Review: ‘Tankhouse,’ starring Tara Holt, Stephen Friedrich, Richard Kind and Christopher Lloyd

May 21, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured from left right: Sarah Yarkin (in back) Luke Spencer Roberts, Joe Adler, Nadia Alexander, Tara Holt, Stephen Friedrich, Devere Rogers and Austin Crute in “Tankhouse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Tankhouse”

Directed by Noam Tomaschoff

Culture Representation: Taking place in Fargo, North Dakota, and briefly in New York City, the comedy film “Tankhouse” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and one Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After being blacklisted from the New York City theater scene, engaged actor couple Tucker Charlamagne and Sandrene St. Jean go to Fargo, North Dakota, to enter a performing arts contest where the winner will get a residency at the newly restored Fargo Theatre.

Culture Audience: “Tankhouse” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of satirical comedies about theater people, but the movie’s silly tone wears thin very quickly.

Stephen Friedrich and Tara Holt in “Tankhouse” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The performing arts parody “Tankhouse” isn’t nearly as funny as it thinks it is. The movie’s broadly written characters are hollow. The comedy too often misses the mark. Hint: Shouting witless dialogue doesn’t make it more amusing. And there’s a lot of shouting in this movie, as the cast members were apparently told that their characters have to yell for no good reason for about half of their screen time.

Directed by Noam Tomaschoff (who co-wrote “Tankhouse” with Chelsea Frei), “Tankhouse” is based on a short film of the same name written by Tomaschoff and Frei. Both “Tankhouse” movies take inspiration from the real-life New York City theater experiences of Tomaschoff and Frei, who both took an opportunity to go to a smaller city to stage a production. It’s essentially a similar story for the “Tankhouse” protagonist couple—Tucker Charlamagne (played by Stephen Friedrich) and Sandrene St. Jean (played by Tara Holt)—two down-on-their-luck actors who are engaged to be married and who stage a production in Fargo, North Dakota, after their careers falter in New York City.

In the “Tankhouse” feature film production notes, Frei says that Sandrene and Tucker are “absurd versions” of herself and Tomaschoff. In the case of Tucker, you can also add the description “extremely obnoxious.” That’s because Tucker (who talks the most in this movie) is a rude and pretentious twit who wants to be the “alpha male” of everything, but he ends up making a mess of things, more often than not. Because so much of the “Tankhouse” narrative is given to Tucker, the movie becomes as blustering and buffoonish as Tucker.

“Tankhouse” is also one of those movies that pulls a “bait and switch” on audiences, by giving well-known actors top billing, but those actors aren’t in the movie for very long. Fans of actor Christopher Lloyd (who’s best known for his roles in the “Back to the Future” movies and the sitcom “Taxi”) will be disappointed to find out that his total screen time in “Tankhouse” is less than 10 minutes, with all of his scenes happening in the first third of the movie. Notable character actor Richard Kind (best known for his roles in the TV comedy series “Mad About You” and “Spin City”) also shares top billing for “Tankhouse,” but his screen time is limited to less than 10 minutes too.

The “Tankhouse” movie poster also shows Kind, Holt, Friedrich and Lloyd all peeking out together from a stage curtain. It’s a misleading image, because it suggests that all four of them are equal co-stars in “Tankhouse.” The reality is that Lloyd and Kind barely have supporting roles in the movie, and their roles are basically just playing cranky know-it-alls, which is the type of character they’ve played many times already in movies and TV. Can you say “typecasting”?

“Tankhouse” has some whimsical-looking animation for some flashback scenes, including an early scene in the movie when narrator Tucker explains how he met and fell in love with Sandrene. (Her real last name is Rothstein. St. Jean is her stage surname.) Tucker says that shortly after getting his bachelor of fine arts degree at an unnamed university, he was directing an off-off-Broadway movement piece in New York City when Sandrene walked into the show.

Sandrene was doing research for a cop TV series called “Rookie Badge” that she was about to co-star in, but her role ended up being drastically reduced. Sandrene and Tucker began dating and have been a couple for an unspecified period of time. Tucker is the type of actor who looks down on TV work. He believes that an actor’s true merit and talent can be found doing work on stage. Tucker’s snobbery toward television is something to keep in mind during a plot development later in “Tankhouse.”

Now in their 30s, Sandrene and Tucker are engaged to be married. And they’re still struggling actors in New York City. However, a possible bright spot in their careers is that Tucker and Sandrene have been put in charge of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio, an avant-garde performing arts group founded by Buford Slezinger (played by Lloyd), who has been Tucker’s mentor. Buford stepped down as the leader of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio because his chronic battle with gout has resulted in him using a wheelchair.

It’s implied that Buford is an “old school” sexist, because one of the first things that he’s shown doing is barking out his “rules” for success to the small group of people in this theater troupe: “I have two notes: (1) A worthy actress must always carry a fan; (2) If you want to make it in this business, you’ve got to immediately lose 10 pounds.”

Buford likes to think that he’s a highly respected guru of the New York theater scene, but he doesn’t have a large following. The Artist Atelier Acting Studio has a very small number of actors: only seven, including Tucker and Sandrene. And this small theater group often gets an even smaller audience for performances. Even though Buford has stepped down from his leadership position for the Artist Atelier Acting Studio, Buford stays involved in the group by being a consultant/advisor.

Tucker likes to talk in flowery speech to make it sound like he’s a theater-trained actor who’s always the smartest actor in the room. However, his social skills are horrible, since Tucker frequently loses his temper and berates the people around him. Sandrene is usually spared Tucker’s wrath because she passively goes along with almost everything he wants to do.

Adding to Tucker’s pompous and ridiculous persona, he styles his hair and wears clothes like he’s a trying to be a combination of a Brooklyn hipster and “Pirates of the Caribbean” character Captain Jack Sparrow. For example, Tucker is the type of man who will wear flowing scarves with a black leather jacket. And his fashion choices for his theater troupe are questionable at best, since he makes the troupe members all wear unitards or onesies in their performances.

