Review: ‘Don’t Look Up’ (2021), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Rob Morgan, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry and Jonah Hill

December 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in “Don’t Look Up” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

“Don’t Look Up” (2021)

Directed by Adam McKay

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States (mostly in Michigan, Illinois and Washington, D.C.) during the six months before an apocalypse, the dark comedy film “Don’t Look Up” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a Ph.D. student in astronomy discovers that a catastrophic comet is headed to Earth to destroy the planet in six months, people have varying reactions, including a stubborn refusal to believe that the apocalypse is coming. 

Culture Audience: “Don’t Look Up” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast and apocalyptic comedies that repeat the same types of gags for an overly long runtime of more than two-and-a-half hours.

Pictured in front row, from left to right: Jonah Hill (seated) Paul Guilfoyle (seated), Mark Rylance (standing) and Meryl Streep (seated) in “Don’t Look Up” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

The dark comedy “Don’t Look Up” is the equivalent of watching an annoyingly smug hack comedian tell the same clumsily executed joke for more than two hours. This movie crams in a lot of big-name stars to try to make it look better than it really is. In trying to make a point about complacency and denial about how climate change is a global disaster, writer/director Adam McKay instead mishandles that point in “Don’t Look Up,” by not only overselling it with stunt casting but also selling it short with a bloated and messy story.

In a statement in the production notes for “Don’t Look Up,” McKay says that he was inspired to do the movie after reading David Wallace-Wells’ 2019 non-fiction book “The Uninhabitable Earth.” In the statement, McKay comments on the book: I couldn’t get out of my head. It depicts the ways in which global warming will wreak havoc on the planet if nothing is done to combat the climate crisis.”

McKay continues, “And, it all boiled down to this idea I just couldn’t shake: We all know how to react when there is a killer with an ax, or when your house is on fire, but what the author David Wallace-Wells was writing about was a million times worse. How do we get people to realize this is a clear and present danger? How close does that danger have to be for us to have the proper response? I felt like I needed to write this script.”

Based on the disappointing end results of “Don’t Look Up,” McKay should’ve spent more time honing the script, which lazily repeats the same gimmick about climate-change deniers being blithering idiots, and hammers this stereotype all over the movie like a robotic jackhammer on full-blast. Almost all of the people in the movie are caricatures who aren’t very funny at all. In a movie about an impending apocalypse, most of the main characters are not seen with any family members or even shown talking about family members. That’s how phony “Don’t Look Up” is and how it makes these caricatures just hollow vessels for the movie’s dumb jokes.

McKay and the other “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers seem to have spent more energy corralling numerous celebrity cast members (many of whom are Oscar winners and Oscar nominees) to overstuff the movie, rather than giving these cast members well-rounded characters to play. All of the characters are extremely shallow and one-note. And for a movie that has an all-star cast and is set primarily in the United States, it’s appallingly exclusionary and racist that the “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to cast any Hispanic/Latino people to be among the stars of the movie. When people talk about how Hispanic/Latino people are underrepresented in American-made movies, “Don’t Look Up” is part of that problem.

“Don’t Look Up” is the type of movie that takes more than two-and-a-half hours (138 minutes, to be exact) to tell a story that could’ve been told in 90 minutes or less. And even if the movie had been about 90 minutes, it still would be stretched too thin by the flimsy plot. If you’re want to watch an apocalypse movie where people deny that an apocalypse is going to happen, and other people get angry at these deniers, while everyne mugs for the camera and tells really pathetic and poorly written jokes, then “Don’t Look Up” is the movie for you.

In “Don’t Look Up,” Jennifer Lawrence portrays Kate Dibiasky, a Ph.D. student in astronomy at Michigan State University. Kate works in an unrealistic-looking high-tech science lab that looks like a movie set, not a lab that’s supposed to be on a university campus. Kate is a character that looks like what an uptight person thinks is “edgy,” because Kate’s hair is dyed bright red, she wears a nose ring, and she likes to smoke marijuana. One day, a bored-looking Kate sees on her computer monitor that an unusual comet is in the universe. She perks up when she finds out that this comet is extremely rare.

She alerts her professor/supervisor Dr. Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is so elated by this comet discovery, he throws an impromptu party with other students in the lab. But that elation soon turns to horror, when Randall calculates during the party that this comet is actually headed toward Earth. He’s so freaked out by these results that he doesn’t tell his students right away and quickly orders them to leave the building. However, he tells Kate to stay behind and confides his suspicions to her. Kate does her own calculations and finds out that the comet will destroy Earth in six months and 14 days.

