Review: ‘Journey to Bethlehem,’ starring Fiona Palomo, Milo Manheim, Lecrae, Joel Smallbone and Antonio Banderas

January 4, 2024

by Carla Hay

Fiona Palomo and Milo Manheim in “Journey to Bethlehem” (Photo courtesy of Affirm Films)

“Journey to Bethlehem”

Directed by Adam Anders

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Israeli cities of Nazareth and Bethlehem, the musical “Journey to Bethlehem” (based on New Testament teachings in the Christian Bible) features a racially diverse group of characters (white, Asian, Latino and black) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A virgin named Mary, who is reluctant to marry her fiancé Joseph, is banished from her family after claiming that she is giving birth to the son of God, and the couple goes into hiding from the evil king Herod, who wants to kill the children of Bethlehem.

Culture Audience: “Journey to Bethlehem” will appeal primarily to fans of musicals and faith-based movies that put a contemporary spin on ancient teachings.

Antonio Banderas in “Journey to Bethlehem” (Photo courtesy of Affirm Films)

As an earnest faith-based musical, “Journey to Bethlehem” does what it’s supposed to do for its intended audience. Other people might be surprised by the charm and appeal of this pop music version of the Bible’s nativity story about Jesus Christ. “Journey to Bethlehem” has some impressive visual effects and production design, considering its relatively low production budget of a reported $6 million. There are also engaging performances from the cast members, even if some of the characters are close to being cariactures.

Directed by Adam Anders (who co-wrote the “Journey to Bethlehem” screenplay with Peter Barsocchini), “Journey to Bethlehem” begins with this voiceover narration: “Long ago, in the time of Caesar Augustus and in the land of Judah, ruled by the evil King Herod, there lived a young woman named Mary, who didn’t know yet that she was chosen by God to fulfill an ancient prophecy to bring forth a promised king sent to save the world.” That king, of course is Jesus Christ.

“Journey to Bethlehem” (which was filmed in Spain) stays faithful to the basics of the biblical story but takes a lot of liberties in the interpretations of the characters. Just like in the Bible, the three kings who knew of the prophecy see the star that signals the arrival of this divine child. In “Journey to Bethlehem,” these three kings are portrayed as a somewhat comedic trio that bickers and banters with each other. It’s not slapstick insult comedy like the Three Stooges. It’s more like the biblical version of Spinal Tap.

Balthazar (played by Geno Segers) is the king with astronomy skills. Caspar (played by Rizwan Manji) is described in the movie as the king who is “the greatest scholar in all the lands.” Melchior (played by Omid Djalili) is the king who’s a great navigator and a map expert. Caspar (who is has a super-serious personality) and Melchior (who has a goofy personality) frequently clash with each other, while easygoing and optimistic Caspar is the most likely one of the three kings to keep the peace when there are conflicts within this lively trio.

Meanwhile, in Bethlehem, Mary (played by Fiona Palomo) is dreading her upcoming arranged marriage because she would rather be a teacher than a wife at this stage in her life. Mary has been betrothed to a man whom she hasn’t met yet. Her father Joachim (played by Antonio Cantos), who is a teacher, tells Mary: “You are a girl. You will be a wife, not a teacher, as tradition demands.” Mary’s mother Ana (played by Maria Pau Pigem) agrees with her husband.

At an open-air market, Mary has a “meet cute” moment with a young adult stranger named Joseph (played by Milo Manheim) when they accidentally bump into each other. He seems to be immediately attracted to her, but she seems to be a little attracted to him too. However, Mary is preoccupied with her worries about the upcoming marriage that she does not want. She’s polite to Joseph but she dismisses his attempts to flirt with her.

Meanwhile, King Herod (played by Antonio Banderas) is fixated on conquering more lands and people. He’s concerned that his eldest son Antipater (played by Joel Smallbone) doesn’t have what it takes to be the type of heir that King Herod wants. King Herod tells Antipater: “A king doesn’t need to be loved—only obeyed and feared.” Antipater, who desperately wants his father’s approval, spends most of the story carrying out Herod’s orders.

When it comes time for Mary to meet her fiancé, the meeting takes place at the home of Mary and her family. The fiancé arrives with his parents. Mary is shocked to find out that her fiancé is Joseph, the same person she met at the market. She’s immediately turned off (and tells Joseph that in a private conversation), because she thinks he shouldn’t have been flirting with her if he knew he was going to marry someone.

Joseph tries to smooth thigs over, but Mary becomes even more resistant to the idea of marrying him. Joseph’s domineering and haughty parents Jacob (played by Antonio Gil) and Rachel (played by Alicia Borrachero) are determined to make this marriage happen, because they want Joseph to inherit what can be offered as part of Mary’s dowry. Mary’s parents also insist that the marriage take place.