It’s at one of these performances that leads to the downfall of Tucker and Sandrene in the New York City theater scene. The Artist Atelier Acting Studio troupe is doing a rooftop performance in the Bronx, with only six people watching the show. The performance involves spontaneous interaction with the audience members.

One of the audience members is a wheelchair-using elderly woman (played by Bunny Levine), who ends up having a heart attack during the vigorous audience interaction part of the show. As a result of the heart attack, she dies during this performance. And there happens to be a theater critic in the audience named Jax Wynn (played by Rebecca Sohn), who (not surprisingly) gives the show a very negative review.

The woman who died during the show wasn’t just any audience member. Her name was Doris Feinstein. She was the “nana” (grandmother) of Artist Atelier Acting Studio member Asher (played by Carlos R. Chavez), and she was the Artist Atelier Acting Studio’s only financial backer. With their principal benefactor now deceased, the group has an emergency meeting with Buford observing.

Sandrene expresses her condolences to Asher about his grandmother’s death, but insensitive Tucker exclaims about Doris’ last moments: “Doris lived as she never lived before! Nana’s death: It’s the circle of life!” And this callous comment is not the only thing that causes alienation. The rest of the group members express their anger at Tucker and Sandrene for the couple making the group members do extreme performance tactics, such as having unsimulated sex and using real guns during a show.

Tucker and Sandrene are informed that the rest of the group has voted to oust Tucker and Sandrene as leaders of the Artist Atelier Acting Studio. Buford agrees that the majority of the group should decide this matter. And so, Tucker and Sandrene no longer have a theater group. When they try to get work elsewhere, they find out that they’ve been blacklisted because of the death that happened during that rooftop performance.

With their money running out and their rent due, Tucker and Sandrene are visited by Sandrene’s parents Deirdra (played by Joey Lauren Adams) and Bob (played by Andy Buckley), who still live in Sandrene’s hometown of Fargo. Tucker and Sandrene tell her parents that they have a great idea to start a theater troupe, but they need Deirdra and Bob to invest some money in it. Deirdra and Bob have been helping Sandrene financially, but this time, they’ve had enough of financially supporting her, so they say no to this pitch.

However, Deirdra tells Tucker and Sandrene that the Fargo Theatre has been recently refurbished and restored. And the city of Fargo is having a performing arts contest where the winner will get a residency at the Fargo Theatre. Theater snob Tucker is dead-set against the idea, because he thinks going to a place like Fargo is far beneath his talent. Sandrene is more open to the idea, especially since her parents offered their ranch house to Sandrene and Tucker to stay rent-free in Fargo, while Deirdra and Bob go on a safari in Tanzania.

Tucker asks Buford for his advice in this matter. To Tucker’s surprise and dismay, Buford suggests that Tucker and Sandrene go to Fargo for this opportunity. Buford tells Tucker that Tucker and Sandrene need to expand their actor experiences outside of New York City and that they can learn from these experiences. After some unsuccessful attempts to get enough cash to pay their rent, Tucker reluctantly changes his mind and goes to Fargo with Sandrene so that they can enter the contest.

Before going to Fargo, Sandrene was selling some of her clothes at a vintage store when she encountered a friend named Brian (played by “Tankhouse” director Tomaschoff), whom she hadn’t seen in a long time. In this scene, Sandrene and Brian catch up on what’s been going on in their lives, but Sandrene doesn’t tell him about her recent career problems. Brian tells Sandrene that he’s now a talent coordinator at a big agency called United Talent International.

Brian offers to help find actor work for Sandrene, who is thrilled. But the timing couldn’t be worse, because she will soon be going to Fargo, for who knows how long. Still, she’s open to opportunities where she can audition with video recordings. Sandrene doesn’t tell Tucker about it though, because she knows that this agency is most likely to find her a job in TV or in movies, and Tucker disapproves of any actor work that isn’t on stage.

Tucker also has a very jealous side to him. It comes out when Tucker and Sandrene go to Fargo, and they encounter Sandrene’s ex-boyfriend from high school. His name is Hank (played by Alex Esola), and he seems to still be in awe of Sandrene. At an Open Mic night at a local bar, Tucker becomes even more irritated when Hank invites Sandrene to sing with Hank during an acoustic guitar performance. She enthusiastically accepts the offer, and Tucker watches their duet while seething with annoyance.

Somehow, a bar fight ensues that lands Tucker and Sandrene in jail, where they meet an eccentric, wannabe actor named Uther (played by Devere Rogers), who always wears sunglasses because he claims to be legally blind. After getting out on bail, Tucker and Sandrene decide they’re going to form a theater group to enter the contest. Their biggest competition is a theater group named Red River Players, formed by Morten Mortensen (played by Kind), who used to be Sandrene’s drama teacher in high school.

Tucker and Sandrene then assemble a theater group that consists of Uther and five young bar patrons who saw Sandrene perform with Hank. These five other Fargo misfits are mild-mannered tech nerd Nina (played by Sarah Yarkin); Viking-obsessed Scandinavian immigrant Yorick (played by Joe Adler); militant feminist Leah (played by Nadia Alexander); and semi-closeted gay couple Jack (played by Austin Crute) and Brady (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), who have a “coming out” scene that is awkward at best. The group’s rehearsal space is a place called Tankhouse, a warehouse-styled building that Yorick has turned into a makeshift moonshine distillery. The expected hijinks ensue in a movie where the characters want to win a contest, but these shenanigans are a lot duller than they should be.

As the optimistic but often-flaky actress Sandrene, Holt gives the best performance out of all the “Tankhouse” cast members, because she comes closest to not letting the character become a caricature. Tucker is just a train wreck abomination for most of the movie, and Friedkin seems to be doing the best he can with portraying an insufferable jerk. Any transformations that Tucker might experience to improve his personality are very abrupt and crammed in as an afterthought to make him look redeemable. However, all of the characters in “Tankhouse” ultimately are very shallow and written as “types” instead of fully formed personalities.

