Review: ‘Frank and Penelope,’ starring Billy Budinich, Caylee Cowan, Kevin Dillon, Lin Shaye, Johnathon Schaech, Donna D’Errico and Brian Maillard

June 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kevin Dillon, Caylee Cowan and Billy Budinich in “Frank and Penelope” (Photo courtesy of Redbud Studios)

“Frank and Penelope”

Directed by Sean Patrick Flanery

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas, the dramatic film “Frank and Penelope” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a young man finds out his wife has been cheating on him, he runs off with a stripper, and they end up in a remote-area motel that’s run by deranged religious fanatics.

Culture Audience: “Frank and Penelope” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching tacky, bottom-of-the-barrel movies with confused tones and sloppy filmmaking.

Johnathon Schaech in “Frank and Penelope” (Photo courtesy of Redbud Studios)

With a plot about outlaw lovers on the run, and with flashes of quirky comedy, “Frank and Penelope” desperately tries to be like “Wild at Heart,” the 1990 film written and directed by David Lynch and starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern. “Frank and Penelope,” which does everything wrong that “Wild at Heart” gets right, is a time-wasting bore with a nonsensical story and terrible acting. The movie is also a tonal mess, as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide if “Frank and Penelope” was going to be a crime drama, a horror movie or a dark comedy.

Sean Patrick Flanery, an actor who’s starred in his fair share of forgettable B-movies, makes his feature-film debut as a director and screenwriter with “Frank and Penelope.” Unfortunately, Flanery (who has a small role in “Frank and Penelope”) now has the dubious distinction of directing himself in one of the worst movies of his career. It’s not just a B-movie. It’s B-movie trash. How trashy is “Frank and Penelope”? There’s a scene where someone urinates on someone else’s face before shooting that person to death.

“Frank and Penelope,” which was filmed on location in Texas (including the Austin area), had the potential to be fun and interesting. And there are certainly enough talented cast members who could have brought a lot more charisma to the story than they’re allowed to bring in this train wreck. However, “Frank and Penelope” is derailed by too many half-baked ideas and shallow characters that are forced into the already weak and unoriginal plot.

Stop if you’d heard this plot before: A man and a woman, who’ve become lovers, are on the run together because they’ve (1) stolen money or committed another crime; (2) are trying to hide from someone who’s out for revenge; or (3) trying to evade law enforcement. And in some movies, such as “Frank and Penelope,” all of the above apply.

It all starts when Frank (played by Billy Budinich)—whose job is never revealed and who looks like he’s trying to be like a modern-day James Dean—comes home and is shocked to see his wife Becky (played by Cherilyn Wilson) having sex with an man named Chad (played by Mike Bash), whom Frank suspects is Becky’s fitness instructor. Becky and Chad don’t see Frank, who angrily to take off and go to a strip club. At the strip club, Frank is seduced by a dancer named Penelope (played by Caylee Cowan), who’s trying to be like a modern-day Marilyn Monroe, with a breathy baby-doll voice, but with a Texas twang.

Penelope is only turning on the charm with Frank so that she can steal his credit card, which she gives to the strip club’s sleazy, cocaine-snorting manager (played by Flanery), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. The manager ends up physically assaulting Penelope in a back room, but Frank hears the ruckus and comes to Penelope’s rescue. Penelope and Frank steal the manager’s gun and a small pile of cash before making their getaway. Frank and Penelope then have sex somewhere on the open road before they check into a remote-area, dumpy motel called the Quicksilver Motel, where strange things start to happen.

Meanwhile, the movie has a subplot about a traveler in her 20s named Molly Dalton (played by Sydney Scotia), who gets a flat tire on a deserted freeway. Molly doesn’t have a spare tire, so she reluctantly gets help from a creepy and greasy-looking driver named Cleve (played by Brian Maillard), who tows her car to the Quicksilver Motel, where he works at the front desk. On the way to the motel, scumbag Cleve rubs Molly’s leg inappropriately, and it looks like it will turn to sexual assault, but Molly stops him from putting his hand further up her leg.

