Review: ‘Sidney,’ starring Sidney Poitier

September 23, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Sidney”

Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Sidney” features a predominantly African American group of people (with some white people and one person of Middle Eastern heritage), including actor/filmmaker/humanitarian Sidney Poitier, from the entertainment industry and from Poitier’s family, who all discuss Poitier’s life and legacy.

Culture Clash: Poitier, who broke many racial barriers in his long and esteemed career, experienced poverty in his childhood, racism from white people, and accusations of being a “sellout” from some members of the African American community.

Culture Audience: “Sidney” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of Poitier and real stories of people who became icons after experiencing many hardships.

Sidney Poitier in “Sidney” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

The admirable documentary “Sidney” follows a very traditional format, but in telling the story of the extraordinary Sidney Poitier, it’s no ordinary biography. Poitier’s participation gives this documentary a heartfelt resonance that’s unparalleled. It’s the last major sit-down interview that he did before he died. He passed away at the age of 94, on January 6, 2022.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin, “Sidney” is a documentary that includes the participation and perspectives of several members of Poitier’s family, including all six of his daughters and the two women who were his wives. Some journalists and historians weigh in with their opinions, but the documentary is mostly a star-studded movie of entertainers who were influenced or affected by Poitier in some way. “Sidney” had its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.

One of the celebrity talking heads in the documentary is Oprah Winfrey, who is one of the producers of “Sidney.” She talks openly about how important Poitier was to her as a mentor during her own rise to fame as a TV talk show host and later as the owner of a media empire. Toward the end of the film, Winfrey begins crying when she says how much she misses Poitier. It’s a moment where viewers will have a hard time not getting tearful too.

Most people watching “Sidney” will already know something about Poitier before seeing this movie. His 2000 memoir “The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography” covers a lot of the same topics that’s covered in “Sidney.” But to see him talk about his life story and experiences in what no one knew at the time would be his last major interview brings an special poignancy to this documentary.

Born in Miami, on February 20, 1927, Poitier grew up in poverty in the Bahamas, his parents’ native country. He was the youngest of seven children born to famers Reginald and Evelyn Poitier. “I wasn’t expected to live,” Poitier says of his birth. “I was born two months premature.”

Poitier says that he was so sickly at birth, his father brought a shoe box into the birth room because the family thought that baby Sidney would have to be buried in the box. Sidney’s frantic mother took newborn Sidney to different places in the neighborhood to find anyone who could help save his life. Evelyn found a female soothsayer who said she couldn’t give any medical help, but she predicted that Sidney would be find and he would grow up to be an influential person who would find fame and fortune.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy and it was far from glamorous. In 1942, at the age of 15, his father Reginald had Sidney move to Miami and live with an aunt and uncle, because Sidney had a friend who was a juvenile delinquent, and Reginald feared that Sidney would fall in with a bad crowd. Little did Sidney know that he would be facing a different type of damage to his innocence.

In Miami, Sidney went through major culture shock and racism that drastically changed his perspective of the world. “Within a few months, I began to switch my whole view of life,” Sidney says of moving from the Bahamas to Miami. He got a part-time job as a delivery boy, and he tells a story of not understanding why a white woman who got one of his deliveries demanded that he only go to the back of the house to make the delivery. Later, when he heard that members of the Ku Klux Klan were looking for him because of this incident, he got so unnerved that he decided to leave town.

But even that attempted trip was fraught with danger, because he was harassed and stalked by white police officers, who didn’t want to see a black male having the freedom to travel wherever he wanted. Needless to say, when Sidney heard that black people had better work opportunities in New York City, he soon relocated to New York City, where he discovered his love of acting.

Life in New York City was a very difficult challenge too. For a while, Sidney was homeless and had to sleep in a public bathrooms. He got a job as a dishwasher while also taking acting classes, which he says he was like being in useful therapy, where he could pour all of his emotions into fictional characters. He read books and listened to radio stars (especially Norman Brokenshire) to learn how to speak with an American accent.

His motivation to become a great actor came from being rejected by audiences at the American Negro Theater because, as a black man, he was expected to sing, dance and be funny. Sidney wanted to be a serious dramatic actor. One of the American Negro Theater officials told Sidney that he should just give up acting altogether. We all know what happened after that Sidney got that horrible advice. It’s an excellent example of how someone can turn failure and discouragement into a triumph.

It’s mentioned several times in the documentary that Sidney’s guiding principles were to do work that would make his parents proud. That’s why, throughout his career, he rejected doing roles that were demeaning to black people. He made his film debut as a doctor in the 1950 drama “No Way Out.” And the rest is history.

The year 1950 was also the year that Sidney married his first wife, Juanita Hardy Poitier. The couple had four daughters together: Beverly, Pamela, Sherri and Gina. During the marriage, Sidney had a nine-year on-again/off-again affair with actress Diahann Carroll (who died of cancer in 2019), his co-star in 1959’s “Porgy and Bess.” Poitier and Carroll later co-starred in 1961’s “Paris Blues.” Sidney and Juanita’s marriage eventually ended in divorce in 1965. Sidney describes this period of time of his life as one of career highs but personal lows. He also expresses remorse about how his marital infidelity and divorce hurt his family.

The documentary gives chronological highlights of his career in movies and in theater. For his role in 1958’s prisoner escapee drama “The Defiant Ones” (co-starring Tony Curtis) Poitier became the first black person to get an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. It’s mentioned in the documentary that the movie’s ending was somewhat controversial among black people, because some critics thought it was pandering to a what’s now known as a “magical Negro” stereotype.

For his role in 1963’s “Lilies in the Field,” Sidney became the first black person to win Best Actor at the Academy Awards. It was a role that was originally turned down by Poitier’s longtime friend Harry Belafonte, who was busy with a music career. Belafonte also thought that the “Lilies in a Field” role (a black man who’s a nomadic worker befriends a group of white German nuns) was too corny and subservient. Belafonte does not do an on-camera interview for this documentary, but he can be heard in a few voiceover comments.

In 1967, Sidney was a bona fide superstar as the lead actor in critically acclaimed hit movies “In the Heat of the Night,” “To Sir, with Love” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.” All were groundbreaking in different ways in depicting race relations in cinema. And the fact that they were box-office successes are indications that times were changing, and the world was ready to see these types of movies.

For his “In the Heat of the Night” role, Sidney played a confident police detective named Virgil Tibbs, who demanded respect from everyone around him. There’s a famous scene in the movie where Virgil is slapped in the face by a racist white man for no good reason. In response, Virgil slaps the man in the face. At the time, it was rare for a movie to show a black man defending himself from this type of racist hate.

In “To Sir, With Love,” Sidney played a schoolteacher in East London who has to be the instructor for unruly white teenagers. It was another on-screen rarity at the time to see a black man in charge of white children. And in “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” Sidney had the role of a doctor who gets engaged to a white woman after a whirlwind romance, and she brings him home to introduce him to her shocked parents for the first time.

The documentary repeatedly mentions that for every accolade and trailblazing accomplishment that Sidney received, there were critics who thought that he wasn’t being “black enough.” Winfrey, who’s gotten the same type of criticism, remembers meeting Sidney after she became famous and was very in awe of meeting him. She says she asked him how he dealt with the “not black enough” criticism, and he gave her advice that she never forgot: He told her that as long as she was doing what felt right in her heart, that’s all that mattered.

Sidney and Belafonte, who were as close as brothers, were at the forefront of the entertainment industry’s involvement in the U.S. civil rights movement. However, the two friends had occasional estrangements over various issues. One of these issues was that Sidney tended to be more politically conservative than Belafonte when it came to the support of Black Power groups that advocated for preparing for a race war and all the violence associated with war, especially after the devastating 1968 deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy. In his senior years, Sidney became an ambassador representing the Bahamas.