“Tankhouse” isn’t a completely horrible movie. There are sporadic moments that should bring some laughs, such as a “musical theater” verbal battle (similar to a rap battle), with Sandrene and Tucker versus Morten in performing “The Pirates of Penzance” song “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General.” Tucker the lunkhead also has some moments that should make viewers laugh, such as his habit of unwittingly mispronouncing words. His bungled linguistics are supposed to be ironic, considering that Tucker wants to have an image of being a highbrow actor with a strong command of the English language.

But these occasionally comical moments in “Tankhouse” are overshadowed by all the moronic posturing, dimwitted character scheming and the aforementioned unnecessary shouting of mediocre lines that pollute “Tankhouse.” The movie’s musical score—written by Craig McConnell and clearly inspired by 1980s sitcom music—alternates between sometimes sounding appropriate for the scenes, and other times just being downright aggravating. The middle section of the movie drags monotonously, even when “Tankhouse” attempts to have a high-energy, slapstick tone throughout the movie.

Physical comedy works best if the dialogue and characters are interesting too. Unfortunately, “Tankhouse” falls short when it comes to having dialogue and characters that are truly engaging. Watching “Tankhouse” is like being stuck in a room with people manically telling mostly bad jokes for about 90 minutes, and the people telling the jokes mistakenly think that they’re hilarious. The “Tankhouse” filmmakers also do not present the story in a consistent way, because “Tankhouse” tries and fails be both a lighthearted comedy and a dark farce. And some of the “gags” just don’t work and add nothing to the movie, such as a joke about Sandrene’s father Bob pressuring vegan Tucker to eat some bison beef jerky.

Supporting characters such as Fargo theater actress Mackenzie Billingham (played by Rachel Matthews) and Jack’s police captain mother Pauline Mikkelsen (played by Carolyn Michelle Smith) are very underwritten and are only used as plot devices to drop some surprises on the Tankhouse group. Although the ending of “Tankhouse” does not take a completely predictable route, it’s still too little, too late. “Tankhouse” might be trying to get the type of cult-audience status of director Christopher Guest’s classic 1996 community theater mockumentary “Waiting for Guffman,” but “Tankhouse” lacks the wit and the charm to gain a notable cult following.

Vertical Entertainment released “Tankhouse” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 13, 2022.

Review: ‘Above Suspicion’ (2021), starring Emilia Clarke, Jack Huston and Johnny Knoxville

May 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jack Huston and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Above Suspicion” (2021)

Directed by Phillip Noyce

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky from 1988 to 1989, the crime drama “Above Suspicion” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A drug-addicted woman becomes a confidential informant to the FBI, and complications ensue when she gets emotionally involved with the FBI agent who is her contact.

Culture Audience: “Above Suspicion” will appeal mostly to people who don’t mind watching predictable and pulpy crime movies that put more emphasis on being tacky than being suspenseful.

Johnny Knoxville and Emilia Clarke in “Above Suspicion” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

The cheap-looking and tawdry drama “Above Suspicion” is based on a true crime story, but the movie foolishly gives away the ending at the very beginning of the film. In other words, if viewers don’t know what happened in this case in real life, they’ll know exactly what the outcome is in the movie’s opening scene, which has a morbid “voice from the dead” narration from the movie’s main character. “Above Suspicion” just goes downhill from there.

Directed by Phillip Noyce, “Above Suspicion” is one of those “flashback” movies where the narrator is telling what happened in the past. And in this movie (which takes place in 1988 and 1989), the narrator tells viewers that she’s already dead. Her name is Susan Smith (played by Emilia Clarke), a divorced mother of two children. She was in her late 20s when she died.

In these flashbacks of her life, Susan is a cocaine-snorting, pill-popping, marijuana-smoking ne’er do well who makes money by committing fraud. She’s been collecting government welfare checks from the state of West Virginia, which she’s not entitled to have because she actually lives in Kentucky, where she gets welfare checks too. And occasionally, Susan sells drugs to make money.

In the movie’s opening scene, Susan says in a voiceover: “You know what’s the worst thing about being dead? You get too much time to think. Thinking is painful. Knowing things is painful.”

To serve as a warning to viewers, a better way to open this movie would have been: “You know what’s the worst thing about a brain-dead movie? It wastes too much time. Watching it is painful. Knowing this movie could be so much better is painful.”

And sitting through all the cringeworthy lines that stink up this movie is painful. Chris Gerolmo wrote the “Above Suspicion” screenplay, which is based on journalist Joe Sharkey’s 1993 non-fiction book of the same name. People who’ve read that book will probably find this movie difficult to watch because it takes what was fascinating about this true crime book and turns it into a trashy melodrama.

Clarke, who is British in real life, attempts to give a believable and edgy performance as a Kentucky mother who’s lost her way in life and ends up falling for and clinging to a seemingly straight-laced married FBI agent. But there are moments when Clarke’s true British mannerisms come through, such as when she slips up and says the word “whilst” instead of “while” during one of the many scenes where her Susan character is yelling at someone. “Whilst” is not the kind of word that would be in the vocabulary of a Kentucky hillbilly like Susan.

Because “Above Suspicion” reveals in the opening scene that Susan is dead, the rest of this 104-minute movie is really just a countdown to Susan’s death. Given the lifestyle that she leads and what’s at stake when Susan gets involved with a married FBI agent with a squeaky-clean reputation, it’s not hard to figure out how she’ll die. And it won’t be from a drug overdose. If viewers don’t know what happened to the real Susan Smith in this case before they see “Above Suspicion,” it’ll become pretty obvious what her fate will be soon after this movie begins.

Susan lives in a dirty and disheveled house in Pikeville, Kentucky, with her sleazy ex-husband Cash (played by Johnny Knoxville), who’s a small-time drug dealer. They’re still living together because they can’t afford to get their own separate places. (In real life, the name of Susan’s ex-husband was Kenneth, but he really was a drug dealer.) Susan and Cash’s two children—an unnamed daughter who’s 7 or 8 years old (played by Lex Kelli) and a son named Isom who’s 5 or 6 years old (played by Landon Durrance)—don’t say much, probably because they’re shell-shocked by living in such a dysfunctional home.

