Review: ‘Civil War’ (2024), starring Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura, Cailee Spaeny, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Sonoya Mizuno and Nick Offerman

April 9, 2024

by Carla Hay

Kirsten Dunst, Wagner Moura and Cailee Spaeny in “Civil War” (Photo by Murray Close/A24)

“Civil War” (2024)

Directed by Alex Garland

Culture Representation: Taking place on the East Coast of the United States, the action film “Civil War” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latin people and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: During a civil war in the United States, a team of four war journalists take a tension-filled and dangerous road trip to the White House to try to get an interview with the U.S. president, who is under siege. 

Culture Audience: “Civil War” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners, filmmaker Alex Garland, and war movies that have observations about political turmoil.

Stephen McKinley Henderson in “Civil War” (Photo by Murray Close/A24)

“Civil War” has some gripping action sequences, but it’s not a non-stop action flick about gun-toting heroes. It’s an effective commentary about war journalism, political unrest, and the psychological toll on people caught in the crossfire. The movie is set in the 21st century, but the themes in “Civil War” are timeless.

Written and directed by Alex Garland, “Civil War” had its world premiere at the 2024 SXSW Film and TV Festival. It’s not a typical war movie because much of the story takes place during a road trip from New York state to Washington, D.C., with journalists as the central characters. The movie gives an accurate depiction of how being a war journalist requires a certain mentality, skills and attitude, including the ability to document what’s happening without getting involved.

The movie begins with an unnamed U.S. president (played by Nick Offerman) privately rehearsing a speech by himself at the White House before he gives the speech live on camera. “Civil War” does not offer a detailed explanation for why there is a U.S. civil war in this story, but it’s mentioned in the movie that Texas and California have seceded from the Unted States and formed a faction called Western Forces, which want to bring down the U.S. government. As eventually revealed in the movie, this U.S president (who is in his third term) is currently under siege by Western Forces, which want to assassinate him.

However, during this speech, the U.S. president is trying to put on a brave face during this crisis. He says of the U.S. military defense against this Western Forces attack: “Some are calling it the greatest victory in the history of mankind.” During his speech rehearsal, he changes this statement to: “Some are calling it the greatest victory in the history of military campaigns.”

The movie then shows the four central characters who go on a “race against time” road trip to try to interview the U.S. president at the White House before he is possibly assassinated. Joel (played by Wagner Moura) is addicted to the adrenaline rush of being a war journalist. He is the one who plans to interview the U.S. president. Joel’s jaded photojournalist colleague is Lee Smith (played by Kirsten Dunst), who is considered one of the top war photographers in the media.

The original plan was for Joel and Lee to go on this trip by themselves. However, they are accompanied by a New York Times journalist named Sammy (played by Stephen McKinley Henderson), who has an “elder sage” personality and uses a cane. Also along for the ride is an eager-to-learn aspiring photojournalist named Jessie Cullen (played by Cailee Spaeny), who thinks of Lee as one of her idols.

Lee isn’t very happy about adding these two people to the trip. However, Lee reluctantly agrees to have these extra two journalists join them in the press van. Sammy wants to prove that he’s useful in a media job that often discriminates against elderly and disabled workers. Joel thinks sensitive newbie Jessie can learn a lot from Lee.

Jessie and Lee met early on in the film when Lee came to Jessie’s aid in New York, during a violent street conflict between protesters and military police officers. During this conflict, Jessie accidentally got hit in the face with a police club while she was taking photos. Lee later found out that Jessie was staying at the same hotel when Jessie approached her in a lounge area to thank Lee for Lee’s help.

The rest of “Civil War” shows the harrowing events that happen during their dangerous and often-chaotic journey. However, there is also some dark comedy and a burgeoning camaraderie between these four journalists. It should come as no surprise that Jessie is the one in this group who goes through the biggest personality transformation because of what she experiences during the mayhem.

Jesse Plemons (who is Dunst’s real-life husband) has an uncredited role as a militant enforcer who holds certain people captive. Plemons’ role in the movie is not as big as his appearance in the “Civil War” trailer suggests: His screen time is less than 10 minutes. Two of Joel’s journalist friends named Tony (played by Nelson Lee) and Bohai (played by Evan Lai) have small but pivotal roles in the second half of the movie.

“Civil War” has several cast members who were also in Garland’s 2020 sci-fi/drama limited series “Devs.” Spaeny and Henderson are “Devs” alumni. “Devs” star Sonoya Mizuno has a brief role in “Civil War” as a rival journalist named Anya. Another “Devs” cast member is Jin Ha, who has a small supporting role in “Civil War” as an unnamed sniper who’s in a standoff with an unseen person or persons shooting from a large residential house. Karl Glusman (also from “Devs”) is in the same scene as an unnamed spotter who’s working with the sniper.

“Civil War” invites viewers to think about how you or people you know would react if this civil war really happened in the United States. There are scenes in the movie that show how some people want to block out the realities of this war and pretend that it’s not happening. Others want to jump in and do what they can to fight for causes they believe in, even if it means they will die. Other people are somewhere in between and acknlowedge the war but are just trying to survive without taking sides. “Civil War” doesn’t try to pass judgment on what unfolds in the movie, but it is an impactful story that shows there are no easy answers when it comes to war.

A24 will release “Civil War” in U.S. cinemas on April 12, 2024.

Review: ‘Candy Cane Lane’ (2023), starring Eddie Murphy

November 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Thaddeus J. Mixson, Genneya Walton, Madison Thomas, Tracee Ellis Ross and Eddie Murphy in “Candy Cane Lane” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Amazon Content Services)

“Candy Cane Lane” (2023)

Directed by Reginald Hudlin

Culture Representation: Taking place in El Segundo, California, the fantasy/comedy film “Candy Cane Lane” features a racially diverse (African American and white) cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A married father, who’s desperate to win a local Christmas decorating contest, makes a misguided deal with a corrupt elf, who forces him to gather items that are mentioned in the carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas.”

Culture Audience: “Candy Cane Lane” will appeal primarily to fans of star Eddie Murphy and anyone who will tolerate badly made Christmas movies.

Eddie Murphy, Jillian Bell and Madison Thomas in “Candy Cane Lane” (Photo by Claudette Barius/Amazon Content Services)

“Candy Cane Lane” is a rotten, weird, and unfunny mess. Add this junk to the list of Eddie Murphy misfires meant to be crowd pleasers but just turn off many people. There’s also a semi-accidental animal cruelty scene that’s played for laughs. Horrendous.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin and terribly written by Kelly Younger, “Candy Cane Lane” is the type of outdated and tacky movie that could’ve been released direct-to-video in the 1990s. But the fact that some big names were involved in making this movie (Murphy and Oscar-winning “A Beautiful Mind” producer Brian Grazer are two of the “Candy Cane Lane” producers), and because there was a large-enough budget for the movie’s over-reliance on visual effects, “Candy Cane Lane” looks misleadingly like a cute and glossy comedy.

About 15 minutes into the movie, viewers will find out there’s nothing cute about the onslaught of bad jokes, dull scenarios, annoying characters, and a tangled story that just seems to be making up things as it goes along. “Candy Cane Lane” goes off on so many different tangents, it’s like a bunch of half-baked ideas thrown into a trash heap that’s left to fester and then gets covered up with some shiny Christmas embellishments to attract viewers. There are some very talented comedic actors in “Candy Cane Lane,” but they often look somewhat embarrassed by the utter garbage that they have to say as their lines of dialogue.

“Candy Cane Lane” is the first feature film for screenwriter Younger, whose two previous screenwriting credits are for Disney+ shows: the 2021 TV special “Muppets Haunted Mansion” and the 2020 limited series “Muppets Now.” It just goes to show that hack screenwriters can get awful screenplays made into a movie if they know the right people who are willing to waste their money in making this type of humiliating dreck. “Candy Cane Lane” star Murphy is considered to be a great stand-up comedian, and he can excel in sketch comedy, but he has very questionable taste in choosing his family-oriented projects, which are usually low-quality (even with large budgets) and way beneath his talent.

“Candy Cane Lane” (which takes place in El Segundo, California, and was filmed in nearby Los Angeles) begins by telling audiences about a big annual Candy Cane Lane contest that takes place in El Segundo. It’s a Christmas decorating contest for the exteriors of people’s homes. The household that’s chosen as the one with the best decorations is the winner of the contest. A local cable TV station called Prism Cable gives coverage to the contest, which also has a Candy Cane Lane parade. Expect to see a lot of garish and ugly Christmas decorations in this movie that is supposedly “award-worthy” by Candy Cane Lane contest standards.

Chris Carver (played by Murphy) and his neighbor Bruce (played by Ken Marino) have been extremely competitive with each other because of this contest, which Bruce has won for the past four years. Bruce and Chris put up a front of being friendly with each other in public, but in reality, they see each other as fierce and bitter rivals. Winning this contest becomes an obsession for Chris, but then other things happen in the movie where the contest becomes almost like an afterthought, and “Candy Cane Lane” really goes off the rails into irredeemable stupidity. The character of Bruce is barely in the movie; his screen time is less than 10 minutes.