The documentary mentions that by the early 1970s, the Black Power movement and blaxploitation movies made Sidney seem like a somewhat a has-been and outdated movie star to some people. He began to shift his attention more to directing and producing movies. His feature-film directorial debut was the 1972 Western “Buck and the Preacher,” in which he co-starred with Belafonte. It’s mentioned in the documentary that as a filmmaker, Sidney practiced what he preached in the civil rights movement and gave plenty of jobs to people of color in front of the camera and behind the camera.

The 1970s decade was also period of change in his personal life: Sidney and Canadian actress Joanna Shimkus fell in love while co-starring in the 1969 movie “The Lost Man.” In the “Sidney” documentary, Shimkus Poitier says she never heard of Sidney until she got the role in the movie, whose love story plot mirrored their own romance. The couple had daughters Anika and Sydney Tamiia, and then wed in 1976, and remained married until Sidney’s death.

In the documentary, Sidney says that his second marriage also gave him a second chance to be a better husband and father. His daughters from his first marriage became part of his blended family. Sydney Tamiia (who is now known as Sidney Poitier Heartstrong) mentions that her parents made sure that she and her sister Anika grew up with other interracial families, with Quincy Jones and his interracial family being close friends with the Poitier family.

Jones is one of numerous stars who have joyous and insightful things to say about Poitier. Other entertainment celebrities who are interviewed include Denzel Washington, Halle Berry, Spike Lee, Robert Redford, Morgan Freeman, Lenny Kravitz, Barbra Streisand, Louis Gossett Jr., Katharine Houghton and Lulu. Also interviewed are civil rights activist/former politican Andrew Young, writer/historian Greg Tate, civil rights activist Rev. Willie Blue, journalist/historian Nelson George and University of Memphis history professor Aram Goudsouzian, who wrote the 2004 biography “Sidney Poitier: Man, Actor, Icon.”

All of these interviewees have wonderful things to say and are often very witty when saying these things. That is not too surprising. However, what will stay with viewers the most is that they wouldn’t be saying those things if Sidney had not had such an exemplary life. His impact is immeasurable and goes far beyond the entertainment industry. He’s an unforgettable role model of hope, dignity and progress in striving for a better world.

Apple Studios released “Sidney” in select U.S. cinemas and on Apple TV+ on September 23, 2022.

Review: ‘Paradise Highway,’ starring Juliette Binoche, Frank Grillo and Morgan Freeman

September 11, 2022

by Carla Hay

Hala Finley and Juliette Binoche in “Paradise Highway” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Paradise Highway”

Directed by Anna Gutto

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mississippi, the crime drama film “Paradise Highway” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A tough-talking trucker find herself on the run from the FBI and trafficking gangsters when she rescues an orphaned, adolescent girl, who is a human trafficking victim and has killed one of the human traffickers.

Culture Audience: “Paradise Highway” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Juliette Binoche and Morgan Freeman, but the movie is substandard and frequently dull and has too many implausible plot elements.

Morgan Freeman and Cameron Monaghan in “Paradise Highway” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Oscar-winning actress Juliette Binoche is unfortunately miscast as a gruff truck driver who goes on the run with a child trafficking victim in “Paradise Highway,” a tedious and tacky movie that is ineptly made on every single level. And just because another Oscar-winning star (Morgan Freeman) is in this horrible film doesn’t make it any better. Freeman has been doing a lot of bad and forgettable movies in this late stage of his career. In “Paradise Alley,” he plays yet another grizzled and world-weary law enforcement agent who always seems to know more than everyone else around him. Yawn.

Written and directed by Anna Gutto, “Paradise Highway” rips off too many clichés from other movies about a jaded person with questionable morality who’s suddenly forced to take care of an orphaned child while going on the run from people who want to kill both of them. And you know what that means: The cynical adult ends up bonding with the kid in a parental way, after many arguments and near-death experiences. (See 1980’s “Gloria,” starring Gena Rowlands, which was a groundbreaking movie for this concept.)

Viewers are supposed to believe that Binoche—an elegant French actress who is usually in much-classier movies—is a tough-talking French Canadian trucker named Sally, who’s secretly involved with drug smuggling in the United States, where Sally currently lives. Sally (who is a bachelorette with no children) communicates by CB radio with other female trucker friends named Rose (played by Veronica Ferres), Pattie (played by Desiree Wood) and Dolly (played by Dianne McNair-Smith). Their CB radio talk looks like something out of a Lifetime movie version of the trucking lifestyle. The beginning of “Paradise Highway” shows a montage of these female truckers talking to each other by radio, which makes it all too predictable what will happen later in the movie when Sally gets into serious trouble.

Why is Sally a secret drug smuggler? She’s doing it because her younger brother Dennis (played by Frank Grillo), who’s in prison on drug trafficking charges, is being threatened by his drug trafficking cronies. These thugs say that Dennis will be killed by their allies in prison unless Dennis enlists someone on the outside of prison to replace Dennis. Dennis turned to Sally to be his outside proxy. He tells Sally to do whatever he asks her to do, or else he says he will be murdered in prison.

One of the first signs that “Paradise Highway” is an idiotic movie is that even though it’s mentioned that Dennis and Sally grew up in the same abusive household, Dennis and Sally have very different accents from different countries. Dennis has an American accent from the East Coast, whereas Sally’s accent is French Canadian. The movie gives no explanation for this accent discrepancy. And it doesn’t help that Binoche is never completely believable as a rough-and-tumble French Canadian trucker.

One day, Sally goes on what she thinks will be a typical drug shipment pickup in Mississippi. Instead, to her horror and shock, she finds out that she is being tasked with trafficking a girl who has been kidnapped and is about 11 or 12 years old. “No way,” Sally says, “I don’t take people.”

One of the traffickers in charge is a sour-faced woman named Claire (played by Christiane Seidel), who has this to say to Sally in response: “No way I can promise what will happen to your brother if you don’t take the girl where she fucking needs to go.” Sally reluctantly takes the girl, whom Sally later finds out is a runaway orphan named Leila (played by Hala Finley). Leila says that because she ran away from an orphanage, the chances are low that anyone is looking for her.

Before Sally goes to the pre-determined location, she gets a call from Dennis, who has smuggled a disposable burner phone into prison. Sally angrily tells Dennis that human trafficking isn’t part of their deal, but Dennis tells her just to go through with the plan, or else he’ll get killed. Throughout the movie, Dennis keeps calling Sally on a burner phone, which makes you wonder how he’s able to have all of these secret phone conversations in a maximum security prison.

And so, Sally agrees to go along with the plan to drive Leila to a human trafficker named Paul McKinney (played by Jim Dougherty) at a pre-determined location in a remote wooded area. From the beginning, Leila shows that she’s not going to go quietly, and she puts up a fight, so she has to be bound and gagged. When they get to the dropoff location, Sally unties Leila to get ready to hand Leila over to Paul.

Things descend into chaos when Leila takes a shotgun that Sally had in the truck and shoots Paul dead. In a panic, Sally and Leila flee the scene. Most of “Paradise Alley” is about Sally and Leila trying to hide from the criminals and law enforcement officials who are looking for them. Sally is afraid to go to another state, so they stay in Mississippi, where “Paradise Highway” was filmed.

It isn’t long before the FBI gets involved, because the FBI has been investigating this trafficking ring, which now has one of its key members murdered. FBI special agent Finley Sterling (played by Cameron Monaghan) is on the case. But he’s essentially being told what to do by FBI retiree Gerick (played by Morgan Freeman), who now works as a consultant for the FBI.