The rest of “Frank and Penelope” is a back-and-forth slog about what Frank, Penelope and Molly experience at the Quicksilver Motel. The motel’s other employees who are seen in the movie are Cleve’s fanatically religious wife Mabel (played by Donna D’Errico), who is the motel manager and who also goes by the name Mabelline; a slovenly cook and handyman named Cookie (played by Charley Koontz); and Cookie’s downtrodden and mostly mute wife Magda (played by Jade Lorna Sullivan), who is a cashier in the motel’s diner.

Magda looks and acts like an abused and terrified woman with post-traumatic stress disorder. Lin Shaye has a useless cameo as a motel customer named Ophelia, who gets offended by Mabel’s religious preaching and leaves in a huff. The motel has a lounge with a table called the Truth Table, which Mabel uses to get customers to tell her the truth. Yes, this part of the plot is as bad as it sounds.

Kevin Dillon shows up as a stereotypical “out on a deserted freeway looking for trouble” cop named Sheriff Dalton, who crosses paths (at different times) with Frank and Penelope, as well as with Molly. Sheriff Dalton is a completely hollow character with no surprises. And then there’s a platinum-blonde weirdo named Chisos (played by Johnathon Schaech), who thinks he’s a messiah or a prophet. Chisos is seen in the movie’s opening scene and isn’t seen again until the last 30 minutes of the movie.

“Frank and Penelope” just rambles along with no real purpose and nothing that will make viewers really care about any of the characters. The sex scenes are unremarkable. As the “seductress” Penelope character, Cowan tries too hard to be coquettish. It all looks so forced and phony, including the movie’s attempt to make Budinich reminiscent of a 1950s movie star, similar to the aforementioned James Dean.

The fake-looking “romance” in the story isn’t helped when Penelope utters atrocious lines, such as saying she gets turned on when Frank shows “pure rage.” She adds, “If a man don’t fly into a rage, then he’s not in love.” But what Frank and Penelope have isn’t love. It’s just lust from two people who are desperate to run away from the lives that they had before they met each other.

And did we mention that most of this story is a flashback? It’s a flashback that’s being told by an unnamed hospital nurse (played by Sonya Eddy), who has Frank’s journal and is reading it aloud as part of the movie’s voice narration. Someone who was at the Quicksilver Motel is in a coma in this hospital, and this nurse is attending to him while he’s bedridden and while the nurse is reading Frank’s journal. Frank met Penelope four days before. Most of the movie shows what happened in those four days, because Frank kept a journal of what occurred, even though he’s such an airhead, he can barely articulate four sentences in a row.

Don’t expect the movie to explain why this nurse would have Frank’s journal. It’s an example of how ridiculous and pointless everything is in this garbage movie. There’s also some idiotic violence that does nothing substantial for the story. The end of “Frank and Penelope” makes it obvious that Flanery had a sequel in mind, but this movie is such an abomination to filmmaking, no one in their right mind will want a sequel.

Redbud Studios released “Frank and Penelope” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on July 12, 2022.

Review: ‘American Fighter,’ starring George Kosturos, Tommy Flanagan and Sean Patrick Flanery

July 10, 2021

by Carla Hay

Tommy Flanagan and George Kosturos in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter”

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1981, primarily in California and briefly in Iran, the dramatic film “American Fighter” features a predominanlty white cast of characters (with some Middle Eastern and African American people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A college wrestler, who has immigrated to California from Iran, gets involved in underground fighting to raise enough money to bring his ailing mother to the United States. 

Culture Audience: “American Fighter” will appeal primarily to people who like watching predictable fight movies.