Kate and Randall call high-level people at NASA, including NASA chief Dr. Jocelyn Calder (played by Hettienne Park), who is skeptical and doesn’t want to deal with investigating this claim about a comet that will destroy Earth. She passes Kate and Randall off to her underling Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (played by Rob Morgan), who is NASA’s head of planetary defense. Dr. Oglethorpe essentially becomes an awkward sidekick to Kate and Randall for much of the movie.

The next thing you know, Kate and Randall are whisked on a military plane to the White House, where they meet President Janie Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), who is obviously supposed to be a female version of Donald Trump. (Even if people didn’t know that McKay is an outspoken liberal, his political bias is obvious in his movies.) President Orlean is currently distracted because she’s in the middle of a scandal: Her nomination for a U.S Supreme Court Justice is trigger-happy, right-wing Sheriff Conlon (played by Erik Parillo), whose past as a nude model has been exposed.

The scandal gets worse, when it’s revealed in the news that Sheriff Conlon and President Orlean (who is a bachelorette) have been secret lovers, and she sent him photos of her vagina. This is not spoiler information because—much like all the other crude scenarios in “Don’t Look Up”—it has no bearing on the plot. This movie is filled with a bunch of conversations that do nothing to enhance the story but are just in the movie to try to make everything the film look like it’s “cutting-edge,” when it’s not. “Don’t Look Up” is really just a dumpster of tawdry and witless jokes thrown together in a monotonous cesspool.

Even though Sherrif Conlon is President Orlean’s choice to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, he doesn’t have a law degree. Choosing unqualified people for high-ranking government jobs seems to be President Orlean’s speciality. She has appointed her unqualfied and very obnoxious son Jason Orlean (played by Jonah Hill) as the White House’s chief of staff. (Jason’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)

Jason likes to go on egotistical rants and occasionally spews garbage lines that allude to him having incestuous feelings for his mother. Here’s an example of the not-very-funny dialogue in the movie. At one point, Jason smirks about his mother when he says, “I can’t think of another president I’d rather see in Playboy.” He makes other creepy comments to make it clear that he’s sexually attracted to his mother.

Randall estimates that the comet’s destruction of Earth will be like “a billion Hiroshima bombs.” Kate and Randall desperately try to warn anyone who will listen about this impending apocalypse. The movie wastes a lot of time with repeated scenarios of Randall and Kate seeming to be the only people in America who are really sounding the alarm about this apocalypse and sometimes having emotional meltdowns because people won’t take the warnings seriously.

The over-used “joke” in the movie is that most people that Kate and Randall tell about the apolcalypse either don’t believe them, or if they do believe, they shame Randall and Kate for being too depressing and paranoid. Meanwhile, other people try to use the apocalypse for their own selfish reasons, which usually have to do with wanting more money and power. A military plan to destroy the planet goes awry when certain greedy people discover there are vaulable minerals inside the comet that could make certain people a massive fortune.

The movie’s title comes from a catch phrase used by “apocalypse deniers,” who say, “Don’t Look Up” as their mantra, which they chant whenever and wherever they fell like chanting it. Many of these “apocalypse deniers” gather at rallies that the “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers deliberately made to look a lot like rallies for Donald Trump supporters, including many attendees wearing red baseball caps. In the movie, the “Don’t Look Up” slogan is used by people to identify themselves as not only apocalypse deniers but also advocates of other conservative-leaning political beliefs.

As an example of how poorly written “Don’t Look Up” is, several characters in the movie are useless and just take up space to further stretch out the running time in the movie. In the beginning of “Don’t Look Up,” Kate has a journalist boyfriend named Phillip (played by Himesh Patel), who adds nothing to the overall story. Somehow, the filmmakers of “Don’t Look Up” think it’s hilarious that there’s a scene of Phillip pondering how he’s going to describe in an article that Sheriff Conlon reportedly had an erection when he was doing nude modeling for an art class. “Was he noticeably aroused or engorged?” Phillip asks aloud when trying to decide which words to use in the article.