Gerick and Finley have a stereotypical movie relationship of an older cop working with a younger cop. The older cop treats the eager-to-please younger cop as naïve and stupid, while the younger cop tries to prove the older cop is misjudging and underestimating the younger cop. The older cop in this cliché partnership is also usually more willing to bend the rules, while the younger cop is more “by the book.”

It isn’t long before Sally is identified as the prime suspect in Paul’s murder and is exposed as being involved in the trafficking ring. And so, Gerick and Finley lead law enforcement’s hunt for Sally. They soon find out that Leila is with Sally, who could also be arrested for kidnapping and human trafficking. Claire and her partner in crime Terrence (played by Walker Babington) are also in hot pursuit of Sally, with the intention of killing Sally and Leila, who both know too much about the trafficking ring.

“Paradise Highway” has a scene where Sally confides in Leila about why she is so loyal to Dennis. Sally explains that when she and Dennis were children, their widowed father would physically abuse them. Dennis got the worst of their father’s beatings and would protect Sally as much as possible from these physical assaults. Their father also sexually abused Sally. Sally says of her loyalty to Dennis: “Now, it’s my turn to take care of him.”

One of the dumbest things about “Paradise Highway” is that Sally’s getaway vehicle stands out for being a green-and-white semi truck, but she uses this huge truck the entire time that she and Leila are trying to “hide.” Sally also makes no effort to hide or disguise her license plates. In other words, using the truck makes her much easier to find than if she used a regular, non-descript vehicle, but the movie unrealistically shows Sally being able to dodge her pursuers for an extended period of time in this massive truck.

Why can’t law enforcement use helicopters to find Sally and her truck? The movie offers this silly excuse: Gerick goes to a Mississippi sheriff (played by Bill Luckett), who’s portrayed as a hick, to use the department’s helicopter. The sheriff tells Gerick that his department doesn’t have a helicopter because the department can’t afford a helicopter. It’s all so ridiculous because the FBI has the money to get its own helicopter and doesn’t need the permission of an underfunded sheriff’s department.

“Paradise Highway” is filled with too many scenarios of bungling law enforcement and the relentlessly moronic decisions made by Sally, who never thinks of a way to find another vehicle to use. The movie’s action scenes are poorly staged. The editing in the movie is amateurish.

All of the cast members give mediocre or lackluster performances, although Finley, in her portrayal of troubled Leila, is better than most of the cast. It’s not enough to save this abysmal movie, which has a very corny and unrealistic ending. Simply put: “Paradise Highway” leads to a hellish road of lousy filmmaking.

Lionsgate released “Paradise Highway” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 29, 2022. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 6, 2022.

Review: ‘Vanquish’ (2021), starring Morgan Freeman and Ruby Rose

May 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ruby Rose in “Vanquish” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Vanquish” (2021)

Directed by George Gallo

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the action film “Vanquish” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the criminal underground and law enforcement.

Culture Clash: A corrupt and retired police officer forces a former colleague to do some of his dirty work, in exchange for setting her kidnapped underage daughter free from captivity.

Culture Audience: “Vanquish” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind wasting time watching a dimwitted, poorly made and incoherent film.

Morgan Freeman in “Vanquish” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

At some point while filming the horrific embarrassment that is “Vanquish,” Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman must have asked himself, “How did I end up in this garbage movie?” It might have been an easy paycheck for Freeman, but it came at a cost to some of his dignity to be in this putrid cesspool of terrible filmmaking. Freeman seems to know it too, based on his zoned-out performance, which is barely distinguishable from the rest of the stiff and terrible acting that stinks up this trash pile of an action flick.

Viewers unlucky enough to watch “Vanquish” might think that the movie’s sloppy and amateurish filmmaking might be from a first-time feature-film director. No, “Vanquish” is the 13th feature film directed by George Gallo, who made his feature directorial debut with the 1991 dramedy “29th Street,” starring Anthony LaPaglia, Danny Aiello and Lainie Kazan. Gallo is best-known as the screenwriter for the 1988 crime-caper comedy “Midnight Run” (starring Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin) and for coming up with the story that would turn into the 1995 action hit movie “Bad Boys,” starring Will Smith and Martin Lawrence.

Based on his filmography, Gallo has done plenty of movies about mismatched people who are involved in some criminal activities. In other words, this type of subject matter isn’t new to him. And that’s why it’s even more mind-boggling that “Vanquish” (which Gallo wrote with Sam Bartlett) is so badly bungled on every single level of filmmaking. The plot is nonsensical, the aforementioned acting is cringeworthy, and the way that the film was shot and edited makes some no-budget YouTube prank videos look like masterpieces in comparison.

It’s a very bad sign when “Vanquish” has an opening credits sequence that lasts for a bloated six minutes. That’s how long it takes for the movie to repetitively show newspaper clippings and news footage of police officer Damon Hickey (played by Freeman) becoming a decorated hero during the course of his long career. (The movie doesn’t mention where this story takes place, but it’s supposed to be in a U.S. city.)

Damon’s career was cut short when he was gunned down in a shootout that left him with paraplegia. And so, throughout this entire dull and dreary movie, Damon is in a wheelchair while he lives by himself in a sleek-looking mansion worth millions. How could a retired police officer afford such a luxurious home when he doesn’t come from a rich family and there’s no sign that he married into wealth? And how could Damon’s ownership of this mansion, which is beyond his cop salary, not raise suspicions from law enforcement?

This illogical movie never answers the second question, but it answers the first question. Damon has been a corrupt cop involved in skimming money from drug deals and other crimes. And he’s been able to get away with it. For reasons that aren’t made clear except for vague references to revenge, Damon now wants payback from certain people in the criminal underworld. And he plans to steal loads of cash from them.

And that’s where Victoria (played by Rose) comes into the picture. Victoria, who is originally from Australia (as is Rose in real life), is Damon’s caretaker and a single mother to a daughter named Lily (played by Juju Journey Brener), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Victoria is in for a shock one night when she and Lily are in Damon’s home, and Lily goes missing. Damon calmly informs Victoria (whom he calls Vicky) that Lily is safe but in captivity, and Victoria won’t get Lily back unless Victoria does what Damon says.

Damon wants Victoria to go to five different pre-planned places to pick up cash. But it’s not as simple as that. Damon also wants Victoria to murder anyone who gets in her way. Damon knows exactly where his criminal targets are gathered at these places. And so, even if any of these crooks owed Damon any money, he won’t be satisfied with just the money. He wants them dead.

And why is Victoria so qualified to do these dirty deeds? She used to be a drug courier for the Russian mafia, which explains why she has assassin skills. It doesn’t explain why viewers have to be subjected to the idiocy of scene after scene where she’s able to single-handedly take on several armed opponents at once and never miss a target when she fires a gun.

After Victoria goes to each of the location to murder people and pick up a bag of cash, she gets on her motorcycle and delivers the cash to Damon. Then, Damon and Victoria spew some badly written lines that are supposed to be arguments. And then, Victoria hops on her motorcycle to go to the next destination. Freeman literally does nothing in this movie but sit in a wheelchair and act cranky and self-righteous.

During the course of this movie, viewers find out that Victoria can not only speak Russian but she can also speak German and French. Be prepared to hear Rose mangle words in different languages. With her limited acting range (and that’s putting it nicely), she barely has command of the English language.

Near the beginning of the movie, there’s a muddled storyline about some gangsters who’ve caught a snitch in their group. This snitch’s secret audio surveillance was found on a portable cassette tape recorder that would need a wire for remote recording. What year is this? 1991?

Viewers know that this movie takes place in the era of digital, wireless recorders because Damon keeps track of Victoria through a high-tech digital video surveillance system that he requires her to wear during her robbery/killing spree. And that’s why it’s almost laughable that the snitch was found with a cassette recorder that looks like it was left over from an old episode of “Law & Order.”