George Kosturos and Sean Patrick Flanery in “American Fighter” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“American Fighter” uses every possible movie cliché about an “underdog” fighter who has to beat the odds and surpass people’s low expectations to reach a certain goal. There’s nothing creative or imaginative about this film. The only angle that makes “American Fighter” different from similar movies is that the protagonist is an Iranian immigrant in the United States. However, the fight scenes and the protagonist’s quest for a big payoff achievement is as formulaic and stereotypical as can be, regardless of the protagonist’s ethnicity.

Directed by Shaun Paul Piccinino, “American Fighter” takes place in 1981, when Iran was in political upheaval and numerous Iranians fled the country to seek asylum elsewhere. One family of refugees is the Jahani family: patriarch Farhad Jahani (played by Tony Panterra), his wife Goli Jahani (played by Salome Azizi) and their son Ali (played by George Kosturos, also known as George Thomas), who is about 18 or 19 years old. Ali has already been sent to the United States ahead of his parents, who plan to join Ali later. In the meantime, Ali is a college student who lives on campus when he’s not living with his uncle Hafez Tabad (played by Ali Afshar), who is Goli’s brother.

“American Fighter” is the sequel to the 2017 sports drama “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” with both movies starring Kosturos and produced by Ali Afshar, who plays Ali Jahani’s uncle Hafez in both movies. “American Wrestler: The Wizard,” which also had Ali Jahani as the protagonist, is based on Ali Afshar’s real-life experiences as an Iranian immigrant who was on his California high school’s wrestling team. “American Fighter” continues Ali Jahani’s story as a college student.

In the beginning of “American Fighter,” Ali is shown as a first-year student at the fictional North East Cal University in California. He’s on the school’s male wrestling team (called the Bulldogs), and he’s one of the more talented people on the team. However, Ali isn’t living up to his wrestler potential. And he experiences xenophobia and racism from people who are part of the team.

The Bulldogs’ Coach Jenkins (played by Kevin Porter) tells Ali, “I don’t want another foreign scholarship on my roster. You want to stay? You’ve got to show me something.” Meanwhile, in every movie about a student athlete involved in team sports, there always seems to be a jealous rival on the same team. In Ali’s case, it’s a bully named Chet Mueller (played by Vince Hill-Bedford), who frequently hurls racist insults at Ali during the team’s practice sessions. You can almost do a countdown to the inevitable fist fight that Chet and Ali will have.

When the day comes for Ali’s parents to travel to America, tragedy strikes. Before the plane takes off, a group of Iranian terrorists invade the plane where Ali’s parents are and take some hostages, including Ali’s parents. Ali’s father Farhad is shot and killed, while Ali’s mother Goli has gone missing. And making matters more stressful, Goli is sick with an unnamed ailment. She needs life-saving surgery and treatment, which is one of the main reasons why Ali’s parents wanted to immigrate to the United States.

Ali and his uncle Hafez are devastated by the news that Farhad is dead and Goli is missing. Ali and Hafez go to the local chapter of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Services and are told that there’s nothing this government agency can do for them because it doesn’t get involved in terrorist kidnappings. However, Ali and Hafez find out about a mysterious Iranian operative named Mr. V (played by Parviz Sayyad), who lives nearby and who can give them “private” help.

Ali and Hafez meet with Mr. V, who tells them that Goli is probably being held hostage somewhere in Iran, but Mr. V’s team can find her and bring her to the United States, for a fee of $30,000. Hafez only has $5,000, while Ali sells many of his possessions (including his family jewelry and his car) and comes up with $9,000. Of course, that’s still not enough to pay the fee, and time is running out for Goli to get her life-saving surgery.

Ali’s best friend at school is Ryan Calder (played by Bryan Craig), who is on the same wrestling team. Ali confides in Ryan about his family and money problems. One night, Ryan takes Ali to an underground fight club, where Ali is shocked to see what’s going on. Ryan tells Ali that in the past, he sometimes participated in these underground fights to make extra money. Ryan stopped doing underground fights because he’s on the wrestling team and doesn’t want to risk getting expelled from the team.