Randall is married with two adult sons: Marshall Mindy (played by Conor Sweeney) and Evan Mindy (played by Robert Radochia), who appear to be in ther late teens or early 20s. Marshall and Evan still live at home with Randall and his unassuming wife June Mindy (played by Melanie Lynskey), who has to quickly adjust to their lives changing when Randall starts to be believed and he becomes a celebrity “sex symbol” scientist. Randall also gets the nickname of A.I.L.F. (If you know what the slang acronym MILF stands for, just substitute the word “astronomer” for the word “mother” to know the meaning of the acronym A.I.L.F.)

June gets a little bit of a story arc in “Don’t Look Up,” but Randall’s sons are completely generic. The movie makes no effort to distinguish between Marshall and Evan, in terms of their personalities. All the movie shows is that Randall has two sons who adore and almost worship him. This seemingly blissful family life is supposed to make Randall look like even more of a jerk when he gives in to temptation to cheat on June. (This review won’t reveal who becomes Randall’s mistress, but it’s not the most obvious guess.)

Other caricatures in the movie include Mark Rylance as a billionaire tech mogul named Peter Isherwell, who physically resembles Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook but who talks more like a spaced-out New Age guru. Peter is a major donor to President Orlean, who kowtows to his every whim. It’s an obvious satire of how corrupt elected politicians will serve their biggest donors rather than serve the people whom the politicians are supposed to represent.

And in a lazily conceived apocalypse movie involving the U.S. government, “Don’t Look Up” has the most stereotypical of apocalypse movie stereotypes: a war-mongering military officer who’s in charge of a military operation to try to stop the apocalypse. His name is Colonel Ben Drask (played by Ron Perlman), who spouts a lot of racist and xenophobic comments. It’s all so the movie can further put an emphasis on showing that President Orlean surrounds herself with a lot of unhinged, extreme right-wingers.

More useless characters include an on-again/off-again music celebrity couple named Riley Bina (played by Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (played by Scott Mescudi, also known as real-life rapper Kid Cudi), whose relationship drama further clogs up the movie. It seems like the only reasons why these shallow lovebird characters are in the movie is for the concert scenes, where they perform songs that refer to the apocalypse. Oh, and so Grande could do an original song (“Just Look Up,” the anthem of the movie’s apocalypse believers) that the filmmakers obviously wanted to be nominated for an Oscar.

And there’s a silly running “joke” in the movie that a character named General Themes (played by Paul Guilfoyle), who hangs out at the White House, charges people money for snacks and drinks that are supposed to be free at the White House. When Kate finds out that she was conned into paying General Themes for free food and drinks, she gets very snippy and bratty about it, which seems to be her reaction to most things. Kate’s ranting about having to pay for snacks at the White House seems to be the movie’s heavy-handed way of showing that even in an impending apocalypse, when people should be worried about more important things, people will still go out of their way to get angry over petty things.

Two of the more memorable characters in “Don’t Look Up” are slick and superficial TV news co-hosts Brie Evantee (played by Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (played by Tyler Perry), who would rather talk about the status of the relationship between Riley and DJ Chello than talk about the apocalypse. Blanchett and Perry understood the assignment of being in a dark comedy, because their Brie and Jack characters are the only ones in “Don’t Look Up” who come closest to being characters that viewers can laugh at and laugh with, in these news anchors’ non-stop parade of vanity. Brie gets more screen time than Jack because the movie has a subplot about her personal life.

Brie and Jack host a program called “The Daily Rip” on a 24-hour news network. Kate and Randall are guests on the show multiple times. And each time, Brie and Jack dismiss and disrespect the warnings about the apocalypse. The first time that Kate and Randall are on “The Daily Rip,” Kate has a very angry tantrum and storms off of the show. Kate’s meltdown becomes an unflattering meme. Meanwhile, just because Brie flirts with Randall and flatters him, he suddenly becomes a sex symbol.

Kate’s relationship with Phillip doesn’t last when she becomes the laughingstock of the world, and he writes a tell-all article about her. She ends up working as a cashier at a convenience store that sells a lot of liquor called DrinkMo! (which is an obvious spoof of the BevMo! liquor store chain), where she meets a disheveled skateboarder named Yule (Timothée Chalamet), who comes into the store with a few friends. Yule is about 10 years younger than Kate, and he immediately flirts with her. You know where this is going, of course.

