Review: ‘I Used to Go Here,’ starring Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Josh Wiggins, Hannah Marks, Forrest Goodluck, Zoë Chao and Jorma Taccone

August 12, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gillian Jacobs and Jemaine Clement in “I Used to Go Here” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“I Used to Go Here”

Directed by Kris Rey

Culture Representation: Taking place in Illinois, the comedy/drama film “I Used to Go Here” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians, one African American and one Native American) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Chicago-based writer in her 30s, who’s going through some issues in her career and personal life, is invited to be a guest speaker at her university alma mater, where memories of her college experiences make her feel insecure about her current life. 

Culture Audience: “I Used to Go Here” will appeal mostly to people who like realistic independent dramedies about life during and after college.

Josh Wiggins, Gillian Jacobs, Khloe Janel and Forrest Goodluck in “I Used to Go Here” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

Anyone who has ever been to a class reunion, gone back to visit a school they used to attend, or had a conversation with a former classmate after years of not speaking to each other can probably relate in some way to the low-key but engaging comedy/drama film “I Used to Go Here.” Written and directed by Kris Rey, “I Used to Go Here” goes on an emotionally authentic journey with someone who is reminded of the hopes and dreams she had in college, as she comes to terms with how her life has turned out so far.

The movie opens in Chicago, where writer Kate Conklin (played by Gillian Jacobs), who’s in her late 30s, is on a conference call getting some bad news from two people who work for her book publisher. Her first novel, a love story titled “Seasons Passed,” has recently been published, but sales have been disappointing. As a result, her book tour has been cancelled.

The book representatives give Kate a glimmer of hope by telling her that The New York Times will be publishing a review of the book. If the review is positive, Kate’s book tour could be resurrected. They assure her that the book’s commercial failure has a lot to do with declining book sales in general, but something about the patronizing tone in the voices indicates that it’s a canned comment that they tell authors whose book sales are flopping.

In the meantime, Kate (who is single and has no children) is experiencing some breakup blues. She’s not completely over the end of her relationship with her former fiancé Michael, who used to live with her. (t’s never revealed in the movie why they broke up or how long they were together.

When Kate goes through some of her mail at her apartment, she sees that Michael has gotten some junk mail delivered to the address. And she uses it as an excuse to call him. She gets his voice mail and leaves a message to tell him that he’s still getting “important” mail at her address, and she asks him to call her back because “it would be nice to talk to you.”

As if it isn’t made clear enough that Kate is supposed to look like a sad and lonely spinster, there’s a scene of her looking forlorn at a baby shower where she seems to be the only woman there who isn’t a wife or mother. Someone asks Kate to get in a photo with three pregnant woman at the party, and she uncomfortably agrees to be in the photo.

One of the pregnant women is Kate’s close friend Laura (played by Zoë Chao), who has known Kate since their college days at the fictional Illinois University in Carbondale, where Kate graduated 15 years ago. (The real-life university in Carbondale is Southern Illinois University.) Throughout the movie, Kate and Laura call each other to give updates on their lives and provide emotional support for each other.

Not long after her book tour has been cancelled, Kate gets some good news that lifts her spirits: David Kirkpatrick (played by Jemaine Clement), her favorite professor from Illinois University, has called to invite her to be a guest speaker at the university, where she will do a lecture that includes reading excerpts from “Seasons Passed.” Kate was in David’s creative writing class in the first year that he was a professor, and she was his star student. Kate is flattered by the invitation and immediately says yes.

Carbondale is about 330 miles from Chicago, so the university provides for Kate’s travel and living accommodations during her visit. They arrange for Kate to have an on-call driver: a friendly and nerdy student named Elliot (played by Rammel Chan), who seems to be attracted to Kate when they first meet. When Elliot genuinely tells Kate that he’s a big fan of her, he does so in a sweet and endearing way, not in a creepy or stalker-ish way.

The university has arranged for Kate to stay at a bed-and-breakfast house that happens to be directly across the street from the house where Kate used to live when she an Illinois University student. The woman who owns the bed-and-breakfast house is named Mrs. Beeter (played by Cindy Gold), who has a cold and abrupt demeanor when she tells Kate the “house rules.”

One of the rules is that Mrs. Beeter gives guests only one set of keys. If the keys are lost, the guest might be locked out of the house. Mrs. Beeter has the keys on a lanyard, and she insists that Kate wear the lanyard to decrease the chance of the keys getting lost. It’s at this moment that viewers can predict that Kate will at some point lose the keys and be locked out of the house.

