2021-01-21 Print

How the Biden Presidency Will Really Impact Hollywood: 4 Key Areas to Watch

by Eriq Gardner
What’s in Store for Hollywood With Biden
Illustration by The Sporting Press

If all goes as planned, policy-making in the nation's capital will become a sleepy affair as Joe Biden takes office as the 46th president of the United States. Whereas Donald Trump's erratic and impulsive behavior made looking away nearly impossible these past four years, the new administration will require a higher degree of studiousness for those wishing to appreciate the changes. It will mean looking beyond one man's Twitter account and countless cable news pundits in thrall, as the real work — and good fights — happen away from the spotlight.

For show business, which knows a thing or two about attention-seeking, the moment is consequential. Under the weight of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the industry is grappling with the realities of its digital future way ahead of schedule. The restructuring has led to many uncomfortable internal discussions — like what happened near the end of 2020, when Warner Bros. said it would be releasing its entire 2021 slate on HBO Max at the same time the films debut in (mostly empty) theaters. The coming years will surely see even more dramatic shifts as entertainment veterans attempt to navigate the changes and find some semblance of stability. Such stewardship will be greatly influenced by how the federal government's new leadership approaches its duties.

Here's what Hollywood should be closely watching as the Biden administration deals with four key areas.

1. COVID-19 response

No topic will be of greater importance to society at large than whether this pandemic, which already has claimed nearly 400,000 American lives, can be brought to heel. Obviously, how the government oversees the rollout of vaccines will play a huge factor in whether many kids can attend schools, whether co-workers can see one another at the office again, and whether consumers can again frequent movie theaters and live concert venues without fear of health repercussions.

The administration, along with a Congress controlled by the Democrats, hopes to deliver on a Jan. 14 proposal to roll out $1.9 trillion in economic relief to those impacted by the pandemic. There's no doubt that industry lobbyists will be clamoring for their fair share. That noted, don't miss how agencies within the federal bureaucracy regulate the workplace given the health concerns. Take an agency like the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Under Trump and his Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia, OSHA mostly stayed out of the way of reopenings for businesses during the pandemic. This was criticized by labor leaders including AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka, who said OSHA was "missing in action." That figures to change. It will mean movie and television productions may have to pay extra attention to guidance from the regulators and obey new federal standards.

2. The power of big business

These past few years have witnessed a revival of sorts (on both sides of the political aisle) for the proposition that the government should be more aggressively taking action to curb corporate hegemony and threats to marketplace competition. During the Trump years, the Department of Justice attempted to block the AT&T-Time Warner merger and brought antitrust actions against Google and Facebook. That may be merely a warm-up to what the Biden administration pursues, as liberal think tanks have been buzzing about trust-busting and ensuring open access to critical infrastructure and healthy labor markets. Of particular significance to the entertainment industry will be what, if anything, is done about companies that take a dual role in selling products while also managing platforms connecting independent producers and consumers.

The European Union already has taken a lead in pursuing companies like Amazon and Google for unfairly advantaging themselves on such platforms. (Amazon is accused of misusing the data it collects on third-party sellers to benefit its own rival products and, similarly, Google's search engine is criticized for being engineered to favor its own products.) Given the rise of conglomerate-owned streaming apps like Peacock and Amazon Prime, it'll be interesting to see whether the distribution of affiliated content commands any investigation, or at least a deeper look by the DOJ or Federal Trade Commission. And, after Biden appoints a third Democratic commissioner, the FCC also could get aggressive on the competition front and attempt to regulate the flow of digital traffic and relationships in the online ecosphere through new net neutrality rules and other measures.

3. International friends and adversaries

One of the hallmarks of Trump's time in his position of power was his view that America was constantly engaged in a zero-sum competition with other countries. His skepticism of climate change and aversion to free trade has resulted in sore feelings among world leaders, and it's no secret that Biden sees one of his core tasks as repairing international relations. The entertainment industry surely has a stake here. In China, for example, movie studios continue to fight for broader access to the market. Will the country allow more foreign blockbusters to play on screens? The creative industry also would like more international assistance with cracking down on piracy. While the political environment for new trade treaties isn't particularly strong — in the past, treaties like the Berne Convention and the Trans-Pacific Partnership became vehicles for bringing the world toward U.S. intellectual property standards — copyright holders will still look to ensure no safe havens for illegal streamers.

