Review: ‘Kung Fu Panda 4,’ starring the voices of Jack Black, Awkwafina, Bryan Cranston, James Hong, Ian McShane, Ke Huy Quan, Dustin Hoffman and Viola Davis

March 7, 2024

by Carla Hay

Po (voiced by Jack Black) and Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina) in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4”

Directed by Mike Mitchell; co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine

Culture Representation: Taking place in a mythical version of China, the animated film “Kung Fu Panda 4” features a cast of characters portraying various talking animals.

Culture Clash: Grandmaster Warrior/kung fu fighter Po (a panda) and a rebellious fox named Zhen go on a quest to defeat an evil, shape-shifting villain named The Chameleon. 

Culture Audience: “Kung Fu Panda 4” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, the movie’s headliners, and predictable but entertaining animation films that blend comedy and adventure.

The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), center, in “Kung Fu Panda 4” (Image courtesy of DreamWorks Animation)

“Kung Fu Panda 4” sticks to a certain formula that’s made entertaining, thanks to a talented voice cast, light comedy and dazzling visuals. The absence of the Furious Five in this story will disappoint some viewers, but the adventure doesn’t get boring. “Kung Fu Panda 4” is the type of sequel that exists to set up a continuation of this franchise with perspectives that were different from previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies.

Directed by Mike Mitchell and co-directed by Stephanie Ma Stine, “Kung Fu Panda 4” is part of the franchise series that began with 2008’s “Kung Fu Panda” and continued with 2011’s “Kung Fu Panda 2” and 2016’s “Kung Fu Panda 3.” In the first three “Kung Fu Panda” movies, the title character Po (voiced by Jack Black) had adventures with a group of kung fu masters called the Furious Five: Tigress (voiced by Angela Jolie), Monkey (voiced by Jackie Chan), Viper (voiced by Lucy Liu), Crane (voiced by David Cross) and Mantis (voiced by Seth Rogen). Po evolves from being an awkward panda to being a full-fledged kung fu warrior, under the guidance of an elderly mentor named Shifu (voiced by Dustin Hoffman), who also trained the Furious Five.

It’s mentioned at the beginning of “Kung Fu Panda 4” (which takes place ina fantasy version of China, just like the previous “Kung Fu Panda” movies) that the Furious Five are off doing separate heroic deeds. (In other words, the “Kung Fu Panda 4” filmmakers couldn’t or didn’t want to pay the money it would take to bring the original Furious Five voice actors back as principal characters for this sequel.) Po is now a famous Dragon Warrior who loves to fight and almost always wins his battles against criminals where he lives in the Valley of Peace.

And that’s why Po is surprised when Shifu tells Po that Po is being “promoted” to become the Spiritual Leader of the Valley of Peace, as a replacement for the retiring Master Oogway, an elderly Galápagos tortoise. Po doesn’t think of himself as having enough knowledge about spirtuality to be qualified for this position. He only wants to do what he knows he’s good at doing: “Kicking butt and taking names,” Po says. Shifu gives reluctant Po the task of choosing Po’s successor as the next Dragon Warrior, but Po doesn’t think he’s qualified to do that task either.

Because he is the reigning Dragon Warrior, Po has been given possession of a magical staff that can open different realms. The staff only works if it is in the possession of someone who has been given the staff, not someone who steals or buys the staff. It should come as no surprise that this staff becomes the sought-after object in this story of good versus evil.

Po soon meets a female Corsac fox named Zhen (voiced by Awkwafina), a wily and sarcastic thief from Juniper City, a place that is bustling with high energy but also danger. It’s the type of place where innocent-looking kids can turn into mean little terrors within a split second. Zhen soon gets caught during a robbery and is tossed in jail.

Zhen tells Po that there’s an evil shapeshifting sorceress named The Chameleon (voiced by Viola Davis), who has super-strength powers and an army of Komodo dragons. The Chameleon who wants the staff, in order to have world domination. The Chameleon is already wreaking havoc by having several crime lords under her control in the surrounding areas. She forces these nefarious bosses to give her at least half of their bounty. The crime lords hang out at a place called the Den of Thieves, where they are led by Han (voiced by Ke Huy Quan), a pangolin who can change himself into a ball the size of a boulder.

Po naturally wants to stop The Chameleon. Zhen tells Po that she knows how to find The Chameleon. Po makes a deal with Zhen: He will get Zhen out of jail and get her jail sentence reduced if she can bring him to the place where The Chameleon is. Po figures that if he will soon have to gve up the title of Dragon Warrior, he wants to go out in a blaze of glory. The majority of “Kung Fu Panda 4” is about Zhen and Po’s quest to find The Chameleon and encountering several obstacles and challenges along the way.

It’s a secretive trip that Po doesn’t disclose to his family. Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong) and Po’s biological father Li (voiced by Bryan Cranston)—whose rivalry was resolved after they met in “Kung Fu Panda 3″—join forces in “Kung Fu Panda 4” to find Po when he goes missing. Mr. Ping is a nervous goose, while Li has a lot of masculine bravado, so these two opposite personalities (who occasionally argue) are fodder of a lot the comedic rapport between these two fathers.

During the time and Zhen and Po spend time together and get to know each other better, they find out that they both spent most of their childhoods as orphans. Zhen says she was taken in and raised by someone who taught street smarts to Zhen. It’s at this point in the story where it might be very easy for some viewers to figure out what’s going to happen.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” voice cast members Black and Awkwafina have done several animated films where they are larger-than-life, comedic characters. It’s a skill set that not all performers have, but Black and Awkwafina excel at it, even if some viewers might think Awkwafina’s voice is irritating. As for the Chameleon character, Davis gives a very divalicious performance as a villain who is both glamorous and menacing.