When Kate meets up with David on campus before her guest lecture, it’s clear that there’s some mutual but unspoken attraction between them. Shortly after they begin talking, a woman comes over to David, and he introduces her as his wife, Alexis (played by Kristina Valada-Viars), whom he’s been married to for five years. The disappointed and surprised look on Kate’s face indicates that she was hoping that David would be single and available.

Kate and Alexis exchange pleasant “nice to meet you” talk. Alexis tells Kate, “David talks about you all the time.” David, looking slightly embarrassed, says: “Well, not all the time.” It’s another sign of some underlying feelings that David might have toward Kate.

Kate’s lecture, which was hosted by the university’s creative writing department, goes fairly well, despite Kate’s initial nervousness. Afterward, David invites Kate to have dinner with him and Alexis. Some tension in Alexis and David’s marriage starts to show when David blurts out that Alexis doesn’t like Kate’s book “Seasons Passed.”

It’s now Alexis’ turn to be embarrassed, and she reluctantly admits that she didn’t feel emotionally connected to the book after reading it. Kate graciously accepts the criticism, but the negative feedback makes Alexis uncomfortable enough that she excuses herself to go to the ladies’ room. Before Alexis leaves the table, she calls David an “asshole” in front of Kate, who gives Alexis a knowing smile, as if to say, “I know he can be a jerk too.”

While Alexis is in the restroom, David tells Kate that there’s an opening in the university’s creative writing department, and he wants to recommend her for the job if she’s interested. David is very eager for Kate to become his co-worker, but she’s not ready to make that decision right then and there, so she doesn’t give an answer.

The next day, Kate is taking a selfie in front of the house she used to live in as a college student, when one of the house’s residents comes out and introduces himself. His nickname is Animal (played by Forrest Goodluck), and when she tells him that she used to live there when she was a college student, he invites her inside. During her nostalgic tour of the house, she meets two other housemates: socially awkward Tall Brandon (played by Brandon Daley) and self-assured Hugo (played by Josh Wiggins).

Hannah marvels at how some of the unique touches she put in the house (decorating one of the room’s ceilings with stars and having a writers’ corner in another room) are still there. She’s also thrilled to learn that most of the people in the house are interested in creative writing. Hugo isn’t interested in being a writer, but he mentions to Hannah that his girlfriend is in David’s class.

Later that day, Kate sits in on a class led by David (he invited her) and she sees that David has a new “star” student: Her name is April (played by Hannah Marks), and David seems to be in awe of her, which causes Kate to feel some envy toward April. Based on April volunteering to read a sample of her work in front of the class, April is a confident writer whose prose has a tone that’s edgy, sexually sensual and emotionally raw. It won’t come as much of a surprise (it’s not a spoiler) when Kate finds out that April is Hugo’s girlfriend.

There’s a scene in “I Used to Go Here” that could have been an outtake, but it seems to be in the movie because Jorma Taccone (of The Lonely Island comedy group fame) is one of the movie’s producers. (The Lonely Island members Andy Samberg and Akiva Schaffer are among the other producers of this movie.) In the scene, Taccone plays Bradley “Brad” Cooper, a former classmate of Kate’s who sees her by chance while she’s in Carbondale, and he invites her to have dinner and drinks with him.

During their dinner date at a local restaurant/bar, Brad turns out to be a jerk. He tells Kate that when he was in college, she was the woman he thought about the most when he masturbated, but he forgot all about her after all these years until he saw her again. Not long after the date starts, Kate finds out that Brad has also invited his “friend” Rachel (played by Kate Micucci) to join them on the date. Rachel and Brad then start making out in front of Kate, who sits and watches uncomfortably.

The rest of the movie involves circumstances that lead to Kate hanging out with the college students she met during her visit. The clique includes Animal’s girlfriend Emma (played by Khloe Janel). Even though she knows it’s kind of weird for someone in their late 30s to be partying with these college kids, the movie shows that in many ways Kate is trying to relive a time in her life when she was happier and more carefree. And seeing Dave again has brought up some unresolved feelings that Kate and Dave might have toward each other.

Movies with scenes of college students partying sometimes veer into slapstick comedy or over-the-top raunchiness, but writer/director Rey goes for realism throughout the movie, since everything that happens is entirely believable. “I Used to Go Here” also has some subtle commentary on the roles that women are often expected to have in society by the time they reach a certain age.

