Review: ‘Morbius,’ starring Jared Leto

March 30, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jared Leto in “Morbius” (Photo courtesy of Columbia Pictures)

“Morbius”

Directed by Daniel Espinosa

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in the New York City metropolitan area (and briefly in Costa Rica, Greece and Sweden), the horror/action film “Morbius” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A brilliant but illness-plagued biochemist named Dr. Michael Morbius finds the cure to diseases and death, but it comes at a price of becoming a superpowered vampire who craves human blood. 

Culture Audience: “Morbius” will appeal primarily to people interested in movies adapted from Marvel comic books, but the movie’s weak screenplay ultimately lowers the quality of this already-mediocre film.

Jared Leto and Adria Arjona in “Morbius” (Photo by Jay Maidment/Columbia Pictures)

“Morbius” works better as a horror movie than as a vampire superhero origin story that’s supposed to have a place in the “Spider-Man” franchise. “Morbius” has too many plot holes and not enough personality for it to ever be considered a classic superhero film. In fact, “Morbius” recycles so many familiar vampire clichés and action battle scenes, viewers will feel like they’ve already seen the movie before it even ends.

And so, what’s a stereotypical movie to do when it doesn’t have a lot of new ideas to offer? It usually has to rely on the charisma of the cast members to engage viewers in a way that will make audiences feel personally invested in what happens to the characters. But that charisma is mostly lacking in “Morbius,” which has a very talented cast that is limited by uninspired dialogue that renders their characters as nothing more than generic and hollow. “Morbius” was directed by Daniel Espinosa and written by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless.

That’s not to say that “Morbius” is a complete waste of time. The movie’s visual effects, although not spectacular, still get the job done well enough that they look convincing in most parts of the film. And the acting isn’t terrible. The performances in “Morbius” just are not up to the memorable standards they could be for audiences who have become used to superhero movies where the main characters have strong and distinctive personalities.

Even as an origin story, “Morbius” falls flat. Dr. Michael Morbius (played by Jared Leto), a brilliant biochemist, is first seen in Costa Rica with a team of people, as he entices a cave full of bats out of the cave, by taking a knife and using it to slice the palm of his hand with a superficial wound that draws blood. Considering that bats wouldn’t just swarm out of a cave because they saw or smelled a human being’s bleeding hand, this scene is supposed to show these are no ordinary bats. They’re vampire bats.

“Morbius” then abruptly cuts to a flashback that takes place 25 years earlier in Greece. Michael (played by Charlie Shotwell), at the age of about 12 or 13, is in a children’s ward of a hospital when he gets a shy new roommate who’s about the same age. The newcomer’s name is Lucien Crown (played by Joseph Esson), although Michael insists on calling him Milo. This new roommate quickly goes along with being called by this new name, with the implication being that he’s got self-esteem issues and is desperate for a new identity. Milo uses crutches to walk and needs a machine to help him breathe.

The two boys have health problems that mostly confine them to their rooms, so they know what it’s like to feel like outcasts. From their hospital window, Michael and Milo can see bratty schoolboys, who are about the same age, taunting them for having health issues. Milo asks Michael after one of these tauntings: “What would you do if you could be normal for just one hour?” Michael curtly answers, “I don’t think about it.”

Milo and Michael become fast friends, with Michael being the more assertive and confident of the two. Michael tells Milo that they’re both in this hospital because they have the same blood disease and because “there’s something missing from our DNA,” so they are undergoing experiments. A scientist named Dr. Emil Nicholas (played by Jared Harris) is the leader of these experiments.

Dr. Nicholas is kind and paternal to Michael and Milo. Where are these boys’ parents or other family members? The movie never answers that question. However, people familiar with Morbius from Marvel Comics already know that Milo comes from a wealthy family, while Morbius was raised by a single mother. The Morbius in this movie never talks about his family or anything else about his background.

One day, Michael saves Milo’s life. When Milo’s breathing machine malfunctions, and Milo loses consciousness, Michael is able to quickly solve the problem. He fixes the machine by removing a tiny spring of coiled wire. Dr. Nicholas is so impressed with Michael’s problem-solving skills, he tells Michael that Michael will be sent to a school for gifted children.