Chris and his wife Carol Carver (played by Tracee Ellis Ross) have three children. Their eldest child Joy Carver (played by Genneya Walton), who’s about 17 or 18 years old, is a star on her high school’s track team and is in the process of applying to universities. Middle child Nick (played by Thaddeus J. Mixson), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, is an aspiring musician who is in the school’s marching band. Youngest child Holly (played by Madison Thomas), who’s about 9 or 10 years old, doesn’t seem to have any interests. Holly is written as a walking cliché of what bad comedies do when the youngest kid in the family is a girl: She is only there to look cute, make some wisecracks, and help the adults when they need help.

Observant viewers will notice even before it’s pointed out later in the movie that all of the Carver kids have Christmas-themed names. Nick is obviously named after St. Nicholas. Even the name Carol has a Christmas association to it. These names are supposed to be an example of how Chris has a fixation on Christmas. Chris Carver’s name is somewhat similar to Kris Kringle (also known as Santa Claus), but the frequently whiny and petulant “Candy Cane Lane” protagonist Chris Carver has none of the appeal and charm of Kris Kringle.

Christmas isn’t the only thing that’s a fixation for Chris, who is somewhat fanatical about his loyalty to his college alma mater: the University of Southern California (USC). Chris (who is a sales executive) and Carol (who’s a manager at a peanut factory) met when they were students at USC. Chris expects all of his children to also go to USC.

However, Joy announces to her parents near the beginning of the movie that she doesn’t want to go to USC and would rather go to the University of Notre Dame, which is more than 2,100 miles away in South Bend, Indiana. Chris does not take this announcement very well and thinks that Joy will change her mind about going to USC. This conflict over Joy’s choice of universities is awkwardly brought up later in one of the movie’s many poorly written and sloppily staged scenes that fall flat with unamusing jokes.

Chris will soon have more to worry about than which university Joy chooses to attend. He’s laid off from his job at a company called Sydel Twain Industrial Plastics, where he was a longtime employee, but the company’s new owner is making staff cuts. Trevante Rhodes has a useless cameo as an executive named Tre, who coldly tells Chris in a conference room that Chris is no longer working at the company.

Chris gets a wrapped bathrobe package as a parting gift from the company. “I don’t want your fleece!” Chris says angrily. He quickly changes his mind and says maybe he does want the fleece after all. If you think this is hilarious, then feel free to waste time watching “Candy Cane Lane,” because this is what the movie is trying to pass off as “comedy.”

Chris eventually tells Carol that he lost his job, but he asks her not to tell their children because he doesn’t want the kids to worry, especially during the Christmas holiday season. Carol has her own job concerns: She really wants a promotion, which could happen soon if she impresses the right people.

It just so happens that the Candy Cane Lane contest has announced that this year’s grand prize is $100,000, which makes Chris even more determined to win, considering he doesn’t know when he will find his next job. With the contest approaching, Chris forces his kids to help him get new Christmas decorations. Chris and Holly find a “pop-up store,” which sells elaborate Christmas decorations. Chris and Holly go to this store multiple times in the movie and don’t seem to think it’s strange that they are always the only customers in the store and there’s only one person working there.

The first time they visit the store, Chris and Holly are in awe of all the unique decorations. They are greeted by a seemingly helpful employee named Pepper Mint (played by Jillian Bell), who convinces Chris to buy a massive artificial Christmas tree that is packaged in a container shaped like a giant sardine can. While ringing up the sale at the cash register, Pepper tells Chris that he doesn’t have to read the fine print on the long receipt before he signs the receipt. “Honestly, it’s like signing your life away,” she says with obvious sarcasm.

It turns out that Pepper is really a corrupt elf, who tricked Chris into signing his life away. Chris gets the spectacular tree that he wants: It magically unfolds into a giant 12-tier tree that can best be described as looking like stacks of Christmas cookie circular tin containers that are glued together. The tree is such a sensation, it makes the news on Prism Cable.

Prism Cable has two irritating news anchors: perpetually perky Kit (played by Danielle Pinnock) and constantly jaded Emerson (played Timothy Simons), who are an excruciatingly ridiculous on-air duo providing commentary throughout the story. Kit has decided that her irksome nephew Josh (played by D.C. Young Fly), who has an alter ego as a social media influencer named Sunny Roberts, deserves to be on TV, so she lets this dolt become an “on the scene” correspondent.

The Carver family tree’s lights are so far-reaching, the lights can be seen by an airplane in the sky. The problem is that by opening up this tree, Chris has triggered the unwitting “bargain” that he made with Pepper. Suddenly, things mentioned in the Christmas carol “The Twelve Days of Christmas” start appearing randomly in the Carver family’s lives. “The Twelve Days of Christmas” famously mentions a partridge in a pear tree, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, five golden rings, six geese that lay eggs, seven swimming swans, eight milk maids, nine dancing ladies, 10 leaping lords, 11 pipers and 12 drummers.

They don’t appear in the order that they are mentioned in the song. Everything is haphazard, just like this entire movie. The seven swans are the first to appear, as they end up in the Carver family’s backyard swimming pool. Somehow in this very disjointed story, Chris finds out that in order to get out of this deal with Pepper, he must give her the golden rings. And so, there’s a “hunt” to track down these rings.

But that’s not where “Candy Cane Lane” gets really mindless. There’s a huge swath of the movie about Chris discovering that there are talking miniature figurines in Pepper’s shop. The figurines (which are all dressed as Christmas people from the 19th century) look, act and move like human beings. Pepper is keeping these figurines captive against their will.

Three of the figurines get the most dialogue out of all the other figurines. Pip (played by Nick Offerman) is a top-hat-wearing Brit who is the leader of the trio. Pip’s American sidekicks are sassy maiden Cordelia (played by Robin Thede) and goofy lamplighter Gary (played by Chris Redd), who occasionally bicker with each other. The other figurines that appear briefly in the movie to sing are a group of five carolers, played by the real-life singing group Pentatonix. The members of Pentatonix are Scott Hoying, Mitch Grassi, Kirstin Maldonado, Matt Sallee and Kevin Olusola.

Pip, Cordelia and Gary are desperate to be “free from the torment of eternal Christmas” under Pepper’s captivity, according to Pip. This all leads to an “escape and chase” part of the story that further jumbles the already idiotic plot. It’s as if the filmmakers knew they didn’t have enough ideas for the part of the story about the Candy Cane Lane contest and decided to come up with some bad ideas as filler.

Although there’s a disclaimer at the end of “Candy Cane Lane” that says no animals were harmed during the making of the movie, there’s some obvious contempt for winged animals in this film, because depicting and seeing these animals get hurt are used as wretched jokes in the movie. For example, in a scene where Carol is giving some powerful executives a tour of her factory, she sees one of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” chickens hiding in a packing box. In a panic, while the executives aren’t looking, Carol takes the bird out of the box and cruelly throws it at some operating assembly line equipment, where she knows the bird will be immediately decapitated. This decapitation is not explicitly shown on screen, but the movie makes it clear that the bird has died because of Carol’s reckless actions, and the “Candy Cane Lane” filmmakers want viewers to laugh about it.

The acting performances in “Candy Cane Lane” range from mediocre to stiffly awful. Murphy is just going through the motions playing the “stressed-out dad” character that he has played in several other terrible comedies where he’s the family patriarch who gets involved in some problems. Bell’s depiction of the Pepper character is a weak parody of Christmas villains. Apparently, Bell thinks bugging out her eyes makes her look menacing. Pip, Cordelia and Gary can best be described as irritating as pesky flies.

David Alan Grier shows up as Santa Claus, in a cameo role that is written in a racially problematic way, considering that people call him “Black Santa” in the movie, and he speaks like a lower-class person. (“Candy Cane Lane” screenwriter Younger is white.) When a white Santa Claus is in a movie, no one in the movie says, “Oh, look, there’s White Santa.” A black man with the name Santa Claus in a movie doesn’t have to be identified as “Black Santa” by the movie’s characters, and he doesn’t have to get reduced to speaking like an angry black man from the ghetto. It’s very passive-aggressive racism from the “Candy Cane Lane” filmmakers.

And for the love of cinema, the filmmakers of these horrible “comedies” about African American families need to stop making every African American teenage boy in the family have integrity problems and/or portrayed as not being a good student in school. “Candy Cane Lane” has an unnecessary plot development about Nick being deceitful by hiding a secret from his family: He’s close to flunking in his math class, and his parents find out about this lie.