The snitch has been killed, and the people he secretly recorded are corrupt cops who used to work with Damon. They include B.J. (played by Paul Sampson), Erik (played by Miles Doleac), Sniper (played by Richard Salvatore) and Max (played by Ele Barda). These goons show up at various points in this messy story, where not even the clergy is immune to the corruption. In a flashback scene, Damon is shown in a confessional with a priest named Father Thomas (played by Bill Luckett), who’s been in cahoots with Damon in their criminal activities.

Are there any good cops in this story? Not really. There are some law enforcement people who turn up at various points in the movie, but they don’t do anything except say moronic lines while they hang out in seedy bars. The cops in the movie certainly don’t seem to be doing any real police work.

These useless characters include Detective Stevens (played by Nick Vallelonga), Detective Kehoe (played by Chris Mullinax) and Agent Monroe (played by Patrick Muldoon). Freeman isn’t the only Oscar winner in the “Vanquish” cast. Vallelonga won two Oscars for being a writer and a producer of the 2018 dramedy “Green Book.” It goes to show that being an Oscar winner doesn’t automatically give someone the good sense to avoid bottom-of-the-barrel projects.

While Victoria speeds around the city in her motorcycle to go from destination to destination, Damon inexplicably acts as if he’s her personal GPS, by giving her directions. Expect to see a lot of footage of Freeman sitting in a wheelchair and barking empty lines such as “Go there!” or “Turn left!” The only direction this movie goes is off the rails.

Victoria is armed with two large guns that she keeps exposed in full view while they’re tucked into the back side of her jeans. And so, there’s scene after scene of her walking into these criminal hangouts, where her guns are exposed and no one stops her or questions her. The bodyguards who are supposed to protect the criminals are completely incompetent (just like this movie’s screenplay is incompetent), because it doesn’t take long for Victoria to open fire and slaughter everyone in sight. Remember, she never misses a target.

During her first stop at a nightclub where her targets are, Victoria shoots and kills some people in a back room without a gun silencer, and the movie wants viewers to believe that no one could hear the gunshots because the door was closed. These lunkheads apparently didn’t think that a known associate of Damon’s who walked into the club with two guns sticking out of her back wasn’t going to use these guns.

After these murders, Victoria manages to rescue a prostitute named Galyna (played by Hannah Stocking), who begs to be set free from these thugs. Victoria decides that she and Galyna should play it cool and walk out of the club as if they’re friends having a laugh. “Can you pretend I’m funny?” Victoria asks Galyna. Galyna replies, “I’m a prostitute!,” as if to say “I already know how to act.” Too bad no one knows how to act in this film.

Another mindless massacre scene is one where Victoria encounters an over-the-top effeminate/flamboyant gangster named Rayo (played by Joel Michaely), who has one of the worst fake Southern accents you’ll ever hear in a movie. Victoria shows up unannounced at Rayo’s home. Rayo offers Victoria some Mint Julep, as if she’s at the Kentucky Derby, not in the lair of a sleazy criminal who has some heavily drugged young men on his living room sofa. (Adults will know exactly what those young men are doing there and why they’ve been drugged.)

And because Victoria is as dimwitted as this movie’s screenplay, she drinks the Mint Julep, even though she sees that there are people on the sofa who are in a drugged stupor. The Mint Julep is laced with a sedative, of course. Damon is watching this fiasco the whole time on his video surveillance camera. As Victoria is about to pass out from the unnamed drug that she ingested in the Mint Julep, Damon sees that there’s a small mound of cocaine on a nearby table. You can easily guess what he tells Victoria to do and what happens next.

And did we mention that Victoria used to have a (now-dead) brother who was her partner in crime? It’s of no consequence to this movie’s plot because it’s just another useless detail that’s thrown in to make it look like Victoria has a backstory. She really doesn’t.

That’s why there’s a ludicrous moment toward the end of the film where viewers find out that Victoria’s mother is the governor of the unnamed state where this movie takes place. Governor Ann Driscoll (played by Julie Lott) had not one but two children caught up in running drugs for the Russian mafia, and somehow this was never exposed by her political opponents. What a way to get elected.

One of the most annoying aspects of “Vanquish” is how it over-saturates the movie with fade-in/fade-out editing, as if to mimic a fever dream. It’s more like a nightmare to sit through this rubbish. The movie’s blaring soundtrack is distracting and often drowns out the dialogue.

And the filmmakers mistakenly thought that “Vanquish” would look artsy by having substandard cinematography that tries to make almost every interior look like a neon aquarium. It doesn’t look artsy. It looks garish and tacky.

In the production notes for “Vanquish,” director/co-writer Gallo makes this statement that reads, in part: “I have always enjoyed the Korean gangster film genre ever since I first became aware of them. These films have a cool, bouncy and deliciously dark vibe and most importantly, a great sense of humor … My attraction to ‘Vanquish’ was that I could make a film that I hadn’t really done before and infuse my love of these genres into my film.”

First of all, please don’t insult Korean cinema by comparing “Vanquish” to Korean gangster films. It’s like comparing toxic trash to works of art. Secondly, there is absolutely no humor in “Vanquish,” unless viewers want to laugh at how horrible everything in this movie is. And lastly, “Vanquish” does the exact opposite of what Victoria does every time she fires her gun: The movie completely misses the mark.

Lionsgate released “Vanquish” in select U.S. cinemas on April 16, 2021, on digital and VOD on April 20, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on April 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Coming 2 America,’ starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Jermaine Fowler, Leslie Jones, KiKi Layne, Shari Headley and Wesley Snipes

March 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Bella Murphy, Akiley Love, Arsenio Hall, Eddie Murphy, Shari Headley, KiKi Layne and Paul Bates in “Coming 2 America” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures/Prime Video)

“Coming 2 America”

Directed by Craig Brewer

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional African country of Zamunda and briefly in the New York City borough of Queens, the comedy sequel “Coming 2 America” features a predominantly black cast of characters (with a few white people) representing African royalty, working-class Africans and Americans of various classes.

Culture Clash: An African royal, who is shamed for not having a male heir, finds out that he has an illegitimate American son, who is brought to Africa to be groomed as an heir to the throne.

Culture Audience: “Coming 2 America” will appeal primarily to fans of 1988’s “Coming to America,” but this sequel lacks the charm of the original movie.

Wesley Snipes, Jermaine Fowler and Leslie Jones in “Coming 2 America” (Photo by Quantrell D. Colbert/Paramount Pictures/Prime Video)

The comedy film “Coming 2 America,” which is the sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America,” is a perfect example of a movie that was not worth the wait. It’s a dull and disappointing mess that trashes or wastes the character relationships that made the “Coming to America” a crowd-pleasing hit. Co-stars Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall, who were a dynamic duo in “Coming to America,” don’t have very many scenes together in “Coming 2 America.”

The new characters that are introduced in “Coming 2 America” are bland or obnoxious. An endearing romance/courtship that was at the heart of “Coming to America” is largely absent from “Coming 2 America,” which rushes a predictable relationship between a young couple who have almost no believable chemistry with each other. And “Coming 2 America” is filled with misogyny and racist stereotypes about black people, from a mostly white team of filmmakers.

The title of this dreadful and boring sequel shouldn’t have been “Coming 2 America.” It should have been titled “Shucking and Jiving in Zamunda.” That’s essentially what all the main characters do throughout this idiotic movie that takes place mostly in the fictional African country of Zamunda, not in America.