4. The news media

It's safe to assume Biden doesn't see the press as the "enemy of the people," as Trump did. And there probably won't be major First Amendment challenges launched in courtrooms like those that seemingly have happened almost weekly the past four years. But is a full return to normalcy possible? There may again be daily press briefings and more on-camera interviews with mainstream journalists, but still it would be foolish to assume that the media will enjoy all the access it wishes. (The Obama administration was criticized for being more restrictive to the media than past administrations.) What's more, many conservative press outlets will be champing at the bit to hold Biden accountable and likely will address any double standards as often as they can.

Finally, as the public's attention shifts in the post-Trump era, many outlets could experience ratings declines or suffer readership slumps. That could lead the media industry to become more demanding of the new administration, and it will be watching to see how Biden's team responds.

This story first appeared in the Jan. 20 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.

Kerry Washington, Rihanna, Dan Levy and More Respond to History-Making Inauguration Day: "The Decency of It All"

by Chris Gardner

After a tumultuous four years under the leadership of President Donald Trump, Wednesday's presidential inauguration procession may be best remembered for how civil the ceremonies were. Even on Twitter, previously home to consistent and vicious attacks from Trump, the biggest controversies to emerge thus far belonged to Bernie Sanders and his wool mittens and Jennifer Lopez for inserting "Let's Get Loud" into a medley of "This Land is Your Land" and "America the Beautiful."

"The decency of it all," wrote Schitt's Creek star Dan Levy in response to the event that saw Joe Biden and Kamala Harris sworn in as president and vice president of the United States. Harris became the first Black woman and first South Asian woman to hold the post, a meaningful moment for Mindy Kaling who posted an image of her daughter watching on as Harris took the oath. "It matters," she wrote.

It also mattered to many that the ceremonies featured the youngest inaugural poet ever in Amanda Gorman, an instant sensation, A-listers like Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, country superstar Garth Brooks and a speech from Biden that mirrored the moment of political discord, a raging pandemic and hope for change under a new administration. "I’ve known [Joe Biden] since I was a teenager. I believe in him," wrote Maria Shriver. "I believe he is a good man. I’m so hopeful on this day at this moment. He asked all of us to join him at this difficult moment in restoring the soul, the hope, the decency, the love of our country and of each other. I’m so in. I hope you are, too. I hope you can find it in your heart to give him a chance, to acknowledge the huge challenges facing him. He will need all of us. Let’s all try."

Actor and activist Mark Ruffalo posted, "We are going to be okay. From the wreckage there will be renewal, from the wounds will grow compassion and character, from the division will come clarity, from the despair will come wisdom, from the loss will come community."

Scroll down for more responses from Hollywood notable names.





DOJ Argues Supreme Court Should Vacate "Harmful" Trump Twitter Decision

by Ashley Cullins
Donald Trump
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Donald Trump may no longer be president of the United States, but the Department of Justice still wants the U.S. Supreme Court to act on a suit over his blocking Twitter users because of their political beliefs.

Back in 2017, his first year in office, the Knight First Amendment Institute and a handful of Twitter users sued Trump after being blocked by the @realDonaldTrump account, which has since been permanently suspended from the social media site. The users argued that Trump used Twitter as a public forum to share official information is his capacity as president and was violating their right to petition the government by blocking them. U.S. District Judge Naomi Reice Buchwald in May 2018 agreed, finding Twitter is indeed a designated public forum and "viewpoint-based exclusion" of the plaintiffs from that forum by the then-president violated the First Amendment. Trump appealed the decision and lost again in the 2nd Circuit, so in August he took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a supplemental brief filed Tuesday, the DOJ acknowledges that the case is moot now that President Joe Biden has been sworn in, because the plaintiffs only sued Trump in his official capacity, but argues it should still grant certiorari, vacate the 2nd Circuit's decision and instruct Buchwald to dismiss the suit.

"That this case will become moot upon President Biden’s inauguration underscores the fundamental flaw with the court of appeals’ decision: the blocking of the individual respondents was not an official state action that can be redressed by the Office of the President," writes Acting Solicitor General Jeffrey B. Wall. He argues that Trump's decision to block those users didn't implicate the First Amendment because his actions weren't only made possible because of his presidential power. In a footnote, the DOJ also argues that “Twitter’s power to unilaterally shut down the @realDonaldTrump account [underscores] the Second Circuit’s error in holding that the account is a ‘public forum.’”