Before Michael leaves, he writes a letter to Milo in which he promises that they will see each other again. Soon after Michael leaves, Milo is outside and being harassed by some of the bullies who have found Milo carrying this letter. The harassment turns into an assault that’s halted when Dr. Nicholas comes to Milo’s rescue.

The movie then flash-forwards to the present day. An adult Dr. Morbius is on stage in Sweden and about to receive the Nobel Prize. At this point in his life, he uses arm braces to walk. While a Nobel Prize official makes an introductory speech, it’s mentioned that Morbius was a prodigy who completed his doctorate at the age of 19. Viewers never get to see what happens next, but it’s described in the next scene.

“Morbius” then makes an abrupt time shift once again. He’s now back in New York City, where he lives. Morbius works at a hospital and has built has a scientific lab on a cargo ship, where he can do his top-secret experiments. While attending to a patient—a girl named Anna (played by Zaris-Angel Hator), who’s about 9 or 10 years old—she says to him, “I can’t believe you dissed the king and queen of Sweden.” Morbius then makes an anti-monarchist comment in response.

What happened on the way to Morbius getting a Nobel Prize? A newspaper headline reveals that he refused the prize, after going to all the trouble of being at the ceremony. This was a missed opportunity for the filmmakers to show Morbius having an irreverent, maybe mischievous side that made Robert Downey Jr.’s portrayal of Tony Stark/Iron Man so fun to watch for many fans of superhero movies. Unfortunately, what happened on that Nobel Prize stage stayed on that Nobel Prize stage, only to leave it up to viewers’ imagination what kind of uproar Morbius caused at that event.

Morbius’ closest colleague is Dr. Martine Bancroft (played by Adria Arjona), who is more cautious than Morbius is, when it comes to his radical experiments. She warns him that she knows he’s doing experiments that mix good DNA and bad DNA, and he could lose his medical license if authorities found out. Morbius is undeterred by Martine’s concerns. Martine later becomes Morbius’ obvious potential love interest, even though Leto and Arjona have little to no romantic chemistry together.

Meanwhile, Morbius’ former childhood friend Milo (played by Matt Smith) and Dr. Nicholas are both in New York City too. Milo (who is now a flashy extrovert, in contrast to how introverted he was as a child) is eager to get the same serum that Morbius has been working on to cure them both of their blood diseases. Morbius tells Milo that he can’t have any of the serum until Morbius tests it on himself first. You know where this is going, of course.

Because “Morbius” is a comic-book movie, viewers have to suspend disbelief that within this hospital, Morbius works in a lab with a large cylindrical cage full of bats. It’s implied that these are the same bats that Morbius got in Costa Rica. Morbius wants to see if he can solve his health problems by infusing his DNA with bat DNA in a serum, so that Morbius can not only eliminate his illnesses, he can also possibly live forever. Try to read that without laughing.

A trial test on a mouse proves to be successful. And the next thing you know, Morbius and Martine are on the cargo ship off of the coast of Long Island, so she can inject him with the serum. Why have the lab on a cargo ship, which is out in the open and would put it on the radar of the U.S. Coast Guard or other entities that monitor sea vessels? Don’t expect an answer for that either.

It’s all just a way for Morbius to end up killing people when the serum experiment goes very wrong, and he finds out that he has become a homicidal vampire who craves human blood. A massacre ensues that leaves eight people dead on the ship, with Morbius and Martine as the only survivors. Martine’s injuries (she was knocked down by one of the ship’s crew members) leave her recovering in a hospital. It won’t be the last time she gets seriously injured in this movie.

Meanwhile, the formerly sickly-looking Morbius finds out he’s now healthy with an athletic physique and superpowers, but he’s also a vampire who now craves human blood. Morbius is horrified and deeply ashamed of what he’s become, and he wants to make things right by trying to reverse the serum. However, he’s the main suspect in the cargo ship massacre, so he goes into hiding. And where does this fugitive go when authorities are looking for him? Right back to his workplace, where no one seems to notice that he no longer has to use braces to walk.

Two agents from the FBI are hot on Morbius’ trail: Simon Stroud (played by Tyrese Gibson) and Alberto Ramirez (played by Al Madrigal), whose names are not Mutt and Jeff, even though they act like Mutt and Jeff stereotypes. Agent Stroud is the stoic, no-nonsense type. Agent Ramierz is the goofy, nervous type. Agents Stroud and Ramirez are assigned to the FBI’s Department of Enhanced Individuals.