Someone who does talk a lot is Susan. She and Cash have arguments and physical fights with each other, and she gets irritable or impatient with almost anyone who crosses her path, except for her children. Two other people who live in Susan and Cash’s dumpy house are an unemployed couple in their 20s: Joe B. (played by Karl Glusman) and his girlfriend Georgia Beale (played by Brittany O’Grady), who don’t seem to do much but sleep all day. Joe met Cash when they were in prison together. Cash is the one who invited Joe to stay at the house after Joe got out of prison. Needless to say, Susan isn’t very happy about it.

In one of the movie’s early scenes, Joe makes inappropriate sexual comments to Susan, who understandably gets upset. Joe also calls her “Susie,” which she hates. But then, Susan also takes her anger out on Georgia about it. Susan bursts into the room where Georgia is sleeping and berates her about Joe being a creep. As Susan storms back out of the room, she screams at Georgia, “Pay me my rent money, bitch!”

Joe actually has been making money, but in an illegal way. He’s secretly a bank robber who has been targeting banks in cities near Pikeville, with Georgia’s help as his occasional getaway driver. Susan knows this secret because Joe’s red Chevy pickup truck fits the news media’s description of the getaway car. And she’s found Joe’s stash of cash with the guns that were used in the robberies.

“Above Suspicion” has some druggie party scenes that are exactly what people might expect. And it’s only a matter of time before fights break out at these parties. Susan’s volatile younger brother Bones (played by Luke Spencer Roberts) predictably gets in one of these fights, which leads to a particularly violent scene that was fabricated for this movie, just to add more melodrama.

Susan says in a voiceover: “Welcome to Pikeville, the town that never lets go.” She also says that in Pikeville, which is plagued by drug addiction, there are two main ways that people make money: “the funeral business or selling drugs.” And earlier in the film, this is how Susan describes herself: “I was a regular girl once. But things go wrong, as things will.”

Susan’s life takes a fateful turn when she meets Mark Putnam (played by Jack Huston), an ambitious and fairly new FBI agent, who has transferred to Pikeville to investigate the bank robberies. When Susan first sees Mark, who’s two years older than she is, she describes him like a hunk straight out of a romance novel. It’s lust at first sight for Susan.

And when Susan finds out that Mark is the FBI agent leading the investigation into the robberies, she sees it as an opportunity to get to know him better. It isn’t long before she drops hints to Mark that she knows who the bank robber is, but she’s afraid to be exposed as a snitch. Mark offers to pay Susan for bits and pieces of information, and she becomes his main confidential informant.

Susan dangles enough tips for Mark to investigate to keep him coming back for more. There’s an ulterior motive, of course. Susan wants to seduce Mark. And because Mark is so different from the men she’s used to being involved with, Susan starts to fall in love with him. However, it’s debatable whether it’s true love or if it’s Susan just wanting a ticket out of her dead-end life. At one point, when Mark asks Susan what she wants most in her life, she answers, “Rehab and money.”

Susan knows that Mark is happily married and has a baby daughter with his wife Kathy Putnam (played by Sophie Lowe), but that doesn’t seem to deter Susan from having a fantasy that Mark will eventually leave Kathy to be with Susan. When Susan and Mark meet in out-of-the-way and deserted places in other Kentucky cities such as Portersville and Martin, it’s just like the clandestine way that secret lovers meet. Susan starts to tell Mark that they both make a great team, but she wants to make their “partnership” about more than FBI work.

“Above Suspicion” portrays Susan as toning down some of her vulgar and mean-spirited ways to try to seduce Mark. She gives him a lot of flattery and attention. And anyone watching this movie will not be surprised when Mark starts to fall for Susan too because he’s become slightly bored with his marriage. But Mark doesn’t feel so strongly about Susan that he wants to leave his wife. Mark has a big ego, and he enjoys being with someone who fuels that ego. Huston’s portrayal of Mark is as someone whose top priority in life is being the best at his job and getting recognition and praise for it.

Even if Mark were an available bachelor, Mark and Susan’s relationship has too many other issues, including a power imbalance and a difference in their social classes. And most troubling of all for Mark’s career is that getting sexually involved with Susan is a breach of ethics and an automatic compromise of the evidence that Mark is getting from her for this investigation. And once the investigation is over, where does Susan fit into Mark’s life?

Clarke and Huston (who is also British in real life) aren’t terrible in their roles, but they are hindered by a subpar screenplay. Huston’s Mark character is often written as two-dimensional, while Clarke’s Susan character displays over-the-top trashiness that becomes increasingly annoying, especially when Susan begins stalking Mark and his wife Kathy. It’s supposed to make Susan look emotionally needy, lovesick and vulnerable, but her obsession with Mark only makes her look mentally unhinged. As for Knoxville, his abusive Cash character is just another version of the scumbags that Knoxville usually portrays in movies.

There are some supporting characters in the movie that don’t add much to the story. Susan has a concerned older sister named Jolene (played by Thora Birch), who lives in West Virginia and occasionally calls Susan. Mark has a colleague named Todd Eason (played by Chris Mulkey), who’s retiring from the FBI in six months. There are an informant named Denver Rhodes (played by Omar Benson Miller) and an international drug dealer named Rufus (played by Brian Lee Franklin), who both appear in the last third of the movie.

Noyce’s direction of “Above Suspicion” aims for the movie to be gritty noir, but it’s really just low-budget junk. It’s very easy to predict how this story is going to end. And until that ending, which Susan already blabbed about in the voiceover narration, it’s just one scene after another of contrasting Susan’s riff-raff life with Mark’s law-enforcement life. These two worlds end up crashing in the most horrific of ways. And it’s too bad that the overall result is that “Above Suspicion” is a cinematic train wreck.

Lionsgate released “Above Suspicion” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 14, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on May 18, 2021.

