Review: ‘Father Stu,’ starring Mark Wahlberg

April 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mark Wahlberg in “Father Stu” (Photo by Karen Ballard/Columbia Pictures)

“Father Stu”

Directed by Rosalind Ross

Culture Representation: Taking place from the mid-1990s to late 2000s in Los Angeles and Helena, Montana, the dramatic film “Father Stu” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A washed-up amateur boxer, who has a history of committing violence and other crimes, moves from Montana to Los Angeles to become an actor, but he ends up becoming a priest. 

Culture Audience: “Father Stu” will appeal primarily to fans of star Mark Wahlberg and people who like formulaic dramas about toxic masculinity where men are excused and forgiven for things that women would not be allowed to get away with as easily.

Jacki Weaver, Mark Wahlberg and Mel Gibson in “Father Stu” (Photo by Karen Ballard/Columbia Pictures)

Boring and predictable, “Father Stu” is yet another film in Mark Wahlberg’s long list of one-note movies where he plays a foul-mouthed jerk who’s promoted as heroic. It’s another “toxic male who needs to be redeemed” story that does nothing new or clever. This tired retread has the word “flop” written all over it.

“Father Stu” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Rosalind Ross, who pollutes this movie with a lot of corny dialogue and cringeworthy scenarios. “Father Stu” is based on a true story, but so much of this biographical film looks phony because of the contrived ways that the characters speak and act. And the movie looks like it was made by people who’ve seen too many outdated TV-movie dramas and decided to rehash and dump the same formulas into this dreadful dud.

In “Father Stu,” Wahlberg (who is one of the movie’s producers) plays Stuart “Stu” Long, an aggressively obnoxious loser who decides to commit to Catholicism and becomes a priest after experiencing a health crisis. The movie takes place from the mid-1990s to the late 2000s, when the real Long was in his early 30s to mid-40s, although Wahlberg never looks convincing as someone in his 30s.

“Father Stu” starts off in Stu’s hometown of Helena, Montana, where he is an amateur boxer who’s never made it into the big leagues. While in his early 30s, Stu is seen in a doctor’s appointment with his devoted and sometimes sarcastic mother Kathleen Long (played by Jacki Weaver), when they get some bad news: The doctor says that Stu’s boxing injuries are life-threatening, and he will die if he doesn’t quit boxing.

Stu takes his anger out on his mother, by berating her for having him at this doctor’s appointment where Stu got news that he didn’t want to hear. When she tactfully tells Stu that she’s heard about an oil rig job that’s hiring, Stu snaps at her: “I ain’t doing no blue-collar bullshit!” Meanwhile, Stu (who is a bachelor with no children) hasn’t really figured out what he’s going to do to earn an income.

Even though “Father Stu” is written and directed by a woman, this stale excuse for a movie repeats all the clichés of misogynistic movies where women with significant speaking roles only exist as a banal “mother” or “love interest,” rarely with fully formed personalities. In these sexist movies, all of the action revolves around men, and the women are just there to react to whatever the men do. And that’s exactly what happens in “Father Stu.”

Soon after his boxing career ends, Stu decides he wants to move to Los Angeles and become an actor. (In real life, Stuart Long moved to Los Angeles in 1987, when he was 24.) Before Stu moves to L.A., he visits the grave of his younger brother Stephen Long, who died in 1971, at the age of 5 years old. (Stephen’s death is eventually talked about in more details.) It’s at this point, in this movie’s graveyard scene, that you know the filmmakers are going to use this tragic death as a way to garner sympathy for Stu and all the offensive and selfish things that he does.

While a drunken Stu is at the grave, he hallucinates seeing himself as a boy of about 9 or 10 years old (played by Tenz McCall), in a hokey moment that’s supposed to make viewers literally see Stu’s inner child. The adult Stu gets angry and punches a nearby statue of Jesus Christ. And just at that moment, a police car drives up. Viewers don’t see what happened between Stu and any cop on the scene, but it’s shown later that Stu was arrested for resisting arrest. The movie goes out of its way to erase or gloss over any crimes that he commits.