“Candy Cane Lane” is not the type of atrocious film with moments that overcome the lousy parts of the movie. “Candy Cane Lane” just gets worse and worse, until there’s no hope the story will ever recover. And just like many obnoxiously terrible movies, “Candy Cane Lane ” has end credits with a blooper reel that shows the cast members enjoyed making this trash. It’s probably more enjoyment than most viewers will get if they have the endurance to watch “Candy Cane Lane” until the very end.

Amazon MGM Studios released “Candy Cane Lane” in select U.S. cinemas on November 24, 2023. Prime Video will premiere the movie on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Dicks: The Musical,’ starring Aaron Jackson, Josh Sharp, Megan Mullally, Nathan Lane, Megan Thee Stallion and Bowen Yang

October 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from upper left: Nathan Lane, Josh Sharp, Aaron Jackson and Megan Mullally in “Dicks: The Musical” (Photo by Justin Lubin/A24)

“Dicks: The Musical”

Directed by Larry Charles

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the musical comedy film “Dicks: The Musical” (based on the stage show “Fucking Identical Twins”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people, Latin people and Asians) portraying the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two sexist and egotistical salesmen, who are rivals at the same company, find out that they’re identical twins, and they go on a quest to reunite their divorced parents, one of whom is living life as a gay person.

Culture Audience: “Dicks: The Musical” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the stage production on which this movie is based; the movie’s headlining stars; and comedy musicals that don’t have much to offer but gimmicky raunchiness.

Megan Thee Stallion, Josh Sharp, Aaron Jackson in “Dicks: The Musical” (Photo by Justin Lubin/A24)

“Dicks: The Musical” isn’t as clever and funny as it thinks it is. A better movie would have been about Megan Thee Stallion’s scene-stealing Gloria Masters character. The film makes a terrible pivot into glorifying the crime of incest. Incest is never okay. Worst of all, this abrupt change into an incest story is unnecessary and reeks of a desperate way to create shock value as a gimmick, not because it makes sense to the story.

Directed by Larry Charles, “Dicks: The Musical” is based on the stage show “Fucking Identical Twins,” which was the original title of the movie before it was changed to a title that’s more marketable and less offensive. Josh Sharp and Aaron Jackson (two alumni of the comedy troupe Upright Citizens Brigade) are the writers and title characters of “Fucking Identical Twins,” which started out as an Upright Citizens Brigade sketch. Sharp and Jackson are also the writers and stars of “Dicks: The Musical.”

You can tell that “Dicks: The Musical” is based on a comedy sketch, because the very flimsy and simplistic plot gets repetitive and dull in too many sections, in order to fill up the time for a feature-length movie. There are only a few standout musical moments. Most of the songs are trite and forgettable. Jackson, Sharp and Karl Saint Lucy co-wrote the songs, with Marius de Vries (the producer of the movie’s soundtrack) also sharing co-songwriting credit on some of the tunes. “Dicks: The Musical” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.

The identical twins at the center of the story are Craig Tittle (played by Sharp) and Trevor Brock (played by Jackson), two hard-driving, very competitive and extremely rude salesmen. In the very beginning of the movie, bachelors Craig and Trevor have known each other for a while but have no idea that they are brothers. The “joke” is that Craig and Trevor don’t look identical at all.

Craig (the uptight brother) and Trevor (the flamboyant brother) work for the same vacuum company and are fierce rivals at their job, which rewards the employee with the highest sales revenue. Craig and Trevor also happen to live next door to each other in New York City. The story is narrated by God (played by Bowen Yang), who is portrayed as a sarcastic gossipper who sees and knows everything.

Trevor and Craig both consider themselves to be politically conservative “alpha males” who are the best at everything they do. They are also homophobic and sexist, because they think heterosexual, cisgender men are superior to everyone else. How awful are Craig and Trevor? They’re nasty to pregnant women and don’t hesitate to do things like push a pregnant woman out of the way if she’s hailing the same taxi.

Craig was raised by a single father. Trevor was raised by a single mother. Through a series of events, Craig and Trevor find out that they are long-lost identical twins whose parents divorced when Craig and Trevor were too young to remember their parents being married. Craig and Trevor’s parents cut each other out of their lives completely after the divorce and did not make themselves known to whichever twin son wasn’t in their custody. Craig and Trevor were raised to be believe that whichever parent raised them was widowed.

Trevor and Craig think there’s a social stigma if their parents are divorced. Craig and Trevor agree to temporarily put aside their brotherly feuding, in order to reunite their parents, with the hope that their parents will remarry. (The filmmakers of “Dicks: The Musical” openly acknowledge that “The Parent Trap” is an inspiration for this part of the story.) Craig and Trevor decide to disguise themselves as each other when they visit whichever parent didn’t raise them.

When Craig (disguised as Trevor) meets his mother Evelyn (played by Megan Mullally) for the first time, he finds out that she’s a lisping eccentric who lives alone and doesn’t have a vagina, because the vagina has separated from her body and can fly like a bird. (Evelyn’s flying vagina is used as a sight gag multiple times in the movie.) When Trevor (disguised as Craig) meets his father Harris (played by Nathan Lane) for the first time, he finds out that Harris has been living alone as a gay man.

Harris has two pet creatures in a cage called the Sewer Boys, who are about the size of squirrels and are described in the movie’s production notes as coming from “the bowels of New York’s septic system” and looking like “rat demons.” The Sewer Boys (who can stand up and have human-like hands) don’t speak human languages but mostly grunt, mumble and hiss. One is named Backpack (voiced by Tom Kenny), and the other is named Whisper (voiced by Frank Todaro), but their personalities are indistinguishable from each other.

Just like a bird parent, Harris feeds the Sewer Boys with food that he chews in his mouth and spits into their mouths. (Harris usually misses the mouth target.) It’s a sight gag that’s over-used and yet another example of how this movie runs ideas into the ground with too much repetition. The rest of “Dicks: The Musical” is an occasionally hyper but mostly empty tottering of weak nonsense, where each scene tries to outdo the previous scene by becoming increasingly bizarre. The problem is that not much of it is very amusing.

Gloria is the vulgar-talking, crude-thinking, ultra-feminist supervisor of Craig and Trevor. She likes to pit employees aganst each other and only cares about two things in her job: bossing people around (sometimes with physical violence) and making as much money as possible for the company with her sales team. One of the few highlights of “Dicks: The Musical” is Gloria’s solo musical number “Out Alpha the Alpha,” which is hilarious in its filthy adult language as much as it is well-choreographed.

Gloria and God are two of the most interesting characters in the movie, but they get less than 15 minutes of screen time each in this 86-minute movie. Evelyn and Harris are also much more entertaining than their sons Craig and Trevor. Mullally and Lane portray these parental characters with a lot of gusto, but the dialogue and songs written for them become irritating after a while. (Mullally’s husband Nick Offerman has a cameo in the movie as a politically conservative activist named Steve Chaney.) Viewers are mostly stuck watching the witless and boring antics of one-dimensional Craig and Trevor, as they occasionally warble mediocre musical songs.

“Dicks: The Musical” is clearly a case of two guys who created hollow characters for themselves and then surrounded these characters with silly distractions that they want to pass off as a “movie plot” and fool people into thinking that it’s “edgy” comedy. Foul language or provocative topics can be part of comedy that pushes boundaries. But when a movie tries to push the idea (such as in the horrendous closing song “All Love Is Love”) that something is wrong with you if you don’t celebrate incest and bestiality, then it has crossed the point of no return into being pretentious garbage.

A24 released “Dicks: The Musical” in select U.S. cinemas on October 6, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on October 20, 2023. A sing-along version of “Dicks: The Musical” will have a one-week release in U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on November 10, 2023.

Review: ‘Dumb Money’ (2023), starring Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley and Seth Rogen

September 9, 2023

by Carla Hay

Paul Dano in “Dumb Money” (Photo by Claire Folger/Columbia Pictures)

“Dumb Money” (2023)

Directed by Craig Gillespie

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the United States, from 2020 to 2021, the comedy/drama film “Dumb Money” (based on true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Keith Gill, an insurance analyst and amateur stock-market adviser, becomes an Internet sensation with a cult-like following under his online alias Roaring Kitty, when he becomes a passionate advocate of buying stocks in the video game retail company GameStop, leading to a massive upheaval in the billionaire-owned hedge funds that want GameStop to fail. 

Culture Audience: “Dumb Money” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and stories about financial underdogs who take on corporate giants.

Nick Offerman and Seth Rogen in “Dumb Money” (Photo by Lacey Terrell/Columbia Pictures)

The slick comedy/drama “Dumb Money” takes a little too long to get to the best parts of this story of financial underdogs versus billionaire corporate bullies, but it’s still a mostly entertaining ride with a talented cast. Some of the characters are very underdeveloped, while other characters are unnecessary distractions. People who are interested in finance and computer technology will enjoy and understand “Dumb Money” the most. “Dumb Money” might get compared to 2015’s “The Big Short” and 2010’s “The Social Network,” but “Dumb Money” isn’t as outstanding as those two Oscar-winning films.

