal, a car thief who was lured into betraying the Black Panthers by being a paid confidential informant for the FBI, in exchange for the FBI keeping O’Neal out of prison for his past crimes, such as car theft and impersonating a FBI agent.

“Judas and the Black Messiah,” which takes place primarily in Chicago, is told from perspective of O’Neal (played by LaKeith Stanfield), but Hampton (played by Daniel Kaluuya) is most definitely portrayed as the heroic soul of the movie. In real life, Hampton and O’Neal were in their early 20s when this movie takes place from late 1968 to late 1969. Thankfully, the filmmakers chose “Judas and the Black Messiah” as the movie’s title, instead of the movie’s original and very misleading title “Jesus Was My Homeboy.” Jesus is not a major theme in this movie at all.

The term “black messiah” refers to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s fear that the civil rights movement would gain momentum under a powerful and charismatic leader. For a while, that leader was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (MLK), until he was brutally assassinated on April 4, 1968. “Judas and the Black Messiah” starts off in late 1968, when the civil rights movement became increasingly fractured by ideological divides between those who wanted to follow MLK’s non-violence philosophy and those such as the Black Panthers, who wanted to follow a more left-wing-leaning “any means necessary” philosophy, even if those means included violence.

Hoover has been depicted in various ways in movies and television, but in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” there’s no doubt that Hoover (played by Martin Sheen, in prosthetic makeup) is the movie’s chief villain. In an early scene in the movie, Hoover is presumably at FBI headquarters as he addresses an auditorium full of FBI agents (all white men, as Hoover reportedly preferred), with an oversized projection screen that looks a little too ahead of its time, as if he’s giving a TED Talk. This is supposed to be 1968, not 2018. It’s one of a few details that don’t ring true in the movie.

During this FBI assembly, Hoover sneers, “The Black Panthers are the single greatest threat to our national security. Our counterintelligence program must prevent the rise of a black messiah among their midst, one with the potential to unite Communists, the anti-war and the new left movements.” A photo of Hampton then appears on the giant projection screen, to make it clear that Hampton is now one of the FBI’s main targets.

Meanwhile, O’Neal is shown being a small-time car thief with an unusual method of operation: He impersonates a FBI agent (including having a fake badge) and pretends to arrest someone for having a stolen car. He looks for potential victims, by at least finding out their names and what kind of car they have, so the fake arrest can look real. And he chooses people who are probably into illegal activities and aren’t likely to go to the police when the theft victims find out they’ve been tricked. It’s implied that all of O’Neal’s theft victims are black, since he knows he’d have very little chance of getting away with this FBi impersonation stunt if he tried it on white people.

What usually happens during this fake FBI arrest is that O’Neal gets the handcuffed person’s car keys and steals that person’s car. Except when viewers first see O’Neal in this movie, that plan backfires in a bad way. O’Neal walks into a bar while some men are playing pool and tries to arrest one of them, but this stranger resists being handcuffed. The “arrestee” has a few friends who also try to stop the detainment. They’re all immediately suspicious of this “arrest” and chase after O’Neal in the car.

One of the friends jumps on the car roof with a knife and starts stabbing through the roof and ends up stabbing O’Neal. The injuries aren’t serious, but they’re enough for this car theft to be completely botched. O’Neal barely manages to get away from the angry group when he’s pulled over by police.

The movie then fast-forwards to O’Neal in a meeting with the FBI special agent who will be the one to lure O’Neal into the FBI sting: Roy Mitchell (played by Jesse Plemons), an ambitious smooth talker who asks O’Neal why he impersonated a FBI agent for a car theft. O’Neal replies, “A badge is scarier than a gun.”

Mitchell then asks O’Neal how he felt about the assassinations of MLK and Malcolm X. O’Neal replies that he was a “little bit” upset over MLK’s murder and he didn’t give much thought to Malcolm X’s murder. It’s at this point that Mitchell knows that O’Neal doesn’t care much about politics or the civil rights movement, and therefore O’Neal can be easily manipulated into being an informant.

First, Mitchell says that the only way that O’Neal can avoid prison is to work as an informant for the FBI. Whenever O’Neal starts to express doubts about being an informant (and this happens several times throughout the story), Mitchell tells O’Neal that the Black Panthers aren’t much different from the Ku Klux Klan, because Mitchell says both are radical, unpatriotic groups that want to divide people by their races and overthrow the U.S. government.

It doesn’t take long for O’Neal to infiltrate the Black Panther Party in Chicago and gain the trust of Hampton, who makes O’Neal the head of security. Hampton is a smart and magnetic leader who is respected by other party members because he often shows through words and deeds that the cause he’s fighting for isn’t about his ego but is about the people and future generations. Unlike other Black Power leaders, who wanted to keep black people separate from people of other races, Hampton embraced alliances with like-minded people of other races.

