Movie and TV Reviews

Reviews for New Movies Released September 4 – September 25, 2020

All In: The Fight for Democracy (Photo courtesy of Amazon Studios)
Antebellum (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Lionsgate)
Anthony (Photo by Ben Blackall/LA Productions/Peacock)
The Argument (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)
Blackbird (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)
The Broken Hearts Gallery (Photo by Linda Kallerus/TriStar Pictures)
Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)
Critical Thinking (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)
Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation (Photo courtesy of Big Tent Productions)
I Want My MTV (Photo by Candy Kugel)
Kajillionaire (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)
Mulan (Photo by Jasin Boland/Disney Enterprises Inc.)
Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin (Photo courtesy of Music Box Films)
One Hour Outcall (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)
Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)
Our Time Machine (Photo courtesy of Walking Iris Media and POV)
Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)
Rent-A-Pal (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)
The Secrets We Keep (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)
Somebody Up There Likes Me (Photo courtesy of Eagle Rock Entertainment)
The Swerve (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

Complete List of Reviews

1BR — horror

2/1 — drama

2 Graves in the Desert — drama

2 Minutes of Fame — comedy

5 Years Apart — comedy

17 Blocks — documentary

37 Seconds — drama

The 420 Movie (2020) — comedy

2040 — documentary

7500 — drama

Aamis — drama

Abe — drama

Advocate — documentary

After Class (formerly titled Safe Spaces) — comedy/drama

After Parkland — documentary

After Truth: Disinformation and the Cost of Fake News — documentary

AKA Jane Roe — documentary

Algorithm: Bliss — sci-fi/horror

All Day and a Night — drama

All I Can Say — documentary

All In: The Fight for Democracy — documentary

Almost Love (also titled Sell By) — comedy/drama

Amazing Grace — documentary

An American Pickle — comedy

American Street Kid — documentary

American Woman — drama

Amulet — horror

And Then We Danced — drama

Antebellum — horror

Anthony — drama

Apocalypse ’45 — documentary

The Apollo — documentary

The Argument — comedy

Artemis Fowl — fantasy

Ask for Jane — drama

Ask No Questions — documentary

The Assistant — drama

At the Heart of Gold: Inside the USA Gymnastics Scandal — documentary

Athlete A — documentary

Babysplitters — comedy

Babyteeth — drama

Bacurau — drama

Bad Boys for Life — action

Bad Education (2020) — drama

Bad Therapy (formerly titled Judy Small) — comedy/drama

Banana Split — comedy

Banksy and the Rise of Outlaw Art — documentary

Beanpole — drama

Beastie Boys Story — documentary

Becoming — documentary

Behind You — horror

Beneath Us — horror

Big Time Adolescence — comedy/drama

The Big Ugly — drama

Bill & Ted Face the Music — sci-fi/comedy

The Binge — comedy

Birds of Prey (And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) — action

