Review: ‘Scrambled’ (2024), starring Leah McKendrick, Ego Nwodim, Andrew Santino, Adam Rodriguez, Laura Cerón and Clancy Brown

February 14, 2024

by Carla Hay

Leah McKendrick in “Scrambled” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Scrambled” (2024)

Directed by Leah McKendrick

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the comedy/drama film “Scrambled” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Latin people and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 34-year-old free-spirited bachelorette, who has no idea if she will ever find a life partner or if she’ll ever be ready to be a parent, decides to freeze her eggs anyway while she still looks for love. 

Culture Audience: “Scrambled” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in comedies about dating and fertility issues.

Leah McKendrick in “Scrambled” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even though “Scrambled” occasionally stumbles into a cliché sitcom tone about a bachelorette in her 30s who’s unhappy in her love life, this adult-oriented comedy has entertaining performances in this story about a single woman who wants to freeze her eggs. “Scrambled” was very obviously influenced by HBO’s 1998 to 2004 comedy series “Sex and the City” (with frank talk and explicit scenes about sex), but “Scrambled” is more of a tribute than a ripoff. Just like in “Sex and the City,” the narrator is a single, liberated woman in her 30s with a messy life of failed romances with ex-boyfriends, financial instability, and the nagging feeling that she should have her life figured out by now.

“Sex and the City” and “Scrambled” also drew inspiration from real-life people. Carrie Bradshaw, the main protagonist of “Sex and the City,” lives in New York City and is a sex columnist. The Carrie Bradshaw character is based on real-life writer Candace Bushnell. Leah McKendrick is the writer, director and star of “Scrambled,” where she portrays main protagonist Nellie Robinson, a Los Angeles-based jewelry designer who works from home and who experiences fertility issues that McKendrick experienced in real life. McKendrick makes an impressive feature-film directorial debut with “Scrambled,” which had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

“Scrambled” begins with a somewhat stereotypical setting for a movie about a lovelorn bachelorette: a wedding where she is a bridesmaid. Nellie, who is 34, is at the wedding of her best friend Sheila (played by Ego Nwodim) and wants to make a grand entrance with her date Conor (played by Henry Zebrowski), because she tells Conor it’s a tradition that’s expected of her, as someone who ends up being a bridesmaid at many weddings. In the movie’s opening scene, which takes place before the wedding ceremony begins, Nellie is shown debating with Conor about what type of dance they should start with at the wedding reception. She nixes the idea of doing the Running Man, but Nellie says that recreating iconic dance scenes from “Grease” or “Dirty Dancing” could still be in the realm of possibility.

Nellie goes to check on Sheila in a dressing room and sees that Sheila is a nervous wreck. Sheila babbles to Nellie about Sheila’s groom-to-be Ron (played by Max Adler), by asking this hypothetical question: “Would you fuck Ron for the rest of your life?” It’s Sheila’s way of asking if Nellie thinks Sheila is making the right decision to marry Ron and stay faithful to him. Like a good friend, Nellie says, “Yes.”

Sheila then rambles on to Nellie about how she and Nellie always thought that they weren’t the marrying type, and now here they are on Sheila’s wedding day. Sheila then asks Nellie if Nellie has some cocaine because Sheila wants to do some cocaine before the ceremony. Sheila nearly has a meltdown when Nellie says she doesn’t have any drugs. But then, Nellie remembers she might have some molly. Nellie and Sheila take the molly together—until Sheila abruptly announces that she’s pregnant, and then Nellie orders her to spit out the pill.

This scene sets the tone for the rest of “Scrambled,” which is revels in its raunchiness and crudeness in ways to make viewers laugh. At the wedding, Nellie is very stoned on the molly, but during the reception she gets a sobering lecture from an older friend named Monroe (played by June Diane Raphael), whose time in the movie is brief (less than 10 minutes) but it’s one of the funniest scenes in the movie. Monroe and Nellie are sitting at the same table when Nellie gushes to Monroe about how Nellie considers Monroe to be her “idol,” because Monroe seems to “have it all” as a wife, mother, and the owner of a successful business.

Monroe has brought her only child—a daughter named Zofia (played by Everly Taylor)—to the wedding. Zofia, who’s an energetic child and about 5 or 6 years old, was born when Monroe was in her early 40s, after Monroe went through in vitro fertilization treatments to get pregnant. Monroe then gives a raw and candid confession that although she loves being parent, the process of conceiving and giving birth was hellish for her. (She says it in a way that’s a lot cruder than that.) Monroe spent $50,000 on IVF treatments and says if she had to do it all over again, she would’ve frozen her eggs when she was younger and would’ve had a surrogate for the pregnancy.

Monroe also asks Nellie how her love life is, and Nellie responds that she’s single and actively dating: “It’s a smorgasbord. I’m seeing everyone.” Monroe then looks at Nellie sympathetically and says, “I know you because I was you. And so, the next time you’ve just boned some hot bartender with an app idea, and you’re sitting in his bathroom, staring at his shower encrusted with pubes and that fucking “Fight Club”/”Reservoir Dogs”/”Scarface” poster, I want you to remember my face.”

Monroe adds when she comments on men not having an age limit for conceiving children: “They can be in never never land, never growing up, never aging. But these eggs, those huevos rancheros? They are [aging], those eggs are!” When Monroe asks Nellie how old she is, and Nellie tells her 34, Monroe slaps Nellie on the face, and tells her not to admit that she’s older than 33. Monroe then sternly warns Nellie: “Freeze those eggs!”

After Monroe leaves the table, Nellie makes eye contact with a “hot bartender”(played by Matt Pascua) at the wedding reception and gets a drink from him. She and the bartender end up going back to his place, where they have sex. And sure enough, this bartender is working on app idea that he thinks will make him rich. He’s also got a messy bathroom with a “Scarface” poster hanging up on the wall.

It’s enough to be a wake-up call for Nellie that she’s should be focusing on finding Mr. Right instead of Mr. Right Now. (Something else happens at the bartender’s place, which won’t be revealed in this review, because it’s a sexual encounter mishap that’s supposed to be a sexually explicit comedic moment in the movie.) Nellie knows that there’s no guarantee that she will end up with a life partner/soul mate, and she doesn’t know if or when she’ll be ready to be a parent, but she decides to take Monroe’s advice and freeze her eggs anyway.

Weddings and baby showers are predictable scenarios in comedies that show how never-married women with no children are made to feel inadequate or uncomfortable by certain people who think women aren’t complete people unless they are mothers. “Scrambled” is no different. At a baby shower, Nellie is apparently the only woman there who isn’t a mother or in a committed relationship. When she announces that she’s freezing her eggs, the other women’s overall reaction is to congratulate her but they think she should save her excitement for when she becomes a “real parent.”

The reaction of Nellie’s sexist and narrow-minded father Richard Robinson (played by Clancy Brown) is even more negative. When Nellie tells her parents and brother during a family dinner that she’s freezing her eggs, Richard thinks it’s “voodoo science,” and women should conceive children the “natural” way. Richard is the type of parent who asks Nellie things such as “Where are my grandkids?,” but he doesn’t make those demands of his bachelor son Jesse Robinson (played by Andrew Santino), who’s at least five years older than Nellie.

Jesse is a pompous attorney who lets it be known to Nellie that he thinks she’s a pathetic mess when it comes to her life. Nellie, whose specialty is making butterfly earrings that she sells online, barely makes enough money to pay her bills. Meanwhile, Jesse is the type of cretin who makes misogynistic remarks (just like his father) and brags about being rich.

“Scrambled” has several “family dinner” scenes where Nellie argues with Richard and/or Jesse. Richard’s mild-mannered wife Sonja (played by Laura Cerón), an immigrant who speaks Spanish and English, tries to keep the peace when Richard and their son Jesse have conflicts with Nellie. Things get even more awkward between Nellie and Jesse when she reluctantly asks him to lend her the $8,000 she needs for her egg-harvesting procedures, which are not covered by her health insurance.

Early on in the movie, Nellie makes a remark that women are like avocados when it comes to women’s fertility: There’s a limited tme when they’re considered “ripe,” and then they are considered shriveled-up and useless. This avocado comparison becomes a running joke in the movie, as Nellie keeps checking the insides of avocados to see if they are still ripe and useful.

There’s also a very “Sex and the City”-type long stretch of the movie, when lonely Nellie reaches out to some ex-lovers in a desperate attempt to see if any romantic sparks can be rekindled with any of them. You can easily predict how these “reunions” turn out to be. “Magic Mike” alum Adam Rodriguez, who is one of the headliners of “Scrambled,” portrays Sterling Morales, one of Nellie’s ex-lovers, but Rodriguez’s screen time in “Scrambled” is less than five minutes. Nellie’s most recent serious relationship was with a slightly older man named Shawn (played by Harry Shum Jr.), who is mentioned frequently in the movie. “Scrambled” reveals the reason why Shawn and Nellie broke up and whether or not they get back together.