Kate isn’t the type of person who seems desperate to get married and have kids, but it does bother her that her career isn’t meeting the expectations she had when she was in college. There are multiple scenes in the movie where Kate is lauded as a “successful writer” by people at the university (usually the students give her this praise), but she humbly doesn’t see herself as a success, based on the goals she has for herself.

There’s also a well-written scene that shows some of the passive-aggressive cattiness that women can have toward each other when there’s envy or competition involved. Even though Kate feels like a “failure” inside, she tries to come across as superior to April when April shows Kate her work and asks for Kate’s feedback. In an attempt to deflate April’s confidence, Kate reminds April that she has less experience than Kate and that April isn’t a published author. Kate’s condescending attitude toward April has everything to do with Kate feeling that April has “replaced” Kate as David’s favorite student.

Kate’s self-esteem has also taken a hit because she’s feeling lonely after her breakup from her ex-fiancé Michael. Throughout the movie, Kate checks her phone to see if Michael has contacted her or to see what he’s posted on his social media. Some people might think that this behavior is pathetic, but a lot of people realistically do this after a painful breakup. (It’s pretty obvious that Kate was the one who was dumped.)

As the lovelorn but fairly optimistic Kate, Jacobs does a very good job with the role by making Kate emotionally vulnerable without being whiny or too needy. Jacobs has played these types of “smart but disappointed by life” women in movies and TV before, but that’s because she’s mastered the fine line between comedy and drama. The rest of the cast members are also quite good in their roles, with Clement once again showing that he has a knack for playing egotistical characters who are charming but might have sleazy ulterior motives.

“I Used to Go Here” is by no means a groundbreaking movie. However, it’s the type of movie that people can enjoy if they’re looking for a story where they see what happens during a few days when someone discovers how to reconcile expectations from the past with the realities of today.

Gravitas Ventures released “I Used to Go Here” on digital and VOD on August 7, 2020.

Review: ‘The High Note,’ starring Dakota Johnson, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Ice Cube

May 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Dakota Johnson and Tracee Ellis Ross in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

“The High Note”

Directed by Nisha Ganatra

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles, the comedy/drama “The High Note” features a racially diverse cast (white, African American, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: A personal assistant to a superstar music diva comes up against obstacles when the assistant tries to become a music producer.

Culture Audience: “The High Note” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic movies about showbiz that have a predictable ending.

Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Dakota Johnson in “The High Note” (Photo by Glen Wilson/Focus Features)

It’s a pretty well-known fact at “The High Note” stars Tracey Ellis Ross and Dakota Johnson grew up in the upper echelons of show business, since they both have parents who are famous entertainers. Ellis Ross’ mother is Diana Ross. Johnson is the daughter of Don Johnson and Melanie Griffith. So with all that knowledgeable background, it’s too bad that Dakota Johnson and Ellis Ross have chosen to be in such a hollow and predictable dramedy about the music business. The irony of this movie being called “The High Note” is that there aren’t too many highlights for this film, when it comes to authenticity, laugh-out-loud humor or outstanding original songs.

However, one of the notable consistencies of the film is Ellis Ross—who does her own singing in the film and is very good at it— in her performance as spoiled superstar Grace Davis, who’s reached a crossroads in her career. Grace, who lives in Los Angeles, is famous enough to still be on the covers of People, Rolling Stone and Billboard, but she’s been coasting on her past hits because she hasn’t come out with an album of new songs in about 10 years. She still keeps herself in the public eye and continues to make millions by doing tours.

Grace’s long-suffering personal assistant Margaret “Maggie” Sherwoode has been working for Grace for three years, but what Maggie really wants to do is to be a music producer. Grace is coming out with a live album that Maggie has been secretly mixing in a recording studio in her spare time, in order for Maggie to practice her producer/mixer skills. Maggie has been able to get access to the studio, thanks to her recording engineer acquaintance Seth (played by Eugene Cordero), who’s worked with Grace and has been training Maggie in the studio.

“The High Note,” directed by Nisha Ganatra, hits a lot of the same cringeworthy beats of Ganatra’s 2019 comedy/drama “Late Night,” a movie that flopped with audiences because it was easy to see how phony and pandering the story was. Both movies are about a plucky young woman with a big dream who thinks she can take a shortcut to that dream, just by being in the right place at the right time. The young woman works for an egotistical, middle-aged diva who’s worried about becoming a has-been. The diva boss also has to choose between continuing with a familiar and safe work routine or going outside her comfort zone to do something new.