Not too long after Mary and Joseph have their first meeting that does not end well, she is visited at night by the angel Gabriel (played by Lecrae), who tells Mary that she will be pregnant and give birth to the son of God while she’s still a virgin. The experience is so profound for Mary, she tells her family members about it. They think she is mentally ill and blasphemous and beg her not to tell Joseph and his family.

However, Mary tells Joseph and his family. And when it becomes obvious that she is pregnant, the wedding is called off, and Mary is exiled to Hebron to live with her middle-aged cousin Elizabeth (played by Yaël Belicha), who is also having a “miracle pregnancy.” Elizabeth and her mute husband Zachariah (played by José María Rueda) welcome Mary into their home and are very protective of her.

King Herod hears about a blasphemous young woman who claims to be pregnant with a child of God. He’s determined to find her to kill her and her unborn child, so he sends Antipater on the hunt to find her. The rest of “Journey to Bethlehem” will not be a surprise to people who already know the story from the Bible.

“Journey to Bethlehem” has very good staging of the musical numbers, which often pop and glow with creative lighting and visual effects. Banderas hams it up as the story’s chief villain in a way that almost verges on parody but has enough self-awareness to hold back and deliver a convincing performance. During King Herod’s solo performance of “Good to Be King,” the set transforms into a menacing replication of the depths of hell to put an emphasis of how evil King Herod is.

Palomo and Manheim give engaging performances as Mary and Joseph. Mary is strong-willed and independent, which is an interpretation that might or might not be to a viewer’s liking. Joseph is portrayed as a forward-thinking person who doesn’t treat women as inferior to men. The blossoming romance between Mary and Joseph is portrayed as sweet and something that doesn’t happen right away because of Mary’s reluctance.

As far the movie’s original songs, “Journey to Bethlehem” has has some that are memorable and others that are on the bland side. Ada Anders, Nikki Anders and Peer Åström wrote the music for “Journey to Bethlehem,” whose musical highlights the anthemic climax of “The Nativity Song.” Antipater’s “In My Blood” brings some psychological “daddy issues” angst to the movie, while the three kings’ song “Three Wise Guys” brings much comic relief.

“Journey to Bethlehem” sometimes comes across as a production with a touring company (not the original cast) of a Broadway show. There’s plenty of musical talent, but it’s not the best of the best. However, “Journey to Bethlehem” is entertaining enough for anyone who wants to see a religious musical that isn’t overly preachy or pretentious and can be enjoyed by people of many generations.

Affirm Films released “Journey to Bethlehem” in U.S. cinemas on November 10, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on December 8, 2023. “Journey to Bethlehem” will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on January 16, 2024.

Review: ‘Love Again’ (2023), starring Priyanka Chopra Jonas, Sam Heughan and Céline Dion

May 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Sam Heughan and Priyanka Chopra Jonas in “Love Again” (Photo by Liam Daniel/Screen Gems)

“Love Again” (2023)

Directed by Jim Strouse

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York City, the comedy/drama film “Love Again” (based on the novel “Text for You”) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Two years after her fiancé died in a tragic car accident, a children’s book illustrator sends lovelorn text messages to his old phone number, which is now being used as a work phone number by a music journalist, who begins dating her, but he doesn’t tell her that he’s the one who’s been getting her text messages. 

Culture Audience: “Love Again” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and fans of the book on which the movie is based, but most viewers with enough life experience will be turned off and bored by this predictable and lackluster love story.

Sam Heughan and Céline Dion in “Love Again” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems)

The painfully unfunny, boring and very outdated “Love Again” is a fake-looking romantic comedy/drama that also wants to be a Céline Dion commercial. The romance looks forced and unnatural. Everything is an embarrassment for everyone who made this junk. This movie is so dull and lacking in charisma, it makes anything on the Hallmark Channel (which churns out generic romance movies on a regular basis) look exciting in comparison.

Written and directed by Jim Strouse, “Love Again” is based on Sofie Cramer’s 2022 novel “Text for You.” There isn’t one single thing in this dreadful movie that is clever or surprising. In fact, it’s downright insulting to viewers that the “Love Again” filmmakers expect viewers to think that the mindless tripe that comes out of the central couple’s mouths is supposed to be “witty and charming” dialogue, when it’s the exact opposite.

“Love Again” (which takes place mostly in New York City) begins by showing children’s book illustrator Mira Ray (played by Priyanka Chopra Jonas) meeting up with her 34-year-old fiancé John Wright (played by Arinzé Kene) for a lunch date at a local café. John’s occupation is not mentioned in the movie. Mira and John exchange some lovey-dovey talk and make plans to meet up later.