That’s why these FBI agents don’t really seem shocked when Morbius is brought in for questioning, and he starts to partially transform into a vampire right in front of them. Agent Ramirez brings holy water to protect himself in this interrogation, while Agent Stroud somewhat scoffs at Agent Ramirez’s fear of vampires. It’s enough to say that Morbius’ stint in a detention center is short-lived, and he goes on the run again.

The rest of “Morbius” is essentially a “vampire on the loose” story, with the FBI trying to capture Morbius, who gets blamed for some more vampire murders that he did not commit. The movie falters in how certain fights involving Morbius (such as a major brawl that happens in a subway station) are treated as everyday occurrences and certainly not investigated adequately by law enforcement that has launched a massive manhunt (or is it vampire hunt?) for Morbius. But viewers can’t really take this “massive manhunt” seriously when Agents Stroud and Ramirez are the only FBI officials who seem to be available to show up and investigate the vampire crime scenes.

The action sequences in “Morbius” liven up an otherwise dull storyline that lacks originality. Smith seems to be having some campy fun in his role as the adult Milo. Leto has done much better work elsewhere, although “Morbius” certainly isn’t his worst movie. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their average roles.

Two mid-credits scenes tease Morbius’ involvement with a character who was in 2017’s “Spider-Man: Homecoming.” Who this character is not a secret, but it won’t be mentioned in this review anyway, so as not to spoil the surprise for viewers who don’t know. Spider-Man and Venom both get briefly mentioned in “Morbius.” It’s enough to say, based on what the underwhelming “Morbius” has to offer, any future “Morbius” movies—just like many other superhero movies—might have to rely on Spider-Man to bring more excitement to the story.

Columbia Pictures will release “Morbius” in U.S. cinemas on April 1, 2022.

Review: ‘Violet’ (2021), starring Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey and the voice of Justin Theroux

March 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Luke Bracey and Olivia Munn in “Violet” (Photo courtesy of Relativity Media)

“Violet” (2021)

Directed by Justine Bateman

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the dramatic film “Violet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who’s the head of production at an independent film production company is wracked with insecurities about herself and is haunted by her troubled past with her estranged mother. 

Culture Audience: “Violet” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing a psychologically driven movie that shows a constant flow of a neurotic person’s conflicting thoughts.

Dennis Boutsikaris in “Violet” (Photo by Mark Williams/Relativity Media)

“Violet” is a multilayered movie that effectively shows three psychological layers of an insecure person: the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and how the person acts on any conflicts between the conscious and subconscious. Oliva Munn gives a riveting performance as the movie’s title character: a 32-year-old woman who is very uneasy with herself, but who tries to project to the outside world that she’s happy and confident. “Violet” (written and directed by Justine Bateman) is intended to make viewers uncomfortable because of how candidly and realistically it portrays people who seem to be one way in public but are quite another way in their deepest thoughts.

On the surface, Violet Calder (played by Munn) seems to have the kind of life that a lot of people want: She works in the movie industry in the Los Angeles area, where she’s head of production at an independent film production company called Gaines Pictures. But from the movie’s opening scene, viewers see that Violet is in fact discontented with her life because she’s very unhappy with herself. She’s the very definition of someone who has “imposter syndrome”—feeling like a fraud who’s unworthy of accomplishments and praise.

Throughout the movie, viewers see and hear two types of Violet’s inner thoughts. Her true feelings (her conscious mind), which are often vulnerable but optimistic, are shown in hand-written scrawls on screen. Her negative and self-critical side, which lies deep in her subconscious, can be heard in voiceovers by actor Justin Theroux. These warring thoughts often make statements that are in direct contrast to each other. The way that Violet reacts to these thoughts shows her decision making in what she ultimately does for her actions and words that she wants people to see as representing herself.

In the beginning of the movie, Violet is temporarily living at the house of her longtime friend Red (played by Luke Bracey), whom she has known since they were 12 years old. Violet and Red are both single with no children. The movie’s opening scene shows Violet in her car before she heads off to work. A hand-written scrawl appears on screen with these words: “Is there something wrong with me?” The negative voice can then be heard saying, “You’re a pig,” and begins to berate her by saying that people will think she’s a loser for not having her own place.