One of the worst things about “Don’t Look Up” is how predictable it is. And that predictability makes everything move along at a much more tedious pace. In addition to the terrible jokes, “Don’t Look Up” falters with cheap-looking visual effects, and the film editing is often careless and amateurish. “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of talented cast members, who get no cohesive direction in the movie. For example, Lawrence’s acting in the movie is very uneven: Sometimes she plays the comedy in a deapan way, while other times she’s way too over-the-top.

Other cast members try too hard to be funny. There’s a reason why DiCaprio rarely does comedies. Maybe he should stick to the dramas that he does best. Streep obviously used Trump as a template for her performance, so there’s nothing new and surprising about how she plays President Orlean. (And she’s played many bossy characters in other movies.) Rylance lets the shiny white teeth veneers he’s wearing as Peter do a lot of the acting for him.

Most the cast members seem to have been told to act as irritating as possible while in character. Only a few characters (such as Randall’s wife June and sidekick Dr. Oglethorpe) appear to be decent people. Riley and DJ Chello are too vapid to make an impact on the story.

And this is yet another “end of the world” movie where the male actors far outnumber the female actors. It’s not what the real world looks like at all, because females in reality are 51% of the world’s population. The same 51% female statistic applies to the U.S. population.

“Don’t Look Up” makes half-hearted attempts to show sexism, when people overlook Kate and shower attention on “sex symbol” Randall, who gets most of the glory for work that she did. But if the filmmakers intended to have any insightful commentary on women overcoming sexism, it’s overshadowed and negated by the movie making any woman in power (namely, President Orlean, NASA chief Dr. Calder and Brie) use sex to get what she wants and act lke groupies when they brag about powerful men they had sex with or dated. “Don’t Look Up” does not celebrate female empowerment. The movie degrades female empowerment, by making it look like women have to sleep with men to gain power, with a woman’s worth in the workplace being valued more for sex appeal rather than talent, personality and intelligence.

Dark comedies are supposed to offer acerbic wit in poking fun at society’s problems, but “Don’t Look Up” is only concerned with stringing together a bunch of scenes where people say and do tacky and annoying things. Simply put: “Don’t Look Up” is boring, sloppily made, and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. For a better-made and much-funnier all-star apocalyptic comedy film with adult jokes, watch 2013’s “This Is the End.”

Netflix will release “Don’t Look Up” in select U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021, on on Netflix on December 24, 2021.

Review: ‘The United States vs. Billie Holiday,’ starring Andra Day

February 25, 2021

by Carla Hay

Andra Day in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Photo by Takashi Seida/Hulu)

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday”

Directed by Lee Daniels

Culture Representation: Taking place in various parts of the U.S., primarily from 1947 to 1959, the dramatic film “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” features a predominantly African American cast (with some white people) who are connected in some way to legendary jazz singer Billie Holiday, who is the central character in the movie.

Culture Clash: Holiday’s drug addiction and her controversial civil rights song “Strange Fruit” made her a target of the FBI, which plotted to ruin her life.

Culture Audience: “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a melodramatic interpretation of Holiday’s life and don’t mind if some parts of the movie are inaccurate.

Trevante Rhodes and Garrett Hedlund in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (Photo byTakashi Seida/Hulu)

If people watched the 1972 movie “Lady Sings the Blues” and the 2021 movie “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” they would wonder if Billie Holiday led different lives in alternate universes. Both movies are about Holiday, but they are very different from each other. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” (directed by Lee Daniels) is the more sexually explicit, more realistic version of her life, compared to director Sidney J. Furie’s “Lady Sings the Blues” (starring Diana Ross as Holiday), which presented Holiday’s life as more of a romantic fantasy that was hindered by drug addiction. However, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” even with the benefit of a stunning performance by Andra Day and gorgeous costumes, misses the mark with an uneven tone that can’t decide if it wants to be a politically driven drama, a campy drug-addict saga or a sappy romance that was fabricated for the movie.