“Scrambled” works as well as it does because of the engaging screenplay and the very good comedic timing of the cast members. McKendrick has also crafted memorable characters who have mostly realistic flaws and foibles, although her tactless OB/GYN doctor (played by Feodor Chin) is meant to be a hilarious caricature of how doctors can sometimes be unprofessional. There’s a very poignant moment in the movie involving Nellie and her elderly neighbor Parveen (played by Vee Kumari), whom Nellie thinks is uptight and silently judgmental about Nellie’s sex life. Nellie might not be relatable to every woman, but “Scrambled” succeeds in showing that Nellie goes through universally relatable experiences that all reasonably responsible adults go through in making major life decisions that will affect people’s futures.

Lionsgate released “Scrambled” in U.S. cinemas on February 2, 2024.

Review: ‘You Were My First Boyfriend,’ starring Cecilia Aldarondo

December 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Xander Black and Cecilia Aldarondo in “You Were My First Boyfriend” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“You Were My First Boyfriend”

Directed by Cecilia Aldarondo and Sarah Enid Hagey

Culture Representation: Taking place in Florida and in New York, the autobiographical documentary film “You Were My First Boyfriend” features a Latino and white group of people representing the working-class and middle-class and who are connected in some way to filmmaker Cecilia Aldarondo.

Culture Clash: Aldarondo reminisces about her teenage years and confronts some of her personal demons by re-enacting some of her best and worst teenage experiences and memories.

Culture Audience: “You Were My First Boyfriend” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in movies that explore how adults can still be affected by angst that they had when they were teenagers.

An archival photo of Caroline Baker and Cecilia Aldarondo as teenagers in “You Were My First Boyfriend” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

If you had a chance to re-enact some of your most memorable teenage experiences (the good, the bad and the in between) in a documentary, would you do it? Most people wouldn’t, but the unconventional “You Were My First Boyfriend” shows what it was like for a filmmaker to revisit her past on camera. The film is a mixture of re-enactments, interviews with people who knew her when she was a teenager, and hindsight-fueled personal introspection.

Even though “You Were My First Boyfriend” is steeped in 1990s nostalgia, the themes in this documentary can be relatable to people of many generations. Filmmaker/narrator Cecilia Aldarondo gives an emotionally honest look at her self-esteem struggles. “You Were My First Boyfriend” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

Aldarondo and Sarah Enid Hagey directed and wrote “You Were My First Boyfriend,” but this is Aldarondo’s life story—specifically, about how Aldarondo is still dealing with insecurities that have affected her since childhood. Aldarondo (whose family is of Puerto Rican heritage) spent most her childhood in Winter Park, Florida, where she and her family were among the minority of Latino people in their predominantly white neighborhood.

The high school that Aldarondo and her two older sisters attended also had a predominantly white population. Aldarondo says of Winter Park: “People say it’s a nice place to grow up, but it always felt like a foreign place to me.” (Aldarondo is currently based in New York.)

In the beginning of “You Were My First Boyfriend,” Aldarondo says in a voiceover: “Imagine you had a nightmare where you had to relive your adolescence. My memories shine almost like a diamond. But not because I love them but because I hate them.”

Aldarondo doesn’t hold back in letting viewers know what her insecurities are that she says have plagued her since she was a child. In high school, she was socially awkward, had very few friends, and didn’t date anyone. Aldarondo says that she always felt inadequate and less attractive, compared to her two older sisters, whom Aldarondo feels got more attention and admiration from people inside and outside the family. It didn’t help that Aldarondo vividly remembers a few of her older female relatives making insulting remarks about Aldarondo’s weight.

Aldarondo’s sister Laura Gallegos is in several scenes in the documentary. And although Gallegos is a loving and supportive sister who gives Aldarondo pep talks and constant encouragement, there’s still a little bit noticeable tension between the sisters. Aldarondo comes across as somewhat jealous that Gallegos has a “perfect” life of domestic stability, while Gallegos seems a little envious that Aldarondo has a career that’s about creative freedom.

It’s also interesting to see how the two sisters sometimes have very different memories of the same childhood experiences. Not surprisingly, Gallegos doesn’t remember or says she wasn’t fully aware of all the emotional pain that Aldarondo says she was going through at the time in their childhoods when Aldarondo often felt invisible or sidelined in their own family. The documentary has some very raw emotions that show the complicated dynamics between the two sisters as they sort through their past and present.

Early on in the movie, there are scenes of Aldarondo (who graduated from high school in 1994) at her 25th high school reunion. As she drives to the reunion location, she says out loud, “I feel like I’m returning to the scene of an invisible crime, but the masochist in me tells me, ‘You must go [to this reunion].'”

At the reunion, Aldarondo engages in friendly conversations, but she still looks slightly uncomfortable. She says in a voiceover she feels like the people and the atmosphere have lot of the same elitist “country club” attitude that she experienced in high school. When an unidentified male former classmate comments on Aldarondo’s curly hair, there are some racial undertones when he asks her, “What did you channel for your hair?” She replies sarcastically, “Puerto Rico.” Perhaps realizing that his comment could be taken as an insult, he adds, “Your hair is amazing.”

Aldarondo tells documentary viewers up front that a big reason why she wanted to go to the reunion was to see a classmate named Joel, whom she says she had an intense crush on, from when they were in 6th grade to 12th grade. Aldarondo says she was too shy to ever flirt with Joel, or make it known that she wanted to date him, because she felt that he was out of her league. Before going to the reunion, Aldarondo reads some of her lovelorn journal entries about Joel, who never dated her and didn’t know that she had such a huge crush on him.

However, according to Aldarondo, Joel’s high school girlfriend knew about this crush and set up Aldarondo to have a potentially humiliating moment at a high school dance. Aldarondo says that this girlfriend told Aldarondo that Joel wanted to dance with Aldarondo, so Aldarondo approached Joel at the dance. He seemed confused when Aldarondo told him what his girlfriend said, but he politely asked Aldarondo to dance.

Joel didn’t know it at the time, but that dance (as awkward as it was for both of them) made a big impact on Aldarondo. On the one hand, it was like a dream come true for her. On the other hand, Aldarondo knew that she was only dancing with Joel because his girlfriend at the time intended it to be a prank. This experience is one of many from her teenage years that Aldarondo says still “haunt” her.

It should come as no surprise that Aldarondo meets up with Joel in the documentary to confess that she had a secret crush on him. She even goes as far as reading some of the things she wrote in her journal about him. What makes “You Were My First Boyfriend” different from most other documentaries that would have this type of reunion scene is that Aldarondo takes it a step further and recreates this fateful high school dance, by hiring real teenage actors (Xander Black has the role of Joel) and Aldarondo portraying the teenage version of herself.

If all of this sounds like some kind of therapy, Aldarondo freely admits that it is. (Hired actor Black even points out that these re-enactments must be like therapy for Aldarondo.) Aldarondo’s live-in partner Gabriel “Gabe” Kristal is shown in the documentary as being very supportive of what she’s doing in the documentary.

Kristal also gamely participates when Aldarondo asks him to recreate a scene from the high school drama series “My So-Called Life,” one of her favorite shows from her teenage years. In these “My So-Called Life” recreations, Aldarondo is protagonist Angela Chase (originally played by Claire Danes), and Kristal portrays Angela’s hard-to-get crush Jordan Catalano (originally played by Jared Leto). These “My So-Called Life” recreated scenes are intended to be amusing.

The title of “You Were My First Boyfriend” is somewhat misleading because the documentary isn’t completely focused on Aldarondo’s teenage obsession with Joel (who was never her boyfriend) and her reunion with him. A much more meaningful part of the documentary is about Aldarondo coming to terms with how her insecurities cost her a close friendship. With hindsight comes a lot of regret.

Before and during high school, Aldarondo had a best friend named Caroline Baker. The two girls had many interests in common (such as watching movies and TV shows), but Baker was much more open and secure about being a nerd than Aldarondo was. Aldarondo says in the documentary that there was a time in her high school years when some of the school’s popular girls began to pay attention to Aldarondo and invited her to join them in some of their social activities. As a result, Aldarondo ended her friendship with Baker, because she thought that the popular girls wouldn’t think she was very cool if she continued to hang out with Baker.

The documentary also shows Aldarondo confronting an ugly truth about her teenage past. As much as she felt shunned by many of her classmates because of snobbery, Aldarondo did some shunning of her own in how she treated Baker for the same snobbish reasons. The documentary shows whether or not Baker reunites with Aldarondo. In the teenage re-enactment scenes, Trinity Soos has the role of teenage Baker. The documentary includes footage of Aldarondo’s difficult audition process to find the right actress for the role.