Black Is King — musical

Black Magic for White Boys — comedy

Blackbird (2020) — drama

Blessed Child — documentary

Blood and Money — drama

Blood on Her Name — drama

Bloodshot (2020) — sci-fi/action

Blow the Man Down — drama

Blue Story — drama

Blumhouse’s Fantasy Island — horror

Body Cam — horror

The Booksellers — documentary

The Boys (premiere episode) — sci-fi/drama

Brahms: The Boy II — horror

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists — documentary

The Broken Hearts Gallery — comedy

Browse — drama

Buffaloed — comedy

Bully. Coward. Victim. The Story of Roy Cohn — documentary

Burden (2020) — drama

Burning Cane — drama

The Burnt Orange Heresy — drama

The Call of the Wild (2020) — live-action/animation

Call Your Mother — documentary

Cane River — drama

Capone — drama

Carmilla — drama

Castle in the Ground — drama

Centigrade — drama

Changing the Game — documentary

Children of the Sea — animation

Circus of Books — documentary

The Clearing (2020) — horror

Clementine — drama

Close Encounters of the Fifth Kind: Contact Has Begun — documentary

Clover — drama

Coachella: 20 Years in the Desert — documentary

Coffee & Kareem — comedy

Color Out of Space — sci-fi/horror

Come as You Are (2020)  — comedy

Come to Daddy — horror

The Cordillera of Dreams — documentary

Count Basie: Through His Own Eyes — documentary

Created Equal: Clarence Thomas in His Own Words — documentary

Creem: America’s Only Rock’n’Roll Magazine — documentary

Crip Camp: A Disability Revolution — documentary

Critical Thinking — drama

Crown Vic — drama

CRSHD — comedy

Cut Throat City — drama

Da 5 Bloods — drama

Daddy Issues (2020) — comedy

Dads — documentary

Dangerous Lies — drama

A Day in the Life of America — documentary

Days of Rage: The Rolling Stones’ Road to Altamont — documentary

Days of the Whale — drama

A Deadly Legend — horror

Decade of Fire — documentary

The Deeper You Dig — horror

The Delicacy — documentary

Denise Ho — Becoming the Song — documentary

Desolation Center — documentary

Desperados — comedy

Devil’s Night: Dawn of the Nain Rouge — horror

Devil’s Pie – D’Angelo — documentary

Diana Kennedy: Nothing Fancy — documentary

Disappearance at Clifton Hill — drama

Disclosure (2020) — documentary

Diving With Dolphins — documentary

The Dog Doc — documentary

Dolittle — live-action/animation

Dolphin Reef — documentary

Dosed — documentary

Downhill — comedy

Dreamland — drama

Driven to Abstraction — documentary

Driveways — drama

Easy Does It — comedy

Elephant (2020) — documentary

Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things — documentary

Emma (2020) — comedy/drama

End of Sentence — drama

Epicentro — documentary

The Etruscan Smile (also titled Rory’s Way) — drama

Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga — comedy

Exit Plan — drama

Extraction (2020) — action

A Fall From Grace — drama

Fatal Affair (2020) — drama

Fatima (2020) — drama

The Fight (2020) — documentary

First Cow — drama

Flipped (2020) — comedy

For They Know Not What They Do — documentary

Force of Nature (2020) — action

Four Kids and It — fantasy

Framing John DeLorean — documentary

Game of Death (2020) — horror

Ganden: A Joyful Land — documentary

The Garden Left Behind — drama

The Gasoline Thieves — drama

Gay Chorus Deep South — documentary

The Gentlemen — action

Get Duked! (formerly titled Boyz in the Wood) — comedy

Get Gone — horror

The Ghost of Peter Sellers — documentary

A Girl From Mogadishu — drama

A Girl Missing — drama

The Go-Go’s — documentary

Goldie — drama

Good Posture — comedy

Gordon Lightfoot: If You Could Read My Mind — documentary

Greed — comedy/drama

Gretel & Hansel — horror

Greyhound — drama

The Grudge (2020) — horror

Guest of Honour — drama

The Half of It — comedy

Have a Good Trip: Adventures in Psychedelics — documentary

He Dreams of Giants — documentary

Healing From Hate: Battle for the Soul of a Nation — documentary

Helmut Newton: The Bad and the Beautiful — documentary

The High Note — comedy/drama

Holly Slept Over — comedy

Hooking Up (2020) — comedy

Hope Gap — drama

Horse Girl — sci-fi/drama

The Host (2020) — horror

House of Hummingbird — drama

How to Build a Girl — comedy

Human Capital — drama

Human Nature (2020) — documentary

The Hunt — horror

I Am Human — documentary

I Am Somebody’s Child: The Regina Louise Story — drama

I Am Vengeance: Retaliation — action

I Hate New York — documentary

I Hate the Man in My Basement — drama

I Still Believe — drama

I Used to Go Here — comedy/drama

I Want My MTV — documentary

I Will Make You Mine — drama

I’m Gonna Make You Love Me — documentary

Impractical Jokers: The Movie — comedy

In the Footsteps of Elephant — documentary

Incitement — drama

Infamous (2020) — drama

The Infiltrators — docudrama

Initials SG — drama

Inna De Yard: The Soul of Jamaica — documentary

Instaband — documentary

The Invisible Man (2020) — horror

Irresistible (2020) — comedy

It Takes a Lunatic — documentary

Jay Myself — documentary

John Henry — action

John Lewis: Good Trouble — documentary

Judy & Punch — drama

Kajillionaire — comedy/drama

Kat and the Band — comedy

Kaye Ballard: The Show Goes On! — documentary

Kill Chain: The Cyber War on America’s Elections — documentary

Kill the Monsters — drama

The Kill Team (2019) — drama

The Kindness of Strangers — drama

The King of Staten Island — comedy/drama

La Llorona — horror

The Last Full Measure — drama

The Lawyer — drama

Leftover Women — documentary

Les Misérables (2019) — drama

Like a Boss — comedy

Limerence — comedy

Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice — documentary

Lingua Franca — drama

The Lodge — horror

The Longest Wave — documentary

Los Últimos Frikis — documentary

Lost Bayou — drama

Lost Transmissions — drama

Love Wedding Repeat — comedy

The Lovebirds — comedy

Low Tide — drama

Lucky Grandma — action

Lydia Lunch: The War Is Never Over — documentary

Mai Khoi & the Dissidents — documentary

The Main Event (2020) — action

Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound— documentary

Martha: A Picture Story — documentary

Martin Margiela: In His Own Words — documentary

Maurice Hines: Bring Them Back — documentary

Mighty Oak — drama

Military Wives — comedy/drama

The Mindfulness Movement — documentary

Miss Americana — documentary

Most Dangerous Game — action

Most Wanted (formerly titled Target Number One) — drama

Mr. Soul! — documentary

Mucho Mucho Amor: The Legend of Walter Mercado — documentary

Mulan (2020) — fantasy

Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story — documentary

Murder to Mercy: The Cyntoia Brown Story — documentary

My Boyfriend’s Meds — comedy

My Darling Vivian — documentary

My Spy — comedy

Mystify: Michael Hutchence — documentary

Natalie Wood: What Remains Behind — documentary

Never Rarely Sometimes Always — drama

Never Too Late (2020) — comedy

A Nice Girl Like You — comedy

No Small Matter — documentary

Noah Land — drama

Nomad: In the Footsteps of Bruce Chatwin — documentary

The Old Guard — action

Olympia — documentary

Olympic Dreams — comedy/drama

On the Record — documentary

On the Trail: Inside the 2020 Primaries — documentary

Once Were Brothers: Robbie Robertson and The Band — documentary

One Hour Outcall — drama

One Night in Bangkok — drama

Only — sci-fi/drama

Onward — animation

Open — drama

Ordinary Love — drama

The Other Lamb — drama

Other Music — documentary

Otherhood — comedy

Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles — documentary

Our Time Machine — documentary

Out of Blue — drama

Out Stealing Horses — drama

The Outpost — drama

The Painter and the Thief — documentary

Palm Springs — comedy

Parkland Rising — documentary

A Patient Man — drama

The Personal History of David Copperfield — comedy/drama

The Photograph — drama

Picture Character — documentary

The Place of No Words — drama

Plucked — documentary

Plus One (2019) — comedy

The Pollinators — documentary

Pornstar Pandemic: The Guys — documentary

Premature (2020) — drama

The Price of Desire — drama

Project Power — sci-fi/action

Public Enemy Number One — documentary

The Quiet One — documentary

Radioactive — drama

Raising Buchanan — comedy

Rebuilding Paradise — documentary

Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project — documentary

Red Penguins — documentary

Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs — animation

A Regular Woman — drama

Relic — horror

Rent-A-Pal — horror

The Rental (2020) — horror

The Rescue List — documentary

Resistance (2020) — drama

Retaliation (formerly titled Romans) — drama

Rewind — documentary

The Rhythm Section — action

Ride Like a Girl — drama

River City Drumbeat — documentary

Robert the Bruce — drama

Run With the Hunted — drama

Runner — documentary

Saint Frances — comedy/drama

The Scheme (2020) — documentary

Scheme Birds — documentary

Scoob! — animation

Scream, Queen! My Nightmare on Elm Street — documentary

Screened Out — documentary

Seahorse: The Dad Who Gave Birth (formerly titled Seahorse) — documentary

Seberg — drama

The Secret: Dare to Dream — drama

A Secret Love — documentary

The Secrets We Keep — drama

See Know Evil — documentary

See You Yesterday — sci-fi/drama

Selah and the Spades — drama

Sergio (2020) — drama

Shadows of Freedom — documentary

She Dies Tomorrow — drama

Shine Your Eyes — drama

Shirley — drama

The Short History of the Long Road — drama

The Show’s the Thing: The Legendary Promoters of Rock — documentary

Showbiz Kids — documentary

A Simple Wedding — comedy

Skin Deep: The Battle Over Morgellons — documentary

Skin Walker — horror

Skyman — sci-fi/drama

Slay the Dragon — documentary

Somebody Up There Likes Me (2020) — documentary

Sometimes Always Never — comedy/drama

The Sonata — horror

Sonic the Hedgehog — live-action/animation

Sorry We Missed You — drama

Spaceship Earth — documentary

Spelling the Dream (formerly titled Breaking the Bee) — documentary

Sputnik — sci-fi/horror

Standing Up, Falling Down — comedy/drama

Starting at Zero — documentary

Stevenson Lost & Found — documentary

Still Here (2020) — drama

The Story of Soaps — documentary

The Stranger (Quibi original) — drama

Stray Dolls — drama

Street Survivors: The True Story of the Lynyrd Skynyrd Plane Crash — drama

Sublime — documentary

Summerland — drama

The Sunlit Night — comedy/drama

The Surrogate — drama

Survive — drama

Swallow — drama

The Swerve — drama

The Swing of Things — comedy

Tape — drama

A Taste of Sky — documentary

Tesla  — drama

The Thing About Harry  — comedy

Think Like a Dog — comedy/drama

This Is Personal — documentary

This Is Stand-Up — documentary

A Thousand Cuts (2020) — documentary

A Thread of Deceit: The Hart Family Tragedy — documentary

Tijuana Jackson: Purpose Over Prison — comedy

The Times of Bill Cunningham — documentary

Timmy Failure: Mistakes Were Made  — comedy

To Kid or Not to Kid — documentary

The Tobacconist — drama

Tom of Your Life — sci-fi/comedy

Tommaso — drama

The Trip to Greece — comedy

Trixie Mattel: Moving Parts — documentary

Trolls World Tour — animation

Troop Zero — comedy

The Truth — drama

The Turning (2020) — horror

Tyson — documentary

Unbelievable (premiere episode) — drama

Uncaged (also titled Prey) – horror

Uncorked — drama

Underwater — sci-fi/horror

Unhinged (2020) — action

Up From the Streets: New Orleans: The City of Music — documentary

Ursula von Rydingsvard: Into Her Own — documentary

Valley Girl (2020) — musical

The Vanished (2020) (formerly titled Hour of Lead)— drama

The Vast of Night — sci-fi/drama

Vas-y Coupe! — documentary

Viral: Antisemitism in Four Mutations — documentary

Vivarium — sci-fi/drama

Waiting for the Barbarians — drama

Watson — documentary

The Way Back (2020) — drama

We Are Freestyle Love Supreme — documentary

We Are Little Zombies — comedy/drama

We Are the Radical Monarchs — documentary

Weathering With You — animation

Welcome to Chechnya — documentary

What We Found — drama

What Will Become of Us — documentary

What’s My Name: Muhammad Ali — documentary

When the Streetlights Go On — drama

The Whistlers — drama

A White, White Day — drama

Widow of Silence — drama

Wig — documentary

The Windermere Children — drama

The Wolf House — animation

A Woman’s Work: The NFL’s Cheerleader Problem — documentary

Woodstock: Three Days That Defined a Generation — documentary

Words on Bathroom Walls — drama

Work It — comedy/drama

The Wretched — horror

The Wrong Missy — comedy

XY Chelsea — documentary

You Cannot Kill David Arquette — documentary

You Don’t Nomi — documentary

You Go to My Head — drama

You Should Have Left — horror

Yusuf Hawkins: Storm Over Brooklyn — documentary

Zombi Child — horror

Review: ‘The Argument,’ starring Dan Fogler, Emma Bell, Danny Pudi, Maggie Q, Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dan Fogler and Emma Bell in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Argument”

Directed by Robert Schwartzman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the romantic comedy “The Argument” features a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A playwright and his actress girlfriend, with the help of some of their friends and random strangers, recreate an argument that the couple had to determine who was correct in the argument.

Culture Audience: “The Argument” will primarily appeal to people who like over-the-top, fast-paced comedies with many unrealistic moments but enough wacky sensibilities to keep people watching to see how it all ends.

Tyler James Williams and Cleopatra Coleman in “The Argument” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The absurdist romantic comedy “The Argument” will test the patience of many viewers who are looking for a more conventional way that love and relationships are depicted in the story’s plot. The movie suffers when the “repeat loop” part of the story is focused only on the six main characters. But “The Argument” is at its best during “casting session/script reading” scenes in the last third of the movie, when random strangers are introduced to the main characters and turn the movie into many laugh-out-loud moments that are sly commentaries about ego posturing and stereotypes in relationships.

Directed with a madcap pace by Robert Schwartzman and written by Zac Stanford, “The Argument” (which takes place in Los Angeles) centers on an artistic couple named Jack (played by Dan Fogler) and Lisa (played by Emma Bell), who live together in a modest Hollywood home. Jack is a playwright/screenwriter, and Lisa is an actress. They’ve been dating each other for three years.

It’s revealed later in the movie that Jack and Lisa met through a fairly obscure horror movie that Jack wrote called “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Lisa had a small background role as a zombie in the movie. Jack’s most recent project is an independent play called “Wolfgang,” which has Lisa as the leading female role of Constanze, the wife of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. The play has a modern comedic tone to it, and it’s recently ended its run at a small theater. Based on the number of people in the audience for the last show, the play’s attendance was fairly good, but not great.

The biggest problem that Jack had with the play is how Lisa and the vain actor who was cast as Mozart seemed just a little too flirtatious with each on stage and off stage. The actor’s name is Paul (played by Tyler Christopher Williams), and Jack is jealous because Paul is younger and better-looking than Jack is. Jack’s suspicion that Lisa and Paul are sexually attracted to each other is a nagging thought that he’s kept to himself, but it later explodes in messy and uncomfortable ways in other parts of the story.

Now that the play is over, Jack thinks he and Lisa won’t have to deal with Paul anymore. After the last night of “Wolfgang,” Jack plans to have a small cocktail party at his and Lisa’s home. Jack has invited his and Lisa’s two closest friends—married couple Brett and Sarah—to celebrate.

Brett (played by Danny Pudi) is Jack’s eager-to-please literary agent. Sarah (played by Maggie Q) is an entertainment lawyer with an icy demeanor and a photographic memory. Jack has another intention for the party, which is pretty obvious in the message that he sends to Brett and Sarah: Jack is going to propose to Lisa.

When Sarah and Danny show up for the party, Danny is happy to be there, but Sarah seems very uninterested. She explains that she has to get up early in the morning because she has an important contract negotiation meeting the next day. Sarah was the attorney who negotiated the overseas rights to “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night,” but she’s frustrated that Jack hasn’t been a lucrative client for Brett.

Sarah blames Jack and Brett for Jack not being able to get much work as a writer. None of Jack’s screenplays has sold since “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night.” Sarah thinks that Jack isn’t very talented and that Brett isn’t a great agent. By contrast, Brett is in awe of Jack and isn’t ready to give up on him so easily. At one point during the party, Brett gushes in Jack’s presence that Jack “isn’t just a great writer … he’s a genius.”

The party is interrupted by two guests whom Jack did not expect: Paul and his ditzy Australian girlfriend Trina (played by Cleopatra Coleman), who soon finds out that she’s not the only one who’s suspected that there’s been sexual tension between Paul and Lisa. Jack is very surprised to see Paul and Trina at his door, but he lets them in because he doesn’t want to be rude and because he finds out that Lisa invited them.

Jack takes Lisa aside for a private conversation in their dining room, and they briefly argue about Paul being at the party. (Observant viewers might notice that the dining room walls in the movie have posters of Schwartzman’s first two movies that he directed: 2016’s “Dreamland” and 2018’s “The Unicorn.”) Lisa insists that she told Jack in advance that Paul would be there. Jack is equally insistent that Lisa never told him, because if she had, he would’ve remembered. They reach a stalemate but agree that Paul might as well stay at the party.

As the party goes on, Jack gets more and more irritated because Lisa and Paul keep re-enacting flirtatious and sexually suggestive scenes from the play in front of everyone. Lisa and Paul think it’s hilarious, but Jack obviously doesn’t. Meanwhile, Sarah looks very bored, Brett tries to keep things friendly with everyone, and Trina starts drinking enough alcohol to get tipsy and overly talkative. Trina mentions that she and Paul (who has a day job as a fitness instructor) got together as a couple because she signed up for one of his fitness classes, in the hopes that he would notice her and want to date her.

It turns out that Trina is a big fan of “The Dead Doth Trod the Hills at Night” and she actually remembers Lisa’s role in the film. Trina gushes like a fangirl about the movie, which endears her to Jack and Lisa. However, Paul continues to get on Jack’s nerves. When Jack serves a charcuterie board at the party, Paul says he can’t eat almost anything that’s served at the party because he’s a vegan and he’s on a strict diet for a fitness commercial that he’s about to film. Jack is also baking an apple pie, which he plans to serve as dessert.

As the night wears on, Paul and Trina grow more uncomfortable with Lisa and Paul’s flirtatious shenanigans in front of everyone. Jack starts rambling about Antonio Salieri, Mozart’s rival who was famously jealous of Mozart’s talent, fame and accolades. Lisa makes a seemingly innocuous remark that Jack “isn’t really comfortable with the word ‘genius.'”

Jack interprets the comment to mean that Lisa doesn’t think that Jack isn’t very smart, so he shouts at her, “That’s not funny!” The argument between Jack and Lisa escalates to the point when Jack ends up taking the apple pie out of the oven and throws it on the ground. And the party abruptly ends.

The next morning, Jack and Lisa are in bed and they continue to argue about what happened the previous night. “I wish I could redo the whole night so you could see how wrong you are!” Lisa shouts. Jack says the same thing to her. And then they have an “aha” moment and decide to recreate the party and have the guests decide if Jack or Lisa was the one was in the wrong.

The middle section of “The Argument” is a little hard to take because of the shrill and annoying ways that the party is recreated. Because the movie makes it clear from the beginning that it’s an absurdist comedy, viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jack and Lisa’s party guests have nothing better to do with their time than go through with these ridiculous re-enactments. Trina shows up hung over, and she reluctantly agrees to get drunk again for every re-enactment. Jack even goes as far as preparing the same food over and over again every time they do a re-enactment.

Of course, the re-enactments don’t go smoothly because no one (except for Sarah, who has a photographic memory) can remember exactly how they acted and what they said the first time the party happened. Because everyone goes “off-script” at one point or another, it leads to more tension and arguments.

Sarah’s jaded attitude becomes even more apparent when Trina says being an entertainment lawyer must be glamorous, and Sarah’s deadpan response is, “It’s just a job. I don’t even like movies.” Eventually, Sarah gets fed up with the re-enactments and leaves.

“The Argument” finally starts to improve in the last third of the movie, when the party guests find out that Jack has put an ad on Craiglist to get actors (whose character names are not revealed in the movie) to come to his and Lisa’s home and to portray the party guests during these re-enactments, with the original party guests (except for Sarah) in attendance. Jack has even written a script, which is heavily skewed with his biased perspective.

The actors who answered the Craigslist ad have been told that it’s supposed to be an audition/read-through, with Jack being the one to decide who will play which role. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that Jack casts the best-looking “hunky” guy of the auditionees to portray Jack, who’s written as the hero of the story. (The role of Actor Jack is played by Mark Ryder.)

Actor Trina is an ultra-liberal, ultra-politically correct African American activist (played by Marielle Scott), who over-exaggerates and bungles the real Trina’s Australian accent, which offends Trina. Actor Lisa (played by Charlotte McKinney) is a big-breasted blonde who has her bikini photos on hand, while Lisa is offended that Jack wants a “bimbo” to portray her.

Actor Brett (played by Karan Brar) pretty much agrees with everyone, while the real Brett is offended that he’s being portrayed as a pushover without a mind of his own. Meanwhile, since Sarah isn’t there, Jack decides that Actor Brett can use a sock puppet to portray Sarah. Actor Paul (played by Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) is a loudmouth wannabe rapper (who wears gold chains), which offends the real Paul, who’s nothing like this walking racial stereotype, but Actor Paul ends up upstaging everyone in the room.

What Jack has written in the script is read aloud by the auditionees to hilarious results, because it reveals Jack’s perceptions and opinions of everyone at the party. If this “script reading” part of the plot had been put earlier in the movie, the quality of “The Argument” would have been much higher.

Fogler and Coleman handle the slapstick scenes fairly well, while Williams makes great use of facial expressions. All of the actors playing the “auditionees” are very good and bring much-needed spark to the movie. Stewart-Jarrett is the movie’s biggest scene stealer, since he’s easily the funniest part of this movie, whose comedic scenes are hit and miss.

Fogler, Bell, Pudi, Q, Williams and Coleman are talented, but the way the characters are written tend to become one-note caricatures by the middle of the film. Having other actors come into the story to portray those characters is a clever send-up that works well. The discomfort that the real Jack, Lisa, Brett, Paul and Trina feel at seeing how other people portray them is actually funny, whereas the original argument between Lisa and Jack wasn’t that funny. There’s an almost British sensibility to this “script within a script” parody.

Because director Schwartzman moves the pace of “The Argument” along fairly quickly, it’s easier to take the cringeworthy aspects of the movie. For example, some of the people in “The Argument” over-act—and not in a good way that was intended by the screenplay. And there’s some physical comedy that could have been choreographed better.