“Kung Fu Panda 4” also marks the return of snow leopard Tai Lung (voiced by Ian McShane), who was the chief villain in the first “Kung Fu Panda” movie. Other supporting characters in “Kung Fu Panda 4” are Captain Fish (voiced by Ronny Chieng), a green arowana living in a pelican’s mouth; Granny Boar (voiced by Lori Tan Chinn), who uses her tusks and weapons; and PandaPig (voiced by MrBeast), a pig with certain panda characteristics, who is at the Dragon Warrior Tournament. One of the best-looking fight sequences in “Kung Fu Panda 4” involves Po and some of the other characters in shadows.

Sometimes, when there’s a long gap between movies in a franchise, the movie that closes that gap can be a very stale cash grab that seems outdated. However, the throughline between “Kung Fu Panda 3” and “Kung Fu Panda 4” manages to keep the story and characters fresh enough to deliver a crowd-pleasing film. “Kung Fu Panda” is not going to win any major awards, but it fulfills its purpose to be pleasant diversion that people of many generations can enjoy.

Universal Pictures will release “Kung Fu Panda 4” in U.S. cinemas on Mach 8, 2024.

Review: ‘Inspector Sun,’ starring the voices of Ronny Chieng, Emily Kleimo, Jennifer Childs Greer, Rich Orlow, Scott Greer, Iain Batchelor and Jeanette Grace Gonglewski

November 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Inspector Sun (voiced by Ronny Chieng) and Janey (voiced by Emily Kleimo) in “Inspector Sun” (Image courtesy of Viva Pictures)

“Inspector Sun”

Directed by Julio Soto Gurpide

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1934, mostly on a seaplane traveling from Shanghai to San Francisco, the animated film “Inspector Sun” features a cast of characters portraying different types of insects.

Culture Clash: A spider detective must solve a murder mystery that took place on a luxury seaplane. 

Culture Audience: “Inspector Sun” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a comedic animated film that is inspired by Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels.

Bugsy Spindlethorpe (voiced by Scott Greer) and Arabella Killtop (voiced by Jennifer Childs Greer ) in “Inspector Sun” (Image courtesy of Viva Pictures)

“Inspector Sun” is a film that manages to be lightweight and somewhat jumbled at the same time. However, it’s satisfactory animation geared mostly to children who are under 10 years old. The story is mildly entertaining for people who like murder mysteries.

Directed by Julio Soto Gurpide and written by Rocco Pucillo, “Inspector Sun” (also titled “Inspector Sun and the Curse of the Black Widow”) was originally released as a Spanish-laguage movie in 2022. An English-language version was released in 2023. The movie isn’t specific to one nationality, so the language transition is seamless. The story is about insects that talk like humans. All the voice actors listed here are in the English-language version of “Inspector Sun.”

In the movie (which takes place in 1934), Inspector Sun (voiced by Ronny Chieng) is a widower detective who lives in Shanghai. He is very intelligent but not very sociable. In the beginning of the film, Inspector Sun leads a mission to catch a criminal, who is apprehended. However, during this hunt, Inspector Sun caused an explosion that injured several people, so he is fired.

Inspector then decides to go on vacation, so he boards a luxury seaplane going from Shanghai to San Francisco. He meets a talkative orphan named Janey (voiced by Emily Kleimo), who offers to be his assistant. He declines her offer, but Janey tags along with Inspector Sun anyway.

Inspector Sun has been invited on this trip by a friend named Mr. Scarab (voiced by Rich Orlow), a rhinoceros beetle who works on the seaplane as the chief of security. It isn’t long before a murder happens. Dr. Bugsy Spindlethorp (voiced by Scott Geer) was a millionaire funnel-web spider who was found dead in a spiderweb that was not his. Inspector Sun had met and his wife briefly in the plane’s grand ballroom during dinner.

Taking inspiration from Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot novels, “Inspector Sun” then becomes a whodunit mystery with an eccentric detective leading the investigation. Bugsy’s wife Arabella Killtop (played by Jennifer Childs Greer) is a black widow spider who becomes an immediate suspect. Things get complicated for Inspector Sun because there’s a mutual attraction between him and Arabella.

Other characters that are part of the investigation are the plane’s Captain Skeleton, a neurotic housefly that wears a vest and tie; Mr. Gill Tea (voiced by Paul Louis Miller), a mantis assassin; and Lady Vatchu (voiced by Jeanette Grace Gonglewski), a passenger who has baby children. Other characters in the mix are a police officer named Lieutenant Mac (voiced by Orlow); Inspector Sun’s longtime enemy Red Locust (also voice by Orlow); and a character called Ant Queen (voiced by Gonglewski).

The movie’s plot has several twists and turns. However, it’s enough to say that Bugsy’s widow Arabella reveals Bugsy had no real money and his fortune was in his work. There’s also a valuable orb that is sought-after by multiple characters in the story.

The characters in “Inspector Sun” are written well-enough for viewers to keep viewer interest. The dynamic between Inspector Sun and Janey evolves from him treating her like an unwelcome pest to him having growing respect for her and treating her like a protégée. Janey does some things that are crucial to helping the investigation.

The visuals for “Inspector Sun” will appeal to people who like the visual style of “The Addams Family” animated movies. (Black widow Arabella looks like she could fit right in with the Addams Family.) The murder mystery plot gets very convoluted at one point (just like a spider’s web), but viewers with patience should enjoy the most adventurous part of the movie that happens in the last third of the film. “Inspector Sun,” which does a nice job of balancing comedy and drama, is a good option for anyone looking for family-friendly animation.

Viva Pictures released “Inspector Sun” in select U.S. cinemas on October 27, 2023. The movie was released in Spain on December 28, 2022.

Review: ‘Joy Ride’ (2023), starring Ashley Park, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Sabrina Wu

July 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Stephanie Hsu, Sherry Cola, Ashley Park and Sabrina Wu in “Joy Ride” (Photo by Ed Araquel/Lionsgate)

“Joy Ride” (2023)

Directed by Adele Lim

Some language in Mandarin and Korean with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, China, South Korea and France, the comedy film “Joy Ride” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Four Asian American women in their late 20s have misadventures in China, where one of the women is on a business trip and tries to find her birth mother. 