Review: ‘A Girl From Mogadishu,’ starring Aja Naomi King

July 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

“A Girl From Mogadishu” 

Directed by Mary McGuckian

English and Somalian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Somalia and Ireland, the drama “A Girl From Mogadishu” (based on a true story) has a racially diverse cast (white and black) representing Somalian natives and refugees and Irish politicians and social workers.

Culture Clash:  Ifrah Ahmed escapes war-torn Somalia for a life in Ireland, where she becomes a social activist campaigning to outlaw female genital mutilation.

Culture Audience: “A Girl From Mogadishu” will appeal primarily to people who like stories about social justice issues and immigrants who overcome difficult challenges.

Barkhad Abdi and Aja Naomi King in “A Girl From Mogadishu” (Photo by Seamus Murphy/Pembridge Pictures)

The dramatic film “A Girl From Mogadishu” (written and directed by Mary McGuckian) takes on two very difficult subjects—war-torn Somalia and the barbaric practice of female genital mutilation (FGM)—and tells the story from the perspective of someone who’s experienced both in real life. The movie is a biography of Ifrah Ahmed, who fled Somalia when she was 15. She ended up in Ireland, and became a leading activist in a campaign to outlaw FGM, which has been a forced ritual (mostly inflicted on underage girls) in African cultures for centuries.

Aja Naomi King (who is American) gives a compelling performance as Ifrah, from the ages of 15 to her 20s. The entire movie has her voiceover narration, which works well in some scenes, but doesn’t work in others. The movie begins on December 28, 2006, with Ifrah running for her life on the day that’s known as the Fall of Mogadishu, when the militaries of Somalia’s Transitional Federal Government and Ethiopian troops invaded the Somali capital.

Ifrah becomes separated from her family (her grandmother, her father and her brother) after the military raided the family home. She ends up in an empty house, where three military soldiers rape her. Ifrah has an aunt who lives in Minnesota, so Ifrah thinks her best chance for a life outside of Somalia is to go to the United States to live with her aunt.

Ifrah boards a bus to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. From there, she plans to go to the United States. But she has a close call in Addis Ababa when she finds out that she boarded the wrong bus, which is controlled by a sex trafficker.

She runs away from the wrong bus and boards another bus, which leads her to a family with a son named Hassan (played by Barkhad Abdi), who tells Ifrah that he can take her to the United States. The movie doesn’t make it clear how Ifrah was able to pay for this service, since it’s obvious that Hassan isn’t going to all this trouble out of the goodness of his own heart. This missing detail is an example of one of the flaws in this movie’s screenplay.

Hassan provides Ifrah with a passport and specific instructions to follow him and imitate what he does when they’re at the airport. It’s the first time that Ifrah ever gets on an escalator and goes on an airplane, so she’s understandably terrified. But when Ifrah and Hassan leave Ethiopia, they don’t arrive in the United States. They arrive in Ireland’s capital city of Dublin instead.

Ifrah is angry and confused over why Hassan lied to her, but he explains that Ifrah cannot stay with her aunt in Minnesota because her aunt is not a legal immigrant in the United States. Hassan tells Ifrah that she can seek asylum in Ireland. And then he drops her off in the cold winter night at a Dublin Asylum Seekers’ Center with nothing more than a note written in English with her name and why she needs asylum.

Because she is an unaccompanied minor seeking asylum, Ifrah is put into a group home called Ashton House and is placed under the care of social workers. She experiences major culture shock, not only because she can’t speak English but also because she has difficulty adjusting to the type of food that’s eaten in Ireland. In one scene, when a male social worker laughs at how Ifrah eats a bowl of cornflakes with her bare hands, she gets irritated and throws a shoe at him.

Ifrah is reprimanded, but she is able to communicate with the social worker that what she’s really frustrated about is not being able to speak English. With the help of a Somalian translator at Ashton House, Ifrah is able to better communicate with the staff. Ifrah has also become friends with another Somalian refugee at Ashton House. Her new friend is Amala (played by Martha Canga Antonio), and they both help each other learn English.

Ifrah’s life takes an unexpected and dramatic turn when she has her first medical exam in Ireland. The doctors are shocked to find out about her FGM. At first, Ifrah mistakenly thinks that their horrified reaction is because they think she’s HIV-positive. The doctors tell her she’s not HIV-positive and that they’re upset by the mutilation of her genital area. Ifrah replies, “This is my culture.”

However, when Ifrah figures out that FGM is not normal and is a major stigma in cultures outside of Africa, she’s overwhelmed by shame and starts sobbing uncontrollably. The next thing you know, there’s a flash forward to Ifrah as an anti-FGM activist giving a speech to a group of politicians. This sudden flash-forward scene is a little jarring and an example of better editing choices that director McGuckian could have made, since the movie keeps jumping back and forth in time in a way that doesn’t always transition smoothly.

The rest of the movie shows Ifrah’s anti-FGM activism and the increased progress and media attention that she and her allies received for this issue. With the help of Ireland’s Labour Party politicians Emer Costello (played by Orla Brady) and her husband Joe Costello (played by Stanley Townsend), Ifrah was able to get FGM outlawed in Ireland. And, accompanied by a NGO (non-governmental organization) rep (played by Luke Spencer Roberts), Ifrah travels to Africa to further her cause to get FGM banned.

The movie also depicts how Ifrah eventually opened up and went public with all the harrowing details of what happened to her during her FGM torture. She was mutilated at 8 years old with several other girls, and they were tied up for 40 days with a very limited ability to urinate. One of the girls got a urinary tract infection and died.

There’s a scene where Ifrah goes back to Somalia to confront her grandmother for allowing the FGM to happen to Ifrah. Hassan pops up out of nowhere and tells Ifrah, “Good girls keep things private and don’t talk.” Ifrah replies defiantly, “I will not be silenced! Not now, not ever, not even for my family!”

“A Girl From Mogadishu” has an important story to tell, but there are some flaws in how it’s told. The dialogue and narration are often simplistic and predictable. And the movie needed better editing, so that the story didn’t seem so choppy and jumbled during the flashback and flash-forward scenes. However, the acting, especially from King in the lead role, elevates the often-trite screenplay. Her performance is worth watching, even if she has to say a lot of lines that could have been written better.