Less than a minute after John waves goodbye to Mira while he’s walking on a sidewalk near the café, Mira hears the horrific sound of a car crash. As soon as you hear the crash and see Mira’s alarmed reaction, you just know that John was hit by a car. It’s later revealed that John was killed by a drunk driver at that moment.

The movie then fast-forwards to two years later. Mira has moved back home with her parents, who live in an unnamed city and state. Wherever they live, it’s within driving distance of New York City. Mira has taken a leave of absence from her job. The movie implies that Mira hasn’t been doing much with her life but moping around the house because of her grief over John’s death.

Mira’s perky younger sister Suzy Ray (played by Sofia Barclay), who was Mira’s roommate in New York City, has been leaving voice messages for Mira and begging her to move back to New York City so they can live together again. Suzy’s messages express concern, then frustration, and then anger. “Mom and Dad want their house back!” Suzy snaps in a message to Mira. After getting this message, Mira finally decides she’s going to move back to New York City and try to move on with her life without John.

At Mira’s job, her boss Gina Valentine (played by Celia Imrie) scolds Mira for drawing depressing illustrations when Mira is supposed to be drawing cheerful illustrations. Gina calls an intern named Molly (played by Camille Hatcher) into Gina’s office and tells Mira that Molly is a student on a scholarship at New York University and was raised by a single mother. Gina says to Mira about Molly, “She’ll lose your job if you don’t figure this out.” That type of unamusing line is what this movie is trying to pass off as “comedy.”

Meanwhile, at the fictional newspaper the New York Chronicle, music journalist/critic Rob Burns (played by Sam Heughan), a 35-year-old British immigrant, wants to start a podcast for the newspaper. However, his boss Richard Hughes (played by Steve Oram), who’s also British, wants Rob’s top priority to be for Rob to get an amazing interview with superstar pop singer Céline Dion. Richard says the newspaper is interested because she’s doing a comeback tour, and young people are discovering her music.

It just so happens that Rob, just like Mira, has a broken heart too. His fiancée Elizabeth, nicknamed Liz, dumped him a week before their planned wedding. The movie is vague about who Liz is, but she’s some kind of celebrity, so the breakup was all over the media. A humiliated Rob has become bitter and says he doesn’t believe in love. Of course, we all know he’s going to change his mind when he meets Mira.

At his job, Rob gets a new cell phone from the company. He’s told that he has to use this phone for work-related purposes. Rob’s gossipy and nosy co-worker Billy Brooks (played by Russell Tovey) warns Rob that this cell phone is probably just a way for their boss to spy on Rob. Rob has another co-worker named Lisa Scott (played by Lydia West), whom he’s somewhat attracted to, but she sees him more like an older brother.

One night, Mira is feeling lonely, so she texts some lovelorn “I miss you” messages to the phone number that John used to have. And guess who has this phone number now? Rob, who is surprised to get these messages from a stranger. He answers anyway, as someone who is confused but sympathetic about why she has contacted him.

On this particular night when Mira sends her first text message to the number that Rob now has, there’s a thunderstorm that knocks out the electricity at the same time in Mira’s apartment and Rob’s apartment. This movie is so corny, the only reason why this power outage happens is to make it more obvious that the phone is lit up with text messages in the dark. Rob doesn’t do what sensible people would do: Tell this stranger to stop texting him and/or block her number, because there would be no “Love Again” movie if the would-be couple and the filmmakers acted sensibly.

And so begins the tedious silliness of “Love Again,” which already reveals in the movie’s trailer that Mira and Rob start having an “emotional connection” online, but it takes a while for them to meet in person. However, it doesn’t take long for Mira to begin “sexting” her online “lover,” by saying things such as she wants to see him naked. Mira sends a barrage of texts that, by any standard, make her look unhinged. The movie tries too hard to convince viewers that Mira’s texts, which cross the line into harassment of a stranger, are all perfectly normal and acceptable, when they’re not.

When Rob and Mira meet in person and begin dating, Rob doesn’t take Lisa’s advice to tell Mira that he’s the person she’s been confiding in through text messages. We all know where this deception is going in the rom-com formula of “Boy meets girl. Boy gets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy finds a way to win back the girl.”

As for singer Dion (who portrays herself in the movie), even though she shares top billing for “Love Again,” she’s only in about 25% of the movie. And now that it’s been revealed that Dion wasn’t actually in the same room when she filmed scenes with her “Love Again” co-stars, it’s yet another reason why this movie looks so phony. Dion’s scenes (which range from bland to awkward) in “Love Again” are mostly cringeworthy, to put it mildly.