Culture Audience: “Joy Ride” will appeal primarily to people who can tolerate raunchy comedies about the ups and downs of friendships.

Sabrina Wu, Sherry Cola, Stephanie Hsu and Ashley Park in “Joy Ride” (Photo by Ed Araquel/Lionsgate)

“Joy Ride” earns its reputation for being a movie for “mature audiences only.” Some of the fantasy elements of this comedy don’t work very well, but the snappy dialogue and the chemistry between the cast members make “Joy Ride” highly entertaining to watch. The movie recycles some elements from other comedy films about friends on a misadventurous trip, such as 2009’s “The Hangover,” 2011’s “Bridesmaids” and 2017’s “Girls Trip.” However, “Joy Ride” has plenty of originality on its own, including a story told from an Asian American female perspective.

Directed by Adele Lim, “Joy Ride” was written by Cherry Chevapravatdumrong and Teresa Hsiao. Lim, Chevapravatdumrong and Hsiao are also three of the producers of “Joy Ride,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. There’s a lot of authenticity in “Joy Ride” that has to do with the fact that Asian American women are principal leaders on the creative team in this movie that is centered on Asian American women. All four of the main characters in “Joy Ride” are fully formed human beings and not hollow stereotypes, although there are some clichés in certain situations that are played for laughs.

Too often, Asian women are stereotyped in movies as subservient or tragic figures. “Joy Ride” is a giant and defiant middle finger to those stereotypes. At its core, “Joy Ride” (which is Lim’s feature-film directorial debut) is about true friendship, honesty, and being comfortable with one’s own identity. “Joy Ride” is far from being preachy, but it does offer some meaningful life lessons amid all the vulgarity and extreme comedy.

The beginning of “Joy Ride” shows how the friendship started between the two characters whose relationship gets the most screen time in the movie: Audrey Sullivan and Lolo Chen. They both met when they were 5 years old. Audrey’s family moved to the town of White Hills, Washington (a Seattle suburb), where Lolo and her family live have lived for a number of years. (Lennon Yee has the role Audrey at age 5, while Belle Zhang has the role of Lolo at age 5.) Audrey and Lolo are each the only child of their parents.

Audrey was adopted as a baby from China by a white married couple named Mary Sullivan (played by Annie Mumolo) and Joe Sullivan (played by David Denman), who are loving and attentive but not completely in touch with giving Audrey enough exposure to her Asian heritage. Audrey has lived in predominantly white areas her entire life. Lolo’s parents are Jenny Chen (played by Debbie Fan) and Wey Chen (played by Kenneth Liu), who are Chinese immigrants who own and operate a Chinese-food restaurant.

When they meet at 5 years old, Audrey is obedient and shy. Lolo is rebellious and outspoken. During Audrey’s first day at her new school, she is bullied by some white boys for being Asian. Lolo’s reaction is to punch the boy who is the cruelest to Audrey. It sets the tone for the friendship between Audrey and Lolo, who are the only Asian girls in their neighbhorhood. (In flashbacks, Isla Rose Hall has the role Audrey at age 12, while Chloe Pun has the role of Lolo at age 12.)

Audrey and Lolo are so close, they have a sisterly friendship. Their personalities stay the same into adulthood, except Audrey becomes more confident as an adult. The majority of “Joy Ride” shows Audrey (played by Ashley Park) and Lolo (played by Sherry Cola) when they are both 29 years old.

Audrey has grown up to be a responsible and successful corporate attorney at a law firm where she is the only Asian attorney. The movie makes a point of showing that almost every attorney at the firm is a white man. Audrey, who is accustomed to being around mostly white people, does what she can to fit in at this male-dominated law firm, including playing tennis with her male colleagues.

Lolo is a struggling artist whose specialty is making kitschy erotic art. For example, one of her art displays is a plastic recreation of her playground from her childhood, but with things such as a penis-shaped slide. An illustration she has made of a flower is supposed to resemble a vagina. It’s mentioned several times in the movie that Lolo is a sexually fluid “free spirit” who indulges in drugs and believes in having an unrestricted “sex-positive” lifestyle.

Audrey is under pressure because she is about to go on a business trip to Beijing, China, where she is expected to close a deal with an important potential client, who is a wealthy Chinese businessman named Chao Lin. If she closes this deal, it could mean a possible promotion for Audrey, who wants to become a partner in this law firm. Audrey’s boss Frank (played by Timothy Simons) is casually condescending in his racial attitudes and goes overboard in trying to appear like he’s politically “woke,” even though it’s obvious he dislikes everything that has to do with being politically correct.

Audrey’s boss and her other colleagues expect Audrey to have some kind of special advantage in closing the deal, just because she is Asian. Audrey doesn’t know how to speak Mandarin, but she pretends that she does because she wants the people at her law firm to think that she’s well-educated about China and in touch with her Chinese roots. “Joy Ride” has constant themes about how pretending to be someone you’re not can ending up backfiring in damaging ways.

Audrey and Lolo decide to go on this business trip together, partially because Lolo can speak Mandarin, and partially because Lolo just wants to get away from her life in the U.S. for a while. Lolo plans to visit family members in China. Lolo also says that she plans to hook up with basketball star Baron Davis (playing a version of himself), who will be in Beijing at the same time because he’s playing for a Chinese basketball team. Lolo is addicted to social media and does a lot of livestreaming throughout the trip.

Even though Audrey insists that this trip is mainly going to be business for her, there would be no “Joy Ride” movie if that turned out to be true. Audrey also has plans to visit her college best friend/roommate Katherine, nicknamed Kat (played by Stephanie Hsu), a Chinese American who has become a famous movie/TV actress in China. Throughout the movie, Lolo and Kat have a rivalry where they try to prove who is Audrey’s “real” best friend. It’s very reminiscent of the friendship rivalries that were in “Bridesmaids” and “Girls Trip.”