The production design (by Emma Pucci) and costume design (by Nathalie Leborgne) complement the movie very well. For example, the film does a convincing recreation of Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to Ireland, with Ifrah among the thousands of people who went to see him give an outdoor speech in Dublin. Ifrah is also involved in doing fashion shows to raise money for her cause. Those fashion shows are depicted quite nicely in the film.

There are many scenes in “A Girl From Mogadishu” that look like a made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Despite its flaws, “A Girl From Mogadishu” has emotional authenticity and respect for the traumatic subject matter (the real Ifrah Ahmed was a consultant for the movie), considering that FGM is rarely acknowledged in narrative feature films. This movie will help make people more aware that trying to stop FGM is not just a “women’s issue.” It’s also about human rights.

Showtime Women premiered “A Girl From Mogadishu” on July 15, 2020, and the movie is available on Showtime’s on-demand platforms. Pembridge Pictures will release the film internationally from November 25, 2020 to December 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Browse,’ starring Lukas Haas

July 7, 2020

by Carla Hay

Lukas Haas in “Browse” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

“Browse” 

Directed by Mike Testin

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the drama “Browse” has a predominantly white cast (with a few Asians and black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Bad things start happening to a lonely unmarried man, and it might or might not be connected to his recent online dating activities.

Culture Audience: “Browse” will mostly appeal to people who like mystery dramas set in seedy atmospheres, but the only people who will like this movie are those who don’t mind badly written scenes that ultimately serve no purpose in the film.

Lukas Haas in “Browse” (Photo courtesy of FilmRise)

The incoherent drama “Browse” tries to look like a suspenseful horror movie, but there’s nothing scary or thrilling about this rambling dud of a film. If you expect movies about a mystery to have the mystery solved by the end of the film, then don’t waste your time watching “Browse,” which has a conclusion that is as unsatisfying as it is pointless. “Browse” director Mike Testin tries to infuse some artsy elements into the movie, but the “Browse” screenplay by Mario Carvalhal is really a substandard unfinished draft instead of a cohesive, complete story.

In “Browse,” which takes place in Los Angeles, Richard Coleman (played by Lukas Haas) is a lonely divorced man who lives by himself in the type of shabby high-rise apartment building that used to be a hotel in its glory days. Richard is an office manager at a start-up company (the type of business is not mentioned in the movie), where his abrasive and cocky boss Daniel (played by Ken Kirby) is about 15 years younger than Richard.

Richard’s rented apartment is as dull, dreary and nearly empty as his life. He can’t even commit to buying furniture, since all of the furniture in the apartment is rented, and he’s kept the plastic coverings on the furniture. The only “companions” that Richard has at home are an Alexa-type of device named Roxy and any of the random women he might chat with online when he goes on dating sites or webcam model sites. Richard also spends a lot of time in virtual-reality worlds.

Richard is sometimes visited by an apartment front-desk employee named Kyle (played by Bodhi Elfman), a nosy motormouth who teases Richard about Richard’s attempts to find love online. One evening, while Kyle is visiting Richard, he tells Richard that the apartment managers have bought up other apartments on the street and want to kick out longtime residents, in order to rent to the wealthy people who are willing to pay higher prices. Kyle also reminds Richard that his rent is due, but Richard says that he’s on an automatic payment plan and the rent isn’t due until the next day.

Kyle also has a morbid fascination with talking about how people died in the building. He tells Richard about a longtime building resident who killed himself by putting a plastic bag over his head. The man’s decomposed body was found several days later, and it made the local news.

And later in the story, Kyle also wants to show Richard surveillance video of an apartment resident who committed suicide on the surveillance video by shooting himself of the roof of the building. However, Richard refuses to watch the video because he thinks it’s too creepy.

Even if “Browse” didn’t have a scene of Kyle pressuring Richard to watch a disturbing suicide video, the movie telegraphs too much that Kylie is a shady person who can’t be trusted. In one scene, Kyle tells Richard that an unidentified man stopped by the apartment building to ask if Richard lived there, but Kyle can’t describe the man and where he went.

Meanwhile, there are signs that Richard is the victim of identity theft, and whoever stole his identity has access to his bank accounts and credit cards. In another scene, Kyle tells Richard that his rent is one month overdue. Kyle later says he was mistaken and that Richard’s rent is actually three months overdue and the landlord wants to evict Richard. However, Richard objects to this claim, because he says he knows the rent was paid, and if it hadn’t been paid, the landlord would have notified him.

The furniture company where Richard got his furniture calls Richard to tell him that they’re repossessing the furniture because he stopped paying. An angry Richard tells them that he hasn’t missed any payments and that he should probably own the furniture by now. Nevertheless, the furniture gets repossessed. And then, Richard finds out that his bank accounts are overdrawn by thousands of dollars, and his bank card has been declared a “fraud” by the bank.

In the middle of all this financial drama, Richard has become enamored with a woman named Veronica (played by Chloe Bridges), who looks like a model and who is an aspiring singer who goes by the stage name Veronique. Richard first “met” Veronica online through a dating site, and they began texting and talking with each other. Richard is thrilled to find out that Veronica lives in the building across from his, and he can see right into her apartment.

But when Veronica suggests they meet up late one night at his apartment building’s swimming pool so they can smoke cigarettes together, she ends up being a no-show. The only person smoking a cigarette near the pool is an unnamed young man, played by Luke Spencer Roberts.

When Richard asks the young man who he is, the young man cryptically replies with famous words uttered by Jim Morrison of The Doors: “I’m the lizard king. I can do anything.” This “lizard king” reference has no bearing on this movie’s story, but it’s an example of the randomly derivative things in “Browse” that seems like it’s a possible clue to what’s going on, but it actually leads nowhere.

Even though Veronica stood up Richard for their “date” at the swimming pool, he becomes obsessed with her. Richard becomes a Peeping Tom and even takes voyeuristic photos of Veronica when she’s in her apartment with the windows exposed. It isn’t long before she finds out that Richard is a creep who’s been spying on her.