Ryan introduces Ali to a Scottish man named McClellan (played by Tommy Flanagan), the tough and greedy chief of the fight club. McClellan’s right-hand man is Benjamin Duke (played by Sean Patrick Flanery), who goes by the name Duke and who mainly gives medical assistance to the fight club participants. Duke is a former boxing champ who’s now down on his luck and has a tragedy in his past because of his alcoholism. In other words, in a stereotypical movie like this one, Duke is going to end up training Ali to be an underground fighter.

During Ali’s first visit to the fight club, he has such culture shock that he ends up saying the wrong things. He asks McClellan about the possibility of participating in the fights: “So, you just pay us to beat each other up? Is that even legal?” Just as Ali is about to be thrown out for being an insulting dimwit, a thug assaults Ali, and they start brawling. Ali capably defends himself, and McClellan is so impressed with Ali’s fighting skills that he invites Ali to participate in the fight club.

Ryan warns Ali not to do it, but Ali is desperate for money, and he eagerly accepts McClellan’s invitation. Ali easily wins his first fight, of course. And the money he gets motivates him to continue participating in the fight club, with increasingly dangerous risks. Not everything goes smoothly for Ali, because a movie like this has to have a “major obstacle” that he has to overcome before the movie’s climactic scene.

Meanwhile, Ali ends up having a romance with a sorority member named Heidi (played by Allison Page), who made the first move on Ali by inviting him to a party thrown by her sorority. It should come as no surprise that Chet seems interested in Heidi, but she rejects Chet’s advances and makes it clear that she wants to be with Ali. And so, it’s another reason for racist Chet to hate Ali.

Ali doesn’t tell Heidi about his family problems or about being involved in an underground fight club. Ali and Heidi’s romance is presented in this movie as very chaste. They go to a skating rink on their first date. And although Heidi and Ali eventually kiss, there’s no sex in the movie. Ali is depicted as someone who’s very shy and inexperienced when it comes to dating, while Heidi is the confident, extroverted partner in the relationship.

“American Fighter” director Piccinino co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Brian Rudnick and Carl Morris. The entire movie borrows from many other movies about teenage athletes who are underestimated, who train for a “long shot” dream, and the training is supposed to teach them about life. The fight scenes have some level of suspense, but they look overly staged and aren’t that exciting, compared to other movies about underground fight clubs.

Ali’s refugee immigrant experiences are used as a gimmicky plot device rather than being organic to his character. The closest that the movie comes to showing Ali sharing his connection to Iranian culture with Heidi is when he brings Iranian food to a picnic date with Heidi. The movie tries to make it look like Ali and Heidi are falling in love, but their conversations are very superficial.

That’s because this movie is really about the fight scenes, which aren’t very special. Ali’s mother Goli is shown occasionally while she’s being held captive in a room, to remind people why Ali is going through with these risky fights. Ali finds a way to get a letter to her, which is supposed to be the movie’s first big tearjerking moment, but the way it’s written is very hokey and melodramatic.

“American Fighter” makes some effort to be an authentic period movie that takes place in 1981. At an on-campus party, someone is shown breakdancing. And the movie’s soundtrack includes Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl” and the Go-Go’s “We Got the Beat.” Ali and Hafez also anxiously follow the media’s news about what’s going on in Iran. However, these touches of realism aren’t enough to overcome the overall medicority of the film’s writing, directing and acting.

Kosturos does his best to show some emotional range, but it’s diluted by the hackneyed dialogue that he has to say in the movie. Flanagan and Flanery have played many characters involved in illegal activities, so they’re doing nothing new in this movie, while Craig’s Ryan character and Paige’s Heidi character are utterly generic. The appeal of underground fighting is how edgy and unpredictable it’s supposed to be, but there’s nothing edgy or unpredictable about “American Fighter.”

Lionsgate released “American Fighter” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on May 21, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on May 25, 2021.

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