Review: ‘Golden Arm,’ starring Mary Holland, Betsy Sodaro, Olivia Stambouliah, Eugene Cordero, Dawn Luebbe, Dot-Marie Jones and Ron Funches

May 7, 2021

by Carla Hay

Betsy Sodaro and Mary Holland (both arm wrestling) in “Golden Arm” (Photo courtesy of Utopia Distribution)

“Golden Arm”

Directed by Maureen Bharoocha

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kanasas, Oklahoma, and a few other U.S. states, the comedy film “Golden Arm” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class and the working-class.

Culture Clash: A mild-mannered baker is recruited by her truck-driving best friend to enter an arm-wrestling tournament.

Culture Audience: “Golden Arm” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a foul-mouthed but ultimately sentimental and predictable comedy film.

Dawn Luebbe and Olivia Stambouliah in “Golden Arm” (Photo courtesy of Utopia Distribution)

A movie as formulaic as the comedy “Golden Arm” can be enjoyable if the cast members make the film more interesting. Thanks largely to a charming performance by lead actress Mary Holland, “Golden Arm” is a breezy and occasionally raunchy story of how a shy baker ended up as a serious contender in an arm-wrestling tournament. Of course, the story is about much more than winning the contest and more about how what she discovers about herself along the way.

“Golden Arm” is the feature-film directorial debut of Maureen Bharoocha, who has a background in directing television (such as ABC’s “Jimmy Kimmel Live”) and short films. The “Golden Arm” screenplay (written by Ann Marie Allison and Jenna Milly) hits all the major clichés of sports comedies and buddy comedies. There’s a big sports competition with a high-stakes prize for the protagonists. There’s a duo of opposite personalities who are stuck together while traveling, with some inevitable bickering and a falling out or two. And, of course, there’s a villain who’s intent on defeating the protagonists.

In “Golden Arm,” Holland portrays a meek and neurotic baker named Melanie, who is in her mid-30s and who lives somewhere in Kansas. Melanie is financially struggling to keep her bakery in business. She’s the bakery’s only employee. And her personal life is also in a rut, because her marriage of five years has ended in divorce. The movie’s first scene with Melanie features her arrogant ex-husband Steve (played by Matt Newell) showing up unannounced at the bakery so that Melanie can sign the final divorce papers.

As an example of Melanie being afraid of confrontation, the movie shows that she has a regular customer named Kristen (played by Lauren Knutti), a snooty yoga instructor who orders the same thing every time: a cup of coffee, which automatically comes with a free scone. Kristen makes a point of demanding the scone, she takes one bite, and then makes sure that Melanie sees her throws the scone away in the bakery’s trash bin. Melanie displays a cheerful “the customer is always right” attitude, but inside she’s seething at Kristen’s insulting rudeness.

And speaking of rude people, Melanie’s best friend/former college roommate is the loud and obnoxious Danny (played by Betsy Sodaro), who drives a big rig truck for a living. In her free time, Danny loves to hang out in bars, arm wrestle, and pick fights with unsuspecting people. However, Danny is fiercely loyal to the friends that she has, which include a group of female arm wrestlers called The Dominators.

The opening of “Golden Arm” shows Danny in a seedy-looking bar and losing a wrestling match to someone who’s an even bigger menace than Danny is: Brenda (played by Olivia Stambouliah), also known by her arm wrestling name The Bone Crusher. Danny loses so badly that her wrist is fractured. In retaliation, Danny head butts Brenda, and they get into a big brawl.

Outside the bar, Danny gripes about Brenda to Danny’s friends Jerry (played by Ahmed Bharoocha), Rambea (played by Veronique Parker) and Momo (played by Ashley Mandanas): “She’s getting rid of all of the competition so that she can get the Grand Slam. And there’s no way in hell I’m going to let her win this tournament! We need somebody new, somebody she’s not expecting. We need a ringer.”

You know what that means. It isn’t long before Danny shows up at Melanie’s bakery and asks her to go on a big rig haul with her to make some money and have a gal pal road trip. Melanie and Danny haven’t seen each other in a while, but they still consider each other to be close friends. Later in the movie, there are a few flashbacks of Melanie and Danny during their college roommate days, when they used to smoke marijuana and arm wrestle for fun.