“Browse” also shows Richard doing some Internet stalking of his ex-wife Roxy Castillo (played by Jocelin Donahue), who is now remarried and expecting a child with her current husband. Is it a coincidence that Richard’s talking computer device and his ex-wife both have the same name? Richard finds out about the pregnancy because his ex-wife Roxy posted the baby news and an ultrasound photo on her social media.

Out of the blue, Richard’s ex-wife Roxy calls him to ask him to stop his phone harassment. She claims that someone with his phone number has been harassing her, but Richard vehemently denies it.

Roxy then makes a vague reference to a past problem that Richard had, and she says that her current husband Jim is a professional who can get Richard some help. Richard angrily yells at Roxy that he’s not a charity case, and then she hangs up on him. Is this a clue that maybe Richard is delusional and that he’s the cause of his own problems?

But Richard’s life is about to get worse. There’s a webcam model whom Richard has gotten to know in real life named Rachel (played by Allison Dunbar), whose online alias is Candy. Richard and Rachel/Candy met up for a sexual hookup, but unbeknownst to Richard, she video recorded them having sex. He only finds out when he sees that she’s put the sex video on her website without his permission—and his face is in full view, so there’s no hiding his identity.

The sex video causes problems for Richard at work, where he’s on shaky ground with his boss Daniel, who has hired a new employee who might be Richards’ replacement. Daniel has ordered Richard to fire three of Richard’s subordinates as part of the company’s downsizing plans. One of those subordinates is named Claire (played by Sarah Rafferty), who is obviously attracted to Richard, but the feeling isn’t mutual.

However, Richard likes and respects Claire. Therefore, he balks at Daniel’s demand that Claire has to be one of the three employees that Richard is supposed to fire. Meanwhile, Richard is suspicious of an information technology (IT) employee named Brendt (played by Abhi Sinha), whom he caught one day fiddling around with Richard’s work computer. Richard starts to wonder if Brendt has anything to do with Richard’s apparent identity theft.

All of this sounds like a good mystery, but the way it’s presented in “Browse” ends up being a jumbled mess. The neo-jazz musical score by Makaya McCraven suggests that “Browse” is an intriguing noir movie, but this is really an aimless story that doesn’t really know what to do and how to resolve the issues presented in the story.

There is nothing remarkable about any of the acting in the film. And even if the performances were great, the characters are written as shadowy people with no real backstories. The only thing about Richard’s past that’s really revealed is that he used to be married and he might have some psychiatric problems.

At one point in the movie, when Richard’s life is completely falling apart, he utters in despair: “I think I’m paralyzed from the neck up, if that makes any sense … I don’t know how to get back on track.” That pretty much describes the brain-dead turn this movie takes, as it leads viewers into an oblivion of disappointment and confusion.

FilmRise released “Browse” on digital and VOD on July 7, 2020.

Review: ‘Banana Split,’ starring Hannah Marks, Liana Liberto and Dylan Sprouse

March 27, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liana Liberato and Hannah Marks in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Banana Split”

Directed by Benjamin Kasulke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the comedy “Banana Split” has a predominantly young white cast of characters (with some African American and Asian representation) portraying middle-class teenagers.

Culture Clash: Two women in their late teens befriend each other, even though one of them is dating the other’s ex-boyfriend, and they agree to keep their friendship a secret from the boyfriend.

Culture Audience: “Banana Split” will appeal primarily to people who like female-oriented comedies that are entertaining and have adult humor.

Hannah Marks, Addison Riecke, Liana Liberato and Jessica Hect in “Banana Split” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Can you become best friends with the person who’s currently dating an ex-lover just a few months after the relationship ended? That’s the question posed in the breezy and somewhat raunchy comedy “Banana Split,” which has two women in their late teens going through this exact situation while hiding their friendship from the boyfriend. And making matters even more uncomfortable, the two women are also friends with the boyfriend’s best friend. If you’ve seen enough comedies like this one, then it’s easy to predict what’s going to happen, but the characters and the movie overall are so watchable and engaging that it’s an entertaining ride for most of the story.

The movie is told from the perspective of Los Angeles teenager April Krillholtz (played by Hannah Marks, who co-wrote the “Banana Split” screenplay with Joey Power), a brainy, neurotic type who’s a huge fan of “Harry Potter” and completely in love with Nicholas “Nick” Ellis (played by Dylan Sprouse), her high-school sweetheart of two years. A quick montage at the beginning of the film shows how April and Nick’s romance started and then began to deteriorate.

After having a platonic friendship, Nick and April decided that they wanted to start dating each other. But over time, their hot’n’heavy romance began to turn volatile, with a lot of arguing. (They even bickered during their prom date.)

And their relationship took a turn for the worst when they both got the news that they were accepted into universities on opposite coasts: Nick is staying on the West Coast to attend the University of California at Santa Barbara, while April is headed to the East Coast for Boston University, on an academic scholarship. Apparently, April didn’t tell Nick that she had applied to a college in Boston, so when he finds out that she’s moving there, that’s the final nail in the coffin of their relationship, and they break up.

After graduating from high school, April is spending her summer working as a concessions employee at a movie theater. She’s the type of person who scolds a customer for ordering a hot dog because she thinks the customer is better off not letting “the smell of pig parts permeate the theater.” (In case it isn’t obvious, April doesn’t believe in eating meat.)

Before she moves away to go to Boston University, April is living at home with her divorced mother Susan (played by Jessica Hecht) and April’s foul-mouthed 13-year-old sister Agnes (played by Addison Riecke). Agnes has no sympathy for April’s breakup blues because Agnes makes it clear that she’s had a longtime crush on Nick and wants him for herself one day. Agnes also isn’t shy about describing her lust for Nick in explicit ways.