Instead, Stu is presented as someone who goes through life insulting others and who doesn’t hesitate to bully people to get what he wants. The movie tries to excuse his awfulness by showing that Stu comes from an emotionally damaged family: Stu’s younger brother died tragically, and Stu’s parents are estranged from each other. Stu is infuriated at his father for being what Stu calls a “deadbeat dad.” Stu is a lot more like his father than Stu would care to admit.

Stu’s father William “Bill” Long (played by Mel Gibson) is a truck driver, who passed on a lot of his bad personality traits to Stu. They are both crude, ill-tempered and quick to instigate fights where they curse at people or get violent. (And yes, you can do a countdown to the inevitable scene where Stu gets in a bar fight.) Stu’s mother Kathleen has gotten fed up with Bill, so they are no longer living together.

As an example of how “Father Stu” rips off familiar territory, Gibson and Wahlberg did another version of this “rude father and son” schtick in the 2017 annoying comedy film “Daddy’s Home 2.” Gibson is also probably in “Father Stu” because of his romantic relationship with “Father Stu” writer/director Ross. The couple began dating in 2014.

One thing that Stu’s parents both agree on is that Stu’s goal of becoming a professional actor is a foolish and unlikely dream. And sure enough, when Stu moves to L.A. and makes the rounds at talent agencies, he’s rejected. Viewers don’t see a lot of these rejections, but Stu mentions it in a scene where a lecherous male agent sexually propositions Stu when the two of them are alone together in the agent’s office. An angry Stu then roughs up this sexual predator and breaks a video camera in the office before slamming the door when he leaves.

Stu can’t get work as an actor, so he takes a job working behind the meat counter at a grocery store. In his desperate attempts to break into showbiz and make connections, Stu has an irritating and unprofessional habit of asking customers while he’s working if they’re in the entertainment business. It’s at this grocery store where he meets Carmen (played by Teresa Ruiz), a devoutly religious Catholic who becomes Stu’s love interest before he becomes a priest. It’s infatuation at first sight for Stu, who tries to flirt with Carmen when they first meet, but she’s not impressed.

“I didn’t catch your name,” Stu tells Carmen before she walks away. “You’re not much of a fisherman,” Carmen says coyly, as if she thinks it’s hilarious to make a reference to the phrase “fisherman’s catch.” This is the type of dumb dialogue in “Father Stu” that will have audiences rolling their eyes at how cornball this movie is.

Carmen left behind a church flyer with the store manager, so that’s how Stu finds out where Carmen goes to church. Soon enough, Stu shows up at the church like a stalker, and that’s how he discovers that Carmen is a Sunday school teacher at this Catholic church. At this point in Stu’s life, he’s a lapsed Catholic. Guess who’s going to be a regular attendee of this church? Guess who’s now going to want to look like a devoted Catholic? It’s Stu’s way of trying to charm Carmen into dating him.

Stu tells people that Carmen is “the love of his life” and his “future wife” shortly after meeting her. One of these people is the church’s Father Garcia (played by Carlos Leal), who is skeptical about Stu’s interest in Catholicism, but nevertheless has to listen to Stu’s rambling, self-indulgent diatribes when Stu does confessionals with Father Garcia. These confession scenes are very tiresome and have all the emotional resonance of air being let out of a windbag.

Carmen slowly falls for Stu, but then he gets into a horrific motorcycle accident where he is struck by a car and nearly dies. During his recovery, Stu and Carmen begin a sexual relationship, and she seriously starts to think that they will get married. But not so fast, Carmen. Stu has a religious epiphany and tells Carmen that he wants to become a priest during a conversation that she thought would be a marriage proposal to her. None of this is spoiler information, of course, because anyone who’s aware of this movie’s title should know what Stu’s vocation ends up being.