Directed by Craig Gillespie, “Dumb Money” had its world premiere at the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. This “Dumb Money” feature film is not to be confused with filmmaker Ryan Garry’s 2021 short narrative film “Dumb Money,” which is based on the same subject matter of the GameStop stock phenomenon that disrupted Wall Street’s stock market. From 2021 to 2023, there have been at least seven documentaries about the same subject. The “Dumb Money” short film has an entirely different cast and crew from the “Dumb Money” feature film. Gillespie (the director of 2017’s “I, Tonya” and an executive producer/director of 2022’s “Pam & Tommy” miniseries) has a style that blends intense drama and satirical comedy, even when based on true stories.

The “Dumb Money” feature film’s screenplay—which was co-written by former Wall Street Journal reporters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo—is based on Ben Mezrich’s 2021 non-fiction book “The Anti-Social Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees.” Mezrich also wrote the 2009 non-fiction book “The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, a Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal,” which was adapted into Aaron Sorkin’s Oscar-winning screenplay for “The Social Network.” Identical twin brothers Cameron Winklevoss and Tyler Winklevoss, who famously sued Facebook to get more of Facebook’s profits (as depicted in director David Fincher’s “The Social Network”), are two of the executive producers of the “Dumb Money” feature film.

If “The Social Network” and filmmaker Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” are mentioned in comparison to “Dumb Money,” that’s because “Dumb Money” has many similarities in how it approaches a complex story of financial wheeling and dealing with many players on different levels. The overarching theme of all three of these movies is that greedy corporate types are villains who don’t hesitate to crush the hopes, dreams and finances of “underdogs” who dare to challenge them. The title of “Dumb Money” comes from the term that arrogant rich people in the financial sector use for non-wealthy people who invest in the stock market. A more polite term used for non-wealthy investors are “retail investors.”

The “Dumb Money” feature film is based on the true story of a phenomenon that happened from 2020 to 2021, when the video game retailer GameStop suddenly went from being on the verge of going out of business to became a red-hot stock investment, because of a surge of working-class and middle-class people who decided to invest in GameStop stock. This massive interest in GameStop stock was based largely on the advice of an Internet media personality using the alias Roaring Kitty. It also caused a panic among wealthy Wall Street investors who did not know how to handle this unexpected grassroots movement.

In real life, Roaring Kitty was a middle-class, self-described computer geek in his 30s named Paul Gill (played by Paul Dano), whose day job at the time was working as an analyst/financial educator for insurance corporation MassMutual. He did his stock-market videos and Internet chatting on his own time at his home. Because of the unexpected success of GameStop stock, many billionaire-owned hedge funds that were betting on GameStop stock to fail (a practice known as “shorting” or “short-selling” a stock) experienced financial meltdowns. “Dumb Money” is an occasionally convoluted play-by-play of what happened during this stock-market war that led to a U.S. Congressional hearing and federal investigations.

The movie’s principal characters have the same names as the real people, while some of the supporting characters are fabricated and are partially based on real people. (For the purposes of this review, the real people will be referred to by their last names, while the characters in the movie will be referred to by their first names.) Many of Gill’s real-life quirks are also portrayed in the movie. He liked to wear headbands (especially a red hedband) and T-shirts with kittens on the front of the shirts.

In the “Dumb Money” feature film, Keith is living in Brockton, Massachusetts, with his supportive wife Caroline Gill (played by Shailene Woodley) and their infant daughter (played by Leyla Eden and Mason Eden), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. (“Dumb Money” was actually filmed in New Jersey.) Keith has invested the couple’s entire life savings ($33,000) in GameStop. Most people who know about this investment think that Keith has made a reckless and foolish decision. Caroline is skeptical and nervous about the decision. But ultimately, she stands by Keith’s firm belief that GameStop investing could make them enough money, possibly millions of dollars, for them to retire early.

The movie shows that Keith’s online persona as Roaring Kitty (which he used on online platforms such as YouTube and on a Reddit subforum called WallStreetBets) didn’t start out being popular. In the beginning he had a very small audience, many of whom ridiculed him. However, his enthusiasm for GameStop was infectious. Over time, his following grew to thousands of enthusiastic fans who eagerly listened to Keith’s stock-market advice. In order to legally protect himself, Keith had disclaimers about how he was not a licensed stock broker, and his information about GameStop was for entertainment purposes only.

Keith’s other immediate family members, who all live nearby, are mother Elaine Gill (played by Kate Burton), a retired registered nurse; father Steve Gill (played by Clancy Brown), a retired truck driver; and Keith’s younger brother Kevin (played by Pete Davdison), a stoner who has trouble holding on to a steady job. In the movie, Kevin is working in a low-paying job as a food delivery person and is living with his parents. Kevin’s only purpose in the movie is to be comic relief, since he’s not involved in any of Keith’s stock-market shenanigans. Keith’s parents don’t find out about what Keith is doing in the stock market until he tells them some big news.

The Gill family is grieving over the death of Elaine’s and Steve’s other child: Sarah Elizabeth Gill, who died of COVID-19 in 2020, at the age of 43. Keith doesn’t like to talk about Sarah’s death, but there are a few scenes in the movie that show how her death has had a profound effect on him. It’s implied that Keith’s grief over his sister’s death is the fuel behind Keith’s willingness to risk his entire fortune and reputation on GameStop stock. Many people who experience the loss of a loved one often react with extreme “you only live once” decisions.

And because the movie’s story takes place during the height of the COVD-19 pandemic, there are several verbal and non-verbal references to the pandemic in “Dumb Money.” Observant viewers will notice that in the movie, the characters who tend to wear COVID-19 masks are either required to wear the masks as part of their jobs or are in precarious financial situations where they can’t afford to miss out on work if they get infected with COVID-19. There’s also an underlying implication that people being in COVID-19 quarantines or lockdowns resulted in more people spending time at home online, which might be one of the plausible reasons why the GameStop stock phenomenon happened so quickly.

“Dumb Money” opens with a scene taking place in 2020, showing one of the “villains” of the story panicking because he sees that GameStop stock is on the rise. Gabe Plotkin (played by Seth Rogen), the CEO of hedge fund Melvin Capital, is at his mansion in California, when he calls his fellow billionaire crony Ken Griffin (played by Nick Offerman), who’s relaxing at a Four Seasons Resort in Florida. During the conversation, Gabe tries not to show how frightened he is by this upward trend in GameStop stock, while he puts on a front in assuring Ken that Gabe has everything under control. Gabe wants to get Ken’s reaction to the rise in GameStop stock value. Ken doesn’t seem too worried at all. Viewers will later find out why.

The movie then does a flashback to three months earlier, when GameStop’s stock was valued at only $3.85 per share. Keith is shown doing his Roaring Kitty activities on the Internet, while other characters are introduced as eventual followers of Keith/Roaring Kitty. Every time a stock market player is shown on camera, the movie has a caption next to that person’s head that shows the person’s net worth at the time they are shown on screen. All of Keith’s followers who are depicted in “Dumb Money” are fictional versions of real people and are portrayed as having financial struggles before investing in GameStop.

In the city of Pittbsurgh, Jenny (played by America Ferrera) is a divorced mother of two sons, who look like they’re about 8 to 10 years old. It’s briefly mentioned in the movie that Jenny’s ex-husband abandoned the family. Jenny is financially broke (when she’s first seen in the movie, her net worth is a deficit of more than $5,000) and works as a nurse at Pittsburgh Presbyterian Hospital. She becomes obsessed with Roaring Kitty’s videos, and eventually invests in GameStop. Jenny gets repeated warnings and admonishments from her sassy, openly gay best friend/co-worker Chris (played by Larry Owens), who thinks she’s making a big mistake with this investment. Chris frequently advises Jenny to sell all of her GameStop stock.

In the city of Detroit, Marcos Garcia (played by Anthony Ramos) is a low-paid and under-appreciated cashier at a GameStop store. Marcos is also financially broke. His net worth is only $136 when he’s first seen in the story, and he’s denied a request to get an advance on his next paycheck. Marcos’ boss Brad (played by Dane DeHaan) treats Marcos in a condescending and dismissive manner, especially after he finds out that Marcos has invested in GameStop.

At the University of Texas in Austin, two students meet during a drinking game at a party and eventually become lovers. Their names are Harmony Williams (played by Talia Ryder) and Riri (played by Myha’la Herrold), whose sexual chemistry with each other can be seen as soon as Riri is told to put her hand down Harmony’s pants because of a dare during the drinking game. During this first conversation, Harmony tells Riri that she’s thinking about investing in GameStop stock because Harmony has become a fan of Roaring Kitty. Eventually, Harmony and Riri (who each has thousands of dollars in student-loan debt) invest their money in GameStop stock. Harmony has a scowling, unnamed roommate (played by Andrea Simons), whose annoyance with this romance is used as an occasional joke in the movie.