One person whom Audrey does not want to visit in China is her biological/birth mother, who was an unwed teenager when she gave Audrey up for adoption. The only thing that Audrey has of her mother is a photo of her mother holding Audrey as a newborn baby. Lolo can read Mandarin and notices that the back of the photo has the name of the adoption agency and the name of Audrey’s birth mother.

Before leaving for the trip, Lolo offered to go with Audrey to the adoption agency in China to try to find Audrey’s birth mother. It’s an offer that Audrey declined because Audrey says she’s happy with her adoptive parents and doesn’t want any more parents. Lolo is surprised and disappointed, because when they were children, Audrey used to talk a lot about the two of them going to China to find Audrey’s birth mother.

Lolo waits until she and Audrey are at the airport to tell her that someone else is going with them on this trip: Lolo’s socially awkward and eccentric cousin Deadeye (played by Sabrina Wu), who is androgynous, childlike, and obsessed with K-pop music. (In real life, Wu is non-binary and uses they/them pronouns.) Later in the movie, Deadeye reveals that her real name is Vanessa. Audrey, who has a tendency to be elitist, is temporarily upset by Deadeye going on this trip because she doesn’t want Deadeye to be a social burden.

Upon arriving in China, one of the first things that Audrey, Lolo and Deadeye do is visit Kat while she’s working on her soap opera TV series called “The Emperor’s Daughter.” Kat is the star of the show. And she’s engaged to her leading man: a tall and handsome actor named Clarence (played Desmond Chiam), who is originally from Australia. Clarence (who is a strict Christian) and Kat have been dating each other for three years.

One of the biggest comedy gags in “Joy Ride” is that Kat has a wild past that she has not revealed to religious Clarence, who doesn’t believe in having sex outside of marriage. Kat has been pretending to have the same religious beliefs as Clarence, who insists that they abstain from having sexual intercourse or any other intimate sexual activity with each other until they are married. Audrey knows about Kat’s past promiscuity but is keeping it a secret from Clarence because it’s not Audrey’s place to tell him. Clarence and Kat are very affectionate with each other, but their affection doesn’t go past passionate kissing.

Not surprisingly, there are immediate conflicts between Lolo and Kat, in their competition to outdo each other as “Audrey’s best friend.” Lolo doesn’t respect Kat because she thinks Kat is a phony. Kat doesn’t respect Lolo because she think Lolo is a failed artist. The sniping between these two women is one of the many problems that occur during this trip. Audrey doesn’t do anything to pit Lolo and Kat against each other, but Audrey doesn’t adequately deal with this rivalry problem either.

Audrey’s first meeting with Chao Lin, also known as Mr. Chao (played by Ronny Chieng), takes place at a nightclub. Because of this casual setting, Audrey has also invited Lolo, Kat and Deadeye to go to the nightclub with her. Audrey also needs Lolo and Kat there because they can speak Mandarin. Audrey has been told in advance that Mr. Chao will only speak in Mandarin to her. It turns out he actually knows English and was just testing Audrey.

Of course, this nightclub meeting is the start of even more problems. Mr. Chao and his all-male group of colleagues insist that anyone they do business with has to partake in their business customs, which includes binge drinking. Audrey feels obliged to go along. (And you know what that means in a comedy where a drunk person inevitably gets sick.) Lolo, Kat and Deadeye also join in on this binge drinking.

Mr. Chao knows that Audrey was adopted by white American parents, but he expects Audrey to know who her biological family is, in order for him to agree to the deal. “If you don’t know where you come from,” he says to Audrey, “how do you know where you’re going?” Lolo spontaneously lies and tells Mr. Chao that Audrey keeps in touch with Audrey’s birth mother. Mr. Chao then insists that Audrey’s birth mother and Audrey go to a party that Mr. Chao will be having in the near future.

Audrey is angry at Lolo for blurting out the lie to Mr. Chao, because finding Audrey’s birth mother will take time away from the other things that Audrey wanted to do on this trip. It won’t be the last time that Lolo’s impulsiveness causes some issues in this group. Caught in a lie, Audrey and her three companions then go on a quest to find Audrey’s birth mother, with the hope that the reunion will go well and that Audrey’s birth mother will want to go to the party. (It’s a lot to expect, but stranger things have happened in real life.)

Along the way, the quartet will get caught up in some wacky situations, including being stuck in a train car with a drug dealer named Jess (played by Meredith Hagner), right at the moment that the train security staffers are patrolling the aisles and will soon arrive at their train car to search their luggage for drugs, weapons or other contraband. Part of the comedy is that Audrey is so sheltered, she doesn’t figure out until it’s too late that Jess is a drug dealer, because Jess appears to be an innocent-looking young American woman. A quick plan is put into action that is exactly what you think it might be, in order to hide the drugs that Jess brought on the train.

The four travelers also visit Lolo’s large group of relatives who are all gathered in one house, for a family reunion. This clan also includes (cliché alert) a feisty grandmother named Nei Nei Chen (played by Lori Tan Chinn), who’s not afraid of giving her unfiltered opinions. Three of the four women also have separate sexual encounters with men on Baron’s basketball team, including Baron; Todd (played by Alexander Hodge), who knows Kat from a previous encounter; and Kenny (played by Chris Pang) and Arvind (played by Rohain Arora), who meet Audrey at a hotel bar.

“Joy Ride” doesn’t shy away from jokes and commentary about race relations, white supremacist racism and the prejudices that Asian people have against each other. In an airport scene, Deadeye gives a judgmental rundown of ethnic stereotypes, based on the travelers being from Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea or Japan. The movie also shows how some Chinese people are prejudiced aganst Koreans because they think that Koreans ar a lower class of Asian people than Chinese people.

Audrey has some self-esteem issues related to her racial identity because, as she says at one point in the movie, she’s not white enough to fit in with white people and she’s not Asian enough to fit in with Asian people. Deadeye was bullied as a child and still struggles with finding people who fully accept her. It’s mentioned several times in the movie that most of Deadeye’s “friends” are people she only knows through online activities.