The “fish out of water” premise of culture shock that worked so well in “Coming to America” is muddled and mishandled in “Coming 2 America,” which was directed by Craig Brewer. This entire film looks like a tacky TV-movie instead of what it should have been: a cinematic triumph in comedy. (It’s easy to see why Paramount Pictures chose not to release “Coming 2 America” in theaters and sold it to Prime Video instead.) It doesn’t help that the movie’s musical score is schlocky sitcom music by Jermaine Stegall. Kenya Barris, Barry W. Blaustein and David Sheffield wrote the awful and lazy screenplay for “Coming 2 America.”

Murphy and Hall do their expected schticks of portraying various characters (some in prosthetic makeup), just like they did in “Coming to America.” It brings some mildly amusing moments that are fleeting and recycled. (The barbershop scene is back, and it’s not as funny as it was in the first “Coming to America” movie.) But these moments are not enough to save “Coming 2 America,” which is ruined by too many stale jokes that would’ve been outdated in 1988.

In fact, there’s almost nothing modern about “Coming 2 America,” except for some of the contemporary costumes. The song selections and musical numbers that are used as filler in this movie are straight out of the early 1990s, as if the filmmakers are trying to relive the music of their youthful days. And there are several celebrity cameos from African American entertainers, to distract from the movie’s silly plot. However, sticking a bunch of talented black people in front of the camera doesn’t make the writing and directing of “Coming 2 America” any less moronic and cliché.

In the beginning of “Coming 2 America,” Prince Akeem (played by Murphy) and his loyal sidekick/best friend Semmi (played by Hall) are living an uneventful life in Zamunda. Akeem and his American wife Lisa (played by Shari Headley)—who met, fell in love, and got married in “Coming to America”—are now celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary, as well as peace and prosperity in Zamunda. Semmi is still portrayed as a bachelor who has nothing better to do with his life but to be Akeem’s glorified lackey.

Akeem and Lisa have three children, all daughters: eldest Meeka (played by KiKi Layne), who’s in her mid-to-late 20s, is the only daughter with a distinct personality, since she’s the most assertive and outspoken of the three. Middle teenage daughter Omma (played by Bella Murphy, one of Eddie Murphy’s real-life daughters) and youngest pre-teen daughter Tinashe (played by Akiley Love) don’t have much dialogue in the movie. Their only moments where they get to shine are in some choreographed fight scenes.

Lisa’s father Cleo McDowell (played by John Amos) has expanded his fast-food McDowell’s restaurant business to Zamunda. McDowell’s blatantly copies McDonald’s, even down to having a “golden arches” sign in the shape of the letter “M.” This copycat gag leads to a not-very-funny segment in the beginning of the movie about how much McDowell’s imitates McDonald’s. Cleo quips, “They’ve got Egg McMuffins. We’ve got Egg McStuffins.” That’s what’s supposed to pass as comedy in this horribly written film.

Oscar-winning “Black Panther” costume designer Ruth E. Carter did the costumes for “Coming 2 America.” The costumes in “Coming 2 America” are among the few high points of the movie. Unlike “Black Panther,” which treated its female and male characters as equals, “Coming 2 America” is a parade of misogyny that makes the female characters look inferior to the male characters in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

The running “joke” in the film is that Zamunda is a socially “backwards” country with laws where women can’t be the chief ruler of the nation, and women can’t own their own businesses. The Zamundan culture is that women exist only to cater to men. Females can’t make any big decisions without the approval of the closest patriarch in her family. It’s sexism that could be ripe for parody, if done in a funny and clever way. But “Coming 2 America” bungles it throughout the entire movie, except for the end when a predictable decision is made to resolve a certain problem related to Zamunda’s sexist laws.

That decision is rushed in toward the very last few minutes of the movie. And it looks like what it is: the filmmakers’ way of pandering to feminism. However, this fake feminist plot development doesn’t erase all the ways that “Coming 2 America” marginalizes and “dumbs down” the women in the movie in a way that’s so foul and unnecessary.

“Black Panther” proved you don’t have to make black women in an African country look like they’re incapable of being smart and strong leaders. The “Coming 2 America” filmmakers try to rip off a lot of “Black Panther’s” visual style, but it’s all a smokescreen for the way “Coming 2 America” makes the African country of Zamunda (and therefore the people who live there) look like a very ignorant culture that’s behind the times.

In “Coming 2 America,” the “rank and file” black female citizens in Zamunda are just there to literally shake their butts in the dance routines; act as servants who are required to bathe or groom the royal men; or be preoccupied with marriage and/or motherhood. Akeem is shamed and ridiculed by a rival named General Izzi (played by Wesley Snipes) because Akeem has no male heirs. Izzi is portrayed as a cartoonishly buffoon villain who’s power-hungry and jealous of Akeem’s status as a royal heir.

In order to gain power in Zamunda, Izzi would rather form some kind of alliance with Akeem, instead of fighting Akeem. When Izzi storms the royal palace with an army of men, Izzi tells Akeem: “I came here for blood, but not the murder kind. Family blood, marriage blood.” Izzi suggests that Izzi’s son Idi (played by Rotimi Akinosho) marry Meeka, but Akeem rejects the offer.

Akeem’s widower father King Jaffe Joffer (played by James Earl Jones) thinks he’s going to die soon. And the king isn’t happy that Akeem doesn’t have a son. “The throne must pass to a male heir,” King Jaffe declares. Jones, who is a majestic presence in many other movies, has his talent squandered in “Coming 2 America,” which makes him look like a sexist old fool who doesn’t think any of his granddaughters could be worthwhile leaders.

Izzi tells Akeem that it’s too bad that Akeem doesn’t have a male heir, because Izzi think his daughter Bopoto (played by Teyana Taylor) would be a perfect match for any son of Akeem’s. And just like that, Semmi and a crotchety elderly man named Baba (played by Hall, who’s made to look like a tall, African version of Gollum) tell Akeem that he actually does have a son that Akeem didn’t know about for all of these years. Akeem doesn’t really believe it, until he’s reminded of something that happened when he and Semmi were in the New York City borough of Queens, during the time that the “Coming to America” story took place.

Meanwhile, King Jaffe announces, “My funeral should be spectacular. Let’s have it now, while I’m alive.” This was apparently an excuse for the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers to have one of several dance numbers in the movie as a gimmick to fill up time.

King Jaffe’s “funeral party” features Morgan Freeman introducing performances by En Vogue and Salt-N-Pepa, who perform the 1993 hit “Whatta Man.” Also performing at the party is Gladys Knight, who is forced to embarrass herself in butchering her 1973 classic “Midnight Train to Georgia” because the filmmakers made her change the song to “Midnight Train to Zamunda.” At any rate, King Jaffe dies at the party (he falls asleep and doesn’t wake up), which is a good thing for Jones, because the less screen time he has in this garbage movie, the better.

After his father’s death, Akeem becomes king, but Akeem is now desperate to find a male heir. Akeem’s son (who is constantly called a “bastard” in this movie) was the result of a one-night stand that Akeem had in Queens. “Coming 2 America” then shows how this son was conceived. Akeem and Semmi, who were in Queens to look for a woman to marry Akeem, were at a nightclub, when Semmi spotted an American woman named Mary Junson (played by Leslie Jones) at the bar. (“Coming 2 America” uses flashbacks from “Coming to America” and some visual effects to recreate this moment.)

Semmi struck up a conversation with Mary and told her that he was working for an African prince who was looking for a bride. Mary takes one look at Akeem and doesn’t need any encouragement to hook up with Akeem. She invites Akeem back to her place. And as Akeem remembers it in the present day, Mary blew smoke from marijuana (which he calls “wild herbs”) in his face, thereby impairing his judgment.

Akeem describes Mary and his sexual encounter with her in this way: “A wild boar [Mary] burst into the room and rammed me and rammed me.” The sex is shown in a flashback in a very problematic scene, because it portrays Mary as someone who sexually assaulted Akeem. He definitely wasn’t a willing partner, by the way it’s portrayed in the movie, but it’s played off as something to laugh at in the movie. It makes Mary look like she’s so desperate for sex that she will incapacitate and rape a man.