Carmen doesn’t take the news well at all. “You’re setting yourself up for failure,” Carmen tells Stu. She also calls Stu “delusional,” as she tearfully ends this conversation. But Carmen’s feelings are sidelined because the movie is on a mission to show the dubious redemption of Stu, as he goes from being a rough-talking hooligan to a rough-talking priest.

Stu’s father Bill also thinks Stu’s decision to become a priest is some kind of pathetic joke, just like the line that Bill delivers when he hears the news. Bill reacts to the news of Stu wanting to join the Roman Catholic priesthood by saying: “It’s like Hitler asking to join the ADL [Anti-Defamation League].” Considering that Gibson nearly ruined his career and permanently tarnished his reputation with his anti-Semitic rant during his 2006 arrest for drunk driving, it’s in very bad taste to have him tell a Hitler “joke” in a movie.

“Father Stu” then has numerous trite scenes where Stu is shown as a seminary “misfit” who’s determined to prove his naysayers wrong. Among those who don’t think that Stu has what it takes to become a priest is an uptight and pious seminary student (played by Cody Fern), who is the opposite of Stu in almost every way. Predictably, these two are forced to share the same sleeping quarters when they’re assigned to be roommates in their seminary.

Stu also shows that he’s racist against black people, when he expresses some bigoted points of view while interacting with an African American seminary student named Ham (played by Aaron Moten), who is a lot more patient with Stu than Stu deserves. Ham is essentially one of many characters who let Stu walk all over them and manipulate them. When Stu first meets Ham, he ridicules Ham for his name. Stu is so ignorant, he thinks the name Ham is some kind of “ethnic” thing.

Later, when Stu gets Ham to play basketball with him in their free time, Stu mocks Ham for not being as good at basketball as Stu expected. Stu literally says in the movie that he thinks Ham should be better at basketball because Ham is black. The scene is played for laughs, but it’s a putrid, tone-deaf scene where Stu never gets called out for his racism.

In addition to having a roommate that he despises, Stu also contends with a supervising teacher named Monsignor Kelly (played by Malcolm McDowell), who is a stereotypical stern priest who wants everyone to be as strictly religious as he is. Not surprisingly, Monsignor Kelly doubts that Stu is really serious about becoming a priest, so the two men inevitably clash with each other.

Time and time again, “Father Stu” spins Stu’s boorishness as being a freewheeling rogue who’s an underdog and underestimated by people around him. However, it just exposes the sexism in many aspects of society. After all, women who are this loathsome and violent probably wouldn’t be allowed to become Catholic nuns. And if they did, they certainly don’t get movies made about them.

“Father Stu” is essentially a vanity showcase for Wahlberg to play the same type of character that he’s been playing for years: cranky, argumentative and quick to step on people to get what he wants. Everyone else in “Father Stu” is just a two-dimensional sidekick in this tedious parade of enabling toxic masculinity, where the man who’s supposed to be redeemed gets many chances to turn his life around, while audiences are supposed to be cheering for him every step of the way. Needless to say, nothing about this movie is award-worthy, and lot of it is just a chore to watch.

Of course, the redemption of Stu also comes with a life-threatening disease: inclusion body myositis, so that audiences can feel even more sympathy for him. Unfortunately, in “Father Stu,” this disease is used as just another plot device to prop up Stu’s redemption arc. “Father Stu” is essentially a half-baked project that looks like a second-rate TV-movie. It certainly isn’t worth watching for the price of a movie ticket.

Columbia Pictures will release “Father Stu” in U.S. cinemas on April 13, 2022.

UPDATE: A new, PG-13 version of “Father Stu” will be released under the title “Father Stu: Reborn” in U.S. cinemas on December 9, 2022. The original version of “Father Stu” is rated R.

Review: ‘Uncharted’ (2022), starring Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg

February 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sophia Ali, Mark Wahlberg and Tom Holland in “Uncharted” (Photo by Clay Enos/Columbia Pictures)

“Uncharted” (2022)

Directed by Ruben Fleischer

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Boston, Spain and the Philippines, the action film “Uncharted” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 25-year-old American man who’s had a longtime obsession with finding Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s legendary gold fortune teams up with two cynical art thieves—a middle-aged man and a woman in her 20s— to find this treasure.