All of these financial underdogs express various levels of anger and motivation to fight back against what they believe to be a rigged stock market that was designed to make the rich get richer, and non-wealthy people to be at a disadvantage. After Harmony and Riri become intimate partners, Harmony tells Riri that her father used to be the general manager of a Costco-like retailer called Shopco, but he lost his job, his pension and much of his life savings. Harmony says it’s because he was a victim of a corporate raiding firm that bought Shopco to purposely bankrupt the company, in order to benefit the people who were short-selling Shopco stock.

Real-life billionaire investor Steve Cohen (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) is another player in the GameStop stock-market war depicted in “Dumb Money,” although this character is shown intermittently and doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as billionaires Gabe and Ken. Gabe is portayed as a tone-deaf partier who likes to spend lavishly and doesn’t really think about all the lives he’s ruining by short-selling stock. Ken is depicted as a cold manipulator who is very much aware of the lives he’s ruining, but he just doesn’t care.

And in this billionaire clique, it’s very much portrayed as a “boys’ club.” The only woman connected to this clique who has a significant speaking role (and it’s still a small role) is Gabe’s wife Yaara Plotkin (played by Olivia Thirlby), a “trophy wife” type. The only purpose she’s given in this movie is to worry about whether or not Gabe is making enough money so that she can maintain the lifestyle to which she has become accustomed. There are no female stockbrokers or female hedge fund leaders who are depicted as characters in this movie.

Two other characters who have pivotal roles in the GameStop stock-market war are the co-founders of the Robinhood app: Vlad Tenev (played by Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (played by Rushi Kota), who marketed Robinhood as an app where ordinary people could buy and sell stocks for free. In the movie, Robinhood users include Jenny, Marcos, Harmony and Riri. Vlad and Baiji, who are both in their 30s, are “tech bro” stereotypes of being arrogant big talkers of start-up companies. Vlad is portrayed as the more corrupt person in this greedy and ambitious duo.

The first half of “Dumb Money” clips along at a fairly uneven pace where characters are quickly introduced, and then the movie slows down to show aspects of each character’s personal lives. “Dumb Money’ spends way too much time on Kevin, who didn’t need as much screen time as he gets, considering he had no part in the GameStop stock war. Keith was a star track runner in high school, so “Dumb Money” has multiple scenes of Keith jogging on a residential street or running on a local school’s track (sometimes with Kevin) as a way to relieve stress.

The second half of the movie is an improvement, as it gets into the conflicts created during the GameStop stock war. Still, there might be some “Dumb Money” viewers who will feel disconnected because of the movie’s first half, which can be perceived as a blur of people talking stock market jargon and Internet slang. If you’re the type of person who could care less about the intersections of technology and commerce, and if you will probably never read a Wall Street Journal article or Reddit forum in your life, then “Dumb Money” is not the movie for you.

Dano is an actor who can be counted on to deliver top-notch performances in his projects. He has made a career out of doing characters who are eccentric outsiders, so he’s not doing anything that’s very new or groundbreaking in “Dumb Money.” Still, Dano’s portrayal of Keith holds this movie together, when some scenes tend to be a little pointless (for example, there’s a scene where Jenny somewhat flirts with a guy she meets at a gas station) or completely unnecessary (any scene that shows what Kevin does when he’s not with Keith). The character of Caroline isn’t given much to do but be a stereotypical “worried wife” character.

For all of its flaws, “Dumb Money” still has enough that’s enjoyable to watch, regardless of how much viewers know about what happened in real life. A lot of the credit should go to the “Dumb Money” cast members, who admirably do as much as they can with the dialogue that they have, even if some of their characters are very underwritten. Toward the end of the movie, before the inevitable epilogue with updates of what happened in real life, there’s some archival footage of the real-life people who were involved in this stock-market war. Some of what they said was recreated in “Dumb Money,” which might be a based on a true story, but it’s not immersive enough to make you forget that you’re watching actors saying scripted lines on screen.

Columbia Pictures will release “Dumb Money” in select U.S. cinemas on September 15, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on September 22, 2023, and September 29, 2023.

Review: ‘Sing 2,’ starring the voices of Matthew McConaughey, Reese Witherspoon, Scarlett Johansson, Tori Kelly, Taron Egerton, Bono and Halsey

November 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row, from left to right: Klaus Kickenlober (voiced by Adam Buxton), Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), Porsha Crystal (voiced by Halsey), Clay Calloway (voiced by Bono), Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), Darius (voiced by Eric André), Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) and Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll) in “Sing 2” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

“Sing 2”

Directed by Garth Jennings

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. city of Redstone City and briefly in the fictional U.S. city of Calatonia, the animated film “Sing 2” features a predominantly white cast of actors (with a few black people) voicing the characters of talking animals that are connected in some ways to showbiz.

Culture Clash: The owner and star performers of Calatonia’s New Moon Theater take their act to Redstone City, the nation’s entertainment capital, in the hopes of becoming bigger stars, but the ruthless mogul who can give them their big break expects the group’s act to include a reclusive rock star who hasn’t performed live in 15 years. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious target audience of “Sing” fans and fans of the movie’s voice cast members, “Sing 2” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a “jukebox musical” with a poorly constructed, flimsy plot.

Pictured from left to right, beginning second from left: Jimmy Crystal (voiced by Bobby Cannavale), Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll), Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey), Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon) and Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in “Sing 2” (Image courtesy of Illumination Entertainment/Universal Pictures)

Plagued by “sequel-itis,” the animated musical “Sing 2” sacrifices character development for a plot that sloppily rushes storylines and then turns into a commercial for Bono and U2’s music at the very end. The movie loses much of the charm of 2016’s “Sing” by having the main characters go off on different tangents and by introducing several new characters that are presented in a very superficial way. The “Sing” movie series (which is about talking animals, many of which can sing) also loses a lot of comedic appeal with “Sing 2,” by introducing a murderous villain that drags down the story with soulless acts of evil.

This decline in quality can’t be blamed on a change in filmmaker leadership. “Sing” and “Sing 2” were both written and directed by Garth Jennings and have the same producers (Janet Healy and Christopher Meledandri), as well as the same chiefs of certain departments, such as film editing, visual effects and music. The voice actors of most of the lead characters in “Sing” reprised the same roles for “Sing 2.”

Considering all of the talented people involved, it’s a disappointment that so much of “Sing 2” seems like a lazily conceived cash grab that does nothing innovative. The entire movie lacks suspense (there are absolutely no surprises) and over-relies on stringing together what are essentially separate animated music videos and trying to make it look like it’s all part of a cohesive plot. The visuals of “Sing 2” are perfectly fine, but there should be more to a movie than it just looking good.

Sequels are supposed to tell you more about the main characters, but “Sing 2” fails in this regard because you won’t learn almost anything new about the main characters from watching this sequel. “Sing 2” continues to have an overload of pop hits (original recordings and cover versions), but it’s less effective in this sequel, compared to the first “Sing” movie. That’s because “Sing 2” is essentially a mediocre “jukebox musical,” where song placement is more important than having a well-written storyline and memorable dialogue. Most of the new characters in “Sing 2” have hollow and stereotypical personalities.

“Sing 2” also follows a predictable plot formula for the second movie in an animated series: The main characters travel out of their home environment and get involved in new adventures somewhere else. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with that formula if it’s done with an engaging story. (It’s a formula that Pixar Animation has mastered with many of its sequels.) Unfortunately, “Sing 2” does not have a story that’s very interesting.

“Sing 2” is also one of those sequels that doesn’t do a very good job of introducing the main characters to viewers who didn’t see the first “Sing” movie. “Sing 2” assumes that people seeing this sequel are already familiar with the main characters. But that’s an assumption that just makes the screenwriting look even lazier than it needed to be.

Some of the characters in the first “Sing” movie struggled with different personal issues. For example, one character has a criminal parent who discouraged him from being a singer, and that parent ended up being incarcerated for a robbery. Another character suffered from stage fright. If any those issues are mentioned in “Sing 2,” they’re vague references when they should be a little more detailed, to give the characters more depth. In addition, “Sing 2” doesn’t really mention that all of the main characters that are singers met each other through a talent contest that was the focus of the first “Sing” movie.

If you must waste your time on the inferior “Sing 2,” it’s best to see the first “Sing” movie so you can understand the backstories of the main characters and see their real personalities. In “Sing 2,” almost all of the main characters’ personalities are reduced to soundbite-like dialogue in between singing songs. The good news is that all of the cast members who sing do a very fine job with their performances.

In “Sing” (which takes place in the fictional U.S. city of Calatonia), an ambitious koala named Buster Moon (voiced by Matthew McConaughey) owns an inherited theater that’s in danger of shutting down due to his financal problems. In order to get publicity for the theater and increase attendance, Buster holds a talent contest that attracts several Calatonia residents, and some of these characters end up being the stars of the contest. In “Sing 2,” Buster wants to take his productions out of regional theater and into the big leagues of a Vegas-styled musical show.