The DOJ argues that the opinion is "deeply problematic" and Biden, along with future presidents and other government officials, shouldn't be bound by a decision the Supreme Court may have struck down had it not become moot on Inauguration Day.

"Allowing the decision below to stand would be harmful, no longer to President Trump, but to the Presidency itself and to other governmental officials," writes Wall. "[T]he decision below blurs the lines between governmental and personal actions. It exposes federal and state employees to constitutional liability when using their own personal property to speak about their jobs to persons of their own choosing, and thereby limits the ways in which public officials 'may act in a personal capacity in all aspects of their life, online or otherwise.'"

Critic's Notebook: At Joe Biden's Inauguration, Glimmers of Light Drive Out Trumpian Darkness

by Daniel Fienberg
Joe Biden Sworn In As 46th President Of The United States
Alex Wong/Getty Images

How to put this nicely?

Donald Trump was an optics president.

He was not a words president.

Elevated in the popular imagination by Pizza Hut commercials, Home Alone 2 cameos and the soulless programming generosity of Jeff Zucker, Trump was obsessed with the perception of large hands, with fabricated crowd sizes and with the idea of militaristic parades.

Trump valued propaganda with as few accompanying words as possible — or at least as few accompanying scripted words as possible. Give the guy a podium and room to vamp, and he could stir a crowd into a mob. But optics are still the basis for which some conservatives express their refusal to believe Joe Biden won the election. "Did you see the size of his rallies compared to Trump's rallies?" "Do you see the size of his Twitter following compared to the size of Trump's Twitter following?"

For four years, optics were the same as perception, perception was the same as reality, and reality was a hastily cobbled together assortment of "alternative facts."

And, at least to some degree, the reframing of the nuanced American narrative as a picture book succeeded. I vaguely remember that Trump's inaugural address skipped over reconciliation and went straight to dystopian nightmare, but I recall no words or phrases from his speech. What I remember is Dancing With the Stars contestant Sean Spicer lying about pictures of the inaugural crowd. The inauguration of Donald Trump was not a celebration of unity, but rather a referendum on our willing suspension of disbelief.

There will be no contentious debates about Joe Biden's inaugural crowd, no side-by-side comparisons of aerial photographs accompanied by verifiably false claims in the press room. This was pretty clearly the smallest inaugural crowd in recent memory, and there are optics in that as well; the uninhabited stretches of the D.C. Mall, filled only with flags rippling in a chilly January breeze, and the relative absence of people were a simultaneous reminder of the pandemic that has claimed the lives of 400,000 Americans and of the terrifying domestic terror attack on the Capitol two weeks ago — the climax and symbolic conclusion of the Trump presidency.

Trump's partially filled crowd became the opening salvo of a science-fiction presidency at war with the truth. Joe Biden's absence of crowd will perhaps be the opening salvo of a presidency acknowledging reality. We'll see.

The Biden inaugural team valued optics of a different sort, especially when it came to the selection of performers at the Wednesday morning ceremony. Lady Gaga wore what looked like a giant mockingjay pin on her lapel that practically provided accompaniment to an excellent rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner." Jennifer Lopez sang Woody Guthrie's progressive anthem "This Land Is Your Land" bedecked in bling Guthrie surely would have raised an eyebrow at, and punctuating her performance first with Spanish and then with the exhortation "Let's get loud." But then Biden had Garth Brooks, resolutely apolitical in a traditionally red cultural sphere, singing "Amazing Grace" in blue jeans.

The optics said, over and over again, "We're trying to bring America together." Yet they just as frequently reminded us of how nightmarish the past month, year, four years have been for some people.

Apologies if you've thought the past four years have been tubs of fun. There was very little in this inaugural day for you.

Oh, and speaking one last time of optics, perhaps Trump got the final word by petulantly refusing to attend his successor's inauguration. There have been many elections in American history in which the ideological pendulum swung wildly from one extreme to another. But past losers have generally found a way to do the bare minimum and show up at the next inauguration, recognizing that continuity of power is a matter of optics as well. Trump, instead, snuck away in the wee hours of the morning.

But more than images — and I'm a TV critic, so I try to pay attention to images — President Biden's inauguration was like a welcome back party for "words," and his supporters embraced them like one of those heartwarming viral videos of a devoted dog pouncing on a beloved owner returning after time overseas in military service. We climbed over ourselves to devour those words like Roberto Benigni running to the stage for an Oscar (or like I'm gonna hit the crab legs line at a Las Vegas buffet if such a thing ever exists again).

