Review: ‘Old,’ starring Gael García Bernal, Vicky Krieps, Rufus Sewell, Abbey Lee, Aaron Pierre, Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff

July 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Abbey Lee, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Ken Leung, Thomasin McKenzie, Rufus Sewell, Aaron Pierre, Vicky Krieps and Gael García Bernal in “Old” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

“Old”

Directed by M. Night Shyamalan

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed tropical beach location, the horror film “Old” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Several people who are on vacation at a beachside resort are invited to go to a secretive beach on the property, and they find out that this mysterious beach causes rapid aging and is difficult to escape.

Culture Audience: “Old” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan or who don’t mind seeing a horror movie that takes an intriguing concept and squanders it with terrible screenwriting.

Thomasin McKenzie and Alex Wolff in “Old” (Photo courtesy of Universal Pictures)

The only thing that gets really old quickly in “Old” is how this abysmally bad horror movie keeps shoving ludicrous dialogue, dumb plot holes and tiresome characters in viewers’ faces. The story is mainly about vacationers stuck on a sinister beach where everyone ages rapidly. Viewers of this awful dreck will be stuck wondering how much worse “Old” can get, as it continues a pile-on of inconsistent and ill-conceived science fiction.

Many of the movie’s characters are as unappealing as the disgusting giant tumor that makes an appearance at one point in the movie. (You’ve been warned.) “Old” (written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan) is the type of dreadful movie where a 6-year-old boy experiences the trauma of swimming in a beach area when a floating dead body of a naked woman crashes into him, but his parents react as if the kid should eventually forget about this decomposing cadaver, just because they covered up the body with a blanket. Meanwhile, just a few minutes after the body is discovered, one of the other kids on the beach who witnessed this horror pipes up, “I’m hungry!”

“Old” is based on the 2010 graphic novel “Sandcastle” by Pierre Oscar Lévy and Frederik Peeters. And it’s the type of cinematic misfire where you can tell that the book is much better than the movie. Shyamalan has a very mixed track record when it comes to his horror/suspense films because of his frustrating tendency to create convoluted and unnecessary plot holes that lower the quality of the material. “Old” isn’t his worst-ever movie, but it’s not good enough to be considered simply average.

“Old” starts out fairly promising in the part of the movie that doesn’t take place on the ominous beach. The main protagonists are a family of four vacationing at a beach resort called Anamika Resort in an unnamed tropical location. (“Old” was actually filmed in the Dominican Republic.) Once the movie switches to the “beach that causes rapid aging” scenes, the story quickly goes downhill from there.

Insurance actuary Guy Capa (played by Gael García Bernal), his museum curator wife Prisca Capa (played by Vicky Krieps) and their two children—11-year-old daughter Maddox (played by Alexa Swinton) and 6-year-old son Trent (played by Nolan River)—are a family from Philadelphia who are on vacation. They’ve arrived by a shuttle van to Anamika Resort, which seems to cater to a middle-class and upper-middle-class clientele. The family is warmly greeted by the resort’s staff, including the unnamed resort manager (played by Gustaf Hammarsten) and his perky assistant named Madrid (played by Francesca Eastwood), who promptly offers the adults some cocktails. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that there’s more to those cocktails than meets the eye.

The family seems very happy with the resort so far. Prisca (pronounced “priss-kah”) marvels at the beauty of the resort and says, “Can you believe I found this place online?” The four family members quickly get settled into their suite and spend some time outside in the resort’s beach/activities area. Trent is an inquisitive and friendly motormouth, while Maddox is quieter and more reserved. The siblings get along with each other very well. The same can’t be said for their parents.

Guy and Prisca have two big secrets that they want to keep from their children while they’re on this three-day vacation. The first big secret is that Guy and Prisca are going to separate. It’s revealed later in the movie why they’ve been having marital problems. The other big secret is that Prisca has been recently diagnosed with a serious medical illness.

Prisca and Guy plan to tell the kids about the separation after their vacation ends. Prisca is more hestitant about when to tell the children about her big health problem. There are hints of why Prisca and Guy have been clashing when they start arguing about when they should tell the children about Prisca’s medical diagnosis.

Prisca shouts at Guy, “You’re always thinking about the future!” Guy yells back at Prisca, “You’re always thinking about the past!” Meanwhile, a sad-looking Trent and Maddox are seen in the next room, overhearing their parents’ argument. It’s a sign that the kids know more about what’s going on in this marriage than the parents think the children know.