Along the way, people discourage the young woman from following her dream because she has no real experience. And then, she and her boss end up clashing in a big way because the young woman does something that the boss really hates. (Viewers have to wait until the end of the movie to see if or how this conflict is resolved.) And this young woman ends up dating someone she works with, even though dating a co-worker is a tricky issue in this #MeToo era, when a consensual affair between co-workers can be described in very different terms later if the relationship ends badly.

In “Late Night,” which was set in the workplace of a New York City-based late-night talk show, Mindy Kaling (who wrote the “Late Night” screenplay) played the show’s inexperienced and unqualified writer Molly Patel, who’s a “diversity hire,” while Emma Thompson played the prickly boss Katherine Newbury, the show’s host/executive producer. Except for the cities and types of work in the entertainment industry, “The High Note” and “Late Night” have the same premise and are basically the same type of movie, but “The High Note” is much worse than “Late Night.”

Fortunately, Maggie in “The High Note” (written by Flora Greeson) isn’t as clueless about music as Mindy Kaling’s Molly character in “Late Night” is clueless about writing for a late-night talk show. Maggie is a true music trivia buff, who can easily name songs and albums from classic artists to contemporary hitmakers. (Sam Cooke and Carole King are among her favorite classic artists.) Maggie also comes from a music-oriented family: Her father Max (played by Bill Pullman) is a longtime radio DJ, while Maggie’s mother (who died when Maggie was 6) was a singer.

But knowing a lot of music trivia and being a talented music producer are two different things. What will make people’s eyes roll about the dumb aspects of “The High Note” is that Maggie thinks she can go from these training sessions in the recording studio to becoming Grace’s producer, without actually putting in a lot of real work as a producer to pay her dues.

Grace’s harsh and cynical manager Jack Robertson (played by Ice Cube, in yet another in his long list of cranky, foul-mouthed character roles) essentially tells Maggie that she’s acting like an entitled brat in one of the few realistic scenes in the movie. This verbal takedown of Maggie’s ego comes after Maggie insults a smarmy and pretentious but experienced hitmaking DJ/producer named Richie Williams (played in a somewhat hilarious cameo by real-life hitmaking DJ/producer Diplo), who’s recruited by Jack to work on Grace’s live album. Maggie, who’s revealed her secret mixes to Grace at this point, wants Grace to choose Maggie’s mixes instead.

Jack doesn’t particularly like Maggie for another reason. While Jack has been finagling and pressuring Grace to do a Las Vegas residency, Maggie has been encouraging Grace to make an album of new songs instead. The Vegas residency would be easy money for everyone, but Maggie thinks Grace has a lot more to say as an artist instead of doing the same show every night in Vegas for an untold number of years. In a candid conversation with Grace, Maggie tells her that she once saw Grace say in an Oprah Winfrey interview about Grace’s career: “If there are no more surprises, who am I doing it for?”

Although the Jack character is greedy, attention-hungry and generally unlikable, his persona as a manager is actually one of the more realistic things in the movie. One of the other things that “The High Note” accurately portrays is how personal assistants of rich and famous people are often treated like 24-hour-a-day on-call servants. Grace is also one of those “lonely at the top” celebrities who has no real friends and has shallow dating relationships that don’t last, and that’s why her life revolves around her career.

“The High Note” also has a pretty good send-up of the false sense of superiority that employees who work for the same celebrity can have toward other employees. Grace has a materialistic and not-very-smart house manager named Gail (played by June Diane Raphael), who acts as if she’s better than Maggie, simply because Gail gets to have reasonable working hours while Maggie does not. Gail is also the type of “yes”-person leech that Hollywood is famous for attracting when people want to be close to celebrities.

Meanwhile, Grace has a smart and likable roommate named Kate (played by Zoe Chao), who thinks Grace is wasting her talent by being a personal assistant. Maggie’s excuse for continuing to be stuck in the dead-end existence of being Grace’s assistant: “It’s the gateway to my dream job.” Katie’s reply: “It’s the gateway to Stockholm syndrome.” That’s one of the funnier lines in the movie.