At her job, Violet has a few subordinates who don’t treat her like a boss they respect. They treat her more like someone to take advantage of by slacking off on their workload. Gaines Pictures’ headquarters has an open-floor plan, where Violet doesn’t have her own office. She has a desk that is right in the middle of the desks of people who have lower rankings at the company. These desks are placed classroom-style, while Gaines Pictures founder Tom Gaines (played by Dennis Boutsikaris), a longtime director/producer, has his own office. This company’s work space is a reflection of the company’s power structure and how Tom runs the company.

There are obvious signs that Violet is underappreciated and disrespected on the job. A subordinate named Bradley (played by Zachary Gordon) calls her “sugar plum” and asks her for production reports that he should already have. Brad and another subordinate named Julie (played by Cassandra Cardenes), who are both in their 20s, waste time by standing near Violet’s desk and distracting her with petty gossip instead of being responsible and doing their work.

The disrespect is even worse from her boss Tom, who is a misogynistic creep. During a conference room meeting with an outside colleague named Darren Brightly (played by Al Madrigal), Tom demeans Violet by making sexual innuendos that imply that she’s in a sexual relationship with Tom, and that she uses sex to get what she wants. Violet looks humiliated, while Darren looks like he’s too much in shock to say anything.

One person at Violet’s job who really seems to respect her is an administrative assistant named Keith (played by Keith Powers), who gripes to Violet about Brad and Julie: “They’re always saying stuff, and you just let them? You’re head of production. They work for you. They’re always over here bothering you. Why don’t you just tell them to fuck off?”

Violet replies, “Listen, it’s just better for me not to say anything. The less opportunity I give them to label me a ‘bitch,’ the better.” Meanwhile, the negative voice inside Violet’s head tells her that she should ignore the disrespect and micro-aggressions from her work colleagues. For example, in reaction to Bradley’s condescending attitude to Violet (even though she’s his boss), the negative voice tells Violet: “Let it go, or he’ll quit. Don’t be bossy.”

Throughout the course of the movie, Violet is shown making compromises that make her uncomfortable because she doesn’t want to be accused of being difficult. Other times, she lets the negative voice in her head get to her, and she acts very mean-spirited and selfish. Viewers often have to guess what Violet will do when the conscious and subconscious thoughts are completely opposite.

In addition to her boss and colleagues, there are other people in Violet’s life who see various sides of her. How much they take the time to know the real Violet is a reflection of how much they care about her. Red is a loyal and supportive friend, who tells Violet that she can talk to him about anything at any time. He seems to know she’s got a lot of inner turmoil that she finds difficult to disclose.

Violet has another close friend named Lila (played by Erica Ash), who thinks that Violet and Red should be a couple. However, Red is a screenwriter, and Violet thinks dating a writer would be a “step down” for her, so Violet tells Lila that she wants to continue to date executives in the entertainment industry. But based on Violet’s unhappy and unfulfilled love life, that decision isn’t working out so well for her.

To show a contrast between Violet’s self-esteem and Lila’s self-esteem, the movie has a scene where the two friends meet at a restaurant/bar for dinner and drinks. Violet says that she has her own “naysayer committee” in her head, and she tells Lila that she has to learn to stop listening to this inner negativity. Lila says she sometimes has self-doubt too, but her parents raised her to believe that she’s great, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Violet definitely did not have that type of upbringing, so it’s yet another reason for Violet to feel insecure about herself. It also makes Violet envious of Lila’s genuine self-confidence.

Violet has some brief encounters with some other people during her emotional and psychological journey in this movie. In a parking lot, she randomly sees an ex-boyfriend named Martin (played by Simon Quarterman), a music executive who currently lives in New York City, but who’s visiting Los Angeles for work-related reasons. When Violet sees Martin again, it triggers painful memories of why Violet and Mike broke up. Viewers find out why in flashback scenes.