At the resort, Trent has made fast friends with another precocious and extroverted boy who’s about the same age. His name is Idlib (played by Kailen Jude), and he says the resort manager is his uncle. Idlib lives at the resort, and there’s no mention of his biological parents. Viewers will have to assume that Idlib’s uncle is Idlib’s legal guardian, because the uncle seems to be the only parental-like authority in Idlib’s life.

Trent and Idlib find out that they both have an interest in deciphering coded language. Idlib and Trent also like going up to random vacationers at the resort and asking them their names and what they do for a living, in order to strike up friendly conversations with them. Trent doesn’t go too far away from his parents or Maddox, so that Trent is always within view of his family members.

At the resort’s main beach, Trent and Idlib meet three adults who are sitting together on lounge chairs. One of them is an American cop named Greg Mitchell (played by Daniel Ison), and he’s with his dancer wife and their British female friend who’s a chef. The only purpose of this scene is so that viewers will know there’s an off-duty cop on the premises.

Meanwhile, at the resort’s main beach area, viewers see another family of vacationers who will be a big part of the story. Charles (played by Rufus Sewell) is an arrogant cardiothoracic surgeon/chief medical officer. He’s at the resort with his vain, much-younger trophy wife Chrystal (played by Abbey Lee); their 6-year-old daughter Kara (played by Kylie Begley); and Charles’ mother Agnes (played by Kathleen Chalfant), who doesn’t show much of a personality in this movie.

While having lunch at an outdoor cafe near the beach, Chrystal lectures Kara about sitting up straight in her chair. Chrystal tells Kara that if she doesn’t practice good posture, she’ll be a hunchback who’ll be unattractive to men. Meanwhile, Chrystal somewhat flirts with the waiter serving them, even though the waiter looks like he’s barely out of high school. This scene is relevant to what happens later in the story.

It doesn’t take long for some drama to start on the beach. A vacationer at the resort named Patricia (played by Nikki Amuka-Bird) has an epileptic seizure, in full view of the two families. Patricia’s attentive husband Jarin (played by Ken Leung), who identifies himself as a nurse, rushes to her side to help. Charles also goes over to Patricia to see if he can assist and announces that he’s a doctor. To everyone’s relief, Patricia ‘s seizure ends before she gets hurt.

Shortly after this incident, the manager tells the Capa family about a private beach area on the property that only a select number of resorts guests are invited to visit. He calls this beach a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” and a “natural anomaly.” The resort manager adds, “I only recommend it to certain people.” Guy and Prisca are curious and excited about this private beach, so they immediately say yes to this invitation.

The unnamed van driver who takes them to this private beach is portrayed by “Old” writer/director Shyamalan, who always casts an acting role for himself in his movies. (He’s a mediocre actor.) In addition to Guy, Prisca, Maddox and Trent, the other passengers in the van are Charles, Chrystal, Kara and Agnes.

The van driver has given them several baskets filled with free food for this trip. Charles says it’s unnecessary to take all this food with them to the beach, but the driver insists on it because he says that the kids will get hungry. When Charles asks the driver for help in carrying all these baskets of food to the beach, the driver says he can’t because he has to leave to go somewhere else that he’s needed for work.

When the two families arrive at this mystery beach, they see an African American man (played by Aaron Pierre), who’s in his late 20s, sitting by himself near the cliffs that surround the beach. He seems to be in a daze or in some kind of trance. Two of the new arrivals to the beach have very different reactions to this mystery man.

Maddox immediately recognizes him as a famous rapper named Mid-Sized Sedan. Not surprisingly, the adults have no idea who Mid-Sized Sedan is. Maddox is star-struck and wants to go over to Mid-Sized Sedan to meet him, but her father Guy says not to bother this celebrity who’s on vacation. Maddox is disappointed, but she follows her father’s request to respect Mid-Sized Sedan’s privacy.

Meanwhile, Charles suspiciously looks at this tall and athletic-looking African American man and immediately wants himself and his family to stay far away from this stranger. Mid-Sized Sedan eventually reveals his real name and family background, and it’s not what some people might expect to hear. Even though there’s no racist name-calling in this movie, there are several moments in the film where it’s obvious that Charles is prejudiced against black men.

When things go wrong, Charles immediately accuses Mid-Sized Sedan of being the perpetrator, and he ignores Mid-Sized Sedan’s protests of being innocent. And the animosity gets violent. Therefore, viewers who are triggered by Black Lives Matter issues might be triggered by some of the scenes in this movie. However, the way these issues are depicted in the movie just seems like Shyamalan’s cynical way of pandering to these issues.