Aldarondo also acknowledges her failings and flaws in being a passive part of the bullying among her fellow students. She describes an incident that took place at a girls’ summer camp when she saw two girls bully another girl, and Aldarondo did nothing to stop it. The guilt of being a bully enabler weighed on Aldarondo, and what she decided to do about it is shown in the documentary. It’s one of the most emotionally powerful moments in the movie.

Not everything in “You Were My First Boyfriend” is about Aldarondo reliving painful memories. One of the more light-hearted (but bittersweet) sections of the movie is when Aldarondo and her sister Gallegos do a re-enactment of Tori Amos’ 1992 “Crucify” music video. It might sound self-indulgent and a little dorky, but in the movie, it comes across as sweet and endearing for Aldarondo to recreate this music video that is special to her. The teenage friendship scenes with Aldarondo and Soos (as Baker) are also delightful to watch.

Documentary filmmakers who make themselves the stars of their movies often do so because they’re seeking recognition for monumental achievements that they want to put in the documentary. Aldarondo did not make “You Were My First Boyfriend” with the intention of winning a Pulitzer Prize. However, by exposing herself in such a candid and truthful way, she has made a very personal documentary that might help give insecure people more confidence to show who they really are and go on a path toward healthy self-acceptance.

HBO premiered “You Were My First Boyfriend” on November 8, 2023.

Review: ‘Black Barbie: A Documentary,’ starring Kitty Black Perkins, Stacey McBride-Irby and Beulah Mae Mitchell

November 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Black Barbie: A Documentary” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Black Barbie: A Documentary”

Directed by Lagueria Davis

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Black Barbie: A Documentary” features a predominantly African American group of people (and some white people, Latin people, and Asians) discussing the history of black Barbie dolls and/or racial issues for Barbie dolls.

Culture Clash: There is an ongoing struggle for black Barbie dolls to not be perceived as inferior or less important than white Barbie dolls.

Culture Audience: “Black Barbie: A Documentary” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a documentary about the intersection of Barbie dolls with African American history.

Stacey McBride-Irby, Kitty Black Perkins and Beulah Mae Mitchell in “Black Barbie: A Documentary” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” is essential viewing not just for people who are interested in this often-overlooked part of Barbie doll history but also for people who aren’t fans of Barbie dolls but want to watch a fascinating pop culture documentary. The movie (which has a total running time of 100 minutes) packs in a lot of different layers that are mostly cohesive. The movie is fairly ambitious in how it puts certain things in a broader historical and sociological context, thereby avoiding being a formulaic Barbie doll documentary that would probably ignore these larger issues.

Directed by Lagueria Davis (who wrote and spoke the movie’s narration and is one of the movie’s producers), “Black Barbie: A Documentary” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival and has since made the rounds at numerous other festivals, including its New York premiere at the Urbanworld Festival. Davis has said in many interviews that it took her 12 years to make this documentary. It shows in the amount of meticulous research in “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” which makes everything easier to understand by including a timeline of events.

This not a documentary made by a “Barbie fangirl.” In fact, in her narration, Davis (who occasionally appears on screen in the movie) tells viewers from the beginning that in her childhood, she didn’t even like Barbie dolls and never had an interest in them. She says that what inspired her to make this documentary was hearing stories from her aunt Beulah Mae Mitchell, who was one of the first black employees for Mattel, the Barbie toy manufacturing company, where Mitchell worked from 1955 to 1999.

The first Barbie doll, which went on sale to the mass market in 1959, was invented by Mattel co-founder Ruth Handler and was inspired by Ruth’s real-life daughter Barbara. Barbie dolls became a hit because they were not the type of shapeless woman dolls that were usually being sold at the time but were dolls designed to emulate the curves and contours of a fully developed woman. The first black Barbie doll went on sale in 1968, at the height of the Black Power movement.

Mitchell was mostly a receptionist throughout her career at Mattel, but she was privy to a lot of insider information that she shares in the documentary. Mitchell also kept many valuable mementos and memorabilia from her time with Mattel, some of which is shown in this documentary and would be right at home in a Barbie museum. In “Black Barbie: A Documentary,” Mitchell describes Ruth Handler as a kind and generous boss who always asked for feedback from employees on how to improve the company. Nevertheless, for years, Mattel had a blind spot or resistance to the idea of Mattel making Barbie dolls that were any race other than white.

Mitchell says part of that resistance came from cultural conditioning at the time in the United States, when it was more acceptable to “erase” people of color from representation in many areas of life where people of color existed. The image manufactured for Barbie at the time and which still exists today is that Barbie leads a life of glamour and privilege, which are often out of reach for people who are treated as being on the margins of society.

In the documentary, Mitchell comments: “My mother loved dolls. I loved dolls. I loved fashion.” Mitchell remembers that she was growing up, she was so used to seeing only white dolls being sold as the “pretty dolls,” that “it didn’t occur to me” that dolls that weren’t white could be included as “pretty dolls” too. She remembers the usual black dolls that were around in her childhood were the Aunt Jemima dolls that were considered frumpy and unattractive.

The reasons why the first black Barbie wasn’t introduced until 1968 had as much to do with race as economics. There was deep skepticism that there would be enough demand for black Barbie dolls to make the dolls a profitable investment for Mattel. The underlying doubt was that although black people might buy black Barbie dolls, what about white people, the majority race that was buying Barbie dolls?

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” briefly goes off on an interesting but necessary tangent by mentioning the famous Clark doll tests of 1947, as an example of how dolls can often influence how young people think of racial differences. Psychologist spouses Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark conducted tests with white and black children by giving them a choice between choosing a white baby doll or black baby doll. The children almost always chose the white dolls, thereby showing how white supremacist racism can be internalized from a very young age.

These test results were used successfully in arguments in favor of making racial segregation illegal in U.S. public education in the 1954 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education. However, legislating racial justice in public education is one thing. Trying to do that in the business world is another thing.

As is often the case when white-owned corporate companies exclude representation of races that aren’t white, the excluded races create their own businesses. “Black Barbie: The Documentary” admirably mentions the importance of Shindana Toys, a co-op company that was the first major manufacturer of black dolls and became very successful at it. Shindana Toys, which was in business from 1968 to 1983, was a division of Operation Bootstrap Inc.

Mattel noticed the success of Shindana and saw that there was a viable economic demand to make Barbie dolls more racially inclusive. And so, the first black Barbie doll was launched in 1968. Her name was Christie, who was marketed as a friend of Barbie’s. In 1969, another black Barbie doll named Julia was introduced. Julia was inspired by Diahann Carroll’s title character in the TV comedy series “Julia,” where Carroll starred as a young widowed mother who is a nurse.

Eventually, Mattel responded to requests from consumers to make people of color dolls not just as sidekick friends to Barbie but as dolls named Barbie. Kitty Black Perkins was the designer of Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie, which was introduced in 1979 and went on sale in 1980. Black Perkins, who worked at Mattel from 1976 to 2003, is considered the most influential person at Mattel in creating a wider range of black Barbie dolls.

Black Perkins’ interviews in the documentary are among the most insightful. She mentions that a child psychologist was brough in by Mattel to assess her work when designing Mattel’s first black doll named Barbie. Black Perkins says that psychologist backed off when it was obvious that Black Perkins, as an African American, knew better than the psychologist on what should be done in creating a black Barbie doll. She also says that Mattel gave very little promotion to the first black Barbie doll that she designed.

Black Perkins mentored Stacey McBride-Irby, a Mattel designer who continued Black Perkins’ legacy in creating new black Barbie dolls, when McBride-Irby worked for Mattel from 1996 to 2011. One of the documentary’s highlights is showing Mitchell, Black Perkins and McBride-Irby—three generations of black women who have long histories with Mattel’s Barbie dolls—sitting down together for a talk. Their conversation doesn’t look forced or contrived. It’s a joy to watch. McBride-Irby mentions that her own daughter was an influence in many of McBride Irby’s design decisions for black Barbie dolls.

“Black Barbie: A Documentary” also has the expected array of talking head interviews with Barbie doll collectors, historians, entertainers, cultural experts and former Mattel employees. The movie acknowledges that Mattel has come a long way in diversifying Barbie dolls. However, the documentary also points out that there could be more progress in how Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still push the idea that the only Barbie who deserves the most attention has to be a white female who is thin, blonde and pretty.

For example, even though the “Barbie” animated movies have introduced a black Barbie named Brooklyn Barbie as a friend counterpart to white Malibu Barbie, the storylines often still presents Brooklyn Barbie as a sidekick, not the main star of the story. Malibu Barbie is still at the center of the marketing campaigns for these movies. If racism is mentioned in the “Barbie” animated movies, Malibu Barbie does most of the talking about it.