And the dialogue in this sexual assault scene is just so cringeworthy. Before Mary attacks Akeem, she says to him, “I hope you like pumpkin pie, ’cause you goin’ to get a whole slice.” Mary can’t speak proper English in the movie because the filmmakers want to make her look as dumb and uneducated as possible.

It’s also downright sexist and racist to call a black woman a “boar,” which is an animal that is an uncastrated male swine. It doesn’t make it okay if another black person says this insult, just because he was paid to say it as an actor. It should be mentioned that two out of the three screenwriters of this crappy “Coming 2 America” screenplay are white. Had there been more black people on the filmmaking team, it’s doubtful that there would have been so many insulting and offensive portrayals of black people (especially black women) in this trash dump of a movie.

Portraying Mary as a desperate sexual assaulter isn’t the only problematic thing about this character. The entire character of Mary is problematic, because it’s all about reinforcing the worst negative stereotypes that movies and TV have about black women who are single mothers: loud, crude, stupid, broke/money-hungry and promiscuous. Mary (who doesn’t seem to have a job) calls herself a “ho” multiple times in the movie.

Akeem also calls Mary a “morally bereft” woman when he describes his memory of her. And when Akeem and Semmi inevitably go back to Queens to find Mary and the mystery son, Mary isn’t sure if Akeem is the father of her child. That is, until she finds out how rich Akeem is (Semmi accidentally drops open a suitcase full of cash in front of her), and suddenly Mary can’t wait to move to Zamunda and live in the royal palace.

The filmmakers go out of their way to make Mary as mindless and vulgar as possible. When Mary goes to Zamunda and she’s served caviar, she doesn’t know what this delicacy is and calls it “black mashed potatoes.” And in another scene in the movie, Mary shouts, “I am so hungry, I could eat the ass out of a zipper!”

Mary and Akeem’s son Lavelle Junson (played by Jermaine Fowler) is a good guy overall. But the filmmakers force a negative stereotype on him, by making him yet another black male who breaks the law. Lavelle and his Uncle Reem (played by Tracy Morgan, using the same shady clown persona that he usually has in his movies and TV shows) are ticket scalpers. Clearly, the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers wanted yet another ghetto stereotype of black people who commit illegal acts to make money.

“Coming 2 America” has a very racially condescending scene of Lavelle and Reem (who is Mary’s brother) at a corporate office on Lavelle’s 30th birthday. Lavelle is at this company (a firm called Duke & Duke) to apply for some kind of computer job. Lavelle tells Reem that he’s tired of having an unstable income from ticket scalping, and he wants to earn an honest living in a steady job. Reem thinks Lavelle is a dolt for wanting to get a legitimate job, and he asks Lavelle if he’s going to use his “white voice” in the interview.

In the interview with the firm’s racist scion named Calvin Duke (played by Colin Jost), Lavelle is subjected to a barrage of bigoted assumptions that are meant to make Lavelle feel inferior. When Calvin finds out that Lavelle was raised by a single mother who’s unemployed (she got laid off from her job), Calvin makes a snide remark: “They say that not having a dominant male figure at home is detrimental to a child.” There are some more racist insults (Calvin asks Lavelle if his mother is addicted to drugs or gambling), before the interview ends predictably, with Lavelle angrily telling Calvin he doesn’t want the job.

The thing is that even though the character of Calvin is supposed to represent white elitists who are racists, the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers do everything to make a lot of the movie’s black characters (especially Mary) the very degrading stereotype that racists like Calvin have of black people. And that’s why the movie’s job interview scene is very phony in its intentions to make it look like racists are most likely to be spoiled white rich kids. The reality is that people from all walks of life can be racists.

It turns out that Lavelle isn’t going to need a job because Akeem soon finds Lavelle (who’s scalping tickets outside of Madison Square Garden), introduces himself as Lavelle’s long-lost father, and tells Lavelle that his new identity is as a wealthy royal heir in Zamunda. Lavelle says he won’t move out of New York without his mother. And quicker than you can say “stupid comedy sequel,” Lavelle and Mary are in Zamunda. And this time, the Americans are the ones who are the “fish out of water.”

Lisa isn’t too happy that Akeem has a son that they didn’t know about until recently. However, she’s willing to forgive Akeem because Lavelle was conceived before Akeem met Lisa. Someone who is even less thrilled about Lavelle is Meeka, who sees Lavelle as a threat to any leadership power she hoped to inherit as a legitimate member of this royal family. The sibling rivalry scenes predictably ensue.

Meanwhile, Lavelle meets a hair stylist named Mirembe (played by Nomzamo Mbatha), who works for the royal family. She’s single and available, so you know where this is going. Mirembe changes Lavelle’s hairstyle from the Kid ‘n Play-inspired fade that he had in Queens to a short-cropped locks hairstyle that Erik Killmonger from “Black Panther” would wear, but with a rat tail braid in the back.

Mirembe says that she would love to open her own hair salon one day (her biggest inspiration is the 2005 movie “Beauty Shop”), but she’s sad and discouraged because the law in Zamunda doesn’t allow women to own their own businesses. Lavelle thinks this law is wrong and he promises her that when he has the power, he’s going to change the law. Lavelle and Mirembe are good-looking, but there’s no believable romantic spark between them, so their inevitable courtship is very boring.

The only thing that looks authentic between them is a meta moment when Mirembe and Lavelle have a conversation about which of the “Barbershop” movies is the best of the series, and how sequels usually aren’t as good as the original. Mirembe says, “This is true about sequels. Why ruin it?” If only the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers took that advice for this movie.

It should come as no surprise that the movie relies on the cliché of a love triangle. Now that Akeem has a male heir, Izzi ramps up the pressure for Bopoto to become Lavelle’s wife. Akeem is open to the idea after Bopoto does a sexy dance for the royal family while showing her ample cleavage. However, Bopoto is deliberately written as a submissive airhead. More than once in the story, Lavelle says he wants to be with an intelligent and independent-minded woman, so it’s obvious which woman he’ll choose in the love triangle.

Fowler has an appealing screen presence as Lavelle, but he’s hemmed in by a character that’s written as average and unremarkable. “Coming 2 America” is also very unfocused, since it can’t decide if the story should be more about the Lavelle/Mirembe romance or the Lavelle/Meeka rivalry. Truth be told, even though Layne plays Lavelle’s half-sister, her scenes with Fowler are more dynamic and have more energy than the scenes with Fowler and Mbatha. Layne’s considerable talents are underappreciated in “Coming 2 America,” because her Meeka character isn’t in the movie as much as people might think she should be.

Continuing with the fixation on early 1990s music, there’s another out-of-place musical number where people do a big sing-along to Prince’s “Gett Off,” led by Akeem’s servant Oha (played by Paul Bates). And there’s an atrociously written scene where Queen Lisa gets drunk with Mary at a party, and they start dancing to Digital Underground’s “The Humpty Dance.” This scene is supposed to make it look like Lisa is getting back in touch with her New York hip-hop roots.

But when they have Lisa and Mary repeat the lines, “Uppity bitch what?,” it just goes back to making the black women in this movie look like they have a ghetto mentality. It says a lot that the “Coming 2 America” filmmakers make the woman who is literally the movie’s black queen incapable of being completely dignified. They try to make it look like Lisa has been suppressing her “true” self as a trashy party girl, when Lisa was never that way in the first “Coming to America” movie. Almost all the black women in this movie are marginalized as either existing only in the story because they’re appendages to the men, as wives/love interests/sex partners, servants or daughters.