The movie’s flashbacks also include scenes of 8-year-old Violet (played by Liliana Mijangos) riding her bicycle, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. These childhood flashbacks are often shown on a giant video screen, as if it’s replaying inside Violet’s head, and her inner voice tells her this childhood experience of riding a bike was the last time she truly felt freedom. But in one of those flashback scenes, Violet rides home on her bike, only to get a barrage of shouted insults and criticisms by her mother (who’s never seen on camera, but who is voiced by Erin Cantelo) as soon as Violet arrives at the front door.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Violet’s fractured relationship with her abusive mother is the root cause of most of Violet’s self-esteem problems. Through conversations, it’s eventually revealed that Violet, whose closest family members live thousands of miles away in an unnamed U.S. state, has not spoken to her widow mother for the past three years. Violet’s older brother Rick (played by Todd Stashwick) and Violet’s maternal aunt Helen (played by Bonnie Bedelia) express resentment and hostility to Violet because she’s distanced herself from the family. They think Violet is too caught up in her Hollywood movie job and showbiz lifestyle to care about them.

“Violet” will probably have extra appeal to people who like seeing movies that authentically depict behind-the-scenes Hollywood production workers, what their jobs entail and the types of social events they go to outside of work. Getting a job in the movie industry can really come down to who you know and being in the right place at the right time, not having a college degree or lots of experience. For example, at a party, Violet is offered a job on the spot by two movie executives she knows named Dennis (played by Jim O’Heir) and Harry White (played by Jason Dohring), who have co-founded a new independent production company called Phoenix Circle Films. The movie shows whether or not she takes this job offer.

An example of why Violet feels like a failure is how her plans have stalled to make a movie out of a poetry book that she loves called “Fox Run.” The “Fox Run” movie was a pet project of Violet’s, and even had a screenplay, but the project has been stuck in “development hell.” Violet has pretty much given up on the movie ever getting made. Her obnoxious boss Tom comments to her about the “Fox Run” movie in front of her co-workers: “You were always a pussy for art films.”

Bradley and Tom know how much “Fox Run” means to Violet, so these toxic male colleagues both use that information to try to embarrass her in passive-aggressive ways. The “Fox Run” movie is obviously symbolic of how Violet feels about herself and how she’s treated by others: misunderstood, unappreciated and stuck in a rut. The “Fox Trot” movie is such a sore subject for Violet, when Lila asks Violet about the movie, Violet loses her temper and snaps, “Just drop it! It’s none of your fucking business!”

All of the cast members of “Violet” give credible performances, but how people respond to this movie mostly depends on how realistic they think Munn is in embodying this complicated character. It’s not about Violet being “likable.” It’s about her being believable.

“Violet” writer/director Bateman impressively uses techniques to show that Violet’s life sometimes plays like a movie in her head. In addition to the childhood flashbacks shown on a giant projector screen, other flashbacks are revealed as compelling quick-cut edits. Whenever the negative voice thoughts overwhelm Violet, the cinematography turns the screen a crimson red, with an effect simulating people fading out of vision and a monotone electronic noise drowning out the sound.

What “Violet” also does well is show how women in the workplace have to navigate differently than men, because women are more likely to have the threat of sexual harassment or the hassle of sexist people who automatically think the female gender is inferior to the male gender. “Violet” also poignantly shows how an abusive childhood can have long-lasting effects well into adulthood. It’s not always a pleasant film to watch, and the constant “war of words” in Violet’s head might be a turnoff to some viewers, but it’s hard not to be curious about how this psychological drama is going to end.

Relativity Media released “Violet” in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 5, 2021. The movie was released on digital and VOD on November 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Hero Mode,’ starring Chris Carpenter, Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin and Indiana Massara

June 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chris Carpenter and Philip Solomon in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Hero Mode”

Directed by A.J. Tesler

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Hero Mode” features a predominantly white cast of a characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old computer whiz thinks he can save his mother’s video game company from financial ruin by developing a computer video game that he expects to be a hit, but he experiences skepticism and obstacles from some adults.

Culture Audience: “Hero Mode” will appeal primarily to people who like lightweight and predictable family comedies and don’t mind if the jokes and some of the acting are substandard.