These singing stars from the “Sing” talent contest make their return in the “Sing 2” movie:

  • Rosita (voiced by Reese Witherspoon), a pig who’s a harried housewife and a mother of 25 piglets.
  • Ash (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a porcupine who’s a rock singer/guitarist and a feminist.
  • Johnny (voiced by Taron Egerton), a gorilla who can play sing and piano a lot like Elton John.
  • Meena (voiced by Tori Kelly), an elephant who’s shy and insecure except when she’s singing.
  • Gunter (voiced by Nick Kroll), a pig who’s flamboyant and an occasional duet partner with Rosita.

Also returning for “Sing 2” is Buster’s eccentric administrative assistant Miss Crawly (voiced by writer/director Jennings), an iguana with a glass eye that often falls out and causes mishaps. Making cameos in “Sing 2” are two other characters from the first “Sing” movie: Johnny’s gorilla gangster father Big Daddy (voiced by Peter Serafinowicz) and elderly sheep Nana Noodleman (voiced by Jennifer Saunders), who is a wealthy benefactor and former theater diva.

In the beginning of “Sing 2,” New Moon Theater (the venue owned by Buster) is presenting a musical production of “Alice in Wonderland,” with Meena in the starring role of Alice. The show is a local hit that plays to sold-out audiences. During a performance, Buster is excited to see that an important talent scout named Suki Lane (voiced by Chelsea Peretti) is in the audience and taking notes.

Suki (who is a brown dog that can walk upright and has human-like arms and legs ) works for the mega-company Crystal Entertainment in Redshore City, the entertainment capital of the nation. Redshore City is designed to look a lot like Las Vegas. Miss Crawly tells Buster that Suki has been paying attention to the show and seems to be entertained.

After the performance, Buster rushes after Suki to talk to her before she can leave. He asks her what she thought of the show. Suki haughtily replies, “It’s a cute little show, but it’s not what we’re looking for. You’re not good enough. You’ve got a nice little local theater here, and it’s great for what it is, but trust me: You’d never make it in the big leagues.”

Buster is stung by this criticism, but he’s not ready to give up so easily. Even if his productions are considered regional theater, he knows that these shows have value because they frequently sell out. Suki gets in a chauffeured car to leave. Buster chases after the moving car on his bike, and he holds on to the car door to continue to talk to Suki.

Suki thinks that Buster is crazy and tells the driver to speed up, in order to get rid of Buster. Buster is essentially run off of the road, and he lands in a nearby canal. This debacle is witnessed by several residents who are near the canal. It’s a humiliating moment for Buster, but it’s played for laughs in the movie.

A discouraged Buster tells Nana about Suki’s rejection. He moans, “I’m a failure!” Nana scolds Buster for letting this setback make him think that he should give up. She tells him that if he doesn’t believe in himself and what he has to offer, then no one else will. Buster takes this advice and decides to round up Meena, Rosita, Ash, Johnny, Gunter and Miss Crawly to go on a road trip with him to Redstone City. The goal is to convince Crystal Entertainment to let them do a musical at the much-larger and more famous Crystal Tower Theater.

Ash already has a paying gig at a local rock club in Calatonia, but she’s being underpaid. When Buster meets up with Ash to ask her to go on the trip, he sees her backstage after a performance, right before she’s supposed to do an encore. The club owner/manager hands Ash a paycheck, and she’s annoyed because the amount is far less than what other artists at the club are getting paid.

Ash says to the club owner/manager: “I have a rule about not letting guys like you tell me what I’m worth. Unless I get paid like everyone else, I’m outta here!” And with that, she walks out of the building with Buster, without doing the encore.

The owner of Crystal Entertainment is Jimmy Crystal (played by Bobby Cannavale), who is literally and figuratively a wolf. He’s a hard-nosed, ruthless business mogul who insists that people call him Mr. Crystal. He is first seen judging auditioners at Crystal Tower Theater and giving red-buzzer rejections to every act, no matter how talented the act is.

Meanwhile, Buster and his group have arrived at Crystal Entertainment headquarters, but they don’t make it past the reception area because they don’t have an appointment. However, they go in a side employee entrance, find some sanitation worker uniforms, and disguise themselves as sanitation workers, in order to sneak into the auditions.

After a quick change back into their regular clothes, this enterprising group sneaks onto the audition stage. Buster makes an earnest pitch to offer his theater group for a musical show at Crystal Tower Theater. Mr. Crystal rejects them, of course. Buster tries to get Mr. Crystal to change his mind, but Mr. Crystal doesn’t want to hear it and is infuriated that these rejected auditioners don’t want to leave the stage.

Just as Mr. Crystal is about to have them thrown out, he overhears Gunter say that Gunter is a fan of Clay Calloway, a rock superstar lion who has been in seclusion for the past 15 years. Mr. Crystal asks if they know Clay. Buster lies and says yes. Mr. Crystal then changes his mind and says that he’ll agree to let Buster’s group do a show at the Crystal Tower Theater, on one condition: Clay Calloway has to be part of the act too.

Buster continues to lie and says it won’t be a problem because he and Clay are friends. When Mr. Crystal asks what the name of the show is, Gunter comes up with a title on the spot: “Out of This World.” It’s described as an outer-space musical. Mr. Crystal doesn’t care about the details because he just wants Clay Calloway to perform at the Crystal Tower Theater.

Mr. Crystal gives Buster and his group just three weeks to produce the show. He puts them up in the Crystal Tower Hotel and pays for all of their expenses. Buster is elated and decides he’ll figure out a way to convince Clay Calloway to be a part of the show. Ash is a big fan of Clay’s and she wants to go with Buster for this persuasive visit. Ash explains that Clay has become a grieving recluse ever since the death of his wife Ruby, who was his muse.

In the meantime, Buster works with Gunter on the concept for the “Out of This World” musical. They come up with the idea to have Rosita star as an astronaut looking for an outer-space explorer, with Gunter as a robot sidekick/aide. During this mission, she will have to visit four planets that have four different themes: war, love, despair and joy. This idea is as poorly conceived as it sounds.

Meanwhile, there’s more to Mr. Crystal than meets the eye. When an uninteresting movie like this is filled with hackneyed stereotypes, here’s one more: Mr. Crystal is really a gangster. A Vegas-styled hotel/casino owner who’s involved with illegal activities? Where did the filmmakers get this idea?

“Sing 2” starts to go off the rails in how it presents the preparations for this horrendous “Out of This World” musical production, by having the stars of the show go off in different directions with silly subplots. Rosita decides to invite her husband Norman (voiced by Nick Offerman) and their 25 kids to Redstone City. (After all, Mr. Crystal is paying for everything.) And so, there’s a scene of the kids being brats as they invade a food buffet area in the hotel and cause all types of chaos.

Rosita is playing an astronaut who has to do some high-flying stunts on stage. And therefore, it’s not a good time for Rosita to find out that she’s afraid of heights. Around the same time, Mr. Crystal insists that his daughter Porsha Crystal (voiced by Halsey) will be the star of the show. Buster is put in the awkward position of telling Rosita that she’s being replaced in the starring role. Porsha is a spoiled airhead who sounds like she’s spent too much time watching “Jersey Shore.”

Johnny is supposed to play a dancing gladiator-type of warrior in “Out of This World,” but Johnny doesn’t know how to dance. And so, the show’s uptight and mean-spirited monkey choreographer Klaus Kickenklober (voiced by Adam Buxton) makes Johnny’s life a living hell. But what do you know: One day, Johnny sees a sassy lynx street dancer named Nooshy (voiced by Letitia Wright), who attracts an enthusiastic crowd. Johnny is impressed with Nooshy’s talent, so he hires her to give him private dance lessons.

Meena, who is very inexperienced when it comes to dating, is paired with a conceited yak actor named Darius (voiced by Eric André), so she’s dreading the love scenes that they have to do in the musical. “Sing 2” has such slipshod screenwriting, Meena’s and Darius’ character roles in “Out of This World” are never clearly defined, except to show that they’re supposed to play each other’s love interest in “Out of This World.” Darius could have been breakout “Sing 2” character as a hilarious buffoon, but he’s mainly brought out for some underwhelming scenes where the jokes fall flat.

Meanwhile, Meena catches the eye of a mild-mannered elephant named Alfonso (voiced by Pharrell), an ice cream truck vendor. It’s obvious that Alfonso wants to date Meena, but she’s bashful about how to handle it. Alfonso compliments Meena on her singing talent, but she’s afraid to have conversations with him. None of these new supporting characters in “Sing 2” has a backstory or fully developed personality.