Mason Williams—Mattel’s senior director of diversity, equity, and inclusion—is interviewed in the documentary. He looks visibly uncomfortable in the documentary when he’s confronted with criticism that Mattel’s “Barbie” animated movies still don’t show racial equality among the Barbies. Williams gives a tepid response by saying that these changes take time and won’t happen overnight.

One of the best parts of “Black Barbie: A Documentary” is in the last third of the movie, when it goes beyond just talking head interviews and shows a series of focus groups with children (about 7 to 12 years old, male and female and of diverse races) to discuss what they think when they are presented with various Barbie dolls and are asked questions about these dolls. Yeshiva Davis (a therapist whose specialty is family and marriage) is the leader of these focus groups.

The results of these focus groups are revealing about children’s attitudes about race relations and perceptions of physical attractiveness, as well as how these attitudes affect their judgments of others and themselves. The children’s answers are sometimes funny and sometimes sad but always come across as very unfiltered and honest. Davis is then shown discussing the results of these focus groups with various educators and cultural historians, who comment on the children’s answers.

Perhaps that is the greatest takeaway of “Black Barbie: A Documentary”: It’s not about which black Barbie dolls are bestsellers for Mattel. It’s about how Barbie dolls, like them or not, have a great deal of influence on how people (especially impressionable children) can view the world.

Netflix will premiere “Black Barbie: A Documentary” in 2024, on a date to be announced.

Review: ‘It Lives Inside’ (2023), starring Megan Suri, Mohana Krishnan, Neeru Bajwa, Betty Gabriel, Vik Sahay and Jenaya Ross

September 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Megan Suri in “It Lives Inside” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“It Lives Inside” (2023)

Directed by Bishal Dutta

Some language in Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the horror film “It Lives Inside” has a cast of Indian and white characters (with one African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A high school student, who has been shunning her former best friend, finds out that her friend has unleashed a supernatural evil monster.

Culture Audience: “It Lives Inside” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a horror movie with some jump scares and don’t mind if the rest of the story is weak.

Mohana Krishnan in “It Lives Inside” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“It Lives Inside” had the potential to be a more intriguing horror movie if the plot had been developed better. There are too many unanswered questions by the end of film. Some stylish horror moments and adequate acting can’t overcome the movie’s flaws.

Written and directed by Bishal Dutta, “It Lives Inside” is his feature-film directorial debut. The movie had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival, where it won the Midnighters Audience Award, given to movies that are usually in the horror genre or are considered movies that tend to be shown at midnight screenings. The movie has plenty of jump scares, but they don’t add up to much when the characters are so underdeveloped and the same types of scares get repeated.

“It Lives Inside” brings up issues of Indian immigrants living in the United States and navigating between Indian culture and American culture. However, the movie doesn’t really do much with this perspective, since “It Lives Inside” turns into a run-of-the-mill evil monster movie, where the monster just happens to come from Indian folklore. A lot of the Indian culture presented in the film is just style over substance.

Unfortunately, the trailer for “It Lives Inside” shows about 90% of the film’s plot, as well as reveals some of the best scenes in the movie, which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city. The plot of “It Lives Inside” is so basic, it would be enough for a short film. A lot of scenes could have been cut from the movie, and it wouldn’t have made a difference with the end result.

In “It Lives Inside,” a high school student named Samidha, nicknamed Sam (played by Megan Suri), is about 16 or 17 years old and living with her Indian immigrant parents: mother Poorna (played by Neeru Bajwa) and father Inesh (played by Vik Sahay), who are fairly traditional. Poorna is much stricter and more uptight than Inesh, who is laid-back in his personality and parenting style. An early scene in the movie shows Sam’s classmate Russ (played by Gage Marsh) inviting Sam to a party, but Sam says that she can’t go because her parents expect her to celebrate Magha Puja Day, which celebrates events in the life of Buddha.

Not much is ever told abut Sam during this entire movie. It’s mentioned that she failed her driver’s license test three times. She is also someone who has dropped her former best friend Tamira (played by Mohana Krishnan) because Sam wants to be in the popular students’ clique at the school. A teacher at the school named Joyce (played by Betty Gabriel) is concerned about the way that the other students talk about Tamira. When Joyce asks Sam why Sam’s friendship ended with Tamira, Sam doesn’t really give a completely truthful answer and vaguely says that they outgrew each other.

Tamira is immediately presented as a “weird” outcast. One day, Tamira shows up looking disheveled at the school while she is holding a mysterious jar. There also appears to be blood seeping from inside Tamira’s backpack. Tamira takes the jar with her everywhere. People at the school have noticed and are staying away from her or are making snide comments about Tamira behind her back.

Sam acts disgusted and doesn’t want anything to do with Tamira, who insists that something evil is living inside the jar, and this evil entity needs to eat raw meat. In the school’s gym locker room, Sam snaps at Tamira: “You’re such a fucking psycho!” Sam knocks the jar out of Tamira’s hand, the jar falls and breaks on the floor, and black dust comes out of the jar. There’s also an old book on the floor that Sam tries to give back to Tamira.

You know what all of this means in a horror movie like “It Lives Inside”: an evil spirit has now been unleashed. The monster’s name is The Pishach (played by Jenaya Ross), and it shows up in a lot of darkly lit scenes. What the monster does is entirely predictable, but don’t expect to hear anything substantial about the origins of this monster. “It Lives Inside” seems more enamored with how scenes look rather than telling a compelling story about the characters in those scenes.

Neon released “It Lives Inside” in U.S. cinemas on September 25, 2023.

Review: ‘Shiva Baby’ (2021), starring Rachel Sennott, Molly Gordon, Polly Draper, Danny Deferrari, Fred Melamed and Dianna Agron

August 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Molly Gordon and Rachel Sennott in “Shiva Baby” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

“Shiva Baby” (2021)

Directed by Emma Seligman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state, the comedy/drama film “Shiva Baby” features an all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bisexual college student, who secretly makes money as a sex worker for male clients, finds herself in uncomfortable situations when she, her parents, her ex-girlfriend, a sex customer and his wife all end up at the same post-funeral reception. 

Culture Audience: “Shiva Baby” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of sarcastic and well-acted movies about people who have secret lives.

Dianna Agron and Danny Deferrari in “Shiva Baby” (Photo courtesy of Utopia)

“Shiva Baby” seamlessly blends hilarious comedy and sobering drama in this incisive story of a college student forced to reckon with secrets and lies during a tension-filled shiva reception. It’s a stellar feature film debut from writer/director Emma Seligman. The movie authentically represents American Jewish culture (almost every character in the movie is Jewish), which is a big part of the story, but the essential elements of the plot could have been about people in many other cultures.

Seligman is also one of the producers of “Shiva Baby,” which was selected to have its world premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival, but the event was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Jury prizes were still given for the event. “Shiva Baby” went on to win the John Cassavetes Award at the 2022 Film Independent Spirit Awards, presented to the creative team of a film with a production budget of less than $500,000. (The John Cassavetes Award’s qualifying amount has since been changed to a movie production budget of less than $1 million.)

“Shiva Baby” is based on Seligman’s 2018 short film of the same name that she made when she was a student at New York University. Rachel Sennott, another NYU alum, stars in both “Shiva Baby” films, which get their title from the fact that the story takes place primarily at a shiva reception, and the protagonist is a college student who feels like her parents still treat her like a baby. Both movies were filmed on location in New York state.

In the “Shiva Baby” feature film, Sennott portrays bisexual Danielle, who’s in her early 20s and in her last year at an unnamed university in New York City. Danielle comes from a middle-class family (the movie never mentions how her parents make money), where she is the only child of her parents. Danielle’s life is revealed in bits and pieces in the movie until a portrait emerges of a deeply insecure woman who’s been lying to people about many things in her life. What “Shiva Baby” viewers first find out about Danielle isn’t necessarily the truth about her.

The movie’s opening scene shows Danielle and a man in his mid-to-late 30s having sex at his apartment in New York City. Viewers don’t find out until a little later in the movie that his name is Max Beckett (played by Danny Deferrari), and he’s also been keeping secrets. Max has been giving money to Danielle in a “sexual arrangement” relationship. Some people in this line of work might call Max a “sugar daddy,” but the reality is that he’s a sex customer.

Danielle has told Max that she needs the money to pay for her tuition at Columbia University Law School, where she says she is currently a student. Max seems a little jealous of other men whom Danielle might be seeing for the same type of arrangement. “How are you going to get through law school if you’re screwing around with these guys?” Max asks. Danielle doesn’t give a direct answer, but she makes sure to get the cash that she wants from Max before she leaves.