Pictured in front row: Sean Astin, Monte Markham, Philip Solomon, Kimia Behpoornia, Mira Sorvino and Mary Lynn Rajskub in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

The family film “Hero Mode” is stuck in one mode: low-quality. This poorly written, predictable movie about a computer gaming whiz has an uneven tone that stumbles back and forth, from cringeworthy comedy to sappy melodrama. Even though some of the cast members seem to be trying very hard to do their best to bring some charisma, it’s not enough to save this amateurish movie. The film’s protagonist is supposed to be wildly imaginative. It’s too bad this movie isn’t.

Directed by A.J. Tesler and written by Jeff Carpenter, “Hero Mode” starts off looking like it’s going to have a madcap pace throughout the entire film. The characters trade fast-talking one-liners. The camera and the editing move quickly from scene to scene, as if “Hero Mode” is a movie for people with a short attention span.

But somewhere in the middle of this movie (which is supposed to be a comedy), the pace slows down considerably so that it resembles a run-of-the-mill, teen-oriented drama. It’s almost as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide on which pace to have for “Hero Mode”: hyper or regular. And the end result is a movie in search of a clear identity and competent direction.

The plot of “Hero Mode” tells viewers from the beginning that this movie requires a lot of suspension of disbelief: A 16-year-old boy, who’s described as having “genius-level” computer skills, is supposed to come up with a computer video game in 30 days that will save his mother’s computer game company from going out of business. And he doesn’t just have to develop the game for beta testing. It has to be ready to market and sell at an upcoming video game convention.

People who’ve seen enough of these formulaic movies know exactly how these movies are going to end. And so, that leaves the writing, acting and directing to deliver something clever to outweigh the tedium of having an unsurprising story. Unfortunately, “Hero Mode” comes up short on almost every level. “Hero Mode” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, also has a lot of outdated jokes that might have worked in the 1990s, but not now.

This is one of those movies that exists because two parents—”Hero Mode” screenwriter Jeff Carpenter and his wife Mary Carpenter, one of the “Hero Mode” producers—made this film so that their son could star in it. It literally says so in the “Hero Mode” production notes: “They [Jeff and Mary Carpenter] knew from the beginning that 16-year-old Chris Carpenter (who had been acting in film and theater since he was 10) would play the teenage coding genius, Troy Mayfield.”

Troy Mayfield (played by Chris Carpenter) is an only child who lives with his widowed mother Kate Mayfield (played by Mira Sorvino), who is struggling to keep her independent video game company Playfield Games in business. Kate is the CEO of Playfield Games, a company that she co-founded with her husband/Troy’s father, who died when Troy was a very young child. The cause of death isn’t revealed in the movie, but there are repeated mentions that Troy’s father was a computer genius and that Troy seems to have inherited his father’s extraordinary talent with computer technology.

Troy is a typical male computer nerd in movies like this one: He’s socially awkward around girls and he doesn’t have many friends. His closest pal is Nick Williams (played by Philip Solomon), an outgoing fellow student who sometimes has a mischievous side. Nick (who seems to be an aspiring director) loves to use his phone to make videos and to upload the videos on social media.

In “Hero Mode,” an upcoming annual video game convention called Pixel Con is the most important consumer convention for the video game industry. New products are introduced at Pixel Con that can make or break a company’s profits. In an early scene in the movie, Troy and Nick talk excitedly about going to Pixel Con. Nick wants to go so he can meet girls, while Troy has a different motivation: “Nick, you know it’s not about the girls. It’s about making one great game and showing it off at Pixel Con.”

And the stakes are high for Playfield Games for this year’s Pixel Con, because the company is on the verge of financial ruin. Unbeknownst to most Playfield Games employees and Troy, the company will soon run out of operational cash. However, there’s a possibility that an angel investor can save the company. Kate is throwing an upcoming party for this investor at her house, with the company’s employees in attendance.

In the movie’s early scenes, which take place at Troy and Nick’s high school, there’s a lot of goofy comedy that eventually fades in the middle of the movie, only to pop back up again toward the end. In his 10th grade computer class, Troy is bored and frustrated because the teacher Mr. Diehl (played by Erik Griffin) is way behind the times. The class is coding a video game that looks like a primitive Pong game from the 1980s.

Suddenly, the school vice-principal, whose last name is Goodson (played by Bobby Lee), shows up in the classroom to talk to Mr. Diehl. Vice-Principal Goodson seems stressed-out about something, because he has an angry outburst at the students. Goodson then quietly mutters to Mr. Diehl that his wife has just left him.