“Lady Sings the Blues” (written by Suzanne de Passe, Chris Clark and Terence McCloy) is more of a “rags to riches” story,” since it shows Holiday’s teen years and up to the height of her fame, but before she reached middle-age and died at the age of 44 in 1959. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday”(written by Suzan-Lori Parks) is more of a “riches to downfall” story, since the movie shows Holiday (portrayed by Day) as a New York City-based diva already at the height of her fame and chronicles her continued slide into self-destruction until she was on her deathbed.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has a brief flashback to Holiday’s childhood in Baltimore that shows her at 10 years old, living in a brothel and being told, against her will, that she will eventually have to service the clients. In real life, Holiday says she became a prostitute when she was 13. In “Lady Sings the Blues,” Holiday’s single mother Sadie is a live-in maid to a white family and let her daughter (whose birth name was Eleanora Fagan) spend time in the brothel that was run by a madam. However, in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” there is no such context to explain why the future Billie Holiday was living in a brothel as a child.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” aims to be a much more socially conscious movie than “Lady Sings the Blues” because it keeps hammering the point that the FBI conspired to ruin Holiday’s life, and her influential civil rights song “Strange Fruit” was the trigger. (The “Lady Sings the Blues” movie avoided pointing fingers at the FBI for Holiday’s downfall.) “Strange Fruit” (written by Abel Meeropol under the alias Lewis Allan) was released in 1939. It’s a poetically brutal commentary on racial injustice, particularly in describing the lynching of black people in the South.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” has an unnecessary narrative device that opens the movie in New York City in 1957, when Holiday is giving an audio interview to Reginald Lord Devine (played by Leslie Jordan), a flamboyant journalist who seems to have been written as the epitome of a white man from the South who is willfully ignorant about racial inequality. He drawls to Holiday: “Tell me, tell me, what’s it like to be a colored woman?”

This interview scenario then leads to flashbacks of Holiday’s life, primarily from 1947 to 1954, before culminating with her death in 1959. However, the writing, direction and editing for this movie are so choppy that the flashbacks are interrupted by going back to showing the annoying Devine asking silly questions. The movie would’ve been better off without this useless plot device of Holiday looking exasperated while she’s doing an interview that she clearly doesn’t want to do.

When Devine asks Holiday about “Strange Fruit” and why she creates problems for herself by singing it, she replies: “Ever seen a lynching? It’s about human rights. The government forgets that sometimes. They just want me to shut up and sing ‘All of Me.'”

The movie has repetitive scenes of Holiday arguing with people (such as a manager or nightclub owner) over wanting to sing “Strange Fruit,” but she’s often overruled. And when she does sing the song on stage at the Earle Theatre in Philadelphia in 1947, her performance is cut short and she’s literally carried off stage while she’s fighting the man who’s forcing her to leave. It’s a very slapstick-type of scene that looks too over-acted.

In “Lady Sings the Blues,” drug addiction was the villain. In “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” the FBI is an additional villain, specifically the U.S. Treasury Department’s Federal Bureau of Narcotics chief Harry Anslinger (played by Garrett Hedlund), who’s portrayed as ruthless, ambitious and very racist. (In case there’s any doubt that he’s racist, he uses the “n” word.)

In a 1947 government meeting in Washington, D.C., Anslinger says in some very corny dialogue: “Drugs and [a racial slur for black people] are a contamination to our great American civilization. Jazz music is the devil’s work. That’s why this Holiday has to be stopped.” Anslinger is such a stereotypical villain in the movie, that if his moustache had been long enough, he would’ve twirled it.

In this FBI meeting is attorney Roy Cohn (played by Damian Joseph Quinn), who would later become known as the right-hand man of U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy (played by Randy Davison) and their witch hunt against Communists. Much later in his life, Cohn was a “fixer” for many rich and famous clients, including Donald Trump. “Strange Fruit” is brought up in the meeting as a song that could incite riots, but Cohn says that trying to bust Holiday for inciting a riot would be a misdemeanor crime at worst. Cohn suggests to Anslinger that since Holiday is a well-known drug addict, it would be better to have her arrested for drugs.

And that’s why an African American FBI agent is recruited to go undercover and help the FBI arrest Holiday. His name is Jimmy Fletcher (played by Trevante Rhodes), who ends up falling deeply in love with Holiday. In fact, their romance (which is completely exaggerated for the movie) becomes such a big part of the plot that it looks very fake, especially when Fletcher ends up shooting heroin with Holiday and having shared hallucinations with her. Viewers will be rolling their eyes at this nonsense more than a junkie who’s high on drugs.

Another ridiculous thing about the movie is how in almost every performance of Holiday’s that’s shown, Fletcher and usually Anslinger are also in the audience, as if they have nothing better to do with their time than stalk her. Fletcher is portrayed as someone who’s woefully inept at being undercover. He’s also ordered to follow her on tour, but it isn’t long before Fletcher doesn’t even try to be professional, and he’s partying with Holiday and her entourage like a pathetic hanger-on.