For starters, “Love Again” fails to make Dion look charming. In fact, she’s downright rude and inappropriate in many of her character interactions in this movie. At a press conference attended by Rob, she lectures Rob by telling him that he doesn’t know anything about love, just because he asked her about some of her romance-related song lyrics.

To be fair, Rob isn’t exactly courteous either, since he’s openly cynical about Dion’s music at first. She also gets annoyed when he looks at text messages on his phone while she’s answering his question at the press conference. “Love Again” takes a sharp turn into ridiculousness when Rob later does a one-on-one interview with Dion that turns into a therapy session where she tells him what he should be doing in his romance with Mira. Dion also reminisces about her own romance with her deceased husband/manager, René Angélil.

The dialogue in “Love Again” is simply horrendous and full of hokey clichés. There’s a scene where Rob tries to hint to Mira that he’s the one she’s been texting. Rob asks Mira, “Do you think it’s possible to fall in love with someone through their words?” Mira replies, “You know what they say: ‘Actions speak louder than words.'”

Mira has a quirk of asking people “would you rather” questions that make her look shallow and ditzy, because she says she judges people based on their answers to these hypothetical questions. One of these questions is “Would you rather have 10 cats or would you rather have one parrot on your shoulder for 22 hours a day?” (Mira thinks the only “correct” answer is to choose the parrot.) Another question is “Would you rather live your life with silent, uncontrollable gas or loud, uncontrollable sneezing?”

Who over the age of 12 talks like that? And who wants to date an adult who talks like that? Mira also doesn’t like it if anyone answers “neither” to her “would you rather” questions. She expects people to answer her questions as if she’s a prosecutor interrogating someone on a witness stand. Apparently, “Love Again” wants to convince people that this annoying trait of Mira’s is endearing.

As for Rob, he’s no prize either when it comes to his personality. Aside from his job and his monotonous romance with Mira, the most that the movie reveals about Rob is that he likes basketball and that he (just like Mira) is a terrible cook. There are some “red flags” about Rob’s life that would be noticed by someone who “falls in love” with him, if this movie tried to be realistic. For example, Rob never talks about his family, which remains a mystery throughout the story. Rob, like Mira, also doesn’t have any close friends.

Seriously, if the only people you can talk to about your love life are two co-worker acquaintances and a celebrity who’s really a stranger, then you’ve got bigger problems than how to court a love interest. But apparently, the “Love Again” filmmakers want viewers to ignore all of that and make Rob look like he’s a “great catch” as a bachelor. Yes, he’s physically good-looking, but a lot of his personality is quite monotonous and drippy.

Needless to say, Chopra Jonas and Heughan do not have believable chemistry together as an on-screen couple. The movie has some stunt casting with Nick Jonas (who married Chopra Jonas in 2018) in a not-funny-at-all cameo. Jonas portrays an idiotic and vain fitness trainer named Joel, who goes on one bad date with Mira before Mira meets Rob. This bad date happens to take place in the same restaurant and at the same time when Rob thinks he’ll meet Mira due to some miscommunication by text. It’s all just stilted acting and more contrived nonsense on display.

The supporting characters in “Love Again” are mostly hollow and terribly underdeveloped. Mira and Suzy like to hang out at a diner called Roxy’s, which is owned and managed by a widower named Mohsen, nicknamed Mo (played by Omid Djalili), who named the diner after his wife. Mo’s only purpose in the brief time that he’s on screen is to show that Mira actually talks to someone else besides Suzy about Mira’s love life.

“Love Again” tries to look “classy” with references to the opera “Orpheus and Eurydice,” which was part of the love story of Mira and John. The way “Orpheus and Eurydice” is used in the movie is supposed to look intellectually deep and emotionally moving. But it’s all such a pretentious façade in a low-quality movie, because the only music that “Love Again” really cares about promoting is Dion’s music. Various people, including Dion, sing some of her original hits and cover tunes throughout the movie.

During the end credits, the “Love Again” principal cast members are shown doing individual karaoke-styled singing of Dion’s music as part of this non-stop shillfest. Various scenes in “Love Again” also have obnoxious and blatant product placement—particularly of a candy brand that won’t be mentioned in this review, because this candy brand, just like Dion’s music, gets enough hawking in the movie. “Love Again” is such an abomination in a world filled with cheesy movies about unrealistic-looking romances, the title of the movie should be changed to “Never Again” to describe how people with good taste will feel about watching this creatively bankrupt flop more than once.

Screen Gems will release “Love Again” in U.S. cinemas on May 5, 2023.

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