As for Maggie’s love interest (because you know a movie like this has to have a love interest for the ingenue), his name is David Cliff (played by Kelvin Harrison Jr.), an aspiring rock/pop musician who happens to be rich enough to own a mansion without working at a “real” job. Of course, Maggie doesn’t know all of that about David when they “meet cute” at a Laurel Canyon grocery store. While they’re standing near each other, Phantom Planet’s “California” song is playing over the store’s speakers, which leads Maggie and David to have a lively conversation about music.

When Maggie mentions Sam Cooke, she’s appalled that David says he doesn’t know who Sam Cooke is. They go their separate ways. But lo and behold, when Maggie leaves the store, she sees David playing a guitar outside the store’s entrance and singing Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” while he gives her a sly look. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

At some point, Maggie and Katie are invited to a big house party at David’s place, and that’s how they find out that he’s a musician who’s not financially struggling. So why is this rich guy playing substandard gigs, such as singing cover songs in front of a grocery store? It turns out that David lacks confidence to record his own music and take his career to the next level. And guess who convinces David that she can be his producer?

Of course, in a movie like this, there has to be at least one “big lie/secret” that someone will tell early in the relationship, so that the couple will fight about it later if the secret is revealed. For Maggie, her big lie is that she tells David that she’s an experienced and busy producer, which is why he agrees to let her produce his first demo recording.

And this is where the plot goes down the toilet: David believes Maggie’s claim that she’s an experienced producer, without even asking to hear other music she’s produced, without asking for references, or without doing a background check. Cue to the predictable scene of David and Maggie singing together in a recording booth. (Harrison and Dakota Johnson also do their own singing in the movie. He’s a much better singer than she is.)

As for Maggie, she doesn’t seem that curious to know how or why David is so wealthy. All he’s told her about his family background is that he was raised by his father (a saxophone player named David Cliff Sr.) after David’s mother left them when he was a very young child. For a movie that’s supposed to take place in the present-day music business, it strangely and unrealistically has no scenes of David and Maggie using the Internet to check each other out when they show an interest in each other.

After Maggie and David start sleeping together, she comes up with a dumb idea to trick him into being the opening act for Grace’s record release party—without telling David, Grace or Jack. And in order to do that, Maggie secretly convinces star singer Dan Deakins (played by Eddie Izzard, in a cameo that’s a waste of his talent), who was booked as the opening act, to back out of the gig. How does Maggie convince Dan to cancel this high-profile job? Just by playing David’s demo for Dan and asking Dan to do her this favor, even though Maggie and Dan just met. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Whether or not this moronic plan works or backfires is spoiler information that won’t be revealed in this review.  But that stupidity is nothing compared to the ludicrous plot twist that comes toward the end of the film. It’s a plot twist that’s not too surprising because all the signs were there, but it’s still the worst part of the movie.

There’s not much originality in “The High Note,” even in the movie’s soundtrack, which has mostly cover songs or hit songs that were previously released. “Bad Girl,” which is supposed to be Grace’s biggest hit, is a cover version of the Lee Moses song. In “The High Note,” the Grace character has two original songs that are prominently featured in the movie and are performed by Ellis Ross: “Stop for a Minute” and “Love Myself,” which is the tune heard during the end credits.

“Stop for a Minute” was co-written by Rodney Jerkins, who executive produced “The High Note” soundtrack. “Love Myself” was co-written by Greg Kurstin, who’s best known for his work with Adele, Kelly Clarkson, Beck and Sia. But even the contributions of these Grammy-winning hitmakers don’t make these songs particularly outstanding or likely to be nominated for any Grammys.

In fact, there’s a lot of things about “The High Note” that are dull (including the too-long running time of nearly two hours), forgettable or just plain awful. The stars of “The High Note” should not consider it a high point of their careers, because the reality is that the movie is a lackluster low point that they’d probably like to bury.

Focus Features released “The High Note” on VOD and digital on May 29, 2020.

Review: ‘Almost Love,’ starring Scott Evans, Augustus Prew, Michelle Buteau, Colin Donnell, Zoe Chao, Kate Walsh and Patricia Clarkson

April 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

“Almost Love” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Colin Donnell, Chaz Lamar Shepherd, Kate Walsh and Scott Evans. Pictured in back row, from left to right: Michelle Buteau, Zoe Chao, Augustus Prew and Brian Marc. (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Almost Love”

Directed by Mike Doyle

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in New York City, the romantic comedy/drama “Almost Love” has a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A close-knit group of friends go through various ups and downs in their love lives and sometimes have conflicts with each other over upward mobility and what it means to “settle.”