Holiday’s bisexuality, which she was open about in real life, is briefly hinted at in scenes with Holiday and actress Tallulah Bankhead (played by Natasha Lyonne), who is only identified in the movie as a “close friend.” The well-known affair that these two women had in real life is toned down for the movie. When Anslinger interrogates Bankhead and asks her point-blank if the stories are true that she and Holiday are lovers, she doesn’t really answer the question. When journalist Devine mentions Bankhead in his awkward interview that keeps disrupting the movie’s already ragged flow, Holiday gets defensive and sidesteps the question.

As for the other lovers in Holiday’s life, the ones portrayed in the movie are two who were also her managers: John Levy (played by Tone Bell) and Louis McKay (played by Rob Morgan), who would become her second husband in 1957. (In real life, Levy was white, so the movie did a racial swap with this character.) And briefly depicted is Holiday’s first husband James Monroe (played by Erik LaRay Harvey), a pimp who became a trombonist in her band.

Monroe, Levy and McKay are all portrayed as selfish, abusive leeches, which many people who were close to Holiday say was how these three men were like in real life. It’s more realistic than how McKay (played by Billy Dee Williams) was depicted in “Lady Sings the Blues,” as her only steady lover and as a caring man who never abused her and never took advantage of her. To its credit, “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” doesn’t try to make it look like Holiday’s love life was that simple.

In fact, all of the men in Holiday’s life are depicted as using her in some way. Fletcher, who’s portrayed as the only “good man” in her love life, started out as using Holiday to further his career with the FBI. Her closest “friends” are on her payroll, including her saxophonist Lester Young (played by Tyler James Williams), who’s credited in real life with giving her the nickname Lady Day, and her trumpet player/drug dealer Joe Guy (played by Melvin Gregg). She also has two sassy personal assistants named Roslyn (played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph) and Miss Freddy (played by Miss Lawrence), who are the “court jesters” of this movie, since they provide most of the comic relief.

There’s a comedic scene that doesn’t work very well where Roslyn and Miss Freddy are invited to an elaborate funeral because Holiday has told them there’s been a death in her family. The death is shown to be serious enough that Holiday cancelled one of her shows. Roslyn and Miss Freddy go to the funeral, only to find out that it’s for Holiday’s dead Chihuahua. It’s definitely something that was fabricated for the movie, if only for the fact that planning this type of funeral would be hard to keep a secret from a celebrity’s personal assistants.

Holiday’s drug arrest in Philadelphia in 1947, as well as her subsequent imprisonment for one year, are covered in a rushed series of montages. It’s followed by a standout scene of her 1948 sold-out comeback performance at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. It was a breakthrough performance for a jazz artist at Carnegie Hall, which at the time was a venue for classical and opera music.

The FBI’s targeting of Holiday is unquestionably portrayed as racist harassment in this movie. “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” shows other ways that Holiday was discriminated against because of her race. These scenes show how, even with her star status, Holiday could not escape from the systemic racism that she encountered in her everyday life.

There’s a scene where Holiday and Bankhead go to Bankhead’s apartment building, but the African American elevator attendant (played by Furly Mac) refuses to let Holiday use the lobby’s elevator because it’s the building’s policy that black people have to use the service elevator in the back. Even though Bankhead offers to take the service elevator with her, Holiday throws a fit and leaves the building in a huff, while the pain of this discrimination is on her face as she stands by herself outside. In another scene, Holiday is scheduled to perform at a major live radio broadcast, only to find out before she’s ready to take the stage that she’s been replaced by a white female singer because of the “Strange Fruit” controversy.

However, the movie falls off the rails around the time Holiday was arrested for drug possession in San Francisco in 1949. The way that the trial is depicted is fairly absurd, and it’s where the movie starts to drown in the schmaltz of Holiday and Fletcher’s romance that was contrived for the movie. Fletcher is depicted as willing to ruin his career, just to be with Holiday, when that didn’t happen in real life. Fun fact though: Fletcher’s colleague Agent Sam Williams is played by Evan Ross, who is one of Diana Ross’ sons.

“The United States vs. Billie Holiday” is based on Johann Hari’s 2015 non-fiction book “Chasing the Scream,” which details the impact of America’s “war on drugs” and how people of color have been singled out more than white people as targets for drug arrests. Holiday’s troubles with the law are depicted as a precursor to the “war on drugs” that officially began when the Drug Enforcement Administration was formed in 1973 under then-U.S. president Richard Nixon.