Since Troy is a star student in the computer class, Goodson takes Troy aside. “Troy, I can honestly smell the hormones pouring out of you, and it’s nauseating,” Goodson quips. What Goodson really wants to tell Troy is that because Troy was so helpful in tutoring students in computer science, the school’s test scores went up significantly. As a reward, the school district gave the school 15 new computers.

But there’s a problem: The higher scores were too good to be true. Goodson knows it and asks Troy if he manipulated computer records to alter the scores so that they would be higher than they actually were. Troy essentially admits it, so he’s suspended from school.

Troy’s mother Kate is upset by this news, but she’s got a bigger problem to worry about: Getting the angel investor to sign the contract that will get Playfield Games out of the company’s financial hole. The investor is an elderly man named Bruce, who’s actually computer illiterate, but he wants to invest in Playfield Games because he thinks it will make him look cool to be in the video game industry.

At the house party, Playfield Games’ over-confident lead designer Jimmy (played by Sean Astin) gives Bruce a flash drive that has the beta test of a video game that will be Playfield’s next big product launch. The game is called Jack House. It’s a very 1980s-styled, boring game about a Super Mario type of carpenter character called Jack that likes to jackhammer houses. Jimmy is very proud of this game, but he’s very clueless about how badly outdated the game is. Jimmy thinks Jack House is going to be a big hit.

Because Bruce doesn’t even know how to use a flash drive, Bruce asks Troy to show him what’s on the flash drive. And so, Troy and Bruce (with Troy’s sidekick Nick also in the room) use Troy’s computer to look at this test version of Jack House. Bruce doesn’t mention that what Troy will be looking at is the game that Playfield is counting on to bring the company out of its financial dire straits.

Troy finds several mistakes (or “bugs”) in the game, and he says the game is hopelessly dumb and outdated. This negative review completely turns off Bruce from investing in Playfield. Bruce makes a hasty exit from the party without even saying goodbye. And when Kate finds out why Bruce ditched the party and changed his mind about investing in the company, Troy gets in even more trouble with his mother.

Kate goes to a bank and is told by loan manager Larry Lopes (played by Al Madrigal) that they won’t give her any more money. Out of desperation, Kate secretly meets with a corporate executive named Rick (played by Nelson Franklin), who’s the head of a larger rival company called Xodus. Kate knows that Xodous has been interested in buying Playfield Games, and she tells Rick that she’s now willing to consider selling Playfield to Xodus. It still doesn’t solve the problem of how Playfield Games can come up with a better game than Jack House.

But wait. There would be no “Hero Mode” movie if Troy was really punished. Somehow, he convinces his mother that he can come up with an even better game than Jack House, just in time to introduce this new game at Pixel Con, which is happening in 30 days. And since Troy has been suspended from school, he convinces a reluctant Kate to let him work in the Playfield Games office to get this project done by this unrealistic deadline.

Troy had been constantly begging his mother to work at Playfield, but she refused before because she thinks he’s not old enough. Later in the movie, she tells Troy: “You and your dad share the same gift, but he did not have a normal childhood. We both swore to each other that you would.” But desperate times sometimes lead to desperate decisions. And so, Kate agrees to give Troy a chance to prove that he’s the computer genius that he thinks he is.

Jimmy is extremely annoyed that this kid thinks he can outshine Jimmy in a job that Jimmy’s been doing longer than Troy has been alive. Welcome to nepotism, Jimmy. The other Playfield Games employees are also skeptical about working with an underage teenager, but they have no choice because he’s their boss’ child. These other employees aren’t as hostile to Troy as Jimmy is, but they aren’t exactly completely welcoming to Troy either.

The other Playfield staffers who are also on the project of making Troy’s video game a reality are chief financial officer Lyndon (played by Monte Markham), who is the most easygoing and practical of the group; technical lead Laura (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub), who is often uptight and grouchy; and senior story editor Marie (played by Kimia Behpoornia), who is artistically creative but a very nervous type of person. Lyndon is the only person at the company, other than Kate, who knows about Playfield’s financial problems.