Culture Audience: “Uncharted” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of stars Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg, because their on-screen appeal is one of the few highlights of this messy and idiotic action flick.

Antonio Banderas in “Uncharted” (Photo by Clay Enos/Columbia Pictures)

Even by standards of suspending disbelief for far-fetched action movies, “Uncharted” is still a disjointed and disappointing mess that thinks it’s funnier and better than it really is. Not even the on-screen charisma of stars Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg can save this movie from being relentlessly moronic, with sloppily staged stunts, characters with cardboard personalities, and a storyline that often drags. Unfortunately, “Uncharted” is just another in a long list of movies based on video games that fail to improve on the video game in a cinematic way.

Directed by Ruben Fleischer, “Uncharted” starts off with an over-the-top stunt scene that’s an indication of the idiocy to come for the rest of the movie: Nathan “Nate” Drake (played by Holland), a 25-year-old adventurer, is hanging off of a string of cargo boxes held together by rope and dangling out of an airplane that’s high in the sky. Considering that Nate is not wearing a helmet for protection, and he doesn’t appear to be affected by the deadly wind velocity, you just know that “Uncharted” is going to be the type of movie where viewers will be rolling their eyes and asking themselves, “Are we supposed to believe that people could survive these stunts in real life?”

Nate (who is not a superhero with superhuman abilities) is able make leaps and bounds in the air, like he’s Spider-Man, a character played by Holland in other movies. Maybe the filmmakers of “Uncharted” think that just because Holland is Spider-Man in other movies, audiences are supposed to believe any human character that Holland plays in another movie can magically have Spider-Man-like powers too. It just makes this movie (and its visual effects) look even more absurd.

As Nathan bounces around and leaps unrealistically from box to box in the air, a red Mercedes 300 Gullwing suddenly starts barreling out of the airplane directly toward Nate. Someone then grabs Nate’s hand, but the movie then does a dissolve edit to show a flashback to 15 years earlier in Boston, when Nate’s older brother Sam grabs Nate’s hand to prevent him from falling from a building. In the last third of the movie “Uncharted” circles back to the airplane scene by showing what caused Nate to fall out of that plane.

In this flashback, 10-year-old Nate (played by Tiernan Jones) and Sam (played by Rudy Pankow), who’s about five or six years older than Nate, are breaking into a museum at night to steal what is purported to be the very first map of the world. The screenplay for “Uncharted” (written by Rafe Judkins, Art Marcum and Matt Holloway) is so shambolic, it never really explains why these two brothers want to steal this priceless art. Is it a prank? Is it to sell the map on the black market? Is it because they think they can keep the map like a trophy and are too stupid to know better?

Whatever their reasons are for this inept break-in, Nate and Sam are quickly apprehended by security guards. Nate and Sam are orphans whose parents have gone missing and are presumed dead. They are living in an orphanage run by Catholic nuns. Because Sam has been in trouble before, and now has “three strikes against him,” he’s kicked out of the orphanage and is expected to be held in a juvenile detention center. For whatever reason that’s never explained in the movie, Nate escapes any punishment.

Sam runs away from the orphanage the night before he’s supposed to be taken into custody. Before he leaves, Sam gives Nate his most cherished possession: a brass ring on a chain, as proof that he has an incentive to see Nate again. Sam tells Nate: “I’ll come back for you, Nate. I promise.” Nate hasn’t seen Sam in person since that night.

Nate and Sam are history buffs who are obsessed with the legend of a gold fortune hidden in the 1500s by Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. As children, they planned for years to go looking for this treasure when they got old enough to do so. But this separation has put a big halt to those plans.

“Uncharted” then fast-forwards to the present day. Nate is now a bartender at a trendy lounge in New York City. He’s still a history buff who likes to spout trivia, such as who invented certain things and when. This type of knowledge doesn’t really impress a pretty blonde customer named Zoe (played by Alana Bolden), whom Nate flirts with one night when he’s working. She has this response: “You’re kind of weird, but you’re kind of cute too.”