The movie has a few dream-like sequences that are whimsical but don’t really fit the harder edges of this comedy. One of these sequences is styled like a music video, when Audrey, Lolo, Kat and Deadeye pretend to be new K-pop stars, in order to board a private jet to South Korea without passports. Because, yes, “Joy Ride” has the travel comedy cliché of stolen luggage and stolen passports.

“Joy Ride” has a few surprises, including something that one of the women finds out, which leads to a sentimental, tearjerking moment in the film. Some viewers might expect “Joy Ride” to be all raunchy fun, but the movie handles this balance of zany comedy and serious drama in a mostly skillful way. The temporary shifts in the movie’s tone bring “Joy Ride” back down to earth to show that these four women are not caricatures for the sake of comedy.

Because “Joy Ride” has a lot to do with the friendship between Audrey and Lolo, the cast members who get to show the most emotional range in the movie are Park and Cola. Park in particular rises to the occasion by adeptly portraying all aspects of these emotions. Cola also does quite well in her role as Lolo, although the movie could have done a little more to show more of Lolo’s life that doesn’t involve her friendship with Audrey.

Hsu is hilarious as pampered diva actress Kat, who is fixated on what other people think about her. Wu also has moments to shine in scenes where Deadeye starts to come out of her introverted shell. Of the supporting cast members in “Joy Ride,” Chiam stands out with some very good comedic timing in portraying Kat’s hunky and pious fiancé Clarence, who upends the stereotype that physically attractive and famous actors are sex-crazed cheaters.

Even though “Joy Ride” uses many of the same formulas that are found in other travel comedy films, there are so many other things about the movie that are rarely seen in American-made comedy films. “Joy Ride” director Lim (who wrote the 2018 smash hit “Crazy Rich Asians”) gives a brisk and lively pace to the movie, even though some viewers might think that too much is crammed into the short trip that’s depicted in “Joy Ride.” Parts of “Joy Ride” do seem overstuffed, but what’s in the movie overall is worth unpacking.

Lionsgate will release “Joy Ride” in U.S. cinemas on July 7, 2023.

Review: ‘M3GAN,’ starring Allison Williams, Ronny Chieng and Violet McGraw

January 6, 2023

by Carla Hay

Amie Donald and Violet McGraw (pictured at right) in “M3GAN” (Photo by Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)


Directed by Gerard Johnstone

Culture Representation: Taking place in Seattle, the horror film “M3GAN” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians ) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A robot doll with artificial intelligence goes on a rampage against anyone who harms the 8-year-old girl who thinks of the doll as her best friend.

Culture Audience: “M3GAN” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching predictable but entertaining horror movies about killer dolls.

Amie Donald, Allison Williams and Violet McGraw (pictured at right) in “M3GAN” (Photo by Geoffrey Short/Universal Pictures)

“M3GAN” (pronounced “megan”) can now join the 1988 “Child’s Play” movie (which introduced the murderous Chucky toy doll) as one of the all-time most memorable “killer doll” movies, gaining legions of fans and inspiring countless horror costumes. “M3GAN” is the type of movie that you know instantly is the start of a franchise. It’s a campy, creepy and comical horror romp that delivers more laughs than genuine scares. Audiences should be in on the joke, which loses its impact with a somewhat weak ending. However, the killer doll’s sinister sassiness is worth seeing.

Directed by Gerard Johnston and written by Akela Cooper, “M3GAN” doesn’t go down the usual supernatural route to explain why the killer doll is so evil. Instead, “M3GAN” is a tale of human-made technology run amok. In that sense, the story is grounded in a reality and a persistent fear that technology with artificial intelligence will develop a mind of its own and do widespread damage. In this case, the damage is done by a 4-foot-tall terror doll named M3GAN, an acronym for Model 3 Generative Android. “M3GAN” also has social commentary on the effects of relying heavily on technology instead of human interactions for handling child care, learning, and developing relationships with other people.

“M3GAN” begins by showing a commercial for automated, furry toy pets called Purrpetual Pets, which can receive commands from mobile devices. The Seattle-based company that makes these toys is named Funki, which considers Hasbro to be one of its biggest rivals. One of the kids who has a Purrpetual Pet is an 8-year-old girl named Cady (played by Violet McGraw), who is playing with a dog version of a Purrpetual Pet in the back seat of a car while her parents are in the front seat.

Cady, her father Ryan (played by Arlo Green) and her mother Nicole (played by Chelsie Preston Crayford) are traveling by car for a family ski trip. It’s snowing heavily outside. Nicole is slightly annoyed by how Cady is so preoccupied with her Purrpetual Pet toy because Cady would rather talk to the toy than talk to her parents. Nicole comments, “What is the purpose of the toy if you have to play it on an iPad?”

The show is coming down so thick that Ryan (who’s driving) temporarily stops the car and doesn’t see the snow truck that plows head-on into the car. Ryan and Nicole die in this accident, while Cady survives. Cady is sent to live with Nicole’s sister Gemma (played by Allison Williams), who lives in Seattle and becomes Cady’s legal guardian. (“M3GAN” was actually filmed in Montreal in Canada, and in the Auckland area of New Zealand.) Gemma, who is single with no biological kids, works as a roboticist at Funki, and was one of the chief creators of Purrpetual Pets. In fact, Cady’s Purrpetual Pet was a gift from Gemma.

It’s an awkward life transition for this aunt and niece. Gemma is a workaholic who has no experience in raising a child. Cady is still grieving over her parents’ death. The movie doesn’t show Gemma grieving too much because Gemma is portrayed as someone who buries her troubles by working at her job. Now that Gemma has become Cady’s guardian, Gemma has to figure out a way for them to adjust to their new living situation.

Cady was homeschooled when her parents were alive. Gemma has to work during the day, so she has to find a local school that will fit Cady’s needs. Later in the movie, Gemma and Cady have an orientation visit to an alternative school that likes to teach classes outdoors. In the meantime, Gemma has to partially work from home to look after Cady. Gemma doesn’t want Cady to feel bored or restless.