However, this serious message of the film is cheapened by some dumb comedic scenes, dreadful dialogue and the unconvincing love affair between Holiday and Fletcher, who starts to romance her even more even after she’s found out that he works for the FBI. By all accounts in real life, Holiday preferred her men to be “bad boys” with shady reputations. Any sexual involvement with Fletcher would not have blossomed into the type of relationship where they’re making goo-goo eyes at each other while on a rowboat (as shown in one of the movie’s scenes), and he openly becomes her “tour boyfriend” while he’s on duty with the FBI.

Paramount Pictures was originally going to release “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” and it’s easy to see why the studio passed on it. The movie needed a massive rewrite and more cohesive direction, so that it would be more of an immersive experience instead of a series of scattershot, uneven scenes that sometimes have awkward transitions. That doesn’t mean the film is a complete disaster, but it should have been much better, considering all the talented people involved.

The high points of “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” are the electrifying performances on stage. Day (who’s a fantastic singer) does all of her own vocals in the movie. Some of the songs heard in the movie are “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness,” “God Bless the Child,” “Lover Man,” “I Cried for You,” “Them There Eyes,” “Gimme a Pigfoot and a Bottle of Beer,” “All of Me” and “Lady Sings the Blues.” And there’s a harrowing, impactful sequence of Holiday witnessing the aftermath of a lynching, which leads to her centerpiece performance of “Strange Fruit.”

Day brings a raspy, world-weary yet edgy quality to her overall performance as Holiday that is more authentic than Diana Ross’ interpretation of Holiday as an emotionally wounded waif in “Lady Sings the Blues.” (Ross got an Oscar nomination out of it.) The costume design and production design are well-done in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday.” However, all of it is not enough to overcome all the tonal misfires in “The United States vs. Billie Holiday,” which won’t stand as the definitive Billie Holiday movie. For a more accurate and better movie about Holiday’s life, watch the documentary “Billie” instead.

Hulu will premiere “The United States vs. Billie Holiday” on February 26, 2021.

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 a big shootout with police and the theives’ 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 in a city as big as New Orleans, it’s completely unrealistic to have only one investigator. 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 include 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: ‘Greyhound,’ starring Tom Hanks

July 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Hanks in “Greyhound” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Greyhound”

Directed by Aaron Schneider

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in the northern Atlantic Ocean in 1942, the World War II drama “Greyhound” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans and Latinos in very small speaking roles) portraying military men fighting at sea.

Culture Clash: A U.S. Navy veteran must command a ship called Greyhound that is protecting 37 other ships carrying much-needed supplies through a treacherous area of the Atlantic Ocean called the Black Pit, where Nazi German U-boats are known to attack.

Culture Audience: “Greyhound” will appeal primarily to World War II enthusiasts, while everyone else might be easily bored by the generic way that this story is told.

Tom Hanks in “Greyhound” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

There have been so many movies made about World War II, that any new movie about this subject matter needs to bring something interesting and compelling in order for the story to have a memorable impact. Unfortunately for “Greyhound,” a World War II drama written by and starring Tom Hanks, this movie ends up being a formulaic and predictable vanity project for Hanks.

Sony Pictures was originally going to release “Greyhound” in cinemas. But due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sony shifted the movie’s release exclusively to Apple TV+, perhaps because Sony executives came to the correct conclusion that “Greyhound” (directed by Aaron Schneider) really looks like a TV-movie instead of a full cinematic experience.

In “Greyhound,” Hanks portrays the fictional Captain Ernie Krause of the U.S. Navy in such a generically stoic manner that by the end of the film, people wouldn’t be able to tell you much about his personality at all. That’s not a good sign when Captain Krause is supposed to be at the center of the story.

The way that Captain Krause is written, he’s the American hero who’s able to save everyone else because of his quick thinking and fortitude. All the other characters in the movie are written as backdrops to Captain Krause. These supporting characters are so forgettable and written in such a vague way that people watching “Greyhound” wouldn’t be able to remember the names of five characters who aren’t Captain Krause in this movie. The names of the ships in this movie are more memorable than the names of the people.