The Jack character can be very grating with his “control freak” insecurities and insistence on always being right. Lisa is also irritating with her tendency to be self-absorbed and not very empathetic to other people’s feelings. Some viewers might find it hard to root for this couple.

“The Argument” can best be appreciated when the main characters (and their flaws) are put up to a proverbial mirror and they see how complete strangers (who are wannabe actors) perceive and act out their personalities. Sarah eventually finds out that Jack cast her as a sock puppet, and so her reaction (which isn’t as funny as it could’ve been) is also part of the movie’s plot. If people are willing to keep watching “The Argument” until the “script reading” scenes, it will be worth the wait, because those scenes redeem what could have been a completely annoying movie.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Argument” on digital and VOD on September 4, 2020.

Review: ‘The Swerve,’ starring Azure Skye

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Azure Skye in “The Swerve” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

“The Swerve”

Directed by Dean Kapsalis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Virginia city, the dramatic film “The Swerve” has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with mental-health issues begins having problems at home, which affect other aspects of her life.

Culture Audience: “The Swerve” will appeal to people who don’t mind seeing dark depictions of someone having a mental breakdown.

Bryce Pinkham and Azure Skye in “The Swerve” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

The dark psychological portrait “The Swerve” is one in a long list of movies about mentally ill women who are a danger to themselves and to other people. However, the harrowing performance of lead actress Azure Skye, as well as the haunting musical score by Mark Korven, make this movie a cut above most of these types of trauma films. Viewers should be warned that “The Swerve” is unrelentingly depressing, so anyone in the mood to see a movie with an upbeat tone or some sense of humor should avoid “The Swerve” altogether.

“The Swerve” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Dean Kapsalis) isn’t particularly well-written, so it won’t be considered a classic film. Skye’s memorable portrayal of a desperately unhappy wife and mother is what holds this film together, because the movie’s pace tends to drag for too long, and the story leaves many questions unanswered. If people want to go down the messy rabbit hole of the mind of someone having a nervous breakdown, then “The Swerve” immerses people in that experience.

In the beginning of the movie, which takes place in an unnamed Virginia city (“The Swerve” was actually filmed in Roanoke), Skye’s character Holly appears to be a typical middle-class wife and mother. She’s an English literature teacher at a local high school. Her husband Rob (played by Bryce Pinkham), who is a manager at a local supermarket, appears to be a loving and devoted spouse. Holly and Rob have two sons: athletic Ben (played by Taen Phillips), who’s about 16 years old, and chubby Lee (played by Liam Seib), who’s about 13 years old.

To the outside world, the family doesn’t seem to have any major problems. Ben and Lee have typical sibling squabbles. Holly and Rob are having financial issues, but nothing that would leave them broke and homeless. Their financial situation is mentioned during a morning when everyone is getting ready to go to work or school, and Holly sees a small mouse in the kitchen. The mouse freaks her out to the point where she tells Rob that she’s going to call an exterminator.

Rob questions Holly for making that decision to pay for an exterminator, because he says that she doesn’t have much cash left and “we’re barely holding things together.” Holly and Rob are hopeful that he will get a job promotion, but until that happens, they’re struggling financially. Holly ends up getting a mouse trap to deal with the mouse problem. And when the mouse trap doesn’t work, she leaves out food that’s been laced with rodent poison.

Shortly after laying out the mousetrap in the kitchen, Holly is in her bedroom, reaching for a shoe underneath her bed, when she seems to get bitten by an unknown creature, which Holly is convinced is the mouse. Holly’s finger is bleeding, so she goes to a hospital to get medical treatment, which ends up being just a small bandage. Holly has told the medical professionals who are treating her wound that she’s been bitten by a mouse, but when she asks if she should get a rabies shot, she’s told it won’t be necessary. It’s the first of many signs that Holly’s perspective is “unreliable.”

Seeing the mouse seems to have triggered something in Holly, because she starts having nightmares about the mouse. She wakes up to find the mouse in her bedroom at various times. And she has other nightmares about a hit-and-run incident that might or might not have happened, which is the reason why this movie is called “The Swerve.”

In what appears to be flashback memories, Holly is seen driving alone at night on a deserted road where there’s only one lane going in each direction. A car behind her appears to be tailgating her. Holly becomes increasingly frustrated and starts saying aloud that the driver of the other car needs to go around her.

The car ends up passing her, and when it does, she sees a guy in his late teens or early 20s leaning out of the front passenger window, and he calls her a derogatory, sexist name. The next thing you know, an enraged Holly swerves into the other car. What happens after that is not shown on screen.

Later, Holly is shown going back to the scene where this apparent road rage incident happened. There are memorial flowers at the side of the road, as if someone had died there. And there’s a noticeable skid mark that leads to this makeshift memorial. When she sees the memorial, she goes back to her car and vomits. (There are other vomiting scenes in the movie which are much more nauseating.)

Did Holly commit a hit-and-run crime? And if she did, was it for the reason that’s shown in her flashback memory? Those questions might be answered in the movie, but there are many troubling signs that Holly, who’s on various medications for depression, isn’t just depressed. She has hallucinations and blackouts too.

Her husband Rob tells her one day that on a previous night, she had come home after being missing for some hours. He found her asleep on the couch with an apparent fever. And when he woke her up, she scratched him so deeply that the bloody scratch marks are still visible on his neck. When he shows her the scratch marks, Holly says she doesn’t remember any of that happening.

There are also two subplots that get weaved into Holly’s tangled web of mental illness. First, Holly has a troubled relationship with her 37-year-old younger sister named Claudia (played by Ashley Bell), who has recently moved back to the area. Claudia is the “black sheep” of the family because she’s a frequently unemployed recovering alcoholic/addict. Claudia is currently living with her and Holly’s mother Beth (played by Deborah Hedwall), who tends to coddle and enable Claudia.

Claudia has a lot of self-loathing because she hasn’t really gotten her life together, but she also has a certain amount of pride that prevents her from accepting other people’s help. During a family dinner at Beth’s house (with Holly, Rob, Beth and Claudia in attendance), Rob tells Claudia that he can help get her a job at the supermarket where he works. Claudia immediately dismisses the idea and says it would be pathetic for her to be bagging groceries at this stage in her life.

At first, the family reunion dinner seems to start out smoothly. Holly has brought an apple pie to the dinner (a recurring plot device in the movie is Holly making apple pie), and when Holly and Claudia see each other, they greet each other warmly and say how much they missed each other. It isn’t said outright, but it’s implied that Holly and Claudia haven’t seen each other in years.

But those family pleasantries eventually fade, as long-simmering resentments start to resurface after that dinner happens. Holly seems to be jealous of the younger, prettier and more outgoing Claudia, who appears to be their mother’s favorite child. Claudia starts drinking and hanging out with Rob, who one night comes home drunk with Claudia.

Holly suspects that Claudia and Rob are getting a little too flirtatious with each other. Holly has the same suspicions about Rob and some of his female co-workers. There’s a scene where Holly sees Rob and a female co-worker kissing romantically in a back room of the supermarket, but they don’t see her. Did this really happen or is it something that Holly hallucinated?

There’s also a hint that the tension-filled family dynamics between Holly and Claudia involves a past tragedy that isn’t fully revealed in the movie. During an argument between Holly and Claudia, Holly mentions something that happened with their grandmother when the sisters were teenagers. It’s something that was apparently so traumatic that the family doesn’t like to talk about it.

However, Holly gives some clues about what could have happened when she shouts at Claudia during the argument: “The night that Nana made that pie, you weren’t even there! You’re the one that didn’t! I didn’t try to humiliate you!”

It’s something that’s thrown in the story to show that there are some dark family secrets, but it’s an example of how the movie brings some things up and then leaves them hanging without further explanation. Perhaps these loose threads to the story are to convey the disjointed way that an increasingly unhinged Holly thinks, but this type of vagueness just muddles the story’s plot and is likely to confuse many viewers.

The second subplot in Holly’s nervous breakdown has to do with an introverted, artistic teenager named Paul (played by Zach Rand), who is a student in Holly’s class and who is also a cashier at the supermarket where Rob works. Paul is 16 or 17 years old. One day, Paul and another student have a scuffle in her classroom because the other student has taken Paul’s sketchbook. Holly breaks up the fight and confiscates the sketchbook.

When Holly goes home to look at Paul’s sketches, she sees that there are some illustrations of naked people engaged in sex acts and a cheerleader attacked by a dragon. There’s also a drawing of man drinking alcohol in a chair, with the sketch titled “Dear Old Dad.” (It’s an obvious sign that Paul’s father is probably an alcoholic.)

And there’s another illustration that catches Holly’s eye: a drawing of her in the classroom. The way that it’s drawn clearly shows that Paul has had a secret crush on her. It’s very easy to see where this is probably going to go, considering that Holly is deeply unhappy in her marriage and she isn’t talking to Rob about any inner turmoil that she’s having.

Throughout “The Swerve,” the cello-heavy music of Korven is an ominous foreshadowing that things aren’t going to go well for many people in this story. The music is a coincidentally a little reminiscent of Hildur Guðnadottir’s Oscar-winning musical score for the 2019 film “Joker,” but the score is laid on much thicker in “The Swerve”—almost to the point where some people might consider the music too distracting. There’s no denying that the music is chilling and goes a long way in conveying all the misery that’s in this movie.

In fact, there’s no one in this movie who can be considered a happy person—not even Holly and Rob’s two young sons, who are constantly fighting with each other. Anyone who sees “The Swerve” should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Skye moping around in various states of dishevelment. Unfortunately, these scenes tend to be repetitive and don’t do much to give further insight into her personality or answer many questions that the film ends up leaving unanswered.

For example, it’s never really made clear how long Holly has been suffering from this mental illness and if it’s something that Rob knew about before he married her. Holly and Rob’s marriage is used a a plot device for the most disturbing things that happen in the movie, so a little more context about their marriage would help. The only thing that’s clear is that Holly has had “episodes” related to her mental illness before, and Rob has been extraordinarily patient with her.

As for that hit-and-run crime that Holly is keeping a secret, the movie shows whether or not she confesses to the crime and if she gets punished for it. “The Swerve” isn’t really a crime thriller as much as it is a gloomy psychological drama that shows the horrors of mental illness. The real swerve in this movie is the main character’s swerve into insanity that results in a different type of wreckage.

Epic Pictures released “The Swerve” on digital and VOD on September 22, 2020.

Review: ‘Kajillionaire,’ starring Evan Rachel Wood, Debra Winger, Richard Jenkins and Gina Rodriguez

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

“Kajillionaire”

Directed by Miranda July

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles and briefly in New York City, the dark comedy “Kajillionaire” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos and African Americans) representing the middle-class and poor.

Culture Clash: A family trio of con artists, who are on the verge of being evicted, scheme up ways to get their rent money and team up with another con artist who has a big effect on them.

Culture Audience: “Kajillionaire” will appeal primarily to people who like quirky comedies that have original and memorable characters.

Gina Rodriguez and Evan Rachel Wood in “Kajillionaire” (Photo by Matt Kennedy/Focus Features)

Stepping into the world of “Kajillionaire” (written and directed by Miranda July) is like stepping into a sad and desperate world that rarely gets acknowledged in the media, but exists for an untold number of people in America. It’s a world where unemployed white people are barely making enough money to survive, but they’re not homeless, they’re not out on the streets begging for money, they don’t fit the “trailer park” stereotype, and they give the appearance that they’re regular, middle-class citizens. They’re not on government assistance, probably because they haven’t filed any recent tax returns to prove they’re eligible for benefits.

And so, some of these destitute people turn to illegal scams as a way to make money. Usually, the narrative in the media and in movies is that poor people who live a life of crime in big U.S. cities are usually people of color who are drug dealers or armed robbers. But “Kajillionaire” flips that narrative to show that there’s an underbelly of people who might not be dealing drugs or committing armed robbery, but are still caught up in illegal activity that involves cheating and stealing. “Kajillionaire” also flips the typical narrative of white con artists in movies, who are usually depicted as thinking big and going after fortunes worth millions.

People familiar with writer/director July’s work already know that she brings a quirky and often sardonic sensibility to her movies. It’s a sense of humor and style that’s not for everyone, especially people who prefer more conventional, straightforward comedy. “Kajillionaire” (which is July’s third feature film) is her best feature film so far, because it’s more than a story about con artists. It’s also a story about the value of empathy and human connection.

In “Kajillionaire,” viewers are introduced right away to the lifestyle of a Los Angeles family trio of small-time con artists who are barely getting by financially. Old Dolio Dyne (played by Evan Rachel Wood) is a morose 26-year-old who doesn’t know any other life except being a con artist, because her parents trained her to be that way. Old Dolio’s parents Robert Dyne (played by Richard Jenkins) and Theresa Dyne (played by Debra Winger), who look like ex-hippies, think up a lot of schemes with their daughter to get money illegally, but the parents usually send Old Dolio to do a lot of the dirty work.