Meanwhile, there’s a time-wasting scene where Miss Crawly drives to reclusive rock star Clay’s estate (while System of a Down’s “Chop Suey!” is playing), to find out if she can get access to him. Some more problems ensue involving her glass eye, because the filmmakers seem to want to make Miss Crawly’s glass eye the main gimmick for the slapstick comedy about her. Needless to say, Miss Crawly is unsuccessful in getting to Clay. Buster and Ash decide to give it a try.

The second trailer for “Sing 2” already revealed that Clay (voiced by Bono, lead singer of U2) does come out of seclusion to perform on stage. But even if this major plot development hadn’t already been disclosed, it would be very easy to predict. The movie blandly and vaguely handles how Clay is convinced to come out of seclusion.

“Sing 2” is Bono’s animated feature-film debut as an actor. Bono’s speaking voice in this role is lowered one or two octaves from his real speaking voice. It seems like he’s trying to sound like a husky-voiced American rock star (somewhat like a combination of Bruce Springsteen and Tom Waits), but Bono’s natural Irish accent can still occasionally be heard in the dialogue.

As for the music of “Sing 2,” just like the first “Sing” movie, a lot of it comes in snippets of one minute or less per song. Songs that drop in for a longer than a minute (but still quickly) include Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” Elton John’s “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road,” Mercury Rev’s “Holes,” Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” DNCE’s “Cake by the Ocean,” Shawn Mendes’ “There’s Nothing Holdin’ Me Back,” Eve’s “Who’s That Girl” and Camila Cabello and Mendes’ “Señorita.”

The longer musical numbers are serviceable, although there are a few standout moments. Halsey shines in her biggest number, when she sings a rousing rendition of the Struts’ “Could Have Been Me.” Halsey’s version of Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” is also impressive. Johansson does nicely with her cover version of U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

However, the Tori Kelly/Pharrell Williams duet of Dionne Warwick’s “I Say a Little Prayer” has no heat. It’s also a very tame song selection for the characters of Meena and Alfonso, who are supposed to be in the early stages of a romance. Their first duet should’ve been more of a passionate love song or a more emotion-filled song about longing for love.

It seems like the “Sing 2” filmmakers bent over backwards to make Bono and his Clay character overshadow the movie’s last 15 minutes to steal the show. In the first “Sing” movie, main characters Rosita, Meena, Ash and Johnny all had their big individual singing moments in the spotlight. In “Sing 2,” everyone seems to have to clear a path for Bono/Clay.

In “Sing 2,” the Johnny character is woefully under-used as a singer. The movie seems more concerned about showing him awkwardly learning dance moves. It’s a shame, really, because Egerton is such a talented singer. His rendition of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” in the first “Sing” movie was one of the catalysts to Egerton being cast in John’s 2019 musical biopic “Rocketman.”

“Sing 2” is essentially a vehicle to promote U2’s music in the latter half of the movie. There are four U2 songs in “Sing 2”: the aforementioned “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” “Where the Streets Have No Name,” “Stuck in a Moment You Can’t Get Out Of” and “Your Song Saved My Life,” which was written for the “Sing 2” soundtrack. Obviously, “Your Song Saved My Life” is supposed to be Clay’s big moment. “Your Song Saved My Life” isn’t bad, but it’s not outstanding, and it won’t be considered a U2 classic.

If you want to know another reason “Sing 2” is such a disappointing mess, the filmmakers made Bono—one of the most charismatic rock stars on the planet—a dull and dreary character in this movie. The Clay character could’ve been played by almost anyone, but it seems like in order to get U2’s music for this movie, the filmmakers had to cast Bono in this role. It’s too bad that Bono and the rest of the talented voice actors are stuck in this hack karaoke project that has a major studio budget.

Universal Pictures will release “Sing 2” in U.S. cinemas on December 22, 2021.

Review: ‘Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics’ starring Sting, Ben Stiller, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Bourdain, Deepak Chopra, A$AP Rocky and Sarah Silverman

May 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Rob Corddry in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics”

Directed by Donick Cary

Culture Representation: This documentary interviews a predominantly white male group of entertainers who talk about their experiences taking psychedelic drugs, and the movie features a diverse group of actors doing comedy skits about psychedelic drug experiences.

Culture Clash: Despite these drugs being illegal, almost all of the people interviewed say that they don’t regret taking psychedelic drugs.

Culture Audience: “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” will appeal to people who just want one-sided comedic stories about taking psychedelic drugs, because the movie’s agenda is to exclude any stories about the drugs’ long-term negative effects on health.

Nick Offerman in “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

In its overexuberance to portray psychedelic drug taking as something that’s harmless or something to laugh about later, the documentary “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” sinks to new lows of exploitation by prominently featuring two celebrities whose tragic, self-destructive deaths are definitely not funny. The documentary’s filmmakers (including director Donick Cary) made the morbid and tacky decision to display the filmmakers’ interviews with Carrie Fisher and Anthony Bourdain in this parade of celebrities who mostly glamorize taking psychedelic drugs.

Fisher died in 2016 of drug-related causes. Bourdain committed suicide in 2018. They both struggled with mental-health issues and drug addiction and admitted to taking a lot of LSD and other psychedelics in their lifetimes. Needless to say, Fisher and Bourdain are definitely not examples of how psychedelic drugs can help people with mental-health problems and drug addictions. And yet, the documentary pushes the scientifically unproven agenda that psychedelic drugs are beneficial to people suffering from drug addiction and mental-health issues.

But hey, why let these tragic deaths get in the way of making a documentary where these now-dead people are shown joking about their acid trips, as if those drug experiences couldn’t possibly be harmful to them? They’re certainly not going to talk about the negative side effects of “bad trips,” such as suicidal thoughts, depression or psychosis. After all, this movie wants people to believe that psychedelics are “shiny, happy drugs,” without giving a thoroughly honest look at the down sides too, because the film is so focused on having people endorse these drugs.

And there’s a reason why the filmmakers only included entertainers in this documentary that glamorizes psychedelic drugs. Imagine a documentary that featured a bunch of health-care workers, emergency responders, schoolteachers or airplane pilots joking about their experiences doing psychedelic drugs, and many of the interviewees giving the impression that they still do psychedelics on a regular basis. It wouldn’t seem so “harmless” then, would it?

Therefore, it’s no surprise that the documentary focuses on people (some more famous than others) who are in showbiz, where illegal drug abuse is flaunted and often celebrated. The average person in a regular job would not be able to get away with bragging in a Netflix documentary about their drug experiences.

Nor does the average person have the kind of money that rock star Sting has, to fly to Mexico whenever he wants, just to take peyote in an elaborate shaman ritual, which he describes in vivid detail in the documentary. Almost all of the people in this film can easily afford to indulge in taking illegal drugs and do not have to worry about how they’re going to pay for any medical treatment or legal issues if things go wrong. It’s one of the reasons why the documentary glamorizes these drug experiences, because there are some negative consequences to illegal drug taking that the “average” person can’t casually dismiss as easily as a well-paid entertainer can.

In addition to Sting, there are several other entertainers in the documentary who talk about their psychedelic drug trips or say that they’ve used psychedelic drugs: Ben Stiller (who’s one of the documentary’s producers), Nick Kroll, Deepak Chopra, Will Forte, A$AP Rocky, Nick Offerman, Shepard Fairey, Lewis Black, Paul Scheer, Rob Corddry, Andy Richter, Judd Nelson, Sarah Silverman, Jim James, Diedrich Bader, Rob Huebel, Reggie Watts, Natasha Lyonne, Adam Horovitz, Mark Maron, Rosie Perez, Donovan, Grateful Dead drummer Bill Kreutzmann, Brett Gelman, Robert Ben Garant, Thomas Lennon and David Cross.

One of the problems of doing a documentary like this is that you never really know how much people could be exaggerating or lying about these drug experiences. Many of the people interviewed are comedians and actors—two professions that are notorious for people fabricating things about their lives in order to get attention. Therefore, this documentary should not be considered very “realistic” by any stretch of the drug-addled imagination.

The psychedelic stories are re-enacted in one of two ways: through animation or by having live actors do a scripted skit. The animated segments (from Sugarshack Animation) are among the best aspects of the documentary. The scripted skits are hit-and-miss.

One of those misfires is miscasting Adam Devine as Bourdain in a re-enactment of Bourdain’s description of a drug-fueled, Hunter S. Thompson-inspired road trip that he took when he was a young man in the 1970s. Devine is known for having a sweet and goofy persona, while Bourdain was the complete opposite, which makes the re-enactment wrong from the get-go.

Even worse, the story that Bourdain tells isn’t even that funny. The road trip included Bourdain and a male friend picking up two women and partying heavily with them in a hotel room, including ingesting several drugs, such as LSD, alcohol, marijuana and cocaine. One of the women overdosed, and the others thought she was dead. So they just left her unconscious on the floor while they tried to figure out what to do, according to Bourdain.