Hamlet's declaration that he was reading "Words, words, words" suggested the occasional hollowness of rhetoric, but even hollow words can be manna if you've been in an intellectual desert.

Maligned by pernicious adversaries as too feeble to read a brief speech just months ago, President Biden delivered a well-written address that was full of platitudes — he's going to be the president for ALL Americans, in case you were unsure — and equally laden with alliteration, symbolism and references to Saint Augustine. I saw people celebrate the return of complete and complex sentences to presidential compositions, but that's an understatement. This was a casually eloquent address.

Of course, Biden's speech was immediately upstaged by the much less casual and much more eloquent recitation from 22-year-old inaugural poet Amanda Gorman. Reciting her poem "The Hill We Climb" to the small-but-appreciative crowd, Gorman gave a dazzling display of language that was simultaneously awash in flourishes and wordplay and heavily saturated in both ideology and hope. In this moment, more than a few people needed Gorman's words, "There is always light / If only we're brave enough to see it / If only we're brave enough to be it." I don't know if Gorman is a Leonard Cohen fan, but I'm betting more than a few listeners considered the Canadian singer's "Anthem" with its lyrics, "There is a crack, a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in." The ability to spot the light, however weakly it sometimes shines or however hard it sometimes is to see, constitutes idealism — perhaps American idealism.

Could Joe Biden issue an executive order allowing us to set aside 10 minutes every week to listen to a recitation from Amanda Gorman?

Gorman was the star of the inauguration, and second billing would probably go to Kamala Harris, installed as our first female vice president, our first vice president of color, our first vice president accompanied onstage by her stylish Jewish step kids. The "firsts" associated with Wednesday's ceremonies mostly related to Harris, even if Justice Sonia Sotomayor, she of more than a few "firsts" herself, managed to mispronounce "Kamala" as part of the oath of office. You'd almost think Biden was aware of the contrast he was setting in being inaugurated as president but letting other people take the spotlight.

So there were still ample revealing optics in the midst of this transition back to traditional presidential rhetoric.

And what will it mean if the rhetoric doesn't translate into action and deeds?

That's a conversation for the next four years.

Spike Lee's Casting Director Talks Working With Helmer: "He's Very Specific"

by Maya Tribbitt
Spike Lee on set and inset of Kim Coleman

From left: Spike Lee on the set of 'Da 5 Bloods' with actors Clarke Peters, Delroy Lindo, Jonathan Majors and Norm Lewis (Inset: Kim Coleman)

DAVID LEE/NETFLIX; Jason Kempin/Getty Images)

One of the most prominent Black directors in Hollywood, Spike Lee has worked with casting director Kim Coleman for nearly two decades. Their films range from Inside Man to BlacKkKlansman, plus Netflix's 2017 television adaptation of his 1986 film She's Gotta Have It and the streamer's Da 5 Bloods, which has earned plenty of awards buzz for its stars since its release in June.

Da 5 Bloods has produced some of the best performances of 2020, with an ensemble made up of such veteran actors as Delroy Lindo, Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters and Isiah Whitlock Jr. Rising stars like Jonathan Majors and the late Chadwick Boseman brought their energy to the project, as did hidden gems including Veronica Ngo, who plays Hanoi Hannah. To build a cast like this, Coleman relied on her strong relationship with the director.

"It's a blessing to work with [Spike]," Coleman tells THR. "We've built a great working relationship as well as friendship over the years.

"He's very specific, which I love, and he's very thorough," Coleman adds of Lee, with whom she first worked on the 2004 comedy She Hate Me. "He tells me what he wants, and I try to deliver for him. You know, Spike loves actors — I mean, as you know, he's an actor and he's a director, so it's always a lot of fun. It's never too difficult."

The casting process is a collaborative one between the two, Coleman continues. They brainstorm ideas back and forth and consistently introduce new actors to each another.

"Spike, in the course of casting Da 5 Bloods — [like] a lot of his films — has certain actors in mind for certain roles, and he'll bounce it off of me. I'll say, 'You know, I'm thinking this,' and he'll say, 'I'm thinking that.' And then, we sort of go back and forth," Coleman says. "And the good thing about working with him, too, is that he listens. Someone he may have in his head, this person, we discuss it. And then if I mentioned something, I'll come up and look at it from a different point of view. He's always open to that."