That’s what happens in the movie’s opening scene, when Old Dolio is shown taking a set of stolen keys to a post office, opening a mailbox there, and extending her hand so far back into the mailbox that she can reach over and steal the contents of the mailbox next to the one she opened. She feels confident in committing this crime because there’s no surveillance camera in that particular room of the post office. There’s a choreographed movement sequence that Old Dolio does before she enters the post office, so she can avoid other video cameras around the building.

What she steals from the other post-office mailbox is a package in a bubble wrap envelope. When she goes outside, she and her parents open the package, only to find that the package’s contents have very little value. There’s a stuffed animal that Old Dolio figures she can use to get a fake refund at a retail store, because she has an old sales receipt from the store that lists a generic “toys and games” item for $12.99.

There’s also a necktie in the package, which Robert guesses is “not a cheap tie.” And he says something odd to Old Dolio: “You can’t see it because you’re not a cheap birth.” It’s the first sign that something is “off” about the way Robert and Theresa have raised Old Dolio, besides the fact that they’ve taught her how to be a con artist.

It’s revealed later in the movie that her parents named her Old Dolio (which is her legal name) because it was the name of an old loner guy they knew who inherited a fortune. Robert and Theresa (who walks with an unexplained limp) were hoping they could steal his fortune through identity theft after he died. But after he died, they found out that he had squandered his fortune, so the name turned out to be useless.

It’s just one of many examples that show why this family has remained on the margins of society as small-time con artists. They’re not down on their luck. They’re just not very smart and they don’t want to do honest work.

On the one hand, Robert and Theresa seem to want the American Dream of becoming wealthy. As Robert says, “Most people want to become kajillionaires.” On the other hand, Robert and Theresa don’t want to call too much attention to themselves by doing scams involving large amounts of money. It’s a mindset that they’ve instilled in Old Dolio.

Later in the movie, Robert tells someone that Old Dolio learned how to forge before she learned how to write her own name. The eccentric con artists in “Kajillionaire” also have a fear of experiencing a devastating earthquake, which they call “The Big One.” It’s a term that people who live in California often use to describe the earthquake that scientists say can happen sometime in the future and can kill thousands of people.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio are a self-contained con-artist unit. They live in a downstairs back office of a factory called Bubbles, Inc., which apparently is in the business of making water bubbles. One of the inconveniences of the family’s cramped and cluttered living space, which has been rented to them, is that pink water bubbles frequently seep from the ceiling and down the walls at a certain time of day. They have to clean the bubble mess before it spreads to other parts of the room. (It’s one of this movie’s many quirks.)

Old Dolio, Robert and Theresa don’t have any friends, and no other family members are mentioned. It’s not said outright, but it’s implied that Old Dolio never went to regular school and was probably homeschooled by her parents. There are many signs that Old Dolio is clueless about certain things in life that she would’ve known about if she grew up being around people other than her parents.

It also becomes apparent that Old Dolio is very uncomfortable in her own skin and is fearful of being touched by people. After the family’s stolen haul from the post office yields items of very little cash value, Robert and Theresa then send Old Dolio to do a scam they’ve apparently done before: Old Dolio dresses up as a Catholic school girl and pretends to be a “good Samaritan” who found an expensive watch and is returning it to the rightful owner.

The scam is that the family really stole the watch, and Old Dolio is supposed to get a reward for “finding” the watch, not by asking for a reward, but being so nice that there’s a big chance that the owner will give her an unsolicited reward. It’s not explained in the movie how or where they got this stolen watch and how a random Catholic school girl would know how to track down the rightful owner. However, Old Dolio is next seen showing up at the house of an upper-middle-class, middle-aged couple named Althea (played by Patricia Belcher) and Victor (played by Kim Estes), who welcome her into their home when they see she’s there to return Victor’s watch.

Old Dolio’s entire conversation with Althea and Victor isn’t shown, because the next thing that happens is Old Dolio goes back to her parents, who find out with dismay that Althea and Victor gave a reward, but it isn’t the cash that the con artists were expecting. The reward is a gift certificate for the massage business owned by Althea and Victor’s daughter Jenny (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph), whom Old Dolio says (with some envy) Althea and Victor couldn’t stop talking about because they’re so proud of their daughter.

Old Dolio goes to Jenny (who works out of her home) to try and finagle a deal so Old Dolio can get some cash out of the gift certificate. Jenny explains that there’s no cash refund for the gift certificate, and she offers to give Old Dolio the massage so she can at least get something out of the gift certificate. Old Dolio reluctantly agrees, but she says that she wants the massage to last only 20 minutes instead of the usual 60 minutes that would be covered by the gift certificate.

Old Dolio flinches every time Jenny touches her. Her discomfort goes beyond someone who’s never had a massage before. It’s a sign (one of many) that Old Dolio has never been touched affectionately before, especially not by her parents. Old Dolio’s almost pained reaction to the massage reaches a point where Jenny just keeps her hands slightly above Old Dolio’s body without touching her and asks her if that’s okay. It’s only then that Old Dolio says this touchless “massage” is acceptable to her, but she doesn’t stay long anyway.

Another awakening for Old Dolio comes when she finds out about how mothers who’ve just given birth form a bond with their newborn babies. This discovery (which serves as a catalyst for what comes later in the story) happens by chance. A neighbor named Kelli Kain (played by Rachel Redleaf) sees the family outside the bubble factory and knows their con-artist reputation, because she offers Old Dolio $20 to impersonate her to attend a class that was “assigned by a case worker.” Kelli says that the people in the check-in area won’t ask for identification.

When Old Dolio gets to the class, she finds out it’s a class about parenting newborn children. The class watches a video showing how a mother bonds with a newborn baby, who instinctively knows how to find a breast to nurse on when the baby is placed on the mother’s chest. The class instructor named Farida (played Diana Maria Riva) then explains that newborn babies who are placed on their mothers’ chests are more likely to be well-adjusted people, compared to babies to are ignored and “put on a cot.”

This information ignites a curiosity in Old Dolio, who asks her parents if she was one of those “cot babies.” Her mother says yes. And there are many other signs that Old Dolio’s parents have withheld physical and emotional affection from her.

There are also indications that Old Dolio is a virgin who has never dated anyone before, because she’s been taught not to trust other people who aren’t her parents. In one scene, Old Dolio shows her mother a wooden trinket. Theresa responds by saying in a tone of warning, “When a man gives you anything made of wood, he’s saying, ‘You give me wood.'”

In another scene, when Old Dolio asks her parents about what it was like to take care of her as a baby, Theresa suspiciously asks Old Dolio if she is pregnant. Old Dolio shakes her head in surprised disgust and reminds her mother that it wouldn’t be possible for her to be pregnant. But then, Robert bizarrely starts sniffing like a dog at Old Dolio, as if he can smell whether or not she’s pregnant. No one said these people are entirely sane.

Robert, Theresa and Old Dolio have been dodging their landlord Stovik (played by Mark Ivanir), because they’re three months behind on the rent. When they do see him, Robert always lies and says things like that they’ll have the money but he just started a new job and hasn’t gotten paid yet. They owe $1,500, but in reality, they aren’t even close to having $150. Stovik (who has an unusual emotional condition where he starts to cry when he’s agitated) finally has had enough of their excuses and gives them two weeks to pay what they owe or else he’ll evict them.

Old Dolio comes up with the idea to do a luggage insurance scam. The plan is for the three of them take a round-trip air flight to New York City, with their luggage insured. On their return trip back to Los Angeles, Old Dolio will pretend to be a stranger to Robert and Theresa, who will “steal” one of Old Dolio’s suitcases from the baggage claim area. Old Dolio will then file an insurance claim, which pays about $1,575.

Viewers have to assume that this trip was paid for with a credit card, since these con artists don’t have the cash for this trip and they don’t have checking and savings accounts. Knowing this family, the credit card information was probably stolen. On the flight back to Los Angeles, Robert and Theresa are seated next to a chatty and flirtatious stranger named Melanie (played by Gina Rodriguez), who makes it clear that she likes to drink alcohol and have a good time.

Robert takes to Melanie right away. Old Dolio, who is in a seat located slightly behind her parents, notices this instant camaraderie and seems envious that her father is friendlier to this stranger than he is to his own daughter. It isn’t long before Robert tells Melanie about the family’s luggage insurance scam. Melanie immediately agrees to help them, which sets off a series of experiences where Melanie latches on to the family because she’s a con artist too. Unlike the Dyne family, Melanie has a job, but she’s looking to make more money, and there’s a sense that she’s in the con game for the thrills.

During the family’s con artist antics with Melanie, it’s apparent that Old Dolio’s repressed sexuality is something that she can no longer ignore. Melanie is aware of it too, and she sometimes seems amused by it and sometimes seems to be sympathetic about it. There are several scenes in the movie where Melanie subtly and not-so-subtly uses her sex appeal to test boundaries with certain members of this family.

Old Dolio sometimes scolds Melanie for trying to “rile people up” because of Melanie’s tendency to wear revealing and tight clothes. Any adult can see why Old Dolio has this reaction to what Melanie wears. It’s because of Melanie that Old Dolio starts to understand how her parents have prevented Old Dolio from missing out on many things in life.

Melanie, who lives alone, is very close to her mother, whom she talks to frequently on the phone. (Elena Campbell-Martinez is the voice of Melanie’s mother.) It’s the type of mother-daughter relationship that Old Dolio never had with Theresa. And Melanie joining this family of con artists tests the bounds of the family’s loyalties to each other.

What’s so distinctive about “Kajillionaire” is how July made this story otherworldly yet grounded and how well the main characters are brought to life by Wood, Winger, Jenkins and Rodriguez. Wood (who does some great physical choreography in the movie) and Rodriguez are the standouts, because the heart of the story is how Old Dolio and Melanie’s relationship evolves. Melanie and Old Dolio have opposite personalities but have something in common: They’re both con artists, in more ways than one.

It isn’t until Melanie comes into the family’s lives that Old Dolio slowly finds out how emotionally stifled she has been. Old Dolio hasn’t been really been “living” but really has just been “existing” in a dysfunctional bubble created by her parents. (And if people really want to go deep in analyzing this movie, perhaps the bubble factory is a metaphor.)

Wood plays the Old Dolio character with a voice that’s a few octaves below Wood’s normal speaking voice. It’s a way of perhaps giving Old Dolio a somewhat androgynous aura. When she’s not dressed up as part of a con game, Old Dolio wears baggy unisex clothes. It’s an indication that she’s unsure of her sexuality, or at least trying to avoid wearing clothes that make her look feminine.

Old Dolio and Theresa also have identical hairstyles: very long and parted down the middle. They wear their hair in a way that it sometimes obscures their faces, as if in their perpetual lifestyle of being con artists, they know that it’s better to have their faces disguised as much as possible. Old Dolio automatically looks for surveillance cameras everywhere she goes, as demonstrated in a scene where she and Melanie are shopping in a grocery store and Old Dolio tells her immediately where all the security cameras are. Melanie cheerfully responds by saying that she doesn’t need that information because she’s going to pay for her selected items.

“Kajillionaire” has such unique characters and situations shown in memorable ways that it’s a welcome alternative to the stale and formulaic comedy films that Hollywood has been churning out for several years. People who have no tolerance for seeing weirdos on screen won’t like this movie. But for everyone else, “Kajillionaire” takes viewers on a sometimes unsettling, sometimes humorous ride that shows how the pursuit of money everything else is not worth the cost of losing one’s humanity.

Focus Features released “Kajillionaire” in select U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles,’ starring Yotam Ottolenghi, Dominique Ansel, Ghaya Oliveira, Dinara Kasko, Sam Bompas, Harry Parr and Janice Wong

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sam Bompas, Dominique Ansel, Yotam Ottolenghi, Dinara Kasko and Harry Parr in “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles”

Directed by Laura Gabbert

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City and briefly in London and Versailles, France, this documentary about celebrity chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi’s Metropolitan Museum of Art event to celebrate the cakes of Versailles features a cast of white and Asian people representing the upper-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The challenge for this event was to bring a modern twist to classic pastry dishes, and there were a few conflicts with the museum staff over what the chefs should and should not do.

Culture Audience: “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” will appeal primarily to high-end foodies and fans of these chefs. 

A cake display in “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

In June 2018, celebrity chef/author Yotam Ottolenghi (who owns and operates Ottolenghi Test Kitchen, a cooking hub/office in London) presented a celebration of the pastries of the legendry French court of Versailles in an event that took place at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (also known as the Met) in New York City. The exhibit event, titled “Feast of Versailles with Yotam Ottolenghi,” included the work of several notable chefs who were personally invited by Ottolenghi to participate. The straightforward documentary “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” (directed by Laura Gabbert) chronicles the behind-the-scenes story about this event.