“Greyhound,” whose main action take place over five days in February 1942, is about the newly appointed Captain Krause leading his first team of ships during the war. Captain Krause’s three ships that he’s commanding are escorting a convoy of 37 Allied ships carrying soldier supplies across the Atlantic Ocean to Liverpool, England. To get there, the ships have to pass through a dangerous area called the Black Pit, where Nazi German U-boats have been known to lurk. The Black Pit is also in an area of the Atlantic Ocean that’s beyond the range of protection from aircraft that usually escorts these ships.

Krause’s ship is named Greyhound. Some of the other ships that are part of the story include two British destroyer ships named Harry and Eagle; a Canadian corvette named Dicky; a U.S. rescue ship named Cadena; and a Greek merchant ship called Despotiko. This is a very U.S.-oriented story, since the non-American characters are not actually seen on camera. Only their voices are heard, such as when Captain Krause communicates with them by the ship’s radio transmitters.

Before the Greyhound ship embarks on its journey, the movie shows a little of bit of Captain Krause’s “tough but merciful” leadership style. Two subordinates named Flusser (played by Matthew Zuk) and Shannon (played by Jeff Burkes), who’ve obviously been in a fist fight with each other, are brought to Captain Krause to be disciplined.

“I will tolerate no more fisticuffs on my ship,” Captain Krause tells them in a stern manner, like a father lecturing his sons. Captain Krause tells the two men to resolve their differences. Flusser and Shannon say that they regret the incident. And then Captain Krause utters this pretentious line as a warning to the two men: “Repetition will bring hell from down high.”

During the mission, there a lot of shouting and repeating of Captain Krause’s commands. Captain Krause’s subordinates don’t get enough screen time to make a lasting impression during the mission, except for Charlie Cole (played by Stephen Graham) and Lieutenant Nystrom (played by Matt Helm), who don’t really do much but wait for Captain Krause to give them orders.

Charlie is the one whom Krause trusts and confides in the most, but his character is written as a shell of a man who just kind of stands around as an echo chamber for Krause. These supporting characters on the Greyhound ship were not written to have distinctive personalities from each other.

And since Hanks wrote the screenplay (which is adapted from C.S. Forester’s 1955 novel “The Good Shepherd”), it seems as if Hanks didn’t want to write any other characters in a way that they could possibly stand out and steal scenes from him. That’s why “Greyhound” looks like such a vanity project.

And when the inevitable happens—attacks from Nazi German U-boats—the movie’s suspense gets a lot better. But the action scenes overall are very formulaic and hold no surprises. We all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

The visual effects in “Greyhound” won’t win any awards. Some of the visuals are believable, while some are not. For example, there’s a scene where a ship gets blown up in the water. And although blood is shown in the water after the explosion, there’s no ship debris that’s shown in the bloodied water right after the explosion—as if the exploded ship just vanished into thin air. It’s an example of some of the unrealistic visuals that cheapen this movie.

Elisabeth Shue and Rob Morgan are listed as co-stars of “Greyhound,” but they really have cameos in the film that last less than 10 minutes each. Shue (the only woman with a speaking role in “Greyhound”) plays Captain Krause’s girlfriend Evelyn, nicknamed Evie. She has a brief flashback scene early in the film when Captain Krause and Evie exchange Christmas gifts in December 1941 when they meet up in a San Francisco hotel lobby.

Krause has even bought Evie a ticket to be with him in the Caribbean, where he’ll be training for his next mission. Krause tells Evie, “Come with me, so I can ask you to marry me on a tropical beach.” Evie politely declines, knowing that Krause is going into war combat, and tells him: “Let’s wait until we can be together.”

Morgan also has a thankless background role as a character name Cleveland, one of the African American subordinates on Greyhound who dress in formal waiter uniforms and serve food to Captain Krause. The only purpose these waiter characters have in the story is to fret about how Captain Krause hasn’t been eating the food that they serve him. It’s also mentioned multiple times in the film that Krause is such a brave and diligent captain during this mission that not only has he been too preoccupied to eat, he also hasn’t been sleeping either.

“Greyhound” is not a bad movie. But compared to gritty and classic World War II films such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Dunkirk,” it’s just a very disappointing and trite film, where the action and character development are far inferior to other World War II movies. “Greyhound” wastes the talent of actors such as Shue and Morgan, and it elevates Hanks’ Captain Krause character to such a lofty and squeaky-clean level that it scrubs all of the personality out of him.

Apple TV+ premiered “Greyhound” on July 10, 2020.