Hampton is credited with creating the Rainbow Coalition in 1969, which aimed to unite other anti-establishment groups for shared causes. It was a concept that was met with some resistance from the separatist Black Panthers, but because this is a movie, the Rainbow Coalition’s origins are a little too oversimplified and streamlined. One minute, Hampton and some other Black Panthers are showing up uninvited to meetings by the Young Patriots (a group of working-class white people) and the Young Lords (a group of Puerto Ricans) and making themselves known as unexpected allies. The next minute, Hampton is leading a Rainbow Coalition rally with members of the Black Panthers, the Young Patriots and the Young Lords in attendance.

The movie also shows how Hampton spearheaded the alignment of the Black Panthers with a Chicago-based African American gang called the Crowns, in order for the Black Panthers to have access to weapons and armed security backup. And what do you know, one of the Crowns just happens to be someone who was in that group that chased after O’Neal in that botched car theft. There’s a very “movie moment” when O’Neal is sure this guy is going to remember him, thereby making O’Neal more paranoid that his cover will be blown.

Some of the other Black Panther Party members who are featured in the movie include Jimmy Palmer (played by Ashton Sanders), Jake Winters (played by Algee Smith), Judy Harmon (played by Dominique Thorn) and Deborah Johnson (played by Dominique Fishback), a wide-eyed student who is in awe of Hampton and ends up becoming his girlfriend. In real life, Johnson is now known as Akua Njeri, and she gave birth to Fred Hampton Jr. in December 1969. Njeri and Hampton Jr. both were consultants on “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

Of course, in any movie that involves spying, there are double crosses and constant questions about loyalty, honesty and who can be trusted. The movie ramps up the tension not only outside the Black Panther Party but also within it. “Judas and the Black Messiah” also raises thought-provoking questions that will make people wonder about the prices that people pay for freedom, however freedom might be defined by individuals. And when there are informants or spies who are paid to betray, to what extent should they be branded as the “enemy”?

“Judas and the Black Messiah” has undoubtedly powerful performances by Kaluuya as Hampton and Stanfield as O’Neal. Kaluuya has the flashier role that will get more attention, mainly because there’s no ambiguity about his purpose in the film: depicting Hampton as a civil rights hero. In the few times Hampton was depicted in scripted projects before “Judas and the Black Messiah” was made, Hampton was usually a marginal character who didn’t have much depth, such as in the Netflix 2020 movie “The Trial of the Chicago 7.”

In “Judas and the Black Messiah,” Hampton is a larger-than-life personality who gets the big speeches, the leadership position at rallies, and the martyrdom when he lands in prison at the height of his power. Hampton’s biggest showcase speech scene comes after he’s released from prison and gets a hero’s welcome during a Black Panther rally in Chicago. After leading the crowd to chant, “I am a revolutionary!” several times in the speech, he declares poetically: “You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder liberation! You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution! You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom!”

Stanfield has the more difficult and nuanced role as the conflicted and duplicitous O’Neal. On the one hand, O’Neal knows he’s a traitor. On the other hand, O’Neal is portrayed as someone who genuinely became friends with many people in the Black Panther Party, but he felt powerless to stop the informant deal that he made with the FBI. There are times when O’Neal shows so much loyalty to the Black Panthers that FBI agent Mitchell doubts whose side O’Neal is really on.

“Judas and the Black Messiah” doesn’t let O’Neal completely off the hook for his betrayal, but the movie gives the impression that his decisions were not about the money but about his fear of going to prison if he didn’t comply with what the FBI wanted. In real life, O’Neal gave only one TV interview about his Black Panther/FBI informant experience. It was in 1989, in an interview for the PBS show “Eyes on the Prize 2,” which aired the interview on January 15, 1990. Clips of this interview are recreated in the movie.

The performances in “Judas and the Black Messiah” are impactful and deserving of high praise. Where the movie falters is in some of the scenarios depicting the interactions between O’Neal and his FBI contact Mitchell. In the movie, Mitchell deliberately kept O’Neal’s identity a secret from most his FBI colleagues. (Hoover knew though.) Therefore, it doesn’t make sense that the movie shows O’Neal and Mitchell openly meeting several times in upscale restaurants, where O’Neal is obviously the only black person there as a dining patron. It wouldn’t have been hard for the movie’s screenwriters to keep all of the meetings between O’Neal and Mitchell in less public places.

O’Neal’s wardrobe gets a little more stylish as he starts to make more money from the FBI. But in the beginning, O’Neal definitely stands out in these restaurants because he’s dressed inappropriately (too casual) for these kinds of dining establishments. If you were to believe this movie, in 1969 Chicago, a black man in “street clothes” can walk into an upscale restaurant where all the other patrons are white, sit down, have dinner with a white man in a suit, and no one notices, stares or questions why this inappropriately dressed black man is there. Things like that would’ve definitely gotten noticed in the real world. And this scenario is not exactly O’Neal and Mitchell keeping their relationship undercover or incognito.