Danielle will soon have a lot more to deal with than nosy questions from Max when she attends a shiva reception later that day. Her parents call Danielle to remind her to attend the funeral of someone whom Danielle didn’t even know. The funeral is on Long Island, where her parents live, and Danielle has to ask her parents what the name is of the person who died. The deceased person has a very distant connection to Danielle’s family and is described as the sister of the second wife of someone’s uncle.

Danielle’s mother Debbie (played by Polly Draper) is very talkative, uptight and domineering. Danielle’s father Joel (played by Fred Melamed) is sensitive, gentle and easygoing. Debbie, who doesn’t like to talk about Danielle being bisexual, has been pressuring Danielle to find a nice Jewish guy to marry. Debbie wants to think Danielle’s bisexuality is just an “experimental” phase that has ended for Danielle.

Danielle skips the funeral but she meets up with her parents after the funeral at the shiva reception taking place at the middle-class house of a relative of the deceased person. Danielle is taken aback because one of the first people she sees is her ex-lover Maya (played by Molly Gordon), who has known Danielle since they were kids. Maya is also an only child of her parents. Danielle asks her parents, “Why is Maya here?” Debbie warns Danielle, “No funny business with Maya.”

The rest of the movie takes place at this reception, which becomes an increasingly volatile minefield of emotions, as the scandalous secrets of Danielle and other people are in danger of being exposed. Throughout “Shiva Baby,” Danielle is seen going to the buffet table to grab something to eat, or she finds some wine to gulp, which is the movie’s way of showing how Danielle uses food and alcohol as a way to cope with the stress she’s experiencing at this gathering.

Danielle’s issues with food are brought up in other ways that hint that she might have an eating disorder as part of her personal history. At this reception, multiple people (including Danielle’s mother) comment to Danielle about how much weight she has lost. It’s mentioned later in the movie that when she was younger, Danielle was considered to be “chubby,” but she lost a lot of weight during her college years. Debbie quips to Danielle about Danielle’s physical appearance: “You look like Gyneth Paltrow on food stamps—and not in a good way.”

Also at this reception are Maya’s mother Katherine (played by Glynis Bell), who is a very judgmental gossip. Just like Danielle’s mother Debbie, Katherine is aware of but chooses not to discuss the fact that Danielle and Maya used to be lovers. Katherine also seems to think that Maya will eventually settle down with a husband.

At this party, Danielle is asked several times by various people if she’s dating anyone and what her plans are after graduation. Danielle is honest about not currently being involved in a serious romance, but she gives people different or vague answers about her post-graduation plans. It should come as no surprise that Danielle and Maya have unresolved feelings for each other. Maya, who is a confident overachiever, is more likely than Danielle to be truthful about her feelings.

Even though Danielle wants to be independent and find a job on her own, her mother Debbie constantly asks people to help Danielle find a job after she graduates. It’s later revealed that Danielle’s parents are paying for all her expenses and have access to her bank account records. Danielle has been lying to her parents about the money she gets through sex work. She tells her parents that she gets the money from babysitting.

Maya isn’t the only guest whom Danielle is surprised to see at this reception. Danielle is even more shocked to see Max there. Max has a big secret that he’s been keeping from Danielle, but she finds out his secret at this gathering: Max is married and has an 18-month-old daughter. And he might not be the one paying for the apartment where Max and Danielle have been having their trysts. Danielle also finds out at this reception that Max used to work for her father years ago.

Max’s wife and daughter arrive later at the reception. Max’s wife Kim Beckett (played by Dianna Agron), an elegant blonde, is described by some of the reception’s gossips as a “shiksa” (a somewhat derogatory word for a non-Jewish woman), who’s a successful entrepreneur with multiple businesses and who earns a lot more money than Max. Kim works from home so that she can take care of daughter Rose (played by Edgar Harmanci), whose frequent crying in the movie is used as one of the things that causes Danielle to become more anxious.

Although “Shiva Baby” is mainly about Danielle’s worlds colliding at this shiva reception, Max and (to a certain extent) Maya have their own secrets and role playing that they do at this gathering. In a desperate bid to assert her sexual attractiveness, Danielle goes in a bathroom at the house, impulsively takes a topless photo of herself using her phone, and sends the photo to Max. You can imagine what might happen next.

“Shiva Baby” has a lot of dialogue that crackles with underlying resentments and hard feelings, as bitter rivalries and jealousies play out but are disguised by small talk that has a forced pleasantness. This dialogue wouldn’t work as well if “Shiva Baby” did not have these very talented cast members acting out the dialogue in realistic ways, especially in portraying how people often say one thing but are thinking the complete opposite. “Shiva Baby” composer Ariel Marx’s tension-infused music perfectly conveys in the movie how Danielle feels like she’s in a pressure cooker that could explode at any moment.

Sennott shines in this starring role as the moody and complex Danielle, who finds herself in way over her head when she sees the horrifying reality that her lies aren’t as harmless as she thinks they’ve been. Draper is also a standout in the cast and has some of the funniest lines of dialogue in “Shiva Baby” as Danielle’s overbearing but well-meaning mother. When Danielle accuses Debbie of not being able to see queerness (also known as “gaydar”), Debbie snaps in response: “Excuse me, I lived through New York in the ’80s. My gaydar is as strong as a bull!”

Agron and Gordon are especially good at portraying people who are in love with someone who’s fickle and a habitual liar, but these betrayed lovers are willing to risk getting hurt to have that person’s love. Deferrari is also quite skilfull in his performance of a cheating husband who’s terrified of being exposed and trying to keep his composure. Melamed’s Joel character is one of the few in the movie who does not put on airs. Joel is genuine about who he is, but he mistakenly thinks everyone is like that too, so he fails to see clues of deception that are all around him.

“Shiva Baby” has a few slapstick comedy moments that involve mishaps and accidents at the party. But the movie is laser-sharp in how it takes aim at people who put on fake appearances of having a great life when they might actually be very insecure, miserable and jealous of other people who are happy. “Shiva Baby” isn’t cynical about love. Rather, this very memorable movie is ultimately a poignant depiction of how true love can be found when people are willing to show their true selves to each other.

Utopia released “Shiva Baby” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on April 2, 2021. “Shiva Baby” became available on HBO, Max, Mubi, Blu-ray and DVD in July 2021. Utopia re-released “Shiva Baby” in select U.S. cinemas on August 4, 2023.

Review: ‘Bottoms’ (2023), starring Rachel Sennott, Ayo Edebiri, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber, Nicholas Galitzine, Dagmara Dominczyk and Marshawn Lynch

August 24, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ayo Edebiri and Rachel Sennott in “Bottoms” (Photo by Patti Perret/Orion Pictures)

“Bottoms” (2023)

Directed by Emma Seligman

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedic film “Bottoms” features an predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and a few Asians and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two lesbian best friends start an all-female fight club in their homophobic high school as a way to lose their virginities to cheerleaders. 

Culture Audience: “Bottoms” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and comedic movies where queer people are the central characters.

Ayo Edebiri, Rachel Sennott, Zamani Wilder, Summer Joy Campbell, Havana Rose Liu, Kaia Gerber and Virginia Tucker in “Bottoms” (Photo courtesy of Orion Pictures)

“Bottoms” is a bawdy and occasionally bloody comedy that gets gleefully absurd in this story about two lesbian best friends who start an all-female fight club in their high school. The originality outshines some of the film’s clichés. Even people who might not like “Bottoms” can admit that there are many things in this movie that have never been said and done before in a teen-oriented comedy.

Directed by Emma Seligman (who co-wrote the “Bottoms” screenplay with “Bottoms” co-stars Rachel Sennott), “Bottoms” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. A distracting part of this movie is that the cast members portraying high schoolers look too old (early-to-mid 20s) to be in high school. It’s why all the movie’s raunchy dialogue isn’t as edgy as the “Bottoms” filmmakers probably thought it should be. However, because of the talented cast members, the delivery of this dialogue is entertaining, even if many parts of the movie require a huge suspension of disbelief, including the fact that all the cast members playing high schoolers are not really teenagers.

“Bottoms” takes place in an unnamed U.S. city but was actually filmed in Louisiana. The begins with lesbian best friends PJ (played by Sennott) and Josie (played by Ayo Edebiri) talking about sex. At this pont in time, PJ and Josie, who are both virgins, are students in their last year at Rockridge Falls High School. Their fantasies are to lose their virginities to the cheerleaders at the schools who are their biggest crushes.

PJ is hot for Brittany (played by Kaia Gerber), a tall beauty with a sarcastic attitude. (Gerber, who got her start as a model in real life, is the daughter of former supermodel Cindy Crawford.) Josie is infatuated with attractive Isabel (played by Havana Rose Liu), who is dating the school’s start football quarterback Jeff (played by ), a conceited, dimwitted pretty boy who is a chronic liar and cheater. Isabel and Brittany are best friends.