The movie begins with Ottolenghi in London (where he lives) talking about why he decided to head up this event: “I was looking for the next challenge.” He says the Metropolitan Museum of Art approached him for the job. Ottolenghi remembers thinking, “Why am I getting an email from the Met? I don’t hang out with the Met [crowd].”

Ottolenghi continues, “When I saw that Versailles was the upcoming exhibit at the Met, I was intrigued. Food and art and history meet at one big event at the Met about cakes inspired by Versailles.” Considering that Ottolenghi has a background as a pastry chef, he had this thought of the event: “This is for me.”

Met Live Arts Department general manager Limor Tomer explains the idea behind the Met’s “Feast of Versailles” exhibit: “We think of performance and performance work very broadly, so the art of the kitchen fits very well into that. When we were thinking about Versailles, we were thinking about, ‘How do we give people an embodied way to understand what Versailles was and how it fit socially and culturally into people’s lives?'”

To prepare for this prestigious undertaking and to get a better understanding of the culture of Versailles, Ottolenghi visited Versailles, including the landmark Palace of Versailles. He also worked with a tutor on Versailles history: Bard Graduate Center assistant professor Deborah Krohn, who mentions in the documentary that Versailles was different from most other royal courts because there was no real privacy.

The general public could come and go in the Versailles court, which made the royals and upper-class society feel more accessible to lower-class people, but it also created more social envy, since poor people could see all the luxury that other people enjoyed in the court. Ottolenghi comments toward the end of the documentary that the court of Versailles and Instagram have parallels, since both are open to the public, but people use these forums as ways to boast, show off and create envy.

Ottolenghi opens up about his own background in the documentary. He grew up in Jerusalem, and his parents were academics who expected him to follow a similar career path. After a stint in the Israeli Defense Forces, he graduated from Tel Aviv University in 1997, with a combined bachelor’s and master’s degree in comparative literature. He relocated to Amsterdam, where he edited the Hebrew section of NIW, a Dutch-Jewish weekly magazine.

Ottolenghi’s career path turned to cuisine when he moved to London to study French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu. He still has a passion for writing though, as evidenced by his cookbooks and his articles/essays in publications such as The Guardian and The New York Times. Ottolenghi, who is openly gay, lives with his husband Karl Allen and their two sons. Ottolenghi talks warmly about his family, but they are not featured in the documentary.

Ottolenghi’s international and well-traveled background has clearly given him an open-mindedness to other cultures. His business partner Sam Tamimi, who’s briefly interviewed in the documentary, mentions how they both were raised in Jerusalem, but in very different parts of the city: Ottolenghi grew up in Western Jerusalem (which is predominantly Jewish), while Tamimi grew up in Eastern Jerusalem, which is predominantly Muslim.

This openness to other cultures is why Ottolenghi consciously decided that he wanted to invite chefs from various countries to create pastry art for the Versailles exhibit. In the documentary, he says he started his search by following pastry chefs on Instagram. Ottolenghi says he was looking for “pastry chefs who take their art so seriously that the push the boundaries of technology, flavors, presentation. And it was really important to me that they actually be as dissimilar from each other as possible.”

The chosen pastry chefs were:

  • Dominique Ansel, originally from France and currently living in New York City, this James Beard Award-winning baker is best known for creating the Cronut®, Cookie Shot, DKA (Dominique’s Kouign Amann) and Frozen S’mores.
  • Sam Bompas and Harry Parr, originally from the United Kingdom, this London-based duo known as Bompas & Parr, are conceptual artists who infuse technology in their work and are known for creating extraordinary gelatin art.
  • Dinara Kasko, originally from the Ukraine, has a background in architecture and makes pastries using 3D-modeling technologies.
  • Ghaya Oliveira, originally from Tunisia and currently living in New York City, is a James Beard Award-winning executive pastry chef at Daniel (a famous French restaurant in New York City), and she is known for her reinvention of French-based plated desserts.
  • Janice Wong, originally from Singapore, has a specialty in interactive, edible art, especially with chocolate.

With this dream team assembled, the chefs meet with members of the Met museum staff to go over planning and logistics of what the chefs will create. The Met staffers who are featured in the documentary include art curator Danielle Kisluk-Grosheide, production coordinator Sruly Lazaros and executive pastry chef Randy Eastman.

Ansel, the most famous pastry chef in the group, was an obvious top choice for the exhibit. But beyond Ansel’s name recognition and talent, Ottolenghi explains why he thought Ansel would be a perfect fit for the project, “Everything he does is grounded in tradition but modern.” In the documentary, Wong says she was a less obvious choice and she was surprised to get the assignment, since she is known for her contemporary style. However, Wong says she was intrigued because she got to do pretty much anything she wanted for the exhibit.

The chosen chefs also open up about their backgrounds. While Ansel knew from an early age that he wanted to be a chef (he’s began training as a chef after he left high school), others took a different path to their culinary careers. Kasko has the aforementioned background in architecture. Oliveira used to be a ballerina and later worked for an investment company.

Wong had a background doing “math-oriented work,” but her life changed after she survived a serious car accident where she was hit by a drunk driver. “Everything changed,” Wong says, “Something happened between the left and ride side of my brain. I kind of switched.” And so, she became more of a creative person, which led to her profession as a chef.

The biggest challenge that the chefs face in the “Feast of Versailles” exhibit is creating their elaborate works of art in the limited time that they have. They only have about a week on site at the Met to create their displays. Oliveira says she was “very inspired by nature and the gardens of Versailles,” so she decides to make an ambitious display of cakes with a lot of floral motifs.

Bompas & Parr run into problems because they decided to have some running water through a funnel/water pump as part of their exhibit, only to find out from a nervous Tomer that the Met usually doesn’t allow running water in the gallery area where the exhibit will be taking place. There’s also some Bompas & Parr drama about some items that they needed to have shipped from England, and it’s questionable if these items will arrive on time.

The Met executive pastry chef Eastman creates some conflict when he tells Kasko to add more fat (cocoa butter) to her cake batter, but she disagrees because she thinks there’s already too much fat. Eastman is very condescending to Kasko, by telling her about all the experience he has, and she reluctantly follows his advice. It seems that she only did so out of respect because the Met was the hosting venue. But Kasko ended up being right about her recipe, and she had to redo the cake batter the way she originally planned. All that lost time caused her more stress.

Naturally, the climax of the documentary is the big event, which attracted the type of Met crowd that you would expect. (Admission to the event was at a minimum price of $125 per person.) “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” isn’t a groundbreaking culinary documentary, but it’s a thoroughly enjoyable look into the process of how this “Feast of Versailles” event was produced, as well as an insightful peek into the personalities of the chefs who created the event’s masterful dessert art.

IFC Films released “Ottolenghi and the Cakes of Versailles” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘One Hour Outcall,’ starring Natalia Ochoa and William Norrett

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Natalia Ochoa and William Norrett in “One Hour Outcall” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“One Hour Outcall”

Directed by T. Arthur Cottam

Culture Representation: Taking place in the San Francisco Bay Area, the drama “One Hour Outcall” has a cast of white and Latino people representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college student, who’s been leading a double life as escort, gets more emotional drama than she bargained for with a client she’s been seeing for a year.

Culture Audience: “One Hour Outcall” will appeal primarily to people who like independent dramas that are heavy on dialogue and have some twists and turns.

Shannon Leigh Godwin in “One Hour Outcall” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The talkative drama “One Hour Outcall” takes a multilayered look at the emotional cost of doing business in the world of sex escorts. The movie (which takes place in the San Francisco Bay Area) starts out a little slow and repetitive, but it gets better during the last two-thirds of the movie, as secrets are revealed and the characters in the story start to show their true natures. What makes this story better than the average “call girl” movie is that it doesn’t follow the usual clichés of how sex workers are normally portrayed in narrative movies: as either Hollywood “Pretty Woman” fantasies or as exploited streetwalkers who have pimps.

Directed and produced by T. Arthur Cottam (who is also the film’s cinematographer) and written by William Norrett (who plays the lead actor in the film), “One Hour Outcall” is told in a series of quick-cutting flashbacks and flash-forwards that show an escort/client relationship that takes place over the course of a year. The escort is a woman in her early 20s named Ana (played by Natalia Ochoa), who uses the alias Esmeralda. She is making money as an escort to help pay her college expenses. Ana has a divorced, middle-aged client named Greg Hagen (played by Norrett), whose job is not mentioned in the movie. He lives in a comfortably middle-class apartment, where they meet for their sessions.

Ana and Greg have the type of relationship where they like to play games over who’s got the power and control. The sex in the movie isn’t very explicit (there’s no nudity), but there are hints that their dates includes some BDSM, since there’s a scene where Ana ties a belt around Greg’s neck, and another scene were she slaps him on the face as part of foreplay. He also likes to call Ana a “tough guy.” The sex is transactional, but there’s some emotional tenderness that develops between them too.

Because the flashbacks and flash-forwards in the movie are not in chronological order, this isn’t the type of movie that should be watched as background to other things that viewers are doing at the same time. It’s recommended that viewers pay full attention to the different clothes and attitudes that Ana and Greg have in these quick-cutting scenes, because they indicate the different stages of the relationship and help explain what happens during a pivotal dinner scene that happens later in the movie.

The flashback scenes include Ana and Greg’s first meeting, when they’re eager to make a good first impression on each other. In watching the flashbacks, which are like pieces of a puzzle, viewers can discern that over time, Ana and Greg opened up to each other about their personal lives. They eventually end up meeting every Thursday night for one hour for about a year. They don’t fall in love, but they develop a fondness for each other.

Ana, who comes from the working-class California city of Richmond, tells Greg that she’s a biochemistry major at a prestigious university that is not named, but it’s implied later in the movie that it’s Stanford University. The movie’s present-day part of the story takes place during the few days before Ana’s graduation ceremony. Ana doesn’t tell Greg much about her student life, except to say that her roommate Shannon (played by Shannon Leigh Godwin), who’s a student in the same graduating class, often gets on Ana’s nerves because she thinks Shannon is spoiled, parties too much, and is irresponsible, because Shannon is often late with her share of the rent.

Greg has been divorced for about 12 years. And he admits that he was to blame for his marriage failing because he left his wife for another woman. The relationship with the mistress didn’t work out either. Greg also says that part of the reason why he cheated on his wife was because he was lonely, since his wife took a job that required her to work “halfway around the world.”

Meanwhile, the movie shows that even though Greg and Ana have become emotionally intimate, they still have secrets that they’ve kept from each other. Greg has been giving Ana gifts (such as a watch), which starts to blur the line of whether or not he’s a client or a “friend with benefits”/boyfriend. As time goes on in their relationship, it seems that these blurred lines are starting to bother Ana as she gets closer to graduation.

Greg is the type of person who likes to plan ahead. (It’s a personality trait that foreshadows something that’s revealed later in the movie.) Ana is more of a “go with the flow” type of person who believes it’s more important to live in the present day. When Greg asks Ana what her plans are after graduation, it annoys her. And he’s irritated that she doesn’t have any set plans. And so, she and Greg have arguments that start out as petty but later become more serious.

It’s not said out loud, but viewers can also figure out that Ana might also be thinking about how her relationship with Greg will change after she graduates. She’s presumably in this type of business to help pay for her tuition or other college expenses. What’s going to happen when she doesn’t need to pay those expenses anymore?

And what is it doing her self-esteem that she has to keep this illegal sex work a secret from most people she knows and is essentially living a lie? Just like many sex workers who think they’re only going to be doing this type of work for a short while, it seems that Ana is aware how quickly someone can to get addicted to the easy money. It might be why she’s not as concerned with finding a job as other soon-to-be-college graduates would be.

And it’s also why months ago, she stopped working with the escort agency where Greg found her, and Ana has been seeing him as an independent sex worker, so she can pocket all the cash for herself. It’s a secret that Greg has known about for a while, but he tells Ana that he knows about this secret during one of their arguments. He blurts it out when Ana pretends that she’s going to call her driver for “security backup” when their argument gets too heated.

In reality, Ana doesn’t have a driver. The “driver” she pretends to call is a guy she knows who’s around her age named Gabriel Armijo (played by Octavio Rodriguez), who doesn’t even have a car. When she calls Gabriel, he’s sitting on a couch with his best friend Ellery Hughes (played by Will Holbrook), who appears to be his roommate. Gabriel and Ellery are stoners who like to smoke marijuana, and this isn’t the last time they’ll be seen in the story.

As for Greg, he comes across as a lonely divorcé who’s having a problem finding lasting love. But just as Ana isn’t a “hooker with a heart of gold,” Greg is not the pitiful sad sack that he first appears to be. And the mind games that he and Ana have been playing with each other end up colliding.

The night before the graduation ceremony, Ana and Shannon are having a celebration dinner at an Italian restaurant with Shannon’s mother Stacy (played by Kristin Carey), who comes across as sophisticated and very tolerant of Shannon’s whining about how another graduation party for her was “boring.” Shannon does cocaine before going to the dinner, and she pressures Ana to do cocaine with her.