Another “only in a movie” contrivance is in a scene where a despondent O’Neal ends up in a bar, where a woman shows a romantic interest in him after she rejects a fur-coat-wearing motormouth at a nearby barstool. The rejected man (played by Lil Rel Howery), who is identified only as Wayne in the movie’s end credits, is a stranger to O’Neal, but Wayne drops hints that he knows that O’Neal is working for the FBI.

O’Neal, who is already feeling very uneasy, follows Wayne out to Wayne’s car and demands to know who he is. The movie, with anxiety-filled music building to a crescendo, then has Wayne reveal something that’s meant to shock O’Neal and the audience. It’s highly doubtful this confrontation ever happened in real life, but fans of the Oscar-winning 2017 horror movie “Get Out” will be happy to see “Get Out” co-stars Kaluuya, Stanfield and Howery reunited as cast members for “Judas and the Black Messiah.”

As the only women with significant speaking roles in the movie, Fishback (as Hampton’s girlfriend Johnson) and Thorne (as Black Panther member Harmon) show considerable talent, although this is definitely a male-dominated film. Johnson’s character evolves from being a star-stuck fangirl of Hampton to being a loyal romantic partner to being a strong-willed expectant mother, who can’t help but feel impending heartbreak and doom when she hears Hampton give a speech saying that he will probably die for his people. Thorne’s Harmon is a badass who can get down and dirty in fight scenes just like the men do, such as in a tension-filled shootout between the Chicago Police Department and the Black Panthers.

The flaws in the movie’s screenplay are outweighed by the significant talent of the cast members and the ability of director King to maintain a suspenseful edge. Even though many people watching this movie might already know what happened to Hampton and O’Neal in real life, “Judas and the Black Messiah” triumphs in capturing the essence of this era of the civil rights movement in America. There might be fabricated “only in a movie” moments, but the film authentically conveys the passion and necessity for civil rights.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “Judas and the Black Messiah” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘The Photograph,’ starring Issa Rae and LaKeith Stanfield

February 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

LaKeith Stanfield and Issa Rae in “The Photograph” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“The Photograph”

Directed by Stella Meghie 

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City and Louisiana, the romantic drama “Photograph” has a primarily African American cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Career ambitions and the fear of commitment have affected the love lives of a museum curator and her late mother, who left behind her humble roots in Louisiana to become a famous photographer in New York City.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal mostly to audiences looking for nuanced and emotional romantic dramas that don’t fall into the trap of melodramatic clichés.

Y’lan Noel and Chanté Adams in “The Photograph” (Photo by Sabrina Lantos/Universal Pictures)

It’s about time. “The Photograph” is a rare treasure of a romantic drama that doesn’t pander to negative stereotypes of African Americans. The people aren’t constantly cursing, the men are gainfully employed and aren’t criminals, and the women aren’t mad at the men for being cheaters, abusers or deadbeat baby daddies. There used to be a time when there were dramatic films that showed a better and more realistic variety of African Americans instead of the embarrassing caricatures that unfortunately are written for many of today’s movies that have predominantly African American casts.

For people who want to see more African American films like “Love Jones” or “Brown Sugar,” fortunately “The Photograph” is a return to these types of movies where black people aren’t all poor, uneducated and/or living in crime-infested areas. “The Photograph” might be considered “boring” for people who like to see black folks yelling at each other non-stop. But for other people who can appreciate classier and more emotionally mature adult relationships, “The Photograph” is the type of movie that will be a welcome treat.

Written and directed by Stella Meghie, “The Photograph” goes back and forth in telling two different love stories from two different eras. The contemporary love story takes place in New York City, and it involves assistant museum curator Mae Morton (played by Issa Rae) and news journalist Michael Block (played by LaKeith Stanfield). They meet because Michael, who works for a news/lifestyle magazine called The Republic, is doing a story on Mae’s mother, Christina Eames, a famous photographer who has recently passed away.

The other love story takes place in late 1980s Louisiana, and it involves Christina (played by Chanté Adams) as a young, aspiring photographer and Isaac Jefferson (played by Y’Lan Noel), a local fisherman who was Christina’s boyfriend at the time. In the beginning of the film, Michael is seen interviewing a middle-aged Isaac (played by Rob Morgan), who basically says that even though he and Christina lost touch with each other when she moved to New York City in the late 1980s, she was the love of his life and he never really got over their relationship ending. Isaac shows Michael a self-portrait photograph that Christina took, and Michael takes a photo of it on his phone, which he later shows to Mae after he meets her in New York.