One of the signs of a creatively bankrupt movie is when it relies too much on celebrity cameos without bringing any genuine laughs. (John Legend sings during a mid-credits scene, and it’s a useless appearance that has no bearing on the movie’s story.) Trevor Noah makes a quick and inconsequential cameo as a TV newscaster named Totatsi Bibinyana of the Zamunda News Network.

Eddie Murphy, who is the main attraction for the “Coming to America” franchise, should have been a producer and/or writer of “Coming 2 America.” His company Eddie Murphy Productions helped finance the movie, but Murphy himself was not a credited producer responsible for the movie’s content and day-to-day operations. If he had been a producer or writer, Eddie Murphy could have brought better creative clout to this movie, which makes him do silly sketches that are way beneath his talent. The comedy and tone, including the slapstick scenes, are monotonous and unimaginative.

Lavelle goes through an initiation process that includes taming a tiger and a “circumcision” ritual that are ineptly written and filmed. As part of his “royal training,” Lavelle gets criticism from Semmi, who yells at him: “You walk like an American pimp!” Lavelle shouts back, “You dress like a slave from the future!”

Doing a high-profile, highly anticipated sequel such as “Coming 2 America” isn’t just about the paychecks. It’s about making good entertainment and a fairly accurate representation of cultures to make the story look relatable. And it should be about celebrating people, instead of making them demeaning caricatures that embody what racist and sexist bigots believe.

Prime Video will premiere “Coming 2 America” on March 5, 2021.

Review: ‘Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It,’ starring Rita Moreno

February 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Rita Moreno in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of Roadside Attractions and American Masters Films)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It”

Directed by Mariem Pérez Riera

Culture Representation: The documentary “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” features a group of predominantly Hispanic people (and a few white people and black people), discussing Rita Moreno, the only Latina entertainer who has won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award, also known as being an EGOT winner.

Culture Clash: Moreno talks about racism and sexism that caused problems for her.

Culture Audience: “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go for It” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in biographical stories about celebrities with long careers who broke barriers, as well as frank discussions about what it’s like to be of Hispanic ethnicity in the predominantly white American entertainment industry.

A photo of Rita Moreno on the set of 1961’s “West Side Story” in “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” (Photo courtesy of MGM Studios)

“Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” doesn’t reveal anything new and significant that Rita Moreno didn’t already reveal in her 2013 self-titled memoir. However, this laudatory documentary, which includes Moreno’s participation, is still inspirational and will be very informative to people who know very little about Moreno’s story before seeing this movie. Breezily directed by Mariem Pérez Riera, “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” follows a pleasant but not groundbreaking celebrity documentary formula of flattering commentaries from other celebrities and pundits; archival footage and exclusive documentary footage; and candid but selective confessions from the celebrity. “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.

The movie opens with a scene of Moreno preparing for her 87th birthday party in 2018. But she’s not being fussed over by an entourage of people. She’s in her house’s kitchen laying out the silverware and the decorations, with some help from assistants. Moreno is all too aware that people watching this scene will be surprised that she’s doing the kind of work a personal assistant or event planner would do.

Moreno quips, “You can tell I’m not a real star because somebody else would be doing this. Show business: That’s why you must never really believe anything about your fame and all that kind of bullshit. Yeah, it goes up and down. Right now, it’s up.”

The documentary includes footage of the party (which has a Cuban costume theme, because Moreno says she likes hosting themed costume parties), where an energetic and lively Moreno dances happily with guests. She’s charismatic, humorous and has a very obvious zest for life. It’s that mixture of self-deprecation and self-confidence that Moreno has on display throughout the entire documentary.

And these personality traits have helped Moreno (who was born Rosa Dolores Alverío Marcano in 1931 in Humacao, Puerto Rico) sustain a career for longer than a lot of people end up living. But, of course, she didn’t get to where she is so easily. And the documentary rightfully gives Moreno a lot of screen time to tell her story: the good, the bad and the ugly.

She recounts that from an early age, she knew she wanted to be an entertainer: “Being a natural performer, I think I was born that way, I was wired that way. I wanted to be a movie star since the time I saw my first picture.”

Moreno’s mother Rosa María, who was a seamstress, left behind Moreno’s father Francisco and Moreno’s brother Francisco Jr. in Puerto Rico to move with Moreno to New York City in 1936. Moreno vividly remembers seeing the Statue of Liberty and thinking that the statue represented the president of the United States. It might have been a future indicator that Moreno would go on to support feminism and other progressive issues when she became a social activist in the 1960s.

The documentary could have used some insight from Moreno about how leaving behind her father and brother impacted her life and if she ever kept in touch with them. It’s unclear if the filmmakers didn’t ask her those questions, or if they did ask but Moreno didn’t want to talk about it on camera. At any rate, she doesn’t mention her family left behind in Puerto Rico for the rest of the documentary.

Nor does there seem to be any attempt by the filmmakers who find anyone who knew Moreno from her childhood or her teenage years, to verify some of her stories of what life was like for her before she became famous. It’s an omission that’s an example of how this documentary is certainly good about rehashing information that Moreno has already talked about in several interviews and in her memoir, but the documentary doesn’t really dig beneath the celebrity veneer in a way that is entirely revealing, even if it might make the celebrity uncomfortable.

Moreno says that her mother fully supported her showbiz aspirations from a very young age, because Rosa María would often dress her daughter up like a doll and encourage her to perform wherever she could. By the age of 15, Moreno dropped out of high school because she was busy working as an entertainer. By the age of 16, she was supporting her family with her income.

But that doesn’t mean that her entry into showbiz went smoothly. Moreno remembers that as a child living in New York City, which was very racially segregated at the time, she had insecurities because she was treated as inferior because of her race. And as she became a young woman, she says she was often the target of stereotypes of being a “spicy” or “sexpot” Latina whose only worth was in her physical appearance.

A fateful meeting with Louis B. Mayer (the co-founder of MGM Studios) led to Moreno’s first big break in the movies. She went with her mother for an appointment to see Mayer at New York City’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel, where Mayer was staying in the penthouse. Moreno’s first major role model as a movie star was Elizabeth Taylor. And so, for this important meeting with Mayer, Moreno says in the documentary that she deliberately made herself look like Elizabeth Taylor as much as possible. The tactic worked, and Mayer decided on the spot to give Moreno a contract at MGM, because he said that she looked like a “Spanish Elizabeth Taylor.”

Moreno says in the documentary that this big break is an example of how one person can change the course of someone’s career in a matter of minutes, in ways that years of hard work cannot do. Moreno had a contract with MGM, but it came with strict limitations, because it was back in the days when movie studios controlled and dictated whom their rising young stars could date and how they would appear in public. And because of her racial identity, Moreno was always typecast as the “ethnic girl” where she usually played supporting characters who were written as subservient and/or intellectually inferior to white people.

It’s fairly well-known that Moreno’s most famous movie role was in the 1961 movie musical “West Side Story.” Nothing new about her “West Side Story” experience is revealed in this documentary that she hasn’t already talked about elsewhere. She won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in “West Side Story,” making her the first entertainer of Hispanic ethnicity to win an Oscar. She still jokes about how her speech was short because she was so shocked that she won, and she’s been making up for that short speech ever since.

Moreno is also in director Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” remake, which is due out in December 2021. Details about her role in the movie have not yet been revealed as of this writing, but she plays a character named Valentina. The documentary has brief footage of her walking onto the set of the “West Side Story” remake, with Spielberg making a quick cameo.

Moreno’s traumatic experiences with sexual assault and sexual harassment aren’t glossed over in the documentary. Just like she’s done in other interviews and in her memoir, she talks about being raped in her 20s by her agent at the time. (Moreno does not name him.) She says she continued to work with him because he was the only agent she knew at the time who would represent a Latina performer. Moreno says that rape experience also fueled a lot of realistic anger when her “West Side Story” character Anita successfully fought off a gang of male attackers.