Culture Audience: “Almost Love” will appeal primarily to people who like low-key, fairly realistic independent films about love and relationships.

Augustus Prew and Scott Evans in “Almost Love” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

It’s not unusual to do a romantic dramedy that’s set in New York City, but what makes the mostly charming but sometimes slow-paced “Almost Love” different from most romantic movies is that the couple at the center of this ensemble movie just happens to be gay. Adam (played by Scott Evans) and Marklin (played by Augustus Prew) are a couple in their 30s who’ve been living together and have been in a relationship for five years. They love each other but the relationship has hit a rut, and certain things happen in the movie that test whether or not they will stay together.

Meanwhile, the other people in their close circle of friends are also navigating relationship issues. Sassy and single Cammy (played by Michelle Buteau, who has some of the best lines in the film) likes to project an image of being strong and independent, but she’s a lot needier and co-dependent than she would like to admit. In the beginning of the film, Cammy has been dating Henry (played by Colin Donnell) for about three weeks when he makes a surprising confession to her: He’s homeless and is desperate for a place to stay. Although Cammy tells her friends that Henry’s homelessness is a dealbreaker for her, she ends up letting him stay at her place and caters to his every need.

Haley (played by Zoe Chao) is also single, but she’s got a different co-dependent problem. A 17-year-old student named Scott James (played by Christopher Gray), whom she’s been tutoring to help him get into a prestigious university, has a massive crush on her. And to Chloe’s surprise, she’s become emotionally attached and maybe attracted to him too. She doesn’t quite know if her feelings are maternal or romantic, but it’s caused some uncomfortable moments, as Scott James makes it clear that he wants their tutor-pupil relationship to turn into a romance.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth (played by Kate Walsh), who’s about 15 years older than the rest of the group, is like a wise and cynical older sister to Adam, the person she is closest to in the group. Elizabeth has been married to Damon (played by Chaz Lamar Shepherd, who doesn’t have any speaking lines in the movie) for about 15 years. Elizabeth confides in Adam that because she and her husband disagree on the issue of having kids (she doesn’t like or want kids, but he does), this conflict over having children has put a strain on their marriage. Elizabeth privately worries that Damon will leave her for a younger woman of childbearing age.

The heart of the story though is the relationship between Adam and Marklin, who are currently in couples counseling. Adam and Marklin have lost a lot of passion in their romance, they’re not as intimate as they used to be, and Adam is very leery about the idea of getting married. During the course of the movie, viewers find out why their relationship has hit a rough patch. When Adam (an artist who does paintings) and Marklin first met, Adam had the life that Marklin wanted. Although the movie doesn’t go into details, it’s hinted that in the beginning of their relationship, Adam had a rising career as an artist, while Marklin was financially struggling in a low-paying job at a CBD dispensary.

But now, Marklin is the one who makes the majority of their household income, because he’s become relatively famous on social media for being a fashion influencer. (He has a blog called The Detailist, where he’s paid to promote luxury items.) Different scenes in the movie also show how Marklin’s work has taken over his life, such as how he allows constant phone interruptions during all hours of the day and night. Meanwhile, Adam has become the one with the low-paying job and stifled creativity: He’s become a ghost painter for an egotistical successful artist named Ravella Brewer (played by Patricia Clarkson in a hilarious cameo), who takes credit for Adam’s work, which can sell for about $100,000 per painting.

Adam is the type of person who tends to suppress his emotions, but it’s clear that the reversal of his financial fortune is starting to get to him. Even though Adam has sold a house that he inherited in upstate New York, he sometimes has trouble paying his share of the bills. And there’s also some tension over the fact that Marklin often gets recognized in public and puts a lot of his life on Instagram. Meanwhile, Adam toils away in anonymity for not much money.

Elizabeth and some other people in Adam’s life keep telling him that he can do “much better” than what he’s settling for, but Adam tells them that he’s okay with the way things are. (He’s really not.) Whatever happened to stall Adam’s career has obviously taken a toll on his confidence.