To help Cady with her grief and new life transition, Cady has counseling sessions with a therapist named Lydia (played by Amy Usherwood), who is kind and patient with Cady. There’s another reason why this therapist is working with Cady: The parents of Cady’s deceased father Ryan are thinking about taking full custody of Cady. Lydia is evaluating Cady and Gemma to determine if Gemma can be a better guardian than the grandparents.

Because Cady has lost her parents and doesn’t have any friends in Seattle, Cady is understandably a very mopey child. It just so happens that Gemma has been working on a prototype for the M3GAN doll, which she shows to her co-workers Cole (played by Brian Jordan Alvarez) and Tess (played by Jen Van Epps) in their work space. They are all under pressure to come up with a hot-selling new toy because a rival company has copied the Purrpetual Pets toys and selling them for half the price of Funki’s retail sale price.

The CEO of Funki is an egotistical, impatient and frequently rude taskmaster named David Lin (played by Ronny Chieng), who is often accompanied by his “yes man” assistant Kurt (played by Stephane Garneau-Monten), who is usually nervous and jumpy. Kurt’s resentment over being treated like a doormat comes out in later in the story. David and Kurt attend a demonstration of how M3GAN works in the office space of Gemma, Tess and Cole, but the demonstration is a disaster: Cole forgot to put in a polypropylene barrier in M3GAN, so the doll’s head catches on fire and explodes. (No one is hurt in this accident.)

Meanwhile, at Gemma’s home, Cady is curious about the boxed toys that Gemma has on display, but Gemma tells Cady that Cady can’t play with the toys because they are collectibles. Cady is dejected until Gemma shows Cady a robot named Bruce that Gemma keeps in her garage. The robot can walk and talk. Cady is immediately entranced and tells Gemma: “If I had a toy like Bruce, I don’t think I’d ever need another toy again.”

And you know what that means: Gemma and her co-workers fast-track making M3GAN into a toy that will be sold as Funki’s most technologically advanced toy so far. The timing couldn’t come soon enough, because a worried Tess tells Gemma that David can’t find out they spent $100,000 on research and development money on M3GAN before M3GAN was approved. It should come as no surprise that Cady is chosen as the first child who gets to test out M3GAN before the Funki does an official launch of this new toy.

M3GAN, who looks like a girl but acts like an adult, has encyclopedic knowledge of facts and knows all the right things to say in dealing with people’s feelings. M3GAN also has an ability to record and mimic voices. This robotic doll appears to be the perfect combination of a tutor, babysitter and best friend for lonely Cady. In what seems to be a pattern for Cady, she becomes instantly attached to M3GAN, just like Cady was attached to her Purrpetual Pet.

M3GAN also sings pop songs to comfort Cady. These singing scenes are some of the funniest in the movie. If you waited your whole life to see an evil robotic doll sing David Guetta’s “Titanium” to cheer up a girl, and then the doll unleashes some murderous mayhem just minutes later to “protect” the girl, then “M3GAN” is the movie for you.

Why is M3GAN overly protective of Cady? During the testing process, Gemma gave this programming order to M3GAN: Protect Cady from all physical and emotional harm. Of course, this order backfires in the worst ways. Gemma finds out too late that M3GAN has superhuman physical strength along with superhuman intelligence.

Cady also becomes overly attached to M3GAN and doesn’t want to go anywhere without this doll. Cady is so fixated on M3GAN being her “friend,” Cady throws nasty temper tantrums if M3GAN can’t be with Cady at all times. If Cady is separated from M3GAN, Cady acts like an addict being told that the addict can’t have whatever is causing their addiction.

And because this is a horror movie, some of the characters get caught in the crossfire of the havoc that M3GAN wreaks. Gemma’s next-door neighbor Celia (played by Lori Dungey) gets on Gemma’s nerves because Celia has a problematic dog and has a habit of spraying unwanted pesticide on Gemma’s front lawn. At the alternative school, it doesn’t take long for a child bully named Brandon (played by Jack Cassidy) to target Cady.

Williams and McGraw are perfectly fine in their performances as Gemma and Cady, but they have both done versions of these characters in other horror movies. Chieng looks like he’s having fun hamming it up as David, the boss from hell. All the other supporting characters are adequate in their roles.

The real star of the movie, of course, is the character of M3GAN. The M3GAN character is a combination of work from actresses Amie Donald (who does the live-action work) and Jenna Davis (who does the voice work), as well as the work of the movie’s visual effects team. The facial expressions, body language and sarcastic comments of M3GAN show that this dangerous doll has a mind of its own. It’s often hilarious to watch other characters react to M3GAN when they figure out this that M3GAN is not a harmless toy.

One of the biggest flaws of “M3GAN” is that M3GAN doesn’t make her debut as a fully designed talking toy until about 30 minutes into 102-minute movie. And if you’ve seen the trailers for “M3GAN,” you’ve already seen some of the best parts of the movie. All of this might diminish viewer enjoyment of “M3GAN,” but these flaws don’t ruin the movie. “M3GAN” is by no means the best horror movie you can see in a year, but it’s the type of horror movie where people will get hooked enough to want to see the chief villain in other movies.

Universal Pictures released “M3GAN” in U.S. cinemas on January 6, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on January 24, 2023. Peacock will premiere “M3GAN” (including an unrated version of the movie) on February 24, 2023. The movie (including the unrated version) will be released on Blu-ray and DVD on March 21, 2023.

Review: ‘Trust’ (2021), starring Victoria Justice, Matthew Daddario, Katherine McNamara and Lucien Laviscount

March 12, 2021

by Carla Hay

Victoria Justice and Matthew Daddario in “Trust” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Trust” (2021)

Directed by Brian DeCubellis

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City and briefly in Paris, the dramatic film “Trust” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians, Latinos and black people) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: An art gallery owner and her TV journalist husband are both suspicious of and tempted by possibilities that they could cheat on each other.