At first, Melanie immediately declines Danny’s offer to go on a road trip. Melanie’s excuse is that she can’t afford to take time off from work. But when Danny tells her that they will make enough money to help Melanie pay her increasing debt and bills, Melanie changes her mind and calculates that she can afford to close the bakery for about a week to go on the trip.

During their road trip in Danny’s truck, viewers find out that Melanie and Danny’s favorite song is Heart’s 1980s hit “These Dreams.” Cue the scene where they sing along to “These Dreams” in the truck. It’s not the last time the song will be heard in the movie. Danny and Melanie also stop at a bar, where a misunderstanding happens between the bar’s no-nonsense owner Randy (played by Kate Flannery) and Melanie.

To smooth things over, Danny suggests that Melanie and Randy arm wrestle each other, and the winner will get some cash. Some of the bar patrons take bets. The odds are in favor of Randy, because of her tough demeanor. But viewers shouldn’t be surprised when Melanie wins, because why else would Danny think that Melanie was a good candidate to be in an arm wrestling tournament on short notice?

This small victory boosts Melanie’s confidence. And so, Danny decides the time is right to reveal the real agenda for the trip. Danny tells Melanie about the national arm wrestling tournament in Oklahoma City that she wants Melanie to enter. Melanie reluctantly agrees to compete in the tournament because the grand prize is $15,000.

Melanie hasn’t arm wrestled in years and feels like her wrestling skills are rusty. During their road trip, Melanie reluctantly agrees to do some training with a tough-talking taskmaster named Big Sexy (played by Dot-Marie Jones), who is a friend of Danny’s. Big Sexy, who has 15 arm-wrestling world titles, is shocked to find out that Melanie is actually a powerhouse arm wrestler.

However, Melanie gets angry about Danny pressuring her to be in the tournament, and they argue about it. She tells Danny: “I’m just so sick of everyone dictating my life! I never put myself first! I don’t listen to my gut!”

Eventually, Melanie calms down and says she’ll still be in the tournament. Melanie and Danny continue on to Oklahoma City. However, Melanie keeps getting plagued by self-doubt, and there are more moments in the film where she might or might not quit the tournament. The event is being held at a place called Star Arena, which really just looks like a large dive bar.

Meanwhile, Melanie has an awkward “meet cute” moment with a potential love interest named Greg (played by Eugene Cordero), when they both end up in their underwear in the same dressing room. Greg is a Major League Baseball umpire, he’s single, and there’s an immediate attraction between him and Melanie. Their blossoming romance is sweet and a counterbalance to a lot of the crudeness in the movie.

As watchable as Holland is in “Golden Arm,” a lot of viewers might find Sodaro’s Danny character very grating and hard to take. Danny’s over-aggressiveness is best served in small doses. However, there are enough comedic moments with Danny that might give people some chuckles. One of the funniest running gags is the lusty relationship that Danny has with tournament emcee/referee Carl (played by Ron Funches), which results in some amusing slapstick comedy.

Stambouliah’s portrayal of ruthless villain Deborah is very caricature-like. Deborah, who is constantly snarling or smirking, dresses in an outer corset and other clothes that look like she watched too many episodes of “Xena: Warrior Princess.” Deborah has a sniveling sidekick named Tessie (played by Dawn Luebbe), who brings some occasional laughs to the story.

Although “Golden Arm” plays out exactly like you think it does, there’s enough originality in the story so that it isn’t a completely paint-by-numbers project. Aparna Nancherla has a small but scene-stealing role as an arm wrestler named Coco Cherie, who dresses like a mermaid cosplayer. Coco Cherie has a hilarious monologue in the movie about the differences between labia and testicles and how they can be used in metaphors for bravery.

Melanie’s experience in this wrestling tournament doesn’t go very smoothly, because “Golden Arm” is a stereotypical underdog story. She goes through three different name changes for her wrestling persona, which is also symbolic of Melanie’s search for self-confidence and her true identity during this life-changing trip. All of the production elements of “Golden Arm” are solid, although at times it looks like a made-for-TV movie. And that’s okay. Not all entertaining movies have to be Oscar-worthy, just like not all arm wrestlers can be champions.