PJ is bossy and obnoxious, but she’s also hilarious and a generally loyal friend. Josie is more sensitive and thoughtful, but she’s also very insecure and plagued with self-doubt. In their conversations about losing their virginities, PJ is confident that it will happen to her before she graduates from high school. Josie thinks that if she has any chance of getting together with Isabel, it’ll probably be if they see each other at their 20-year high school reunion.

At school, PJ and Josie are outcasts because they’re lesbian and because people have heard that PJ and Josie both spent time in juvenile detention for violent crimes. Josie and PJ are often the targets of bigoted hate. Homophobic slurs are often spraypainted on their school lockers. Even the school’s sleazy leader Principal Meyers (played by Wayne Pére) doesn’t hide his homophobia.

There’s an incident where Jeff insults Josie, and she deliberately injures his leg while driving her car with Josie and Isabel as passengers. Principal Meyers calls Josie and PJ into his office and scolds them for injuring the school’s star football player. Rockridge Falls High School’s Vikings football team has been in a fierce rivalry for about 50 years with the Huntington High School Golden Ferrets. And there’s a big football game coming up between the Vikings and the Golden Ferrets

A story has been going around the school that a Rockridge Falls female student was attacked by a Hungtington male student. And so, when Principal Meyers tells PJ and Josie that they need to find a way to channel their “negative energy,” PJ comes up with the idea to start an all-female self-defense club at the school. (It’s really a fight club.) Principal Meyers says the club will be approved if PJ and Josie can find a teacher to be the sponsor/supervisor. PJ and Josie recruit their history teacher Mr. G (played by Marshawn Lynch), who has a hip-hop persona and is going through a divorce.

Josie is reluctant to go through with this fight club idea, but PJ convinces her by telling Josie that the fight club will be a way that they can find potential sex partners. Josie and PJ are thrilled when Isabel and Brittany end up joining the “self-defense club.” Other students are join the club, to varying results.

One of club members is Hazel Callahan (played by Ruby Cruz), who’s androgynous-looking and openly queer, is an even bigger misfit at the school than PJ and Josie, who try not to associate too closely with socially awkward Hazel. Also joining the club is Annie (played by Zamani Wilder), who is proud to be an African American member of the Republican Party. Other memorable supporting characters in “Bottoms” is Hazel’s frisky divorced mother Mrs. Callahan (played by Dagmara Dominczyk) and Vikings football player Tim (played by Miles Fowler), who is Jeff’s smirky sidekick.

The plot for “Bottoms” is fairly simple and a little bit on the formulaic side. However, the movie’s snappy dialogue and great comedic chemistry between the cast members (especially between Sennott and Edibiri) are definitely not formulaic and make this movie shine. Sennott also starred in Seligman’s feature-film directorial debut “Shiva Baby” (written by Seligman), a comedy/drama that was released in 2021 and re-released in 2023. There’s a final showdown in “Bottoms” that gets very over-the-top in its slapstick comedy. Ultimately, “Bottoms” won’t be a massive breakout for any of its stars, but it’s the type of movie that will get a very devoted following who won’t get tired of watching it.

MGM’s Orion Pictures will release “Bottoms” in select U.S. cinemas on August 25, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on September 1, 2023.

Review: ‘BlackBerry’ (2023), starring Jay Baruchel, Glenn Howerton, Matt Johnson, Rich Sommer, Michael Ironside, Sal Rubinek and Cary Elwes

August 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Jay Baruchel and Glenn Howerton in “BlackBerry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“BlackBerry” (2023)

Directed by Matt Johnson

Culture Representation: Taking place in Canada and in the United States, from 1996 to 2013, the comedy/drama film “BlackBerry” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Canada-based technology company BlackBerry becomes a global success as the maker of the world’s first smartphone, but internal power struggles, bad management and an inability to compete with Apple’s iPhone all lead to BlackBerry’s downfall.

Culture Audience: “BlackBerry” will appeal primarily to viewers who are interested in watching scripted movies that depict behind-the-scenes business dealings of real-life famous companies.

Pictured in center: Jay Baruchel and Matt Johnson in “BlackBerry” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“BlackBerry” takes viewers on a roller coaster ride in telling this “based on a true story” about the rise and fall of BlackBerry, the first popular smartphone. Glenn Howerton gives a standout performance as a greedy corporate villain with a nasty temper. The movie is made with a mockumentary-styled combination of a comedy and drama. “BlackBerry” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival.

Directed by Matt Johnson (who co-wrote the “BlackBerry” screenplay with Matthew Miller), “BlackBerry” is based on the 2015 non-fiction book “Losing the Signal: The Untold Story Behind the Extraordinary Rise and Spectacular Fall of BlackBerry,” by Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff. The movie’s story takes place in chronological order, from 1996 to 2013. BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion Ltd., which was founded in 1984, went from being a scrappy start-up company headquartered in Waterloo, Ontario, to being the world’s first and leading company for smartphones.

At its peak in 2008, after Research in Motion became a publicly traded company, its stock price was valued at $147 per share, with an overall estimated company value $85 billion. Research in Motion changed its name to BlackBerry Ltd. in 2013. For the past several years, BlackBerry’s stock price as hovered between $8 to $10 per share. How and why did it all go so wrong?

The “BlackBerry” movie shows that this train wreck didn’t go off the rails right away. Like many tech startups, Research in Motion was founded by eager entrepreneurs with big ideas and a fanatical work ethic but not the best business acumen when it came to sales and managing money. And when you bring in a toxic troublemaker to co-lead the company, it’s a recipe for disaster.

Research in Motion was co-founded by two self-admitted computer nerds named Mike Lazaridis (played by Jay Baruchel) and Douglas “Doug” Fregin (played by “BlackBerry” director Johnson), who (for a while) could have been considered the Canadian versions of Apple Inc. co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Just like in the Jobs/Wozniak relationship, one person in the partnership was the master of overall concepts and marketing, while the other person was the technical/engineering whiz.

In the case of Research in Motion, Mike was the concept/marketing guy, while Doug was the technical/engineering guy. In the “BlackBerry” movie, Mike is a constant worrier, and he tends to be too gullible in business. Doug has a jolly personality, but he approaches business with more logic and healthy skepticism. Eventually, the different personalities of these two friends will lead to several clashes between them on decisions for Research in Motion.

An early scene in the movie takes place in 1996, when Research in Motion is still a struggling start-up, but Mike and Doug are still the best of friends. Mike tells his all-male team of computer geeks (there are about seven employees on this team) that he had a shop teacher who once told him that anyone who could put a computer inside a phone would change the world. Doug thinks of a prototype that will be like a combination of a pager, a phone and a device that can send and receive email. Mike’s name for this invention is Pocket Link, but the name would eventually be changed to BlackBerry.

As ambitious as this idea is, Mike struggles to find investors for it. Part of the problem is that introverted Mike isn’t very good at sales and marketing presentations. He’s articulate when it comes to tech jargon, but he often has a hard time explaining technical issues to non-tech people. Mike is also not very fond of public speaking.

An early scene in “BlackBerry” shows Mike coming back from a business meeting where he was rejected by a potential investor. The reaction of Doug and the other staffers is to shrug it off and gather to watch “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” which is Mike’s favorite movie. However, Mike is in no mood for this diversion, which he would normally use as a way to cheer himself up.

Meanwhile, at another company, cutthroat sales executive Jim Balsillie (played by Howerton) is feeling very discontented at Sutherland-Schultz Limited, a construction company headquartered in Cambridge, Ontario. Jim wants to run a new division of the company, but his boss Rick Brock (played by Martin Donovan) won’t let it happen. Jim is also upset because he feels that he is being sidelined. It isn’t long before volatile Jim gets fired.

Around the same time, Jim and Mike end up meeting each other. Mike tells Jim about Research in Motion’s new phone invention. Jim doesn’t tell Mike right away that he’s currently unemployed because he’s been fired. Jim thinks this phone will be a massive hit, but Research in Motion needs the money to make and market this phone. Jim offers to be the co-CEO who can bring in these capital funds, but on one condition: Jim wants to own half of Research in Motion.

Doug is vehemently against this business proposal, because Doug and Mike made a deal with each other that they would never sell at least 50% of the company. Eventually, a compromise is reached: Jim will own 33% of the company (which he buys for $125,000) and be co-CEO with Mike. Jim will oversee all the company’s sales and marketing, while Mike will oversee all the day-to-day operations. Jim also takes out personal loans to help keep the business afloat.