Culture Audience: “Trust” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic stories about marital problems that have all the characteristics of a mediocre made-for-TV movie.

Lucien Laviscount in “Trust” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

People who watch the dramatic film “Trust” might be wondering why this conventional and trite movie wasn’t made for the Lifetime network. The only difference between “Trust” and a Lifetime movie is that “Trust” has some curse words that can’t be in a Lifetime movie. The entire story is as predictable as you might expect. The plot twist in the movie isn’t too surprising.

The entire plot of “Trust” (directed by Brian DeCubellis) revolves around a topic that’s a familiar staple of Lifetime movies: A woman begins to wonder if her husband or boyfriend is keeping secrets from her. In the case of “Trust,” the doubts are about marital fidelity. The entire film would have been more entertaining if there weren’t such long stretches of dullness and if the movie had a more talented cast of actors.

In “Trust,” the New York City married couple at the center of the drama are Brooke Gatwick (played by Victoria Justice) and Owen Shore (played by Matthew Daddario), who are going through a big transition in their lives. Brooke has quit her job at auction house Sotheby’s to open her own self-titled art gallery. It’s a major gamble because Brooke and Owen have poured their entire life savings into the gallery.

Owen is a TV news anchor at a local station, but he’s become bored by all the “soft” news stories (such as dog weddings) that he’s been given to report. He completely supports Brooke’s career ambitions. But Brooke is insecure about Owen’s job situation because he’s surrounded by attractive young women who work with him as producers or other employees. It isn’t made clear how long Brooke and Owen (who are in their late 20s or early 30s) have been married, but they have been a couple since they were in high school.

The opening scene of “Trust” is a sex scene where viewers don’t see the faces of who’s having sex, but it’s clear that it’s a man and a woman. It’s a foreshadowing of what happens later in the movie, when it’s revealed who these sex partners are. While they’re going at it, someone’s phone is on a nearby table. Someone else is sending text messages that are going unanswered on that phone.

The next scene shows Brooke coming home from a business trip that she took in Paris. She looks exhausted. Owen and Brooke hug and tell each other, “I missed you.” It’s revealed later in the movie that Brooke was in Paris to sell some art by an up-and-coming Irish painter named Ansgar Doyle (played by Lucien Laviscount), whom Brooke has paid to relocate to New York City. Brooke is also acting as Ansgar’s official agent.

Laviscount, who is British in real life, tries very hard to be sexy in this role, but his terrible Irish accent is very distracting and almost laughable. Most of the time, he sounds British, and a few times he sounds as if he’s bungling an Italian accent. Based on what happens in this movie, the character of Ansgar didn’t have to be Irish.

It shows bad decision making from the “Trust” filmmakers that they didn’t just let Laviscount keep his natural British accent. No one watching this movie will care what nationality Ansgar is, but they will care if the acting is good or not. It’s not.

Ansgar, whose specialty is sexually themed art, is the first artist whose work is showcased in Brooke’s gallery when it opens. He was a Dublin street artist who was starting to make a name for himself in Europe, but Brooke “discovered” him online and decided that she’s going to make him a star in the United States. Ansgar is arrogant and an obvious playboy.

You know where this is going. And if isn’t obvious enough that Ansgar is going to try and seduce Brooke, his first exhibit at her gallery is titled “Sexual Truth and the Myth of Fidelity.” It’s a series of painted portraits of women who are completely naked.

The first time that viewers see Ansgar, he’s at Brooke’s gallery for a photo shoot and an interview for an unnamed publication. He’s being interviewed by a journalist named Diana (played by Nathalie Carvalho), as he lounges on a chair with his legs spread in a suggestive manner. During the interview, Ansgar brags that he’s slept with all of the models whose nude portraits he’s painted.

Diana asks him, “Is that moral?” Ansgar smirks as he replies, “Why? Are you a model?” When Diana asks him if his art is just all about sex, Ansgar responds, “I only paint those women that are particularly special to me. It’s intimate, sexual, yes. But it’s more than that. It’s the exact moment of ultimate connection that’s captured forever in the painting.”

Watching this interview nearby are Brooke and Owen. As soon as Ansgar starts talking about sleeping with his models, Brooke get uncomfortable. She steps in and cuts the interview short and tells Diana, “No personal questions.”

Diana takes Brooke aside and gives her opinion of Ansgar and his art, “Look, Brooke, he’s brilliant. But as your friend, I’m calling it. The other critics will tear this apart.”

Brooke replies with a certain amount of pretension: “Picasso, Klimt, Lucian Freud—they were all called pornographers. Look, I know what I believe in. And if the critics don’t understand this, then they’re wrong!”

Meanwhile, Ansgar stands next to Owen as they watch Brooke. Ansgar tells Owen that Brooke is hot. Ansgar then adds with his usual smirk, “When women get absorbed in me, you can’t talk to them.” Owen has an expression on his face as if to say, “I can’t believe this clown just said that out loud, but whatever.”

After leaving the gallery, Brooke and Owen have dinner at a Chinatown restaurant with another married couple, who are their closest friends. Adam (played by Ronny Chieng) and Eleanor (played by Lindsey Broad) are both divorce attorneys who are cynical about marriage except their own. For example, Adam and Eleanor tell Brooke and Owen that almost all marriages experience infidelity at one point or another.

The dinner is to celebrate the opening of Brooke’s gallery, and the two couples raise their glasses to toast Brooke. However, Owen chimes in that he deserves a toast too because he thinks Brooke’s gallery will be such a success that Owen half-jokingly says that he will get to “retire early and fulfill my life’s purpose to be a trophy husband.”

The conversation gets a little bit uncomfortable when Eleanor comments that Ansgar is a “hunk” and asks if Owen is okay with Brooke working so closely with him. Adam and Eleanor then rudely talk about how they’ve learned as divorce attorneys that “everyone cheats” in marriages. It’s a buzzkill turn of the conversation for Brooke and Owen.