One of the best scenes in the movie happens in the last third of the film, when Adam meets up with his father Tommy (played by John Doman) at a restaurant. What happens in the scene explains a lot about why Adam tends to be closed-off to his emotions and is reluctant to get married. (Marklin’s family is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)

Marklin, who tends to be more optimistic that Adam, isn’t exactly a perfect boyfriend either. He’s got a big secret that he’s been keeping from Adam. And he knows if Adam finds out, it could be the end of their relationship. Marklin also takes it upon himself to put a bid on buying their first apartment together, without telling Adam until after the fact. When Marklin tells Adam about it, it causes further turmoil in their relationship, because Marklin didn’t discuss this big decision with Adam. They both know that Marklin would really be paying for the apartment since Adam can’t afford it.

“Almost Love” (written and directed by Mike Doyle) has many comedic elements that primarily have to do with Buteau’s potty-mouthed Cammy character. Although she can be bossy toward insecure Haley, Cammy also has a vulnerable side to her. Elizabeth is also something of a firecracker, especially in a scene at a gallery opening for Ravella Brewer’s latest art, where Elizabeth as a confrontation with Ravella.

There are also some slapstick moments in the film because Adam can be clutzy, but “Almost Love” at times has a low-key, realistic energy in how it presents relationship issues. Couples who are going through problems aren’t always getting into screaming matches at each other. Sometimes the unspoken resentments are the ones that can be the deadliest in a relationship.

The original title of “Almost Love” was “Sell By” (which is the title of the movie in some countries outside of the U.S.), and it refers to whether or not relationships have a “sell by”/expiration date. All of the main characters in the film face decisions to either hold on to someone who’s a love interest or dump the person because the relationship has run its course. Some of the decisions are easier than others.

For the most part, writer/director Doyle keeps the film’s dialogue on point, but it can sometimes veer into hokey territory. For example, in a candid scene where Cammy gives some advice to Marklin, she says a memorable line: “It’s always easy to love someone who’s unavailable. Trust me. You can’t curate your past.” But then seconds later in the same scene, Cammy says something very corny about her personality: “I’m so messy, I need a broom.”

And there are some parts of the movie that are very predictable. However, in a sea of movies that badly handle portrayals of adult romances and friendships, “Almost Love” navigates itself quite well. All of the actors in the movie give good performances, but Buteau is definitely a standout scene-stealer. “Almost Love” is a story that can be relatable to a lot of people, while striking a balance between being emotionally moving and comedically entertaining.  Just don’t expect anything groundbreaking or fast-paced in this movie.

Vertical Entertainment released “Almost Love” in the U.S. on VOD on April 3, 2020. The movie was released on VOD in the U.K. under the title “Sell By” on March 1, 2020.

Review: ‘Downhill,’ starring Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell

February 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Will Ferrell and Julia Louis-Dreyfus in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill”

Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Austrian Alps, “Downhill” is the story of a middle-class, middle-aged married American couple who go on a disastrous ski trip with their two teenage sons.

Culture Clash: The bickering spouses not only have conflicts with each other, but they’re also annoyed by a younger couple who wants to tag along, and they experience some uncomfortable moments with the Austrian locals.

Culture Audience: This comedy film that isn’t very funny will appeal mainly to fans of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell, whose comedic talents are stifled in a story filled with tension and misery.

Zach Woods and Zoë Chao in “Downhill” (Photo by Jaap Buitendijk)

“Downhill” is a perfect word to describe the steep slide into disappointment that your expectations will take when you think about how this movie wastes the talents of Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Will Ferrell. The pacing of this film, which follows an American couple whose marriage has hit a rough patch, is like slogging through the snow-covered Austrian Alps, where the story takes place. Directed by Nat Faxon and Jim Rash from a screenplay by Jesse Armstrong, “Downhill” is supposed to be inspired by the 2014 Swedish avalanche disaster comedy “Force Majeure,” but that film had loads more humorous moments and compelling dialogue than what “Downhill” has to offer.

Ferrell has been in plenty of stinker movies before, but Louis-Dreyfus usually chooses quality over quantity when it comes to the movies that she makes. She’s one of the producers of “Downhill,” so this is a rare misstep for her. Ferrell and Louis-Dreyfus play Pete and Billie Stanton, a long-married couple who’ve reached a point in their relationship where almost everything one of them does gets on the other’s nerves. They’ve taken this ski vacation to Austria with their teenage fraternal-twin sons, Finn and Emerson (played by Julian Grey and Ammon Ford), to have some family bonding time, with a small glimmer of hope that maybe the trip will bring positive feelings back into their marriage.