When Mae and Michael first meet each other at her Queens Museum job, they both think it’s going to be a work-related conversation, but they feel some romantic sparks when they first set eyes on each other. Michael is there to interview Mae (who was estranged from her mother for most of her life) and to see if Mae has any of Christina’s personal mementos that she would feel comfortable showing him. Mae has some letters from Christina that were supposed to be read after Christina died, but Mae has difficulty bringing herself to read all the letters in their entirety.

That’s because Christina abandoned her husband Louis Morton (played by Courtney B. Vance) and Mae when Mae was a very young girl. The reason that Christina gave for leaving them was that she was too devoted to her career to be a good wife and mother. Those emotional wounds never really healed for Mae. And although she feels some level of grief over the death of her mother, she didn’t really know her, and Mae has conflicting feelings about how much sadness she should feel about her mother’s death.

The movie shows flashbacks of what went wrong in the relationship between Christina and Isaac. Although they loved each other deeply, Christina was feeling too restless in Louisiana, and she wanted to pursue her dream of becoming a well-known and respected professional photographer. Meanwhile, Isaac was comfortable staying in Louisiana to become a fisherman. The couple parted ways over their different goals and lifestyle ambitions. But the way Christina left was abrupt, and Isaac never really got closure for it.

A few years later after she had married and become a mother in New York City, Christina once again, in a single-minded pursuit of her career, left behind loved ones to focus on her work ambitions. As Mae and Michael start to date and open up to each other, Mae confesses that she’s afraid of becoming just like her mother.

Meanwhile, Michael also has issues with commitment since he has a “grass is always greener” attitude about a lot of his romantic relationships. Before he met Christina, he had a long-distance romance with a woman in Louisiana, but that relationship ended around the time he interviewed Isaac. Mae finds out about the ex-girlfriend and is mildly jealous, but she gets over it when she realizes that she and Michael have something special.

Mae and Michael are a great match for each other. They’re both smart and likable. Mae is funny in a sarcastic kind of way, while Michael is self-deprecating and endearing. They both have similar interests, but not so similar that they’re boring clones of each other. Over their first dinner date, they debate the merits of rappers such as Drake, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. Mae confesses that Lamar “makes me feel guilty” because she isn’t always engaged in African American empowerment the way Lamar preaches about it in his songs. That confession is later referenced in a very touching moment near the end of the movie.

Here’s what’s so refreshing about “The Photograph” and the love story between Mae and Michael: They deal with their personal issues in a respectful way with each other. There’s no craziness, no abusive language, no negative clichés such as addictions, infidelity or criminal activity that threaten to tear apart their relationship. If you think about how often these stereotypes are all over movies with predominately African American casts, it’s cause for celebration that “The Photograph” didn’t sink to these levels and does it in a beautiful way.

Another healthy and positive African American romance in the story is between Michael’s older brother Kyle (played by Lil Rel Howery) and Kyle’s wife, Asia (played by Teyonah Parris), who are parents to two young girls. Kyle and Asia offer a lot of emotional support and advice to Michael, and they aren’t afraid to keep it real with him when they think he’s making mistakes. Kyle and Asia have some of the best scenes in the movie when they’re around Michael and Mae. Their dynamic (one longtime couple, one new couple) has an authentic banter that’s great to watch.

But before you get all gooey inside from all this lovey-dovey wonderfulness, it wouldn’t be a romantic drama if the couple didn’t have a big obstacle to overcome. For Mae and Michael, just like with Christina and Isaac, their relationship might have to reach a crossroads because of a career decision. Before he met Mae, Michael applied for a London-based job at the Associated Press.

When Michael and Mae start dating, he doesn’t know if he got the job, but he tells Mae about the possibility that he might move to another country, and that revelation affects her feelings of how seriously she wants to get involved with Michael. But they can’t deny their passionate feelings for each other. And one night, when during a rainstorm that hits New York City, Michael and Mae end up consummating their relationship and they really start to fall in love.

As for the secret that’s revealed in Christina’s letters, it’s pretty obvious from the flashbacks to Christina and Isaac’s love story what that secret is. You’ll have to see the movie to find out Mae’s reaction. And as for that Associated Press job in London, it’s also revealed whether or not Michael got the job, because that also affects his relationship with Mae.

“The Photograph” is by no means a masterpiece. It’s got some pacing issues, and some viewers might want to see Michael and Mae have more people in their lives besides immediate family members and co-workers. But “The Photograph” shows how some people just don’t need a large social circle to be happy. They don’t need messy drama to validate their love relationships. Just like a grape harvester for fine wine, “The Photograph” weeds out a lot of nasty ingredients that could pollute a story like this, and celebrates love that is reaffirming and uplifting.

Universal Pictures released “The Photograph” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

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