Moreno also shares the experience of being sexually demeaned at an industry party in Beverly Hills when she was in her early 30s. The perpetrators were not only a powerful party guest but also the party host, according to Moreno. She describes being told by party guest Harry Cohen, who was head of Columbia Pictures at the time: “You know, I’d like to fuck you.” She says that, at the time, she laughed off this sexual aggression to his face, because she was afraid of the backlash she would get if she got visibly angry.

And later, when the party host (whom she does not name but she describes as a well-known distillery mogul) asked her to dance, he sexually grinded on her without her consent. During this assault, he said to her, “You’re a sexy little bitch, aren’t you?” Moreno says she was so mortified and scared that she asked the Mexican gardeners at the party to take her home, and they willingly obliged because they could sense that she had been violated in some way.

Moreno mentions that these gardeners were the “classiest people at the party.” And it’s clear that she tells this story to serve as an example of why people shouldn’t be dazzled by money and fame as a reason to think that someone is “better” than someone else. Money and fame don’t buy class. And being rich or famous doesn’t mean someone is incapable of heinous acts.

Moreno’s story is also an example of how winning an Oscar isn’t an automatic guarantee of getting bigger and better opportunities. After winning an Oscar, she says was only offered roles where she played the type of character that was a lot like Anita in “West Side Story.” Because she didn’t want to be typecast, Morena says in the documentary she turned down roles and that she didn’t do movies for another seven years after she won the Oscar for “West Side Story.” She says that instead, she worked in TV and theater.

This is where this documentary’s filmmakers show some carelessness. A quick look at Moreno’s filmography shows that she in fact did appear in several movies during the seven years (1962-1969) that she says that she didn’t. But she was correct in saying that she also worked in television during that time period. Her inaccuracy doesn’t mean that she deliberately lied, but it’s very possible her memory of that time period isn’t as accurate as it should be. It’s why celebrity documentaries aren’t always reliable if the celebrity controls too much of the narrative and the filmmakers don’t really care to fact check.

Moreno also talks about her torturous romance with Marlon Brando, whom she says she dated off and on for seven or eight years from the mid-1950s the early 1960s. It’s clear that she’s still conflicted about him all these years later. She bitterly describes him as an “anathema in my life,” but she also says that he loved her. And she has some therapy-speak when she declares, “He was the daddy I couldn’t please. I think about [him] now. What was there to love?”

She describes Brando as brilliant but also very selfish and controlling. Just as she did in her memoir, Moreno talks about how she got pregnant with Brando’s baby and secretly hoped that he would marry her. Instead, she found out he didn’t want to be her husband or the father of her child, and she had an abortion, which was illegal at the time. She had medical complications after the abortion that were traumatic for her.

Moreno also talks about how she was so distraught over the relationship with Brando that she attempted suicide. This is information that Moreno revealed several years ago. After they ended their relationship, Moreno and Brando co-starred in the 1969 movie “The Night of the Following Day,” where they have an argument scene and she slaps him in the face. She says that it didn’t take much acting on her part because she channeled her real-life rage at Brando into the scene.

If there’s any good that came out of her relationship with Brando, she says it was that he helped awaken her social consciousness during the 1960s. She became involved in the civil rights movement and feminist causes before it was “trendy” to do so. She says of her progressive political activism: “For the first time, I felt useful.” The movie includes video footage of her giving speeches and attending political marches and rallies, such as the 1963 March on Washington, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

In one scene in the movie, Moreno is shown in her “One Day at a Time” dressing room, watching on TV the 2018 U.S. Senate’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Brett Kavanaugh, who was nominated by Donald Trump for the Supreme Court. Moreno watches Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, a former schoolmate of Kavanaugh’s from high school, testify that he sexually assaulted Ford in 1982, when they were teenagers. Moreno comments that she believes Ford, and that some of the testimony about sexual assault is triggering for her.

Moreno also describes her relationship with her husband Leonard Gordon, a cardiologist who later became her manager. They were married from 1965 until his death in 2010, at the age of 90. She recalls how she was charmed during their early courtship because he wasn’t aware that she was famous when they first started talking to each other. Moreno also said one of the best things about their relationship was that he had a knack for making her laugh.

But she’s also candid about admitting that toward the end of their marriage, she basically fell out of love with him, but they never got divorced because he loved her more than she loved him. Moreno also says that she and her husband had terrible fights and had a very dysfunctional marriage. However, Moreno confesses that they were skilled at hiding their marriage problems from the world, including their daughter (and only child), Fernanda Gordon Fisher, who is interviewed in the documentary. Gordon Fisher says that her parents had a good marriage with normal disagreements that weren’t too serious.

That’s not the way her mother describes it. Moreno says that Gordon was a “control freak” who didn’t like the “raucous and loud” side of her. She says, “When Lenny died, I gave that little Rosita [referring to herself] permission to leave.” She also admits she felt relieved when he died because “I didn’t have to answer to anyone anymore.”

Moreno has mixed feelings about her late husband, but there’s no doubt that she and her daughter adore each other. It’s mentioned that when Moreno’s daughter was in her 20s, she toured with Moreno and was Moreno’s backup singer/dancer. The documentary shows how Moreno and her daughter are still very close. Moreno also talks lovingly of her two grandsons (Cameron and Justin Fisher), who are briefly shown in the documentary.

The movie chronicles several of Moreno’s career highlights, including winning a Grammy for the 1972 cast recording album of children’s TV series “The Electric Company”; a Tony Award in 1975 for her featured performance in “The Ritz”; and two Emmys in 1977 and 1978, for guest-starring on “The Muppet Show” and “The Rockford Files.” She was also a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004 and was celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors in 2015.

As for the title of this movie, it’s inspired by slogan on a T-shirt that Moreno wore when she received a career achievement award at a Television Critics Association event in 2018. Footage of her getting ready for the event and her acceptance speech is included in the documentary. “Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” is a saying that sums up her persona perfectly: gutsy, vibrant and never forgetting her humble beginnings.

Most of the people who provide commentary for the documentary are other famous entertainers. Their remarks about Moreno are all positive, while some of the Latina actresses (such as Eva Longoria and Karen Olivo) expound on the specific barriers that Hispanic female entertainers often face in showbiz. Other people interviewed in the documentary include some actors who’ve co-starred with Moreno over the years, including George Chakiris (“West Side Story”), Morgan Freeman (“The Electric Company”), Héctor Elizondo (“Cane”) and Justina Machado (“One Day at a Time”).

Also weighing in with their thoughts are Lin-Manuel Miranda, Whoopi Goldberg (another EGOT winner), Mitzi Gaynor, Gloria Estefan, “One Day at a Time” executive producer Norman Lear, “Life Without Makeup” director Tony Taccone, “Oz” creator Tom Fontana and Moreno’s longtime manager John Ferguson, who breaks down in tears when he remembers how Moreno found her will to live after her suicide attempt. (Miranda and Lear are two of the executive producers of this documentary.) And some academics provide their perspectives on Moreno and her impact on pop culture, such as Columbia University artist/scholar Frances Negrón-Muntaner, The New School cultural historian Julia Foulkes and Columbia University film historian/author Annette Insdorf.

The documentary uses some whimsical animation at times to illustrate some parts of Moreno’s storytelling. But this added creative flair and all the celebrities who gush about her in the movie are all just icing on the cake. Moreno has more than enough charisma and has lived such a full life that her story could be a miniseries, not just a documentary film.

UPDATE: Roadside Attractions will release “Rita Moreno: Just a Girl Who Decided to Go For It” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021. PBS’s “American Masters” series will premiere the movie on October 5, 2021.

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