Utopia Distribution released “Golden Arm” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Trolls World Tour,’ featuring the voices of Anna Kendrick, Justin Timberlake, Rachel Bloom, Sam Rockwell, Anderson .Paak, James Corden and Kelly Clarkson

April 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and Branch (voiced by Justin Timberlake) in “Trolls World Tour” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Trolls World Tour”

Directed by Walt Dohrn and David P.  Smith

Culture Representation: This animated film sequel to 2016’s “Trolls” has a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Latino and Asian) voicing characters based on troll dolls.

Culture Clash: The trolls live in different territories based on the music of their lifestyles, and the queen of the rock territory wants to take over everything.

Culture Audience: “Trolls World Tour” is a family-friendly film that will appeal mostly to kids, adults who young at heart and people who like a variety of hit songs.

Barb (voiced by Rachel Bloom) in “Trolls World Tour” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

On Broadway, there are jukebox musicals that string together a plot in between the performance of hit songs. And now, the jukebox musical trend has reached animated films with “Trolls World Tour,” which is a showcase for some original songs but mostly retro hits from various genres of music. This sequel to 2016’s “Trolls” packs in even more stars in the voice cast than its predecessor movie. The result is an energetic and vibrant ride that is utterly predictable but should be a crowd-pleaser for its intended audience.

Even though the plot of “Trolls World Tour” is pretty simple, there are five people who are credited with writing the screenplay: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger, Maya Forbes, Wallace Wolodarsky and Elizabeth Tippet. The large writing team for this movie is also a reflection of the huge increase in the size of the “Trolls World” voice cast, compared to the first “Trolls” movie. Walt Dohrn, who co-directed “Trolls” with Mike Mitchell, returns as a director on “Trolls World Tour,” but this time with David P. Smith as co-director. Dohrn voices several of the supporting characters in both movies.

Viewers of “Trolls World Tour” don’t need to see the first “Trolls” movie to understand what’s going on in this sequel, but it helps if more of a backstory is needed for the two central characters in both films: Princess Poppy (voiced by Anna Kendrick) and her best friend/love interest Bark (voiced by Justin Timberlake). In “Trolls,” Bark (who tends to be overly pessimistic) became a reluctant ally and then eventual best friend to Poppy (who tends to be overly optimistic) in the Trolls’ quest to defeat the sad and angry creatures known as Bergens, whose goal was to make everyone in the world as miserable as they are.

In “Trolls World Tour,” the chief villain is Princess Barb (voiced by Rachel Bloom) a rocker girl who leads the Trolls whose music of choice is hard rock/heavy metal. Ozzy Osbourne is perfectly cast for the voice of King Thrash, Barb’s father. Barb’s goal is to have rock music take over all six territories in the Troll Kingdom. Each territory represents the music that embodies the Trolls’ lifestyle in each territory.

The other five territories represent the music genres of pop, techno, country, funk and classical. In the beginning of the movie, Barb and her minions arrive in a fleet of sharks to take over the techno territory. She takes a valuable guitar string from the Techno trolls and then she and her army of rock Trolls then move on to conquer the next territory.

When news of the invasion hits the pop territory, Poppy thinks that Barb has good intentions to unite all of the Trolls. But her father King Peppy (voiced by Dohrn) reveals a secret from the Trolls’ historical past: The Trolls almost had a civil war over their different tastes in music, so the music territories were created so Trolls who liked the same genre of music could live together in harmony. Each territory was bestowed with a magical guitar string that has the power to control that territory.

Barb is on a mission to collect all six of the magical strings to put them on a guitar. Once the guitar has the six strings on it, she’ll play an “ultimate power chord” that will give her and rock music complete control over all the Troll territories. Since “Trolls World Tour” is an animated jukebox musical, Barb belts out several rock songs along the way, including Scorpions’ “Rock You Like a Hurricane,” Osbourne’s “Crazy Train” and Heart’s “Barracuda.”

“Trolls World Tour” has several jokes about clichés and criticisms that go with certain music genres. The movie pokes fun at pop for being simple, repetitive “earworm” music. Rock is parodied for attracting low-life burnouts who wear mullets or mohawks and do “devil horn” signs. Country music has a stereotype of being full of sad songs and fans who act like rednecks or country bumpkins.