Bourdain, while high on LSD, says that he imagined that there would be police coming to arrest them, with helicopters, searchlights, and a S.W.A.T.-like team surrounding the room. And then the woman suddenly regained consciousness and started to dance as if nothing had happened. Someone could’ve died from ingesting drugs while you were partying with that person, you had a LSD-induced panic attack about being arrested, and that’s supposed to be funny?

A better re-enactment that accomplishes its intended humor is Natasha Leggero dressed in a “Star Wars” Princess Leia outfit, for Fisher’s tale of being high on LSD while in New York City’s Central Park. During that psychedelic experience, Fisher says she spent a great deal of time being upset at seeing an acorn “misbehave” on the grass. During another acid trip on a beach, Fisher vaguely remembers she might have been topless when a bus full of Japanese tourists stopped right in front of her and they recognized her.

And in a somewhat clever casting switcheroo, Corddry plays Scheer in the segment that re-enacts Scheer’s psychedelic story, while Scheer plays Corddy in Corddry’s re-enactment. Meanwhile, Kroll portrays himself in his re-enactment about how he and a group of male friends were high on LSD at a Malibu beach, and the friends covered him in kelp as a prank. He then imagined himself to be a kelp monster and chased them around the beach. (Things weren’t so funny the next morning when he woke up covered in bites from whatever small animals were in the kelp.)

Most of the psychedelic trips described in the documentary are about hallucinations, experiencing colors in a different way, or losing a sense of time or memory. And there are the typical stories of “revelations,” along the lines of “I saw inside my soul,” “I saw how connected the world is” and “I found out the meaning of life is to love everybody.” Some of the people interviewed also give advice by saying it’s better to take psychedelics with trusted friends and to avoid looking in mirrors while under the influence of psychedelics.

A$AP Rocky (one of the few people of color who’s interviewed in the film) tells one of the documentary’s funniest stories, about how he took LSD with a beautiful female companion. During the course of the time they had together, they started having sex. And he swears that he saw a rainbow shoot from his penis during this encounter. “I don’t even like rainbows,” he quips. (Needless to say, the re-enactment for this story is definitely in animation form.)

But for every entertaining story like that one, the documentary has a story that’s basic or boring. The Grateful Dead was considered the ultimate psychedelic rock band, so you’d think one of the Dead’s drummers would have some hilarious stories to tell. Wrong.

Kreutzmann’s anecdotes aren’t that interesting or revealing, unless you consider it’s fascinating that he tells a story of coming home to his parents’ house after staying out all night while he was on LSD, and hallucinating that his breakfast meal of eggs were moving on the plate. He also mentions that he once couldn’t finish performing at a Grateful Dead concert because he was hallucinating that his drums were melting. Yawn.

Being stoned on psychedelics at a Grateful Dead show is also predictably mentioned by some of the interviewees, such as Corddry and Maron. (The late Fred Willard has a cameo as a Deadhead hippie in the re-enactment of Maron’s psychedelic story.) Garant comedically describes how you can tell the difference between someone having a “good trip” and a “bad trip” at a Dead concert, because someone having a “good trip” will lean forward while walking, while someone having a “bad trip” will lean backward while walking, as if they’re afraid of where their head will go.

Sting, who says he’s had good and bad psychedelic trips, mentions that facing his own mortality was one of the most frightening things he ever experienced while under the influence of psychedelics. He also describes the first time he took peyote. It was at a farm in England, where he was unexpectedly asked to help a cow give birth while he was tripping out on the drug. He was told that the cow would die if he didn’t help, and when the calf was born, Sting says he finally understood the miracle of life.

“I think it’s a valuable experience,” says Sting of taking psychedelic drugs. “Whenever I’ve had a bad trip—and I’ve had many—I’ve realized it was what I needed. Sometimes, you need to have your ego taken down a notch or two. On the other hand, you can have immensely rewarding experiences. My feeling is that it balances out.”

Stiller is one of the few celebrities in the documentary who talks about disliking what he says was his one and only experience with LSD (when he was a young man in the ’80s), because it was a bad trip. He says that he was hoping that it would be an enlightening experience, but instead he spent the approximately six-hour acid trip feeling “fear and anxiety.”

“Immediately, I started to freak out and get really scared,” Stiller remembers. “I started staring at my hand, doing the cliché thing of of pondering what my hand was.” His paranoia during the acid trip was made worse, he says, when he and the friend he was with at the time began walking around New York City and saw the parade floats that were going to be in the upcoming Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Stiller says that he hallucinated that the floats were chasing him, like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man in the “Ghostbusters” movie.

Perez and Silverman each say that the first time they took LSD, it was by accident. Silverman said that it happened when she and some comedian friends were hanging out at a diner in New York City, when a hippie stranger walked in and handed her a tab of LSD that she took without even asking what it was. Her story isn’t as coherent as some of the others, since she recalls laughing and crying with a group of people in public and then ending up in someone’s car with the driver (who was also on LSD) forgetting how to drive.

Perez said she got “dosed” when she was out with her sister on New Year’s Eve in their hometown of New York City, sometime in the late ’80s. They went to a nightclub, where she was offered some fruit punch as a drink. Little did she know that the punch was spiked with LSD. Perez says that she  hallucinated that the dance floor had turned into waves, and she ended up rolling around with her breasts exposed.

Her trip intensified when she got home and imagined that her body had merged into her bed. Perez says she didn’t do drugs or drink alcohol at this time in her life, so when she was told that she was having an acid trip, her first thought was that she was going to hell. She says that the experience led her to seek therapy, which helped her get over her “Catholic guilt,” so she thinks getting rid of her religious hang-ups was one good thing that came out of the experience.

Speaking of guilt trips, the movie pokes fun at the ridiculous, over-the-top and usually badly acted public-service announcements (PSAs) aimed at preventing people, especially young people, from taking psychedelics. Offerman pops up occasionally throughout the film in a parody of a science professor who talks about the effects of psychedelics. NBCUniversal’s “The More You Know” PSA campaign is mocked with “The More You Trip,” whenever one of the interviewees gives advice on what to do or what not to do when taking psychedelics. (For example: “Don’t drive while on acid.”)

The “ABC Afterschool Special” is given the satire treatment with the documentary’s “LSD Afterschool Special,” a multi-part segment that has actor/comedian Adam Scott as the host of a 1980s-styled PSA film with a plot of nerdy high schoolers (played by Haley Joel Osment and Maya Erskine) going to a house party and being tempted into the “evils” of taking LSD. It’s a funny idea but it’s executed poorly.

On a more serious note, “Have a Good Trip” also attempts to promote the theory that using psychedelics is the best way to treat depression and other mental-health issues. Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatry professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, is interviewed about his research in this area. Not surprisingly, he’s a proponent of using psychedelics to treat these issues (how else would he be able to continue to get research money), but the documentary fails to present other scientific points of view.

The only other non-entertainer interviewed in the film is Zach Leary, son of famed LSD guru Timothy Leary. And what he has to say is very predictable and reveals nothing new at all: “DMT is like the express ticket to primordial ooze. If you want to see what it is to be an organic being and absolutely watch your ego dissipate into nothingness, smoke some DMT, and you’ll get there right away.”

Although some people in the documentary, including Dr. Grob, caution that taking psychedelics isn’t for everyone and can have damaging effects for some people, any of those “bad effects” stories are shut out of the film. It’s like doing a documentary about bungee jumping and refusing to talk about the people who got seriously injured or killed from this risky stunt.

Celebrity spiritual guru Chopra, who says he experimented with psychedelics in the past, is one of the few people in the film who admits “you run the risk of psychosis” from doing psychedelics. Of course, the film only presents stories from people who say that they have “happy endings” from taking psychedelics. And two of those people are now dead because of self-destructive reasons, so viewers can judge for themselves how “beneficial” psychedelics really are in helping people with serious health issues such as depression and addiction.

One of the more irresponsible things about the documentary is that it leaves out any talk of acid flashbacks. Naïve people who see this film as a guide to taking psychedelic drugs might think that once an acid trip is “over,” the drug has left the body, the way that alcohol can leave the human body through urine after a 24-to-48-hour period if no more alcohol is consumed. But the scientific reality is that, depending on the dosage, psychedelic drugs can stay in the body for a variable period of time, and that can lead to unpredictable and random “flashback” trips.

How people feel about “Have a Good Trip” will depend largely on how much they worship celebrities and take their words as gospel. The psychedelic anecdotes in the film should be taken for what they are—stories from people who are in the business of creating fake personas and making things look more glamorous than they really are.

The people who were chosen to be interviewed for this documentary also have the privilege of being less likely to be arrested for illegal drugs. (With few exceptions, most of the people in this film have a certain level of fame.) And they are less likely to have their careers ruined by a lot of psychedelic drug use, compared to people who don’t live in such a privileged bubble. It’s something to think about whenever you hear a celebrity in a certain income bracket openly brag about using illegal drugs.

Netflix premiered “Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics” on May 11, 2020.

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