According to the Oscar-winning auteur, Coleman has exceeded his requirements when it comes to knowing what his films need. "Kim also cast for me the two seasons of She's Gotta Have It for Netflix. So, you know, we've had a very great [relationship]," Lee tells THR. "She works with a lot of great directors, but we all have different tastes. I think a casting director, [the] number one quality for me of a very good casting director is understanding who the director likes. I really rely on someone who knows what I like and someone who can go out and make it part of a day-to-day operation."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Alex Trebek's Final 'Jeopardy!' Episode Hits 19-Month Ratings High

by Rick Porter
Courtesy of Jeopardy Productions Inc.

Alex Trebek's last week as host of Jeopardy! drew the game show's biggest ratings in eight-plus months, and his last episode gathered the largest audience in more than a year and a half.

The longtime host, who died on Nov. 8, had taped his final episodes in late October. The syndicated game show ran those episodes the week of Jan. 4.

The show averaged 11.12 million daily viewers for the week, its largest weekly tally since late April. Jeopardy! topped its closest competitor in syndication, Wheel of Fortune, by about 840,000 viewers, and led every primetime program (excluding sports) for the week as well.

In household ratings, a key measure for syndicated shows, the 6.6 for Jeopardy! was also a season high, 0.6 ahead of Wheel of Fortune.

Trebek's last episode on Jan. 8 brought in 14 million viewers, the most for any Jeopardy! since June 3, 2019 — the final episode of James Holzhauer's 32-game winning streak.

Ratings for Jeopardy! also improved immediately following Trebek's death before returning to their usual levels to close out 2020.

Jeopardy! has yet to name a permanent new host. In the interim, a series of guest hosts will fill Trebek's shoes, including the game's all-time champion, Ken Jennings, as well as Katie Couric, Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whittaker and actress Mayim Bialik.

Biden's Virtual Parade, 'Celebrating America' Special Relied on Hollywood Cloud-Based Production

by Carolyn Giardina
Virtual Parade Across America
Handout/Biden Inaugural Committee via Getty Images

To help celebrate President Biden's inauguration, the virtual Parade Across America and Celebrating America primetime special brought together hundreds of disparate segments, including those from amateur dance teams to Hollywood stars and the 'TikTok Doc.' The result enabled participation from across the country amid the pandemic, with some help from Hollywood and an ambitious cloud-based remote postproduction workflow.

Hollywood postproduction facility SIM handled the post for the Glenn Weiss-helmed Kirshner Events production--what SIM's vp engineering and technology Paul Chapman described as "getting the band back together" as it was a similar team and way of working that was assembled last summer to produce a virtual Democratic National Convention. Since the pandemic began, SIM has been active in a number of high-profile virtual events--include the One World: Together At Home fundraiser held last spring and the Emmys--and it is slated to handle postproduction for this year's Oscars presentation.

Parade Across America, which aired Wednesday afternoon following the live inauguration coverage, featured clips from a string of participants including bands and dance teams--as well as a "Dance Across America" segment set to the song "Dancing in the Streets" and led by Kenny Ortega--coming from all U.S. States and territories. The 90-minute pre-produced program was hosted by Tony Goldwyn from a studio at All Mobile Video in New York.

The 90-minute Celebrating America, hosted by Tom Hanks, features performances from artists such as Justin Timberlake, Demi Lovato and John Legend, as well as appearances from the likes of  Kerry Washington, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Work started nearly a month ago, with hundreds of the individual entertainment packages sent to SIM from all across the U.S. via Signiant's file transfer technology. This included everything from the professionally-shot segments to user generated content lensed with iPhones and drones. SIM's editorial team, led by lead editor Mike Polito, edited the programs remotely at home on their Avids. All cuts were reviewed and approved by the team using an expansive cloud-based remote workflow using Frame.io cloud technology.

Chapman relates that production challenges involved the schedule coupled with a massive amount of material, with the total project representing 3.3TB including 2.7TB of source material--more than what would typically be used on a feature.

"The work on the DNC allowed this to happen relative seamlessly as it was same team essentially," Chapman says. "We really learned a lot about how to set up remote editorial solutions reliably. It's been a challenge but it has evolved and improved."

Stephen Colbert Goes Live After Inauguration: "Today We Were Reality-Boarded, and I Am Here For It"

by Trilby Beresford

Going live at the Ed Sullivan theater after the inauguration of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris on Wednesday, Stephen Colbert made a declaration to his viewers: "Well, you did it. You survived the last four years and your reward, a shiny, new, old President."