Of course, a cliché movie like “Hero Mode” has to have a love interest for the nerdy protagonist, who stereotypically falls for someone he thinks is “out of his league.” The love interest is Lyndon’s granddaughter Paige (played by Indiana Massara), who’s about the same age as Troy. Paige and Troy meet one day at the Playfield Games office because Paige goes there after school to visit her grandfather and to do homework. According to Paige, she’s temporarily living with her grandfather Troy because her parents are having marriage problems and her parents are trying to “work things out.”

It’s attraction at first sight for Troy, who now has an added incentive to come up with the next big video game that can save Playfield Games: He wants to impress Paige. By the way, Paige is an aspiring singer, so viewers can easily predict how that’s written into the movie. The original songs in “Hero Mode” are very mediocre and forgettable.

The idea that Troy comes up with for the would-be blockbuster video game is called Yort, which is is essentially a cheap “Lord of the Rings” ripoff, but Troy has named the video game after himself. (Yort isTroy spelled backwards.) Troy has all these complex world-building ideas that couldn’t reasonably be developed for a video game in less than a month. But Troy thinks he can do it.

And this is where the movie really goes downhill: Troy thinks he can do it all by himself. He orders the people on this team to go home and stay away from the office because he needs the solitude to concentrate. There’s a considerable chunk of the movie with ridiculous scenes of Troy frantically coding and working in an empty office during the day and in his bedroom at night.

Meanwhile, Jimmy becomes Troy’s biggest detractor who wants Troy to fail. But since the movie wants to make Jimmy somewhat sympathetic, it turns out that Jimmy has “daddy issues.” Jimmy’s stern and judgmental father James (played by Jim O’Heir) doesn’t think that what Jimmy does for a living is a “real job,” because Jimmy’s father thinks that Jimmy just gets paid to play video games. Troy has “daddy issues” too, because he wants to prove he’s just as good as his deceased father was.

And where is Troy’s mother Kate, the CEO of this company? Not doing much but letting Troy call the shots to get this video game ready in time for Pixel Con. With this kind of bad decision making from the CEO, it’s no wonder this company is on the verge of going out of business.

Troy’s arrogance backfires, of course. And the movie has to have this teachable moment in order to preach “There’s no ‘i’ in teamwork” in the corniest of ways. Some of the cast members of “Hero Mode” try their hardest to be likeable and funny, particularly Chris Carpenter and Solomon. The movie needed more scenes of the two of them together, because their friendship chemistry seems natural.

However, longtime actors Sorvino and Astin are doing the type of acting that’s often called “phoning it in,” because they don’t look particularly invested in playing these characters. The other cast members also turn in very generic performances. It doesn’t help that “Hero Mode” is plagued by awful screenwriting.

Astin’s Jimmy character is set up to be the villain for most of the movie, but he’s feeling how a lot of longtime employees would feel if they were shoved aside for someone with no work experience. Jimmy’s best line in the movie isn’t even very funny, and it’s a meta reference to Astin’s real-life co-starring role as hobbit character Samwise Gangee in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. In Troy’s video game Yort, which is a substandard imitation of “The Lord of the Rings,” Troy has envisioned himself as a chief wizard, similar to Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.” In response, Jimmy sarcastically says about Troy, “The longer we let Gandalf lead us, the greater chance we have to lose everything.” Ho hum.

Sorvino is forced to portray someone who isn’t believable as a video game company CEO. Sorvino’s Kate character is stuck in the 1990s, complete with wearing a Nirvana T-shirt (not a bad thing) and telling stale MC Hammer jokes (a very bad thing), such as saying to Troy that the company is “too legit to quit,” while half-rapping MC Hammer’s 1991 song “2 Legit 2 Quit.” Oh, the cringe of it all.

Kate also happens to have multiple sclerosis (she uses a cane), but a tone-deaf movie like “Hero Mode” wouldn’t have a character with MS without using this disease for a gimmicky part of the story. It borders on crass exploitation, just to add melodrama to the movie. “Hero Mode” isn’t “worst of the worst” bad, but it lazily doesn’t come up with anything new that hasn’t been already been done in similar movies about underdog computer nerds.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Hero Mode” in select U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 11, 2021.

Copyright 2017-2022 Culture Mix
CULTURE MIX