It’s at this dinner where things start to get more interesting in the movie. It’s enough to say that more secrets are revealed. And ultimately, Ana has to come to terms with the double life she’s been leading and what kind of person she wants to be moving forward.

“One Hour Outcall” makes very good use of its obvious low budget. It has melodrama, but not the type of melodrama that’s in a Lifetime movie. (Lifetime has done its share of movies about women with secret sex lives.) “One Hour Outcall” has got the type of wordy dialogue that sounds like this story could easily have been a play. But the movie’s quick-cutting editing (by Sam Hook) to tell the non-linear parts of the story could only work for an on-screen format.

This editing technique will annoy some viewers who don’t want to pay too much attention to put the pieces of the puzzle together and prefer that a story is told chronologically. However, it actually would have been more boring if the movie had sauntered along in chronological order. The editing gives it an emotionally urgent pace that makes the last third of the movie pack a bigger punch. This editing technique also makes sense because it’s very clear by the end of the movie (which ends very abruptly) that the entire story is told from Ana’s perspective, and the flashbacks are very similar to how many people would remember parts of their lives that happened over the previous year.

Ochoa does a very good portrayal of someone who has to face some harsh realities because she’s been leading a double life. Ana starts out as eager-to-please with Greg, then she turns almost arrogant when she thinks she has the upper hand in the relationship, and then she begins showing vulnerabilities when she opens up to him about her personal life. It becomes clear that she’s a lot more emotionally invested in this relationship than she thought she would be.

The movie also doesn’t shy away from the racial dynamics of her being a Latina escort working for a white client. In one scene, Greg tells Ana that he had to do some personal budget cuts and he had to decide to keep Ana or keep his maid Lupe. Ana tells Greg she’s offended by his “racially insensitive comment,” while Greg says he didn’t realize that what he said would racially offend her. It sets off another argument between them.

Norrett’s portrayal of Greg is fairly nuanced, since viewers aren’t quite sure until a certain part of the movie what he really thinks of Ana and their arrangement. The supporting characters are also pretty good in their roles, with Holbrook as stoner Ellery providing the most comic relief. Godwin (who looks a little bit like how Chelsea Clinton looked in her 20s) has some big emotional scenes in the film that she handles quite well.

Shannon’s mother Stacy is essentially a calming presence in the story, so Carey’s role is mostly to react to other people and also try to put things in an optimistic perspective when people around her get upset. Rodriguez portrays Gabriel as a mild-mannered goofball who can be fairly oblivious to social cues that reach a level of discomfort.

Some people might not like how “One Hour Outcall” ends, but the movie isn’t about tying things up nicely in a neat little bow. It’s more of a psychological study of the effects of being a sex worker and how separating emotions from the work is a lot easier said than done. Under the brisk and concise direction of Cottam, “One Hour Outcall” isn’t a sweeping overview of escort work but rather a compelling and intimate snapshot of the emotional toll it takes on one woman.

Gravitas Ventures released “One Hour Outcall” on digital, VOD, Blu-ray and DVD on September 15, 2020.

Review: ‘Rent-A-Pal,’ starring Brian Landis Folkins, Wil Wheaton, Kathleen Brady and Amy Rutledge

September 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Brian Landis Folkins and Wil Wheaton in “Rent-A-Pal” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

“Rent-A-Pal”

Directed by Jon Stevenson

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Denver in 1990, the horror flick “Rent-A-Pal” features an all-white cast representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A lonely 40-year-old bachelor buys a mysterious “Rent-A-Pal” video, featuring a “pep talk” guy who might or nor might not have sinister intentions. 

Culture Audience: “Rent-A-Pal” will appeal primarily to people who like horror films that have a retro setting, but viewers have to be willing to tolerate the movie’s biggest flaws, which are the uneven pacing and a disappointing ending.

Amy Rutledge and Brian Landis Folkins in “Rent-A-Pal” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films/IFC Midnight)

Before Internet dating existed, some people in the VHS video era watched videotapes of potential partners through companies that provided these dating services. This video dating service is the catalyst for the story of “Rent-A-Pal,” an uneven and somewhat disappointing horror film that’s the feature-film debut of writer/director Jon Stevenson, who also edited the movie and is one of the film’s producers. It’s not a horrible movie, but there’s a big tonal disconnect between most of the film and what happens in the movie’s final scenes.

“Rent-A-Pal” takes place in Denver in 1990. The central character is a lonely, unemployed 40-year-old bachelor named David Brower (played by Brian Landis Folkins), who lives with his cranky, 73-year-old widowed mother Lucille (played by Kathleen Brady), who is suffering from early stages of dementia. They both live off of her Social Security and disability income.

There are times when Lucille is lucid and aware of reality. But many other times, her dementia makes her think that she’s young and that her husband Frank is still alive. She often mistakes David for Frank, who died almost 10 years ago. Sometimes David corrects her over this mistaken identity, and sometimes he doesn’t.

David is very much a stereotypical, unemployed middle-aged bachelor who lives with his mother. He lives in a “man cave” basement, where he likes to watch TV and movies. And because David is his mother’s only 24-hour-a-day caretaker, it doesn’t leave much room for him to have a social life. The movie gives a little bit of backstory on what David was like before this story took place. What is revealed is that he’s been a nerdy loner for pretty much all of his life.

Six months before this story takes place, David had signed up for a video dating service called Video Rendezvous, which is headquartered in Denver. The way that the service works is that members rent VHS videotapes of potential partners. In each videotape, there’s a series of video introductions by different potential partners. If the person renting the video sees anyone who might be a good match, they tell the dating service, which will then contact that person, who will then decide whether or not to contact the suitor who’s interested in meeting them.

The beginning of the movie shows David watching a “potential partners” videotape from Video Rendezvous, but no one interests him. One woman named Carla wants a macho man, which obviously doesn’t describe David. Another woman named Meg has a puppet with her, which is too weird even for eccentric David. Another woman named Susan seems like she could be a good match, because she says she loves snuggling up with someone to watch movies, but then she says she’s not interested in a man who lives in his parents’ basement.

These vignettes are examples of the movie’s low-key humor, which are sprinkled throughout the film. This humor isn’t enough to help when “Rent-A-Pal” goes off the rails at the end, but it’s an amusing touch to a mostly somber and dreary film. A lot of screen time is spent on scenes of David doing one of two things: being miserable at home or going to Video Rendezvous.

So far, David hasn’t had any potential partner in the dating service who’s requested to meet him. It’s why David goes to Video Rendezvous headquarters to update and improve his video introduction, where he has to give a brief summary of himself and what he’s looking for in a partner. He does this video update at the suggestion of a Video Rendezvous employee named Diane (played by Adrian Egolf), whose perky persona might remind people of the Flo character in those Progressive Insurance commercials.

Diane seems to be doing double duty at the company as a receptionist and a salesperson. Her chirpy demeanor doesn’t hide that she’s more concerned about making sales than she is about the feelings of the customers she’s dealing with in person or over the phone. When David goes to Video Rendezvous, Janice is attentive to him only when he’s going to spend money, because other times she can be a little dismissive.

David’s updated video session goes pretty badly, because he’s nervous and awkward in the video. When David asks if he can redo the video, the camera man (played by Josh Staab) lies to David and tells him it’s a great video. The reason why the camera man wants David to leave is because he’s got other customers to attend to and he doesn’t want David to take up any more of his time.

These are examples that the movie shows of how someone like David often feels “invisible” and made to feel not as important as other people. And we all know what can happen in horror movies (and in real life) when socially awkward loners feel ignored and mistreated and a lot of rage builds up inside of them. It’s all pretty obvious at this point where the movie is going to go.

In the meantime, during this visit to Video Rendezvous, while Diane is on the phone and ignoring David, he sees a pile of videotapes for sale next to the receptionist’s desk. One of the tapes is called “Rent-A-Pal.” David is curious, so he buys the video.

David takes the “Rent-A-Pal” video home and starts playing it. It’s essentially a video of a middle-aged guy named Andy (played by Wil Wheaton), who sits alone in a room and pretends to talk to the viewer. Andy introduces himself, asks the viewer some questions, and gives pre-fabricated lines, with the necessary pauses, to simulate that a conversation is taking place between Andy and the viewer.

Andy uses only a few props in his act. One of the props is a phone that’s on a nearby table. When the phone occasionally rings, Andy picks up the phone and then hangs up without talking to the other person on the other line. It’s so Andy can show the viewer that the viewer has Andy’s undivided attention. Another prop he uses is a camera, so he can take “selfies” with the viewer.

At first, David doesn’t have much interest in “Rent-A-Pal” when he watches the video. But over time, David becomes so obsessed with the “Rent-A-Pal” video that he knows all the lines by heart. The movie has scenes that keep returning to David watching the video, so that bit by bit, more of David’s backstory comes out when Andy asks him questions about his life.

David’s father Frank was a jazz musician who frequently traveled, so David was raised primarily by his mother. As the story goes on, in David’s “conversations” with Andy, viewers find out that David’s mother Lucille was frequently abusive to David. He loves his mother and is very devoted to her, but David also shows signs of deep resentment against her.

And when David was in sixth grade, he had a humiliating experience involving a girl named Jane whom he had a crush on at the time. Something happened that involved Jane (which won’t be described in this review), and David ended up being wrongfully punished. That experience traumatized him. It explains why he seems to be shy and self-conscious when it comes to dating.

Throughout the movie, much is made of the VHS videotape aesthetic. There are many closeups of the grainy look of well-worn tapes, as well as closeups of what tape looks like inside a VCR. There’s also a nod to reel-to-reel films, when David watches porn on this type of film projector. It should come as no surprise that his mother Lucille is very uptight and repressive (which almost always seems to be the case in horror movies where a bachelor lives with his mother), so it’s very predictable what happens in a scene where Lucille catches David masturbating.

Life gets better for David when he meets a younger, mild-mannered woman named Lisa (played by Amy Rutledge) through the Video Rendezvous dating service. After a disappointing missed connection, Lisa agrees to meet David for a date. Lisa seems to be David’s ideal woman, because she and David have so much in common. Lisa is shy, is interested in movies, loves jazz music, and she works as a caregiver in a nursing home. David and Lisa’s first date is at a skating rink, and the date goes very well.

But this wouldn’t be a horror movie without something going terribly wrong. In “Rent-A-Pal,” it seems as if Andy knows what’s going on in David’s life and he’s jealous that David might have found a girlfriend. When David watches “Rent-A-Pal,” Andy begins to talk to David off of the pre-recorded script, and Andy gets very angry if he thinks that David isn’t paying enough attention to him. The movie leaves it open to interpretation if these conversations are happening for a supernatural reason or if it’s all in David’s head because he might be mentally unraveling.

Because David and Lisa’s burgeoning romance comes so late in the movie, this “unhinged” side of Andy also comes very late in the film. Therefore, what happens in the final scenes seems very rushed. There are abrupt shifts in the movie’s tone and pacing, as well as in the personalities of certain characters. These rapid changes don’t look genuine or earned, given the way that the previous majority of the movie was filmed.

And unfortunately, Folkins’ acting falters in the last scenes of the movie, which are supposed to be the most impactful parts of this story. Folkins does an adequate job for most of the movie when his acting style is about “realism,” but then his acting style shifts to “over-the-top,” and it’s just not convincing. Because the movie rests largely on what the David character does, the quality of the movie is lowered when the lead actor has such a noticeable change in acting style and the result is an unnecessary mess.

Wheaton does a good job in making people guess how evil Andy might or might not be. Considering that Wheaton doesn’t have much to do in this movie but act alone in a room, it’s a fairly impressive accomplishment. Fortunately, “Rent-A-Pal” didn’t copy the horror film “The Ring” and have Andy crawling out of the television set, because it would’ve been a bad decision to rip off this idea. Brady and Rutledge are very good in their roles, but they are essentially supporting characters who don’t have as much screen time as David does.

However, “Rent-A-Pal” ultimately falls short because it couldn’t quite decide what type of movie it wanted to be. The majority of the film looks like it could have been a disturbing psychological study, much like Robin Williams’ 2002 movie “One Hour Photo.” But then, “Rent-A-Pal” went down a very unimaginative and cliché horror path toward the end of the film, where unoriginal bloody violence destroys the compelling psychological portrait that was being painted.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “Rent-A-Pal” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 11, 2020.

Review: ‘Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs,’ starring the voices of Chloë Grace Moretz, Sam Claflin, Gina Gershon, Patrick Warburton and Jim Rash

September 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jack (voiced by Frederik Hamel), Hans (voiced by Nolan North), Arthur (voiced by Simon Kassianides), Snow White/Red Shoes (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz), Merlin (voiced by Sam Claflin) and Pino, Noki, Kio (all three voiced by Frank Todaro) in “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs”

Directed by Sung-ho Hong, with co-direction from Moo-Hyun Jang and Young Sik Uhm

Culture Representation: This animated re-imagination of the “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” features an all-white cast of characters.