The same night, after the lounge has closed, a customer sitting at a table refuses to leave. He introduces himself as Victor “Sully” Sullivan (played by Wahlberg), and he tells Nate that he wants to hire Nate for an adventurous job. Nate is suspicious, but he takes Victor’s business card, which lists Victor’s address, phone number and business title as “Private Acquisitions.”

Out of curiosity, Nate shows up unannounced to the address on the card. Victor is there, and that’s how Nate finds out that Victor collects valuable and historical artifacts, most of which are stolen. And that’s not all: Victor knows Sam, whom he says he hasn’t seen or heard from in about two years. “He ghosted me,” Victor says about Sam.

Victor is also interested in finding Magellan’s gold treasure, which is valued at about $5 billion. Victor has sought out Nate because Victor figures that Sam might have left some clues for Nate to find this treasure. Victor suggests to Nate that if they both team up to find the gold together, there’s a chance they’ll also find Sam. Does that make any sense? Of course not, but Nate goes along with it anyway, mainly because Victor has the money and resources to finance this trip.

But not so fast, Nate. Victor is skeptical that Nate has what it takes for some of the violence that’s sure to come with this job. Victor sees Nate as just a nerdy young guy who might be too sheltered and inexperienced to be an effective partner for Victor. And so, Victor wants Nate to pass a test.

There’s an upcoming auction of rare Spanish art from the Renaissance era. Victor’s plan is to steal a jewel-encrusted crucifix at this auction. And he wants Nate to be his accomplice. And this auction leads Victor and Nate to encounter the two chief villains in the story.

At the auction are two people who will stop at nothing to get this crucifix too. Santiago Moncada (played by Antonio Banderas) is a wealthy Spanish collector who’s the heir to a family fortune. But not for long, because Santiago’s father Armando Moncada (played by Manuel de Blas) has recently announced that he’s giving away the family fortune to charity. Santiago, who’s the head of the Moncada Foundation, is infuriated by this decision, but Armando remains unmoved by Santiago’s pleas to change his mind. “I should have cut you off years ago,” Armando tells Santiago with disgust.

The other person who’s at the auction to get the crucifix is a mysterious and shady mercenary named Jo Braddock (played by Tati Gabrielle), who wants to be called by her last name. Braddock used to be romantically involved with Victor, but he broke up with her. She’s very bitter about it, so there’s an extra reason why she wants to beat Victor at his own game. It’s briefly mentioned that when Braddock and Victor were romantically involved with each other, she was his partner in crime too.

The auction devolves into one of many of the movie’s ridiculous fight scenes, where people with weapons spend too much time trading insults when they could easily defeat their opponent by using the weapons. And even though Braddock has combat skills, she unrealistically defeats several armed people who are much taller and stronger than she is when they gang up on her in a group. In reality, anyone would be easily defeated when being the only person to fight a group of at least five or six armed and dangerous people.

Victor and Nate soon find out there’s someone else who wants the crucifix too. She’s a skilled thief named Chloe Frazer (played by Sophia Ali), who’s also looking for Magellan’s treasure. Victor already knows Chloe, since they’ve been rivals in previous art thefts. Predictably, Nate and Chloe have an instant dislike of each other, which turns into mutual attraction, which they try to fight/deny/suppress in a cliché “will they or won’t they get together” subplot. Nate and Chloe have a hard time trusting each other, since one of them could betray the other at any moment.

Victor, Nate and Chloe team up for a flimsy reason explained in the movie. Their shenanigans take them to Spain and the Philippines, two landmark destinations for Magellan’s voyage around the world. The villains are never far behind, of course. Santiago wants Magellan’s treasure too, because he claims it was stolen from the Moncada family. The bombastic and moronic fight scenes that would kill people in real life will have viewers wondering by the middle of the movie: “How are these characters still alive?”