Agnes is the type of precocious teen who likes to talk about how much she knows about sex to shock or anger people (namely, her sister). The two siblings frequently get into immature, curse-filled shouting matches that’s kind of hilarious to watch. Their permissive mother Susan just wants to keep the peace while telling a little too much information about her own sex life. The dynamics between these three characters (who are usually only seen together around a dining room table) make for some of the best scenes in the movie. As the obnoxious and petulant Agnes, Riecke is a definite scene stealer.

One night, April goes with two of her friends—Sally (played by Haley Ramm) and Molly (played by Meagan Kimberly Smith)—to a house party thrown by a fellow classmate. At the party, April gets very drunk because she knows, through social media, that Nick has already moved on to dating someone named Clara (played by Liana Liberato), a young woman who’s around the same age but who didn’t go to the same high school as April and Nick. In fact, April knows very little about Clara, and it bothers April that Nick was able to find a new girlfriend so quickly after their breakup.

But wouldn’t you know it, Clara is at the party too. Clara is not with Nick at the party, but she looks like she’s having fun and she’s being very social. April eyes Clara from a distance with jealousy and suspicion. And then, April is shocked to find out that Nick’s nerdy best friend Ben (played Luke Spencer Roberts) already knows Clara, because her parents are his godparents. (Stranger coincidences have happened in real life.) Ben has remained friendly with April after the breakup, and she understands that he’s still going to be Nick’s best friend. What she doesn’t like is for Ben to be friendly with Clara.

While an intoxicated April is hanging out by herself in a bedroom at the house, in walks Clara. The two have an awkward moment before Clara admits that she deliberately followed April into the room because she thought it was best that they finally meet. And it isn’t long before Clara and April begin hanging out at the party like long-lost friends.

They have such a good time together, that at the end of the night, Clara insists that April take her phone number. April asks, “What about Nick?” And Clara replies that Nick doesn’t have to know.

Meanwhile, when April tells Nick’s best friend Ben that Clara gave April her phone number, Ben (who senses that he’s going to be caught in the middle of this unusual arrangement) advises April not to become friends with Clara because it would be too weird and inappropriate. But, of course, there would be no “Banana Split” movie if April took that advice.

The first time that April and Clara hang out with each other, they go to a diner and have (you guessed it) a banana split together. The dessert can also be considered a metaphor for what their friendship turns out to be over the summer—sweet, kind of decadent and with a high probability of getting very messy.

The two women are almost opposites. College-bound April likes to plan ahead and has limited sexual experience. (She lost her virginity to Nick, who’s the only guy she’s had sex with so far.) Clara, who recently moved to Los Angeles from Fresno with no set plans, is more of a free spirit, is more sexually experienced (Clara tells April that she’s had sex with 14 guys in her life so far), and is not as book-smart as April is.

The movie hints that their relationship could have turned sexual, when during one of their first hangouts together, Clara asks April if she wants to make out with her.  But April tells Clara that she’s not interested because she’s definitely heterosexual, and the subject is never brought up again.

“Banana Split” has a lot of montages of April and Clara doing things like going to the beach together, getting high together (mostly by smoking marijuana), and going out for meals together—not exactly the best way to keep their friendship a secret. Los Angeles is a big city, but there’s still a chance that other mutual friends of Nick and April (other than Ben) would find out.

During one of the first times that Clara and April spend time together, they end up talking about Nick’s sexual techniques, but that conversation quickly turns awkward when Clara finds out that Nick said things to April that he never said to her. April and Clara decide that the other big rule in their friendship (besides not telling Nick about their friendship) will be not to talk about Nick with each other.

To hide their friendship, they also agree not to post photos of themselves together on social media. And when April calls Clara, she shows up in Clara’s phone under the alias “Brad Pitt,” in reference to a joke that April made about Pitt’s movie “Fight Club.” (The reference to Pitt is kind of ironic, since Sprouse in “Banana Split” looks a lot like Pitt looked when he had long hair in the 1994 movies “Legends of the Fall” and “Interview With the Vampire.”)

The first time that April and Clara tell each other, “You’re my best friend,” is after they’ve checked into a motel together to get away from their routines and end up tripping on LSD together. And their relationship goes to the next friendship level when Clara, who has no family members in the area, asks April if she could meet her family. (You can imagine how dinner with April’s family goes, as long as bratty Agnes is there.)

Meanwhile, Ben knows all about April and Clara’s friendship. A great deal of what his character is all about is Ben nervously trying to keep the friendship a secret from Nick, while also scolding April and Clara about keeping it a secret from Nick.

Most of the characters in “Banana Split” are very defined in their personalities, but Nick is somewhat of a blank slate. It isn’t really made clear what his interests and goals are in life and what kind of family he has, so who he is as a person seems kind of vague throughout the movie.

What viewers do see of Nick is that he’s not your average pretty boy. For example, he has certain quirks, such as that he’s a fan of “Call Me Maybe” pop singer Carly Rae Jepsen and he shares April’s nerdy fandom of “Harry Potter.” But in other ways, he’s very much like a typical teenage guy who just wants to party.

“Banana Split” is the feature-film directorial debut of Benjamin Kasulke, who hits a lot of familiar beats that we’ve seen before in movies with female teenagers as the main characters. There’s the alternative-pop soundtrack (“Banana Split” features several songs written and performed by Annie Hart), the house party scene where one of the girls gets drunk and ends up vomiting, and the scene where a supposedly responsible character does something irresponsible just for the hell of it. (In “Banana Split,” Clara convinces April to leave her work shift two hours early just to hang out with her.)

But because the movie is so well-cast (Marks and Liberato give very convincing performances as opposite women who become fast friends), it makes these well-worn teen-comedy tropes enjoyable to watch. “Banana Split” is capably directed by Kasulke, and the movie benefits from the genuinely funny screenplay by Marks and Power.

And what about this story’s love triangle? Is Nick really over April? Are Nick and Clara falling in love, or is she just a fling before he leaves for college? And will he find out that April and Clara have become friends behind his back? The movie answers those questions, even though it’s pretty obvious that the real love story of “Banana Split” is the friendship that develops between April and Clara.

Vertical Entertainment released “Banana Split” on digital and VOD on March 27, 2020.

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