Culture Clash: The Seven Dwarfs are cursed by a spell that has made them into dwarfs, and Snow White’s evil stepmother wants possession of the red shoes worn Snow White, because the shoes can make someone look young and beautiful .

Culture Audience: “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” will appeal to anyone who’s a fan of the original “Snow White” fairy tale and anyone who’s looking for a mildly entertaining and predictable reimagination of this classic.

Magic Mirror (voiced by Patrick Warburton) and Regina (voiced by Gina Gershon) in “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” (Image courtesy of Lionsgate)

Imagine the classic fairytale “Snow White” reimagined as a story about the importance of judging people for who they are rather than for their physical appearances. It’s this positive message that uplifts the lightweight and mostly enjoyable animated “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs,” which can be entertaining to watch for people of any generation. The story will be completely predictable to adults, but the appealing animation and the briskly paced adventure aspects of the story (the movie is 92 minutes long) should keep most viewers interested from beginning to end.

Written and directed by Sung-ho Hong (and co-directed by Moo-Hyun Jang and Young Sik Uhm), “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” begins with a twist on the origin story of the Seven Dwarfs. It’s explained that they used to be tall, good looking young men who were members of a heroic group known as the Fearless Seven. They are described as “the greatest heroes of Fairy Tale Island.”

However, one day the Fearless Seven made the mistake of attacking a fairy princess who looked like a witch, so she cursed them by turning them into green dwarfs. The only way to break this curse is for them to get a kiss from the most beautiful girl in the world. Feminists might cringe at this aspect of the story, but if you’re easily offended by stories that have old-fashioned ideas of the roles of males and females, then avoid fairy tales altogether.

The Seven Dwarfs (formerly known as the Fearless Seven) have become outcasts in society and their only mission now is to find the most beautiful girl in the world. As far as the world is concerned, the Fearless Seven have disappeared and have been missing for more than a year by the time that the Seven Dwarfs meet Snow White. The Seven Dwarfs are so ashamed of how they look that they deny that they are the Fearless Seven if anyone suspects that they are.

The Seven Dwarfs are Merlin, the group’s friendly leader (voiced by Sam Claflin); Arthur (voiced by Simon Kassianides), the often-impulsive warrior who tries to pull his Excalibur sword out of a stone; Jack (voiced by Frederik Hamel), a finicky Frenchman; Hans (voiced by Nolan North), a gung-ho German; and triplets Pino, Noki and Kio (voiced by Frank Todero), who are relegated to sidekick roles with personalities that can’t be distinguished from one another.

Meanwhile, an evil witch named Regina (voiced by Gina Gershon) has a pair of high-heled red shoes that have the power to make the person wearing them look young, thin and conventionally beautiful. These shoes are her most-prized possession because wearing the shoes can changes Regina’s appearance from a mean-looking old hag (her real physical appearance) to someone whose physical appearance is in keeping with conventional standards of beauty.

Snow White (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz) is a princess who lives with her widower father, the king of the land. The major difference between this Snow White and other versions of Snow White is that this Snow White happens to be plus-sized and self-conscious about her looks. However, her father accepts and loves her for exactly who she is. At the beginning of the story, Snow White has just turned 18 and is set to inherit adult royal duties.

And it’s around this time that Regina shows up in town with a strange mirror, and people in the town start mysteriously disappearing. Regina, who has disguised herself as a beautiful young woman (thanks to wearing the red shoes), has found a way to charm the king and get him to marry her, but the king disappears not long after the marriage. Snow White finds the magical red shoes, turns into a thin and conventional pretty young woman, and flies away on a broom to look for her father. An enraged Regina then does what she can in her royal stepmother power to find Snow White and the red shoes.

During Snow White’s quest to find her father, she encounters the Seven Dwarfs. They think she could be the most beautiful girl in the world. Therefore, much of the movie revolves around the Seven Dwarfs trying to find out if Snow White is the one who can break their curse. Meanwhile, because she has other people do the dirty work for her, she is seen back at the castle with her talking Magic Mirror (voiced by Patrick Warburton), which gives her advice on what to do next.

Snow White has been declared a fugitive thief, so when she meets the Seven Dwarfs, she lies and tells them her name is Red Shoes. She wants them to help her find her father, but they don’t want to admit that they’re the heroic group called the Fearless Seven. However, they all have to dodge people who are out to get Snow White, since there’s a reward for anyone who can capture her.

There’s kind of a cringeworthy scene were Arthur awkwardly tries to kiss Snow White/Red Shoes, but she’s resistant because she’s not attracted to him at all. And it should come as no surprise to people looking for a fairy tale romance in this story that Snow White falls for another dwarf in the group. It’s very easy to guess who it is. The movie plays around a lot with the idea of whether or not this budding romance will survive if Snow White and her would-be beau have their true physical selves revealed to each other.

There’s also a subplot of a spoiled royal named Prince Average (voiced by Jim Rash), who is throwing a birthday party for himself, and he’s obsessed with getting “beautiful people” to attend his party. What he wants most is for a beautiful princess to be his date for the party, so he sends his minions to go out and find one and bring her back to him. It’s really not all that much different from real life, when rich people hire supermodels to be at their parties.

In fact, some parts of “Red Shoes” have some underlying sly commentary about how shallow people can become so obsessed with youth and beauty that it can turn them into soulless people who lose sight of what really matters in life. This isn’t a movie that needs to be over-analyzed, but there is an interesting metaphor that can be found between the Magic Mirror and what’s going with a lot of people who over-use Instagram and other social media for ego validation. “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” essentially has the message that people who put a fake image of themselves out there the world so that they can be rewarded for it in some way end up doing the most damage to themselves.

In an animation world where movies from Pixar, Disney Animation and DreamWorks Animation get most of the major awards and blockbuster sales, “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” (from Locus Animation Studio) isn’t going to make a dent in that domination. However, the animation and other visuals in “Red Shoes” are very good for a movie that has the fraction of the budget that a movie from Pixar, Disney Animation or DreamWorks Animation would have.

If “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” looks and sounds very influenced by Disney, that might be because the movie’s character design and animation direction are by Jin Kim, whose credits include the Disney animated films “Fantasia 2000,” “Frozen II” and “Tangled.” Also complementing the film well is the musical score by Geoff Zanelli, whose movies credits include the Disney live-action films “Maleficent: Mistress of Evil” and “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales.” However, there are elements of “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarves” that are also influenced by a film from a Disney rival: DreamWorks Animation’s first “Shrek” movie.

The subplot with Prince Average makes the story a little cluttered at times, but the movie doesn’t drag too much and there’s enough humor in it so that it doesn’t seem to take itself too seriously. And as is the case with many reimagined fairy tales that have been updated with modern sensibilities, this Snow White is definitely not a damsel in distress who needs to be rescued by a prince at the end of the story.

Disney’s 1937 animated film “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” stuck to the fairy tale that had traditional gender roles in who does the rescuing. The overall message of “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” has a more impactful message about how true love can be found if it isn’t based solely on how someone looks and if you have self-acceptance first.

Lionsgate released “Red Shoes and the Seven Dwarfs” on digital and VOD on September 18, 2020, and on Blu-ray and DVD and September 22, 2020.

Review: ‘Cut Throat City,’ starring Shameik Moore, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, Demetrius Shipp Jr., Kat Graham, Wesley Snipes, Terrence Howard, Eiza Gonzalez and Ethan Hawke

September 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Demetrius Shipp Jr., Keean Johnson, Shameik Moore and Denzel Whitaker in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Cut Throat City”

Directed by The RZA

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans in 2005 and 2006, the crime drama “Cut Throat City” has a predominantly African American cast (with some white people and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A group of young men turn to a life of crime when they have problems finding jobs after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Culture Audience: “Cut Throat City” will appeal mostly to people who like typical “gangster” movies that have a lot of violence and a mediocre plot.

T.I. in “Cut Throat City” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

How’s this for an unoriginal and tired idea for a movie? Poor people (who are usually people of color) become criminals because they’re desperate for money. And there’s a crime lord that they have to answer to who might or might not turn against them. “Cut Throat City,” despite its talented cast and an effort to be a somewhat stylish-looking film, still serves up this recycled and uninspired concept in a movie that doesn’t really do anything for the genre of gangster films. In fact, “Cut Throat City” (at 132 minutes long) gets a little too bloated and the plot a little too ridiculous for it to be considered a movie that will reach cult status as an undiscovered gem.

“Cut Throat City” (directed by The RZA, who’s best known as a founding member of the rap group Wu Tang Clan) could have used better editing to cut out the parts of the movie that drag before the movie’s big climactic scene. However, the screenplay by Paul “P.G.” Cuschieri is largely to blame for the most cringeworthy aspects of “Cut Throat City,” including the dumb dialogue and some of the most unrealistic aspects of the movie’s depiction of police investigations in a big American city.

New Orleans is the city where the movie takes place, in 2005 and 2006, with Hurricane Katrina as the catalyst for a lot of the angst and criminal activity in the story. “Cut Throat City” begins before Hurricane Katrina happened, when four working-class friends in their early 20s are getting ready for the wedding of one of the guys in the group. All four of them live in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which is considered one of the most financially deprived and roughest parts of the city.

The groom is James (played by Shameik Moore), who prefers to go by the nickname Blink, who is an aspiring writer/illustrator of graphic novels. Blink’s three closest friends are Miracle (played by Demetrius Shipp Jr.), who’s an impulsive hothead; Junior (played by Keean Johnson), who often gets teased because he’s a white guy who tries to be more like his African American friends; and mild-mannered and quiet Andre (played by Denzel Whitaker), who’s Blink’s best man and an aspiring jazz musician. (He plays the trumpet.)

Blink is getting married to his girlfriend Demyra (played by Kat Graham), who is the mother of their son, who’s about 3 or 4 years old. At the wedding, Demyra’s mother (played by Stacie Davis) gives Demyra some marriage advice: “It’s not about happiness. It’s about meaning. Find the meaning and happiness will come later.” That’s this movie’s idea of a “pep talk,” which is supposed to indicate to viewers that many of the people in this movie have a pessimistic view on life.

Demyra and Blink are actually happy together, and the wedding goes smoothly. The honeymoon is another story, because Hurricane Katrina hits within a few days after the wedding. Even before the hurricane, the main problem in Blink and Demyra’s relationship is that Blink is having a hard time finding work as a graphic novelist. And now that he’s a married man, he’s really expected to contribute income to help pay the bills. Even though Blink has an associate’s degree from college and he attended Tulane University, his college education won’t help him get his dream job as a graphic novelist.

Blink has been working on a concept for a graphic novel called “Cut Throat City.” He gets a meeting with a condescending publishing executive named Peter Felton (played by Joel David Moore), who starts off by looking at Blink’s work and calling it mostly “derivative.” Peter does see one illustration that he likes, so he asks Blink who his influences are. Blink replies by listing Charles Schulz, Gary Larson and Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Peter then says in an exasperated tone that by “influences” he meant who are the influences in Blink’s life.

Peter also asks Blink what kind of audience he wants for “Cut Throat City.” Blink says he “never really thought about it.” Peter responds, “The first thing you think about is your audience.” Blink then says, “If we only focus on our markets, then a cartoon wouldn’t be anything more than a cheap, dim commodity that will never change.”

When Peter says he doesn’t know where Blink could’ve gotten that idea, Blink responds that it was Peter who actually said it at an anime expo in 1990. “I got a transcript from the library,” Blink adds. “Fair enough,” replies Peter, who’s obviously done with Blink at point. He then coldly dismisses Blink from his office and tells an assistant to bring in the next person.

It’s one of many rejections that Blink gets as an aspiring graphic novelist. Andre tries to make money as a street musician, but it’s barely enough to be considered pocket change. Miracle and Junior are also unemployed. For whatever reason, the movie doesn’t show them looking for any jobs they can get. Hurricane Katrina has devastated New Orleans, so the job market has dried up in many ways, but these four friends just seem like they’ve given up trying to find work.

To make matters worse, Blink is too proud to accept financial help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). As several weeks go by and things get more financially desperate for Blink and Demyra, she’s had enough of Blink refusing money from FEMA, and she tells Blink that they have to apply for FEMA aid. When they get to the FEMA office, their application is denied since they don’t need housing, and they’re told that homeless people are getting priority for the financial aid. And to add insult to injury, Blink and Demyra also aren’t eligible because they live in the Ninth Ward.

This FEMA rejection is a reason for Blink to feel angry at “the system,” which is why he eventually goes along with Miracle’s idea to start working for Blink’s relative Lorenzo “Cousin” Bass (played by Tip “T.I.” Harris), who’s a local gangster. (T.I., who’s also known as a hitmaking rapper in real life, is wearing makeup in the movie that makes Cousin look like he has a skin condition like vitiligo.) Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre start dealing drugs for Cousin. But since they’re new to drug dealing, they mess things up and end up owing money to Cousin.