Jim’s aggressive style and his sales connections initially benefit Research in Motion. And as many people already know, the BlackBerry phone (which pioneered having a mini-keyboard as part of its interface) was launched in 1999, and was the market leader for nearly 10 years. BlackBerry also had the nickname CrackBerry because of how addictive it was for many people. Apple launched the iPhone in 2007.

In no uncertain terms, the “BlackBerry” movie puts most of the blame on Jim for the downfall of the BlackBerry brand. He’s portrayed as someone who got too greedy and too delusional about his power. Howerton gives a riveting performance that’s a great character study of a tyrant who’s out of control. Anyone who thinks what’s in the movie is exaggerated has no idea that Jim’s heinousness is not only a very accurate portrayal of how many corporate CEOs act but this damaging toxicity can also be a lot worse in real life than what’s shown in the movie.

Mike is portrayed as someone who changes from being an accessible “one of the guys” part of the team to becoming an increasingly cold and distant CEO. Doug repeatedly tries to warn Mike that Jim will run the company into the ground, but Mike is blinded by the spectacular profits that the company is making. Doug eventually makes a decision about how he’s going to handle all of these changes.

The mockumentary style of “BlackBerry” often mimics the sitcom “The Office,” with an occasionally shaky hand-held camera that often zooms in on people’s facial expressions. The characters in the movie sometimes have awkward pauses in their sentences, as if they’re self-conscious about being filmed. However, there is no mockumentary director or other filmmakers who are shown as characters in the movie. It’s a wise choice, because fabricating these types of characters would be an unnecessary distraction.

One of the best things about “BlackBerry” is its sharp and incisive screenplay. The dialogue in the movie is often hilarious to watch, even when the characters are being deadly serious. Perhaps the only noticeable flaw of the movie is that it doesn’t do a very good job of convincing viewers how much Mike ages over the decades portrayed in the film. Putting a fake-looking white wig on Baruchel doesn’t make him look older in the movie. It just makes him look like he’s wearing a white wig.

Despite a few minor flaws, “BlackBerry” maintains an entertaining level throughout the entire film, which shows other corporate sharks swimming in these smartphone business waters. Cary Elwes has an amusing supporting role as Palm CEO Carl Yankowski, who threatens a hostile takeover of BlackBerry, which at the time was the biggest rival to the PalmPilot. (In real life, Yankowski died on May 13, 2023, a day after “BlackBerry” was released in theaters.) Michael Ironside portrays Charles Purdy, a no-nonsense executive who’s brought in as chief operating officer of Research in Motion. Charles immediately starts to “crack the whip,” by forcing employees to have a more formal and corporate culture.

Rich Sommer portrays a fictional character named Paul Stanos, one of the lead design engineers on the BlackBerry team. Sal Rubinek has a pivotal role as John Woodman, a leader of Bell Atlantic. Apple is portrayed as a corporate rival whose principal executives are kept at distance in the story and are not characters in the movie. It’s a reflection of what would eventually be BlackBerry’s undoing: The Research in Motion executives weren’t paying enough attention to what Apple was doing with iPhone upgrades and ended up being crushed by the competition from iPhone products.

There are many movies that serve as cautionary tales of what can happen in business when greed and arrogance take over and lead to bad decisions. “BlackBerry” isn’t interested in doing any preaching. The movie isn’t a complete satire, but it pokes some fun at the Research in Motion executives who thought they were brilliant but ended up ruining a very successful company. Simply put: The comedy in “BlackBerry” is very bittersweet indeed.

IFC Films released “BlackBerry” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on June 2, 2023. “BlackBerry” was released on Blu-ray and DVD on August 15, 2023.

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: ‘Tetris’ (2023), starring Taron Egerton

May 13, 2023

by Carla Hay

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

“Tetris” (2023)

Directed by Jon S. Baird

Some language in Japanese and Russian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1988, in the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom and Japan, the dramatic film “Tetris” (inspired by a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Video game entrepreneur Henk Rogers gets caught up in a web of ruthless business deals and political intrigue in multiple countries, as he tries to obtain worldwide licensing rights to the game Tetris. 

Culture Audience: Besides appealing to the obvious traget audience of Tetris fans, “Tetris” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Taron Egerton, video games that were launched in the 1980s, and movies about real-life business underdogs.

Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton in “Tetris” (Photo courtesy of Apple TV+)

Combining 1980s entertainment nostalgia and 1980s Cold War history lessons, the dramatic film “Tetris” also mixes facts with fiction. In this lively retelling of the Tetris game origin story, the “race against time” plot developments are obviously exaggerated for the movie. However, the double dealings and business backstabbings ring true, in addition to navigating cultural differences. “Tetris” had its world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film and TV Festival.

Directed by Jon S. Baird and written by Noah Pink, “Tetris” can get a little too over-the-top in how it depicts the story of one man versus corporate giants and the Russian government in the fierce competition to get worldwide rights to the video game Tetris. However, the cast members’ performances elevate the movie, which has some comedic elements that easily could have looked out-of-place with the wrong cast members. “Tetris” has a winking tone to it let viewers know that the filmmakers didn’t intend to make this movie entirely factual or entirely serious.

“Tetris” (a globetrotting story that takes place in 1988) also has a visual motif used to great effect: Many of the scenes have flashes of the live-action visuals presented as if they were in the format of a Tetris game or a video game from the late 1980s. The beginning of the movie also identifies the main characters as “players,” a word that can take on multiple meanings in the context of the story. The word “player” is also more than ironic because much of what happens in all these frantic business deals for Tetris is anything but fun and games.

“Tetris” begins by showing Henk Rogers, co-founder of the small, independent company Bullet-Proof Software at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Henk is of Indonesian-Dutch heritage but he was raised primarily in the United States and lives in Japan during the period of time that this story takes place. His multicultural background comes in handy in some ways, but in other ways it becomes a hindrance when people question his cultural loyalties.

Henk is trying and failing to make his new video game a hit at CES, which is a crucial event for Bullet-Proof Software. Henk has already taken out a bank loan to launch this video game, which he now knows is going to be a flop. But as fate would have it, Henk tries a new video game at the convention: It’s called Tetris, invented by a Russian computer expert named Alexey Pajitnov (played by Nikita Yefremov), who has a humble and unassuming personality.

Alexey does not own the rights to the game. Why? Because in the Communist country that was then known as the U.S.S.R. or Soviet Union, Alexey works for the government entity ELORG, which has monopoly control of the importing and exporting of Russian-made computer products. Anyone who wants the worldwide licensing rights to sell Tetris has to go through the Soviet government first.

In the simplest of terms, Tetris is a game where players try to make buildings out of falling building blocks. Henk is immediately hooked on Tetris and thinks it could be a massive worldwide hit. And he’s willing to bet his life savings and his home on what he wants to do next: partner with a major video game company to get the worldwide licensing rights to Tetris.

An early scene in “Tetris” shows Henk trying to convince a skeptical bank manager named Eddie (played by Rick Yune) to give Henk another bank loan, this time for this Tetris endeavor. After explaining what Tetris is about, Henk tells Eddie why Henk thinks Tetris is so special: “It stays with you. It’s the perfect game.” Henk also mentions that Tetris has become an underground hit in the Soviet Union/Russia, where people have been sharing bootleg copies of Tetris on floppy disks. Eddie reluctantly agrees to the loan, on the conditions that the loan will have a high interest rate and that Henk has to put up his home as collateral.

Henk ends up sneaking into Nintendo headquarters in Japan and meeting with Nintendo CEO Hiroshi Yamauchi (played by Togo Igawa) and Hiroshi’s assistant (played by Nino Furuhata) to broker for Nintendo the worldwide licensing rights to make Tetris for Nintendo cartridges and arcade machines. Henk turns down Nintendo’s initial offer of $500,000. Henk wants $2 million for the cartridges deal and $1 million for the arcade deal.

While still negotiating with Nintendo, Henk goes to Nintendo of America headquarters in Seattle, where he meets Nintendo of America CEO Minoru Arakawa (played by Ken Yamamura) and Nintendo of America senior vice president/general counsel Howard Lincoln (played by Ben Miles). Minoru and Howard show Henk a sneak peek of a product that has not gone on the market yet: Nintendo’s hand-held Game Boy system. Nintendo is planning to install the game Super Mario Land on all Game Boys, but Henk convinces Minoru and Howard that Tetris has broader appeal and should be the game installed on all Game Boys.

Henk has to contend with three British video game moguls, who at various times are his allies and enemies: duplicitous Robert Stein (played by Toby Jones), the founder/CEO of Andromeda Software; corrupt Robert Maxwell (played by Roger Allam), chairman of Mirrorsoft, a video game publisher; and arrogant Kevin Maxwell (played by Anthony Boyle), who is Robert’s son and the CEO of Mirrorsoft. Henk has been told that Robert Stein has gotten worldwide licensing rights for Tetris and has already made a deal with Mirrorsoft. Henk’s plan, with backing from Nintendo, is to buy out the rights from these British businessmen.