Victor and Nate’s reluctant partnership just rehashes the over-used movie stereotype of “the grouchy older guy who’s annoyed with the eager younger guy, but they have to find a way to work together.” On the way to the auction that’s shown in the beginning of the movie, Victor ridicules Nate for chewing bubblegum at this black-tie, formal event. The bubblegum comes in handy though, when Nate uses it to prop open a door to a room that can only be accessed through an electronic system.

Victor keeps calling Nate a “kid” in a condescending manner, which gets very tiresome, very quickly. There’s a scene shown in one of the trailers for “Uncharted” where Victor has a newly grown moustache. Nate asks Victor, while pointing and grinning, “What is that thing on your face?” Victor replies, “Puberty’s right around the corner, kid. You can grow your own.” It’s more than a little ridiculous that Victor treats a 25-year-old Nate as if Nate is a pre-pubescent child, but that’s what you’re going to see while Victor and Nate exchange unfunny jokes that fall flat.

The movie also tries to have “cutesy” banter between Victor and Nate. An example is when Nate tells Victor during an action scene: “You can get shot in the head, or you can come down here for a cuddle.” Fortunately, the stale and witless dialogue between Victor and Nate isn’t in the majority of “Uncharted,” because there’s a long stretch of the movie where Nate and Chloe work together without Victor being around at all.

In addition to having cringeworthy dialogue, “Uncharted” has very phony-looking production design. Hidden tunnels and hidden caves that are supposed to show signs of rot and decay instead look like very polished and overly staged movie sets. This lack of authenticity is very distracting and just makes “Uncharted” look too glossy instead of being the gritty action flick that it should have been.

“Uncharted” takes a steep nosedive into stupidity with too many action scenes that would cause death or serious injuries in real life, but the characters barely show any signs of being affected. One of the worst is a scene where Chloe and Nate plunge deep into the ocean as a result of falling from high above in the air. When they emerge after being thrashed around by deadly waves, they have no injuries, their clothes are still fully intact, and Chloe still has full makeup on.

As much as Holland tries to inject some fun into his Nate character, Holland is just doing an older version of the teenage Peter Parker character that he plays in the “Spider-Man” movies. Wahlberg’s portrayal of Victor is just recycling the same sarcastic grump character that Wahlberg has played in dozens of other movies. Banderas hams it up as a generic villain, which is essentially a shallower version of the wealthy villain he played in the obnoxiously bad 2021 action flick “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard.”

Ali’s portrayal of Chloe is adequate, but Ali is stymied by the filmmakers not letting Chloe be a fully developed person but just a character to do stunts and trade sardonic quips with Nate and Victor. Chloe tells a little bit of a backstory about herself to explain why she has a hard time trusting people, but this background information is literally a brief mention that seems like a half-hearted attempt to try give Chloe more depth. As for Gabrielle’s Braddock character, she has no depth at all and has some of the worst lines in this terrible movie.

“Uncharted” might satisfy people who have very low standards on what makes a good action film. Not all action films have to be completely realistic, but they should at least have coherent storytelling, an exciting pace and compelling characters. “Uncharted” has none of those qualities.

The characters are boring villains and superficial heroes. This horribly edited movie also tends to drag and get repetitive. An epilogue and mid-credits scene make it obvious that the “Uncharted” filmmakers want to make a sequel. “Uncharted” is such a horrendous dud, any plans for an “Uncharted” movie series should be left permanently off of the movie industry map, but good taste never gets in the way of filmmakers who want to make millions from churning out garbage movies.

Columbia Pictures will release “Uncharted” in U.S. cinemas on February 18, 2022.

Review: ‘Joe Bell,’ starring Mark Wahlberg

August 9, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“Joe Bell”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Scoob!,’ starring Will Forte, Frank Welker, Zac Efron, Amanda Seyfried, Mark Wahlberg, Gina Rodriguez and Jason Isaacs

May 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Daphne (voiced by Amanda Seyfried), Velma (voiced by Gina Rodriguez), Shaggy (voiced by Will Forte), Fred (voiced by Zac Efron) and Scooby-Doo (voiced by Frank Welker) in “Scoob!” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Scoob!”