To show how vicious and unforgiving he is, Cousin makes the four guys watch as an unlucky man who has angered Cousin is tortured by having a wild raccoon attack the guy’s genitals. It’s not explicitly shown in the film, but it’s implied that this happened. The man is shown in the aftermath almost doubled over in pain with blood on the crotch area of his pants when he’s thrown out by Cousin and his henchmen.

Cousin and his group of thugs also force wild raccoons to fight each other in cages. And one of the main characters has a beloved dog, which predictably gets shot and killed by a vengeful Cousin during a fight scene. For anyone who hates seeing animal cruelty depicted on screen, it might be best to avoid this movie or close your eyes during these scenes.

Knowing that Cousin could also make their lives hell if they don’t come up with the money they owe him, the four friends decide to rob a local casino. And then one casino robbery turns into more, as they blow their money on strip clubs and gambling. All of these robbery scenes are completely ludicrous because the guys walk into the casino together wearing matching dark hoodies (automatically calling attention themselves) and they make little effort to disguise their faces, unless you consider wearing see-through nylon stockings on your face a “disguise.”

The casinos are also very crowded and there are surveillance cameras everywhere. And yet, the movie wants viewers to believe that these wannabe gangsters are clever enough not to get caught. After one robbery, which resulted in big shootout with police and their getaway van being riddled with bullet holes, the four guys just trade in the van for a Dodge car in good condition. What used car dealer in their right mind would trade a car that’s in good shape for a bullet-damaged piece of junk?

“Cut Throat City” also makes the same stupid mistake that’s in a lot of badly written crime movies that take place in a big city: Only one cop is investigating the case. For a series of casino robberies, that’s completely unrealistic for a city as big as New Orleans. And this cop also happens to look like a model/actress. Her name is Lucinda Valencia (played by Eiza Gonzalez), who has the thankless job of going into dangerous and sketchy areas by herself numerous times during the investigation, with no sign of a cop partner or backup anywhere.

There are also some other supporting players in this muddled and messy saga: Recently elected city councilman Jackson Sims (played by Ethan Hawke), who’s a former police officer and a very corrupt politician; Courtney (played by Rob Morgan), a sleazy barber who’s a confidential informant; and The Saint (played by Terrence Howard), a smooth-talking, bow-tie-wearing gangster who has criminal authority over Cousin.

Also part of the story, in a small role, is Rev. Sinclair Stewart (played by Isaiah Washington), who takes bribes to conduct funeral services for people who died under suspicious circumstances and don’t have a medical exam or death certificate. The bribes he takes includes payment for forged death certificates. And somewhere in this jumbled story, Blink reunites with his estranged father Lawrence (played by Wesley Snipes), who abandoned Blink when Blink was a child.

“Cut Throat City” also has some bizarre references to “The Wizard of Oz.” When Blink, Miracle, Junior and Andre first go to meet with Cousin about working for him, Cousin says that his headquarters is like Oz. He compares Junior to the Tin Man, Andre to the Cowardly Lion, Miracle to the Scarecrow and Blink to Dorothy. Later in the movie, The Saint covers the young robbers’ heads in ski masks and tells them, “There’s no place like home.”

Speaking of the lines in this movie, people will be rolling their eyes at how corny some of the dialogue is. In one scene, Courtney tells Lucinda that local thugs “will shoot you in a crack cocaine heartbeat.” In another scene, Cousin says about the man who is left sobbing after the raccoon torture: “Two things I can’t stand: a lying-ass woman and a crying-ass man.” If this is Gangster Poetry 101, no thank you.

And in another scene, Cousin and The Saint have a meeting, where Cousin says to him in a semi-monologue that sounds like it was written by someone who thinks this is how black gangsters are supposed to talk: “We’re too much alike: greedy-ass motherfuckers. That’s why they can take all the opportunity away from us. They can flood us, jail us, try to kill us, but they can never kill our greed. That’s why we’ll pimp, rap, sling dope, cheat or steal, even it’s from each other.”

“Cut Throat City” has a twist at the end that’s meant to make the movie look like more artistic than it really is. There’s an end-credits scene that doesn’t really add much to the conclusion of this very predictable and substandard story. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the technical aspects of how the movie was filmed, and the movie is well-cast with good actors, but the director needed to make better choices in editing. Ultimately, it’s the weak and trite screenplay that makes “Cut Throat City” a movie a disappointment that doesn’t offer anything exciting or innovative.

Well Go USA released “Cut Throat City” in select U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.

Review: ‘Tom of Your Life,’ starring Baize Buzan and Jeremy ‘Jer’ Sklar

September 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jeremy “Jer” Sklar and Baize Buzan in “Tom of Your Life” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Tom of Your Life”

Directed by Jeremy “Jer” Sklar

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chicago and other parts of the United States, the sci-fi comedy film “Tom of Your Life” has a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A hospital nurse kidnaps a newborn person who has a mysterious biological condition: Every hour, he ages four years.

Culture Audience: “Tom of Your Life” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching under-the-radar indie comedies that tend to be meandering with annoying characters.

Dominic Rescigno and Baize Buzan in “Tom of Your Life” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

The sci-fi comedy “Tom of Your Life” had so much potential to be a clever story about what happens when someone ages rapidly in one day. Unfortunately, the movie (written and directed by Jeremy “Jer” Sklar) wastes a lot of time with scenes that don’t really go anywhere, unexplained plot holes, and some uneven acting by Sklar, who also stars in the movie.

“Tom of Your Life” begins with viewers finding out that a hospital nurse named Jessica “Jess” Budusky (played by Baize Buzan) has kidnapped someone named Tom from the hospital because Tom was going to undergo scientific studies as a freak of nature. Why? Because when Tom was born at 4:44 a.m. that day, the doctors found out that Tom aged four years every hour.

At the beginning of the film, Tom is now 8 years old (played by Judah Abner Paul), he’s with Jess in a diner, and they’re having breakfast. Jess explains to Tom that he was born two hours ago and why he’s “different” from other people. It’s easy to see why Jess abducted him: She wants to him to experience having a “normal life” before he’s possibly locked up in a research lab. (Tom’s parents are never shown in the movie.)

For whatever reason, Jess keeps getting Tom a red tracksuit with white stripes to wear, up through his adulthood. It’s a little bit of an aesthetic gimmick that isn’t nearly as problematic as the last third of the movie, which goes downhill very quickly with numerous scenes that aren’t funny and wasted opportunities to make Tom a fascinating character.

Inexplicably, Tom already knows how to talk like an 8-year-old, even though he’s technically only two hours old. He can point to things like a clock in the diner and know exactly what it is. He knows how to use eating utensils. It’s implied that the kidnapping happened so fast that there wasn’t time for anyone to teach Tom how to walk, talk, identify objects, and a myriad of other things that a newborn baby wouldn’t be able to do. Therefore, Tom must be at beyond genius level to learn so quickly, right? Wrong.

Jess takes Tom to a schoolyard where several kids are playing kickball, but Tom just stands there dumfounded, as if he doesn’t know what to do. And he still can’t figure it out after watching the kids play, so Jess has to show him how to play this extremely easy game. And oddly, if this kid is supposed to be so smart and inquisitive, he doesn’t seem curious at all about why how long he’s supposed to be driven around by this strange woman who’s not a family member. It’s one of many plot holes in this jumbled movie.

When Tom is 12 years old (played by Joshua Paul), Jess takes him to a farm that gives guided tours so that he can experience being around farm animals. This scene only seems to exist for two purposes: First, so there can be a “put out to pasture” metaphor, when Tom sees that elderly animals are ignored, compared to the younger animals. “Is that what they do to old people?” Tom asks Jess. “Put them to the side and forget about them?”

The other reason for the scene is to show that while Tom is on the guided tour, Jess has snuck back to her car to smoke some dope. You see, she’s not the straight-laced, responsible parental figure that some people might think she would be in this story. She’s a hot mess.

It turns out that Jess has been having an affair with the married doctor who’s one of the few people at the hospital who knows Tom’s secret and that Jess has kidnapped Tom. Dr. Dennis Benedict (played by Paul Tigue) is in love with Jess, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Because of his love for Jess, Dr. Benedict won’t call the police to report the kidnapping. Instead, he hires his private-investigator brother Carl (played by James Sharpe, the movie’s producer) to find Jess and Tom and bring them back to the hospital.

In her car, Jess conveniently has a wig that she puts on when she feels paranoid about being recognized as a fugitive kidnapper. Eventually, she figures out that she’s more likely to get caught because she’s using her own car, so there’s a part of the movie that’s about stealing someone else’s vehicle, in order to make it harder for Jess to be tracked down. But stealing someone else’s vehicle comes with its own set of problems.

While Jess tries to maintain a façade to Tom that they’re on a fun “family-styled” adventure, she’s been persistently calling a doctor she knows in Chicago named Dr. Bill Albrecht (played by Billy Minshall), but she keeps getting his voice mail and he’s not returning her messages. Why does she want to contact him? Because he’s the only medical professional she knows who could possibly figure out what’s going on with Tom.

And there’s something else: Dr. Albrecht happens to be Jess’ ex-boyfriend and he has a restraining order against her. (She seems to have a thing for older men who are doctors.) The reason why he has a restraining order against her is revealed later in the movie. Jess has already made up her mind to drive to Chicago and meet with Dr. Albrecht in person.

At this point, it’s four hours after Tom has been born, and he’s now aged to look like he’s 16 years old. (Dominic Resigno plays Tom in his teens and 20s.) Tom finally asks who his parents are and if they know he’s been kidnapped. Jess gives an extremely vague answer: She tells Tom that his father is in the Navy and that the last thing she knew about his mother was that she sedated from the C-section she had when she gave birth to Tom.

Tom begins to tell Jess that he’d really like to go sailing, and she says they’ll try to do that on their trip. Tom’s fixation on sailing and being on a sailboat is repeatedly brought up in the movie, but not to a lot of great comedic effect. And because he’s a teenager at this point in the movie, he becomes interested in finding out how to drive, learning about sex, and rebelling. The movie has a predictable masturbation scene, and there’s a part of the movie where Tom steals the car to go to a strip club, leaving an infuriated Jess stranded.

It should be noted that although Jess’ life is messed-up, she not very sympathetic at all. It will be hard for viewers to root for her and the adult Tom because they’re both very difficult people to like. At least Tom has an excuse for his tacky behavior since he hasn’t been alive long enough to learn a lot of social skills.

As an example of how rude Jess can be, while she’s stranded on the road, an unnamed man in a purple van (played by Patrick Zielinski) stops and asks Jess, “Do you need a lift?” She snaps at him, “Not in your piece-of-shit rape van!” And when it’s revealed what Jess did to have a restraining order against her, any sympathy that viewers might have for her will vanish, even though the movie gives an emotionally manipulative excuse for her grossly awful actions.

Jess gets even more obnoxious as the story goes on. Even though she’s taken it upon herself to be responsible for Tom during this road trip, she has no qualms about driving under the influence of drugs while Tom is in the car with her. During one part of the trip, she tells Tom that she has a tendency to leave her purse behind wherever she is, and she asks him to keep an eye on it for her. As soon as she says that, you just know that something is going to happen to that purse.

As the story goes on and Tom becomes a guy in his 30s and 40s and so on (writer/director Sklar plays all the oldest versions of Tom), he becomes even more dimwitted instead of the quick-learning person he was at the beginning of the story. Rather than developing a personality, he seems to be an overgrown man-child who has a hard time thinking for himself and is easily led by others.

It’s just an excuse for the movie to have Tom say a lot of politically incorrect things to people, such as when Tom is sitting on a subway next to an African American man and asks him what happened to the color of his skin. The man replies, “What happened to yours?” And then there’s the predictable scene of Tom partying for the first time, with substances legal and illegal, as well as the obligatory prostitute who’s hired when Tom wants to lose his virginity.

As Tom gets older and more experienced, he should have gotten more interesting. Instead, “Tom of Your Life” drags in the scenes where middle-aged/older Tom is just an empty shell of a person. Perhaps Sklar was inspired by the Peter Sellers character in “Being There,” but Sklar’s acting skills just aren’t on that level. And unfortunately, most of the supporting characters aren’t interesting either.

On the plus side, “Tom of Your Life” has some noteworthy cinematography from Christopher Rejano, who really makes great use of autumn colors and exterior shots to really bring some vibrancy to some scenes. And the aging makeup by David Ian Grant is also very good for a low-budget film such as this one. And even though Buzan plays a very aggravating character in Jess, it’s clear that Buzan is more talented than most of the cast when it comes to acting.

“Tom of Your Life” has an original score composed by Sklar, whose band the Blackstrap Molasses has original songs in the movie. The music isn’t very memorable, but it gets the job done on an adequate level. Unfortunately, the last third of the movie just seems to be written as a series of awkward comedy sketches instead of a cohesive story arc, with very little to show that these characters have genuinely relatable feelings and personalities. There’s an attempt to bring some emotional connection and sentimentality in the very last scene of the movie. But by then, it’s too little, too late.

Gravitas Ventures released “Tom of Your Life” on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020.