The rest of the movie shows Henk wheeling and dealing, while often getting undercut and betrayed by some people he thought were trustworthy business colleagues. Video game companies Sega and Atari, which were Nintendo’s main rivals at the time, also get in the mix because they also want Tetris. Meanwhile, Henk has to spend a lot of time in Russia (where he eventually meets Alexey) and finds out the hard way that doing a capitalist business deal in a Communist country is a lot more dangerous than he ever thought it could be.

Henk’s family life also suffers because of his obsession to close this deal. His patient wife Akemi Rogers (played by Ayane Nagabuchi), who co-founded Bullet-Proof Software with Henk, handles the managerial administration of the company’s small staff of employees while Henk is in charge of all the sales and marketing. Henk and Akemi have three children: 10-year-old Maya Rogers (played by Kanon Narumi), 8-year-old Julie Rogers (played by Karin Nurumi), and 6-year-old Kevin Rogers. Maya has an important dance performance that she doesn’t want Henk to miss. You can easily predict what will happen.

Meanwhile, in Russia, Henk is assigned a translator named Sasha (played by Sofia Lebedeva), who also educates Henk on Russian and Communist cultures. Henk soon finds out that he is being spied on by the Soviet government. Two of the ELORG officials who have been monitoring Henk are Valentin Trifonov (played by Igor Grabuzov) and Nikolai Belikov (played by Oleg Shtefanko). One of these ELORG officials is much worse than the other.

Egerton portrays Henk as an optimistic charmer who thinks he can talk his way in and out of situations but finds out that he sometimes gets in way over his head. He adeptly handles movie’s drama and comedy. Lebedeva is another standout as translator Sasha, who develops a friendly rapport with Henk and possibly becomes romantically attracted to him. Allam and Boyle provide some sardonic comic relief in portraying the love/hate relationship between Robert Maxwell and Kevin Maxwell. A running joke in the movie is Robert Maxwell’s bragging about being a friend of Mikhail Gorbachev (played by Matthew Marsh), who was the Soviet Union’s president at the time.

Even though “Tetris” couldn’t possibly include portrayals of all the people involved in these complex deals, there are still many characters to keep track of in the story. Luckily, “Tetris” is written well enough to juggle all of these moving pieces in a briskly paced manner, much like how skilled Tetris players navigate the game. The movie’s adrenaline-pumping climax is pure fabrication, but it’s the most memorable aspect of this thriller. “Tetris” strikes the right balance of being escapism and a reality check for how landmark business deals often happen under circumstances that can be stranger than fiction.

Apple Studios released “Tetris” in select U.S. cinemas on March 24, 2023. Apple TV+ premiered the movie on March 31, 2023.

Review: ‘Evil Dead Rise,’ starring Lily Sullivan, Alyssa Sutherland, Morgan Davies, Gabrielle Echols and Nell Fisher

April 21, 2023

by Carla Hay

Gabrielle Echols, Nell Fisher, Lily Sullivan, Morgan Davies and Alyssa Sutherland in “Evil Dead Rise” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Evil Dead Rise”

Directed by Lee Cronin

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the horror film “Evil Dead Rise” features a predominantly white group of people (with a few Asians and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A guitar technician/roadie goes to Los Angeles and gets thrown into the middle of supernatural terror when she visits her sister and her sister’s three children. 

Culture Audience: “Evil Dead Rise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the “Evil Dead” franchise and have a high tolerance for gory but effective horror movies.

Alyssa Sutherland in “Evil Dead Rise” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Evil Dead Rise” is a very back-to-basics horror story that is neither terrible nor outstanding. But there’s nothing basic about the overload of blood in the movie. People who easily get squeamish from the sight of bloody gore: You have been warned.

Written and directed by Lee Cronin, “Evil Dead Rise” had it world premiere at the 2023 SXSW Film & TV Festival. It’s a continuation of the “Evil Dead” franchise that began with 1981’s “The Evil Dead.” Sam Raimi, who wrote and directed “The Evil Dead” and 1987’s “Evil Dead II,” is an executive producer of “Evil Dead Rise.”

One of the best things about “Evil Dead Rise” is that it doesn’t waste time with a lot of boring and useless scenes. The horror starts within the first 10 minutes of the movie. The story is set in California, but “Evil Dead Rise” was actually filmed in New Zealand.

“Evil Dead Rise” begins by showing three people in their early 20s on a getaway trip at a remote cabin near a lake. Yes, that sounds like the most cliché of horror story clichés, but “Evil Dead Rise” makes this opening scene memorably gruesome.

The three people on this trip are named Teresa (played by Mirabai Pease); her cousin Jessica (played by Anna-Maree Thomas); and Jessica’s boyfriend Caleb (played by Richard Crouchley), who is a bit of a prankster. Richard has a toy drone with him that he uses to scare Teresa while she is relaxing on a deck near the lake.

Teresa isn’t just annoyed with Caleb. She’s annoyed because she really didn’t want to be on this trip in the first place. Several friends of Jessica and Caleb were supposed to be a part of this trip, but they cancelled their plans to be there. And now, Jessica has been acting weird, by staying in bed when she should be in a party mood.

Teresa goes in the bedroom where Jessica is hunched over on the bed. Teresa begins reading Emily Brontë’s classic Gothic 1847 novel “Wuthering Heights” while complaining to Jessica that this party is dead and she wants to leave. And then, Jessica eerily starts reading the words from the book out loud. Jessica has a “possessed by a demon” voice, so you can easily figure out what will happen next. Viewers will find out at the end of the movie how Jessica got to be that way.

“Evil Dead Rise” then does a flashback to one day earlier. Beth (played by Lily Sullivan) is a guitar technician/roadie for an unnamed rock band that has been on tour of grungy clubs. Beth, who is a freewheeling bachelorette, is seen in a restroom of one such dumpy club, where she’s about to find out the result of a home pregnancy test. You can easily predict the result there too.

After Beth finds out if she’s pregnant or not, she makes an unannounced visit to her estranged older sister Ellie (played by Alyssa Sutherland), who is a tattoo artist in Los Angeles. Ellie has three children: Danny (played by Morgan Davies), an aspiring DJ, is about 15 or 16 years old. Bridget (played by Gabrielle Echols), an aspiring political activist, is about 13 or 14 years old. Kassie (played by Nell Fisher) is about 9 or 10 years old.

The tension between the Beth and Ellie is immediately apparent. Beth resents that Ellie, who likes to call Beth a “groupie,” doesn’t take Beth’s job seriously. Ellie resents Beth for dropping in and out of her life whenever Beth pleases.

It’s also a very bad time for Beth to visit. Ellie’s husband Jay abandoned the family two months ago. And to make matters worse, the apartment building where Ellie and her kids live is about to be torn down the next month. Ellie, who is struggling financially, has not found a new place to live yet.

Shortly after Beth arrives, an earthquake measuring 5.5 on the Richter scale happens while Beth and the kids are in the building’s parking garage. The family survives this earthquake, but the earthquake has opened up a hole in the parking garage of the building, which used to be a bank. The hole exposes a hidden bank vault, where Dan finds what “Evil Dead” fans will immediately recognize as the Book of the Dead.

And you can easily predict what happens next, even if you don’t know it’s already shown in the trailer and poster for “Evil Dead Rise”: Ellie gets possessed by a demon. Some of the building’s other residents—including a helpful young man named Gabriel (played by Jayden Daniels) and a shotgun-wielding, middle-aged man named Mr. Fonda (played by Mark Mitchinson)—encounter a possessed Ellie. The earthquake has destroyed the building’s stairs, while the elevator is unsafe. Who will survive and who will die? That’s the only real spoiler information for this movie.

“Evil Dead” makes a few major departures from previous “Evil Dead” movies, which include the 2013 “Evil Dead” reboot. First, most of the action takes place in an apartment building instead of a remote wooded area. Second, most of the characters involved in the action are female. (Original “Evil Dead” actor Bruce Campbell has an uncredited voice cameo as a priest heard on an old vinyl album that Danny plays backwards.)

“Evil Dead” borrows some ideas from the 1986 sci-fi horror movie “Aliens” but it’s not a complete ripoff. The performances are serviceable in “Evil Dead Rise,” which doesn’t have much suspense when it comes to jump scares or terrifying surprises. The movie’s real horror is about seeing a loved one transform into something demonic and knowing that it’s a “kill or be killed” situation. And that blood. So much blood. After seeing “Evil Dead Rise,” some viewers will feel nauseated and/or feel like taking a long shower.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Evil Dead Rise” in U.S. cinemas on April 21, 2023.

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