Shyamalan isn’t subtle at all about the racial issues in this movie. Observant viewers will notice that the entire time that Mid-Sized Sedan is on the beach, he doesn’t age. It has something to do with the nose bleeds he has. Those nose bleeds eventually are explained in the movie. But the other reason why Mid-Sized Sedan doesn’t age is so that he can keep looking like the young, athletic black man who is treated like a dangerous threat by Charles.

Not long after the two families arrive on the beach, they are joined by married couple Patricia and Jarin, who say that they were invited to the beach and dropped off in the same manner as the other guests. Patricia is a psychologist, so she tries to uses a lot of therapy techniques when things start to go bonkers on this beach. Jarin tries to figure out scientific/medical ways to get out of their predicament. Jarin and Patricia are this trapped group’s only adults who attempt to use logic to try to escape.

Did we mention that there’s no cell phone reception? And when people on this beach try to leave, something bad happens, such as they feel a pounding pressure on their head, they pass out, and wake up on the beach again. And you can guess that happens if anyone tries to climb over those cliffs that surround the beach.

What the movie doesn’t explain (it’s one of many plot holes) is how this resort can deliberately trap guests on this beach without regard to the probability that these guests told other people that they were vacationing at this resort. There’s an offhand mention in the beginning of the movie about how Anamika Resort tells guests, soon after they arrive at the resort, to hand over their passports to the resort for “safekeeping.” That should be a big warning sign to guests, because no legitimate resort would do that, and no traveler with common sense would willingly let strangers keep the traveler’s passport.

But the passport confiscation doesn’t address another major issue: Eventually, the missing people would have others looking for them, and the resort would come under scrutiny for these disappearances. That reality is ignored because the “Old” filmmakers expect viewers to be as dumb as this movie.

It doesn’t take long for the visitors on this private beach to figure out that something else is very wrong with this beach: For every 30 minutes that they’re on the beach, the people age one year. Lots of panic, horribly written dialogue and unrealistic signs of aging then ensue.

However, a realistic moment of comedy happens when Mid-Sized Sedan makes a “black don’t crack” reference to how black people’s skin doesn’t as age as quicky as other people’s skin because of melanin. As the people on the beach panic over the horror that they’re aging rapidly, Mid-Sized Sedan gives a knowing look to Patricia (the other African American on the beach) and says: “It’s the first time they wish they were black.” Patricia replies in agreement: “Mmm-hmm.”

The actors who are adults when they get to the beach are played by the same actors as they age. But even though their faces show wrinkles over time (except for Mid-Sized Sedan, who doesn’t age), this movie is so sloppily made that the aging adults don’t get gray or white hair when the characters reach the ages when they should have gray or white hair. Keep in mind that there’s no hair dye on this beach.

The children are portrayed by different actors as these characters age. Maddox is shown at as a teen/young adult, starting from age 16 (played by Thomasin McKenzie), and as a middle-aged adult (played by Embeth Davidtz). Trent is shown as an 11-year-old (played by Luca Faustino Rodriguez); as a teen/young adult, starting from age 15 (played by Alex Wolff); and as a middle-aged adult (played by Emun Elliott). Kara is shown as an 11-year-old (played by Mikaya Fisher) and as a 15-year-old (played by Eliza Scanlen). Trent and Kara have a quickie teen romance where something happens that will make viewers have divisive reactions.

Some of the actors seem to be cringing inside at the clumsy and stilted dialogue they have to say in this movie. Most of the cast members seem emotionally detached from their characters and just recite their frequently awful lines of dialogue, while others over-emote. It’s an awkward mix.

McKenzie is the only cast member who seems committed to realistically depicting her character’s feelings of confusion and angst over how rapidly her body is changing. It’s in subtle ways, such as her body language when Maddox covers up her breasts while wearing a bikini, because she hasn’t gotten used to having a body that’s reached puberty. While on the beach, all of the characters in “Old” who are parents make horrible decisions that make the parents look very irresponsible.

One of the biggest flaws in “Old” is that it does not adequately address how the children mature mentally and emotionally. When Trent’s body ages to 11 years old, the movie makes a point of saying that mentally, he’s still 6 years old. But then later in the movie, based on dialogue and actions, the children’s mental and emotional developments are supposed to match the ages of their bodies. There’s no explanation for this inconsistency.