Directed by Tony Cervone

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in California’s Venice Beach and other parts of the universe, the animated film “Scoob!” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A villain is out to kidnap Scooby-Doo, the lovable, talking Great Dane that’s the best friend of one of the four young people who’ve started a detective agency called Mystery Inc.

Culture Audience: “Scoob!” will appeal primarily to fans of the original “Scooby Doo” TV cartoon series and to people who are looking for lightweight animation for entertainment.

Dick Dastardly (voiced by Jason Isaacs) and Scooby-Doo (voiced  by Frank Welker) in “Scoob!” (Image courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

People who loved the original “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” TV series should brace themselves if they see the animated film “Scoob!,” because the uncomplicated charm of the TV show has been turned into a overly busy, often-mediocre film that has a serious identity crisis. The “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!” TV series was essentially a detective show, with each mystery solved at the end of each episode. The “Scoob!” movie tries to be too many things at once—a comedy, a mystery, a superhero story, a supernatural horror movie and a sci-fi adventure. But the worst change in the “Scoob!” movie is that Scooby-Doo and the four young detectives at the heart of the “Scooby-Doo” series are split up for most of the “Scoob!” movie.

“Scoob!” begins with showing how the talking Great Dane known as Scooby-Doo ended up with his best friend Shaggy. In the bohemian beach city of Venice, California, a homeless Great Dane puppy is being chased by a bicycle cop and hides out in a mound of sand on the beach. It just so happens that a lonely boy named Norville “Shaggy” Rogers (who’s about 9 or 10 years old) is nearby on the same beach and discovers the dog.

Shaggy names the dog Scooby Dooby Doo. And when the bicycle cop catches up to the dog, Shaggy convinces the cop that he’s the dog’s rightful owner. Shaggy takes Scooby home with him, and they become fast friends. As a token of their friendship, Shaggy gives Scooby a dog collar with a tag engraved with the initials “SD” on it.

Shaggy’s favorite superhero is Blue Falcon, who has a canine sidekick named Dynomutt. Shaggy keeps action figures and pictures of them in his room. Shaggy is such a fan that, for Halloween, he dresses up as Blue Falcon and Scooby as Dynomutt. While they’re out trick-or-treating, some kid bullies steal Shaggy’s candy and knock him  and Scooby down on the sidewalk as they run away.

It’s here that Shaggy and Scooby first meet the three young people who will become their close friends: brawny Fred, compassionate Daphne and brainy Velma. For their Halloween costumes, Fred is dressed as a knight in armor, Daphne is dressed as Wonder Woman and Daphne is dressed as Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Shaggy mistakes Daphne for trying to be someone in a “Harry Potter” movie.

Fred, Daphne and Velma offer to help Shaggy after seeing him get knocked down, but he says the only things that are bruised are his “ego and tailfeathers.” (This line is one of the many signs that this movie was written by adults who can’t write realistic kids’ dialogue.) As soon as Scooby and this quartet of new friends start to bond, they encounter their first big mystery together, as they enter what’s rumored to be a haunted house.

They’re immediately terrorized by a menacing ghost in the house. Instead of running away (which is always Shaggy’s inclination), they band together to fight the ghost, which turns out not to be ghost, but a thief who has kept a houseful of stolen electronics and appliances stashed there. And, of course, when he’s arrested, he snarls that he would’ve gotten away with it if it weren’t for those meddling kids. It’s the first real mystery solved by the four friends and Scooby.

Fast forward about 10 years later, and the four friends are now in their late teens/early 20s. They’ve started a detective agency named Mystery Inc., and are trying to figure out how to raise money to keep the business going. While they have a meeting at a diner, Velma (voiced by Gina Rodriguez) thinks that they should find investors.