Classical music is labeled as “boring.” Techno gets criticism for its artists not playing “real” instruments. And funk (whose territory is populated with African American voice actors) calls out rap and pop for over-using funk samples. The original song “It’s All Love (History of Funk)” is a clap back to all the music that lifted funk riffs to make hit songs and funk artists not being paid properly for these samples.

Not for nothing, George Clinton (co-founder of Parliament-Funkadelic, one of the most-sampled groups of all time) is cast as new Trolls character King Quincy, who rules the funk territory Vibe City with Queen Essence (voiced by Mary J. Blige). The funk royals have a son named Prince D, voiced by hip-hop star Anderson .Paak, who performs the original song “Don’t Slack” with Timberlake in the film.  And returning Trolls character Cooper (voiced by Ron Funches) from the pop territory finds out that he has a connection to the funk territory.

“Trolls World Tour” once again has Poppy convincing a reluctant and wary Branch to go with her to help stop the chief villain before it’s too late. “Trolls” characters that are also in “Trolls World Tour” are loyal Biggie (voiced by James Corden) and wisecracking Guy Diamond (voiced by Kunal Nayyar), who provide some of the comic relief in the film

But there are so many new characters in “Trolls World Tour” that the movie could feel overstuffed for people who have short attention spans and might have trouble keeping track of them all. Guy now has a son named Tiny Diamond (voiced by Kenan Thompson). Delta Dawn (voiced by Kelly Clarkson) is a sassy, big-haired redhead who is a singer and leader of the country music territory.

Also in the country music territory is Hickory (voiced by Sam Rockwell), a multitalented and brave cowboy who befriends Poppy, much to Branch’s chagrin. Branch has been trying to tell Poppy that he loves her but is afraid to do it, so he gets jealous when it looks like Hickory is winning Poppy’s admiration. Hickory is the biggest standout new character in “Trolls World Tour” since he and his “yee-haw” can-do personality get a lot of screen time.

Some other supporting characters in the movie are the bounty hunters that Barb hires to help her track down the elusive pop guitar string that Poppy has in her possession. The bounty hunters are smooth jazz musician Chaz (voiced by Jamie Dornan), a clarinet-playing Kenny G type who plays hypnotic music that gets on people’s nerves. The other bounty hunters are musical groups representing reggaeton, K-Pop and yodelers. J Balvin has a cameo as the reggaeton leader, and his song “Mi Gente” is in the movie.

There are several familiar hits that get the medley treatment in “Trolls World Tour,” including Spice Girls’ “Wannabe,” Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch’s “Good Vibrations,” Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” Baha Men’s “Who Let the Dogs Out” and LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem.” Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” has the lyrics reworked with the word “trolls” replacing the word “girls.” Dierks Bentley’s song “Leaving Lonesome Flats” (written for “Trolls World Tour”) is featured in a country music segment. And an electronic-dance music concert in the movie’s opening scene has the DJ playing Daft Punk’s “One More Time.”

“Trolls World Tour” music directors are Timberlake and Ludwig Goransson, the musician who won an Oscar and a Grammy for the “Black Panther” score, as well as Grammys for co-writing and producing Childish Gambino’s “This Is America.” Timberlake and Goransson co-wrote and produced the majority of the original songs in “Trolls World Tour,” such as the ballad “Perfect for Me,” “Don’t Slack” and “Just Sing (Trolls World Tour),” which is the movie’s obvious signature anthem. The music is very catchy, but won’t be as huge as Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop The Feeling!,” the Oscar-nominated song from the first “Trolls” movie.

In its plot about Barb the villain trying to make all the Trolls conform to the way she wants them to be, “Trolls World Tour” has a message that people can live peacefully while respecting each other’s differences. It’s a message that comes wrapped in a lot of musical numbers and action sequences, but it’s something that audiences can take to heart. And along the way, some people might learn more about music genres that they might have previously dismissed because of certain prejudices.

Universal Pictures/DreamWorks Animation released “Trolls World Tour” for rental only on digital and VOD on April 10, 2020.

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