He referred to the day's events as a "joyful occasion" and said that he cried a lot. "It was extremely emotional." Colbert said that he felt "enormous relief" watching the inauguration and realized how worried he has been for his country over the last four years. Jokingly, he compared the experience to being on a ship in a rough and stormy sea, and finally setting foot upon land.

Colbert has, in the past, pleaded with Republicans to "speak up" against Trump's false election claims of fraud, chosen not to watch the Republican National Convention due to their failure to address key issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic and mused about his hopes for a calmer and "nicer" era, post-Trump.

In his monologue, the late-night host went on to say that the day "felt like a return to normalcy,"  even though so much of the day was abnormal because everyone was wearing masks. Referencing how one year ago today the first patient was hospitalized for COVID-19, Colbert expressed his relief that the pandemic will finally be tackled head-on.

"Today we were reality-boarded, and I am here for it," said Colbert. Pointing to some "potent symbolism" of the day, he pointed out the man whose responsibility it was to disinfect the podium after each speaker.

Colbert talked about how many former Presidents showed their respects – naming the Obamas, Clintons and more — with Trump notably absent from the list. Colbert described Biden and his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, as a presidential couple who held hands in a way that didn’t look professionally mandated.

Referencing Biden's address to the nation for the first time as President, Colbert brought up the fact that he spoke of the Capitol riots and how they will not bring down the country. "Stirring words that I hope the rioters hear on the TV in the prison day room," said the late-night host.

Colbert also labeled Biden's call for the nation to come together in unity as "stirring." The Late Show re-played Biden saying in his speech, "We must meet this moment as the United States of America. We have never failed in America when we acted together." Colbert made a quip about how Biden must not have seen the movie Cats.

He went on to reference how Biden emphasized his commitment to pour his soul into his role as President. "It’s so nice to have a President with a soul again," said Colbert.

During the inauguration, a star-studded lineup caught the attention from viewers including performers Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez and Garth Brooks. Of the performances, Colbert said, "Lady Gaga sang the national anthem beautifully."

He brought up the 22-year-old poet Amanda Gorman, who recited her original work "The Hill We Climb," and noted that she really "summed up the challenges facing our country." Colbert then asked, "How do you repair the past? Have we tried unplugging it and plugging it back in? Because that works with almost everything else."

'Breaking Fast': Film Review

by Frank Scheck
Breaking Fast
Courtesy of Vertical Entertainment

The two lovers "meet cute." One has an overbearing mother and an overly garrulous best friend constantly trying to interfere in his love life. The other has deep-rooted family issues. A trivial misunderstanding nearly derails their relationship before it begins. In other words, Breaking Fast contains the stuff of many formulaic romantic comedy-dramas.

So what makes Mike Mosallam's debut feature so special? The easy answer is that one of its main characters is a religiously observant, gay Muslim, not exactly a familiar character in such stories. The deeper reason is that it's a witty, beautifully observed and well-acted film that proves as engaging as it is boundary-shattering.

After an introductory text defining the terms Ramadan and Iftar (the former refers to the holy month, while the latter refers to the traditional meal eaten by Muslims after sunset during that period), we're introduced to Mo (Haaz Sleiman, The Visitor, Killing Jesus), a prosperous gastroenterologist living in West Hollywood. Shortly before an Iftar with his family, Mo's closeted boyfriend Hassan (Patrick Sabongui) informs him that he'll be marrying a woman in order to maintain his relationship with his traditionalist Muslim family. That's a dealbreaker for Mo, who, when the action picks up a year later, is still single and mourning the failed relationship.

During a 25th birthday party for his flamboyant, non-observant Muslim best friend Sam (Amin El Gamal, entertainingly going over the top at times), Mo is introduced to handsome, stereotypically all-American aspiring actor Kal (Michael Cassidy). There's an immediate chemistry between them that is enhanced when, after Sam and Mo exchange secret comments about him in Arabic, Kal amusingly reveals that he speaks the language fluently as a result of having grown up on a military base in Jordan.

It turns out that Mo and Kal have something else in common: a shared love of Superman, especially the 1978 movie version starring Christopher Reeve, and whose original Krypton name "Kal-El" inspired Kal's. On one of their first dates, the two men see a big-screen revival, during which they adorably act out their favorite scene: Superman, in mid-air, rescuing a plummeting Lois Lane from certain death.