Hovering somewhere near the Stantons throughout the trip is an American couple in their 20s named Zach (played by Zach Woods) and Rosie (played Zoë Chao), who have an eager-to-impress vibe to them, as they try to latch on to Pete and Billie on awkward double dates. Pete knows Zach because they’re real-estate co-workers. Billie really doesn’t like being around Rosie and Zach, but Pete is more willing to tolerate them, even though the Stantons can’t relate to Rosie and Zach’s penchant for taking psychedelic mushrooms and Instagram selfies. Unbeknownst to Billie at first, Pete has invited Zach and Rosie to hang out with them. Pete will soon find out that the younger couple will wear out their welcome, as Rosie and Zach witness all the tension in the Stantons’ marriage.

One of the first people the Stantons meet upon arriving at the ski resort is the overly effusive Charlotte (played by Miranda Ott), who acts as if she works at the resort as some sort of concierge, but as the story goes on, it’s questionable if she really works there at all. At any rate, Charlotte is the kind of person who shares too much information about her sex life with total strangers, and she expects everyone she first meets to immediately become her confidant.

She fancies herself to be quite the seductress, but she’s so crude and annoying (such as when she brags, “I can catch a dick whenever I want”), that she’s not one of those quirky characters who ends up being endearing. She’s just unpleasant to watch, and Otto (who’s usually a great actress) isn’t helping matters by trying too hard with an unconvincing Austrian accent. This is not a droll comedy with eccentric and fascinating characters, such as in Wes Anderson’s 2014 movie “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”

When the Stantons arrive at the resort, there are sounds of explosive rumblings off in the distance, which are ominous signs of what’s to come. That fateful moment comes when the family is outside on a café patio with several other people, and they notice that a large amount of snow is tumbling down from the mountains. As it quickly turns into an avalanche, there isn’t enough time for the café patrons to take shelter, and the avalanche goes barreling down and engulfs them.

The avalanche scene itself is very unrealistic, because the massive weight and force of all that snow would have injured and possibly killed several people. But the movie just fades to black after the avalanche hits. And then, the next scene is of the people who were on the café patio, looking dazed and getting up and brushing some of the snow off of their clothes. There’s also hardly any damage done to the café and surrounding buildings.

Billie and Pete have very different reactions to the avalanche. Billie is completely unnerved, while Pete takes it in stride and tries to enjoy the rest of the trip. In a meeting that Billie and Pete have with the resort’s manager (played by Kristofer Hivju), Billie demands that the resort make an apology for handling the disaster poorly. The manager points out that there were signs around the resort warning that there was a possibility of an avalanche. “It was handled perfectly,” the manager tells Billie, who ends up leaving the meeting in a huff, while Pete looks embarrassed over her anger.

Later, in attempt to lift Billie’s spirits, Pete arranges for everyone in the family to take a helicopter trip around the Alps. But when the time comes for them to go on the helicopter, one of the kids is missing a glove. Billie then has a mini-meltdown and refuses to get on the helicopter until the son has two gloves to wear. Pete yells that he’s paid $2,000 for the trip and he doesn’t want the money to go to waste. Billie yells back that their son’s comfort is more important and he needs to wear two gloves. The helicopter ends up leaving without them.

Push-and-pull scenes like that keep getting repeated in the movie. Pete tries to take his mind off of the avalanche and have a good time with Billie and the family. Meanwhile, Billie keeps obsessing over the avalanche and sees Pete’s post-avalanche behavior as flippant and uncaring about the family’s safety. Louis-Dreyfus tends to play neurotic characters, but Billie is a shrew who seems hell-bent on making everyone around her as miserable as she is.

One of the problems with “Downhill” (and it’s really noticeable if you see this movie with an audience) is that there are so many times when Ferrell or Louis-Dreyfus utters a line in such a way that viewers will expect it to turn into a joke. There’s a slight pause of anticipation, as if something that will make people laugh is coming next.  But that humorous moment never happens in scenes where people think they’ll happen.

People aren’t expecting this movie to be a slapstick or broad comedy, but during the course of the movie, it becomes very clear that Billie and Pete really are just wretched to watch. There’s no clever satire here, as this movie expects viewers to be stuck in this repetitive hell of arguments and resentment with very unlikable people. It almost makes the tension of “Force Majeure” look like an amusement-park ride compared to the slow-moving train wreck of “Downhill.”

Searchlight Pictures will release “Downhill” in U.S. cinemas on February 14, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “Downhill” to March 27, 2020.