Do Brooke and Owen have a perfect marriage? Of course not, because there would be no “Trust” movie if they did. Brooke sometimes checks Owen’s phone or iPad when he’s not looking. She questions him if she sees a woman’s name whom Brooke doesn’t recognize. For example, when Owen gets a text from a woman named Susan, Brooke asks Owen who it is, and he says it’s a new co-worker.

But something happens that deepens a crack in Owen and Brooke’s marriage. It’s close to the Christmas holidays, and Owen surprises Brooke with plane tickets for both of them to spend Christmas in Paris. However, Brooke declines the offer when she says that she’ll be too busy with her art gallery work.

And this raises Owen’s eyebrows: Brooke says she also doesn’t want to go to Paris because she doesn’t want to be too far away from Ansgard, who’s never lived in the U.S. before. “He needs me!” Brooke tells Owen, who tries not to get jealous and angry at this remark. Owen expresses disappointment in Brooke’s decision, but ultimately he says that he understands.

Not long after Brooke tells Owen that she doesn’t want to go to Paris, she gets some news that changes her mind. Ansgar tells her that a famous movie director named Damien Light wants to buy some of Ansgar’s art. Damien is filming a movie in Paris, and Ansgar says the best way to seal this art deal is to go to Paris for a meeting that’s set to take place in two days.

At first, Brooke says that she can’t go because she’s too busy and can’t afford the trip. Ansgar says that he’s going with or without her. Brooke then has a conversation with Eleanor, who tells Brooke that she would be crazy not to go to Paris for this trip. And so, Brooke relents and agrees to go to Paris with Ansgar.

Brooke goes to the TV station where Owen works. And when he’s on a break, she brings him coffee and tells him the news that she’s going on a weekend trip to Paris with Ansgar. When Owen hears about it, he’s understandably upset, even though Brooke swears the trip is strictly business.

As “revenge,” Owen announces to the staffers nearby that he’s now available to take a work trip to Las Vegas that same weekend to cover a Christmas event hosted by The New Yorker. A young and attractive female producer cheers and says she and the other women want to sit near Owen on the plane. And now, it’s Brooke’s turn to feel jealous.

Ansgar is an egotistical jerk, but in a movie like this, he’s supposed to be a “bad boy” some women can’t resist. There are hints that Brooke is attracted to and/or intrigued by Ansgar. For example, she doesn’t immediately pull away when he stands too close to her, or when he puts his hands on her legs or on her back, very close to her rear end. Before Brooke leaves for her Paris trip, Owen notices that she’s packed a very slinky red dress. Brooke tells Owen that he has to be understanding.

Owen and Adam have drinks together at a bar during the first night that Brooke is away in Paris. While they’re minding their own business, a pretty blonde in her 20s approaches Owen and says she recognizes him from TV. She introduces herself as Amy (played by Katherine McNamara), and she says she’s a student at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Amy mentions that she’s an aspiring TV news journalist and that she admires Owen, even if she doesn’t agree with some of his journalistic opinions. She acts very star-struck and asks Owen for his autograph and if she can take a photo with him. He’s surprised and flattered, so he willingly obliges.

It soon becomes clear from Amy’s flirtations that she wants more than career advice from Owen, who tells her that he’s married. Amy doesn’t seem to care that Owen has a wife. Meanwhile, Adam nervously drops hints that he doesn’t want to stick around for any infidelity shenanigans. He makes an excuse to leave and asks Owen if he wants to leave with him. How Owen handles this situation is the catalyst for the rest of the drama in the story.

“Trust” over-uses a technique of repeating a scene as a flashback or as a flashforward to show how the scene takes on a different meaning once certain secrets are revealed. The movie is based on Kristen Lazarian’s play “Push,” and this flashback/flashforward technique works better in a movie than it would in a play. However, all of this time-jumping in “Trust” (whose screenplay was written by Lazarian, DeCubellis and K.S. Bruce) comes across as clunky storytelling.

There are some plot developments in “Trust” that are unnecessary and not very well-constructed. For example (and it isn’t spoiler information to say this), Owen’s business trip to Las Vegas is never seen or mentioned again, even though it was set up to look like it would be a possible opportunity for him to cheat on Brooke. It doesn’t make sense to have an entire scene of Owen deciding to take this trip when it’s a plot development that’s then ignored.

There are plot holes galore. For example, one of the suspicious spouses goes to the trouble of tracking a rideshare that the other spouse took late one night. It’s later revealed in the movie what that spouse was doing sneaking out so late at night. But the way the truth is revealed is so common-sense basic that the snooping spouse should have found out the truth sooner.

As for the acting, Justice has a few good scenes as the conflicted Brooke, but Justice and Daddario have a “Ken and Barbie doll” type of chemistry that comes across as too plastic. Some of their acting together is monotonous, with awkward pauses. The Adam and Eleanor characters are very smug and grating (especially when they seem to take pleasure in other people’s marriages going bad), but Broad shows more talent in her acting than Chieng does.

Laviscount is woefully miscast for the reasons stated above, and he is in serious need of more acting lessons. His Ansgard character tries too hard to be sexy, which actually makes him very unsexy. It doesn’t help that Ansgard’s costume design includes Ansgard wearing a fur coat and gold chain, as if he’s trying to look like some kind of pimp. And unfortunately, McNamara (who co-starred with Daddario in the Freeform fantasy drama series “Shadowhunters”) is cast as a stereotypical blonde seductress in “Trust,” so she doesn’t have much depth to work with for her Amy character.

The last 20 minutes of “Trust” are a rush job that sloppily crams certain things into the plot to quickly resolve the conflicts in the story. Up until a certain point in the movie, viewers are kept guessing over whether or not Brooke cheated, Owen cheated, or both of them cheated. But by the end of the movie, the only people who should feel cheated are those who wasted their time watching this tedious and unoriginal film.

Vertical Entertainment released “Trust” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 12, 2021.

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