The relationship continues chastely during the month of Ramadan, with Kal, who also knows how to cook traditional Arab food, helping Mo break his daily fast. Their courtship is illustrated by the sort of happy-moments montage seen frequently in rom-coms, although the musical accompaniment of "The Trolley Song" (not the Judy Garland version) signifies it's not of the usual heterosexual variety.

There are darker moments as well, including Kal making a mysterious visit to the hospital where Mo works and a deeply uncomfortable random encounter with a woman (screen veteran Veronica Cartwright) who turns out to be the second wife of Kal's father, from whom he's estranged. Kal's troubling family issues, as well as their differing attitudes toward Islam, eventually cause a rift between the two men. But not one that can't be remedied by the healing powers of good food, among other things.

The film sensitively conveys the ups and downs of a burgeoning romantic relationship complicated by societal and emotional pressures. While writer/director Mosallam sometimes proves too eager to embrace rom-com cliches — Mo's loving but overbearing mother (Rula Gardenier) seems designed to demonstrate that Jewish and Muslim mothers have much in common — he manages to keep the story's principal dramatic and comedic elements from lapsing into predictability.

Much of the credit belongs to the lead performers. Sleiman delivers a restrained, affecting turn that pulls us into his character's complex feelings. And Cassidy — whose previous acting experiences as Jimmy Olson in Batman v Superman and in a recurring role on Smallville no doubt fueled his ability to convincingly play a rabid Superman fan — exudes a relaxed charm.  As romantic dramedies go, Breaking Fast doesn't deliver anything new under the sun. That proves to be one of the most refreshing things about it.

Available on VOD and digital
Production companies: Mike Mosallam Productions, Minutehand Pictures
Distributor: Vertical Entertainment
Cast: Haaz Sleiman, Michael Cassidy, Amin El Gamal, Patrick Sabongui, Christopher J. Hanke, Rula Gardenier, Veronica Cartwright, Aline Elasmar
Director/screenwriter: Mike Mosallam
Producers: Seth Hauer, Sarah Bazzi, Bay Dariz, Alex Lampsos, Davin Michaels
Director of photography: Anka Malatynska
Production designer: Jourdan Henderson
Editor: Mike Hugo
Composer: Omar Fadel
Costume designer: Jessyca Bluwal
Casting: Tineka Becker

92 min.

Walter Raney, Longtime L.A. Drama Coach, Dies at 79

by Mike Barnes
Walter Raney

Walter Raney

Courtesy Leanne Rayman

Walter Raney, a onetime Fox casting director who ran a Los Angeles repertory company and mentored actors including Jason Patric, Amy Jo Johnson and John Larroquette, has died. He was 79.

Raney died Jan. 2 in Los Angeles of natural causes, his niece, Leanne Rayman, told The Hollywood Reporter.

In 1976, Raney produced and directed a Los Angeles production of the Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning basketball drama That Championship Season after striking up a friendship with playwright Jason Miller. From that, Raney launched the New Theatre League Repertory, a workshop and showcase for new talent in Hollywood.

Raney produced and/or directed plays for Miller around the country for more than two decades, and he taught acting to his son, Patric.

Raney approached Johnson at a diner in Hollywood and encouraged her to keep going as an actress. In a Facebook post, the Felicity and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers star thanked him "for every ounce of confidence you instilled in me. You were a great coach. My life would not have been the same without you."

Born in 1941, Walter James Raney left his hometown of Haverhill, Massachusetts, just shy of his 17th birthday. He worked in regional theater, dinner theater and summer stock around the country and got bit roles on television. In the 1970s, he cast pilots at Fox.

Raney later worked with William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist) to direct a stage version of the author's novel The Ninth Configuration and was hired by Jerome Lawrence (Mame, Inherit the Wind) to helm a play about the tragic personal life of explorer Jacques Cousteau.

At the New Theatre League Repertory, Raney also helped boost the acting careers of future General Hospital stars Sarah Brown and Kin Shriner, Walter Jones and Thuy Trang of Power Rangers fame and Mary Hart.

"The hardest thing to teach an actor is how not to act," he once said. "Essentially, you always play yourself. You just lock into some deeper aspect of yourself, the good, bad or ugly, so to speak. For a director, the most difficult thing to learn is when to shut up, when to get out of the way and not invade a talented actor's intuition, even if it's not precisely what you envision for the part."