And lo and behold, Simon Cowell (voiced by the real Cowell) randomly shows up unannounced at the diner, sits down at the table, and says that he’s willing to invest in the detective agency—but only if they get rid of Shaggy and Scooby, since Cowell thinks they’re useless. Cowell cynically adds, “When you get in trouble, friendship won’t save the day.”

Shaggy and Scooby are so insulted, that they don’t wait around to hear how Fred (voiced by Zac Efron), Daphne (voiced Amanda Seyfried) and Velma react to Cowell’s ultimatum to get rid of Shaggy and Scooby. Leaving in a huff, Shaggy and Scooby end up at a bowling alley, where they encounter bowling balls and bowling pins that turn into minion-like robots with chainsaws for hands.

The robots chase Shaggy and Scooby around a bowling alley. Just then, a blue light beams down. It’s the Falcon Fury spaceship owned by Blue Falcon (voiced by Mark Wahlberg) and navigated by pilot Dee Dee Skyes (voiced by Kiersey Clemons), who rescue Shaggy and Scooby from the robots. Dee Dee tells Shaggy and Scooby that the robots are from a villain called Dick Dastardly (voiced by Jason Isaacs).

While on the ship, Shaggy meets his hero Blue Falcon. The superhero is really a guy named Brian who’s taken over the Blue Falcon superhero persona from his retired father, and he hides his insecurity by putting up a blustery brave front. Dynomutt (voiced by Ken Jeong) has the power to extend his neck to great lengths and he’s a loyal and enthusiastic sidekick to Blue Falcon.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, Velma has found out through research that Dick Dastardly is wanted by authorities for stealing archeological artifacts from Peru (including a giant skull of a dog) and for taking genealogical records of dogs from the Global Kennel Club. It’s pretty easy to figure out at this point that Scooby is the target of Dick Dastardly’s evil plans. But why? The movie answers that question, but there’s a lot of filler action, as the movie zigzags from genre to genre the way that the characters zig zig from Earth to outer space.

“Scoob!” has four screenwriters—Adam Sztykiel, Jack C. Donaldson, Derek Elliott and Matt Lieberman—and the whole movie gives the impression that the screenplay had “too many cooks in the kitchen.” It tries to be a comedy, but the jokes aren’t very good. When one of the characters calls athletic Fred “a poor man’s Hemsworth,” Fred asks, “Chris or Liam?” And the “mystery” in the movie is very easy to solve, even for young children who might be watching.

As for the animation, when there are Pixar movies in the world, many other animated films look inferior in comparison. The best action sequences in “Scoob!” are with the fearsome Cerberus (the three-headed hound of Hades), which has to do with the supernatural horror aspect of this messy film. There’s a chase scene through an abandoned amusement park that ramps up the action, but nothing in this movie is awards-worthy.

Although the actors do a good job with the screenplay that they’ve been given, it seems as if the Blue Falcon character was added to the world of Scooby-Doo just to jump on the bandwagon of superhero movies and to create a possible cinematic universe with various Hanna-Barbera characters. And the celebrity cameo from Cowell just seems weird and out of place. Cowell’s son Eric even has a voice role in the movie. (Did someone on the “Scoob!” filmmaking team owe Simon Cowell a favor?) Tracy Morgan has a cameo as Captain Caveman on Mystery Island, but his wacky character is very under-used in a script that needed more originality instead of a derivative superhero subplot.

And since Shaggy and Scooby are separated from Fred, Daphne and Velma during most of the movie, this estrangement ruins the original appeal of the “Scooby-Doo” series, which is all about the teamwork and camaraderie between this lovable dog and his four human friends. Another travesty: Mystery Inc.’s 1970s-style van the Mystery Machine is literally destroyed in the movie, which is an apt metaphor for how this movie wrecks the spirit of the original “Scooby-Doo” series. If “Scoob!” had stuck to a well-crafted story about a good mystery that needed solving—instead of trying to be too many things to too many people—then it would have turned out to be a much better movie.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Scoob!” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.

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