When 11-year-old Maddox’s body turns into a 15-year-old’s body, her parents have a horrified reaction when they see her for the first time as a 15-year-old. Maddox is confused over why they’re reacting in this way. It’s because the movie wants viewers to believe that Maddox isn’t supposed to know right away that her body has changed.

However, Maddox wouldn’t need a mirror to see the changes to her body. All she would need to do is look down to see that grew breasts. And she would also sense that she got taller. But no, this movie wants viewers to forget all that common-sense logic and just accept whatever crappy plot fail is being thrown at them.

“Old” has some dubious merits of being so bad that it’s almost funny. There’s a subplot of Charles starting to go crazy on the beach. He starts rambling about random things, and the way his wild-eyed madness is depicted in the movie is unintentionally laughable because the acting is so over-the-top dreadful.

For example, Charles starts fixating on asking people to name the movie starring Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson. Viewers won’t get the answer to the question while watching “Old.” But the name of the movie starring Brando and Nicholson is the 1976 Western drama “The Missouri Breaks.” It’s the only film that Nicholson and Brando ever did together. What does “The Missouri Breaks” have to do with “Old”? Absolutely nothing. It’s just one of many nonsensical things dropped into “Old.”

Throughout the movie, there are signs that these unlucky vacationers are being watched while they’re on the beach from hell. Therefore, when it’s revealed what’s going on and why they were chosen, it isn’t surprising at all. It’s downright anti-climactic and edited in a haphazard way. The big “reveal” at the end of “Old” is an idea that’s very similar to the reveal of another Shyamalan clunker movie, which won’t be named here because that would give away the ending of “Old.” You know a movie is bad when it rips off another unsurprising plot twist from another horrible movie that the same writer/director made years ago.

“Old” is also one of those movies that looks like it could’ve had three different endings, with none of them particularly inventive or unpredictable. Writer/director Shyamalan decided to cram all these ideas in the movie just to try to make “Old” look more clever than it really is. However the film ends, viewers should be glad when this monotonous mess of a movie is finally over.

Universal Pictures released “Old” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Castle in the Ground,’ starring Alex Wolff, Imogen Poots, Tom Cullen, Keir Gilchrist and Neve Campbell

May 15, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tom Cullen, Imogen Poots and Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“Castle in the Ground”

Directed by Joey Klein

Culture Representation: Taking place in Sudbury, Ontario, in 2012, the drama “Castle in the Ground” has a nearly all-white cast of characters representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 19-year-old straight-laced guy becomes addicted to opioids after getting involved with a female opioid addict and her problems with drug dealers and other criminals.

Culture Audience: “Castle in the Ground” will appeal primarily to people who like watching grim stories about drug addiction.

Alex Wolff in “Castle in the Ground” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

With numerous documentaries and scripted movies being made about drug addiction, there really isn’t a lot of mystery in showing how a seemingly straight-laced, middle-class young person can go from having a promising future to being a drug addict. “Castle in the Ground” (written and directed by Joey Klein) is not an innovative or particularly well-paced film, but a nuanced performance by Alex Wolff makes the movie worth a look for people who are interested in seeing yet another “wasted youth” story.

“Castle in the Ground” begins with 19-year-old Henry Fine (played by Wolff) going through the ritual of crushing a prescribed opioid pill and putting it in food that he serves to his bed-ridden mother Rebecca Fine (played by Neve Campbell), who has an illness that’s not explicitly stated but it’s implied to be cancer. Henry and his single mother (who are the only people living in their apartment in the Canadian city of Sudbury) are so close that he often sleeps in the same bed with her to be a comforting presence. (Henry’s father is neither seen nor mentioned in the film.)

Henry has chosen to delay going to college until his mother “gets well.” And he sincerely believes that she will recover from her illness. But there are signs that he’s also fearing the worst, because he’s begun praying in Hebrew. His mother somewhat teases Henry that she hasn’t seen him openly pray in years.

After a doctor’s appointment, Rebecca tells Henry the bad news that her health situation has gone through another “relapse,” and that they have to prepare for every possible outcome, including her death. He is in complete denial and doesn’t even want to think about his mother dying. Henry gets very upset when she tells him that after her death, she wants Henry to live with his Uncle Yosef and his wife, and the arrangements have already been made.

Meanwhile, a new neighbor has moved in directly across the hall from Henry and Rebecca. Details about the new neighbor are revealed in bits and pieces, as Henry sometimes looks through his apartment’s peephole to observe what’s going on at the apartment across from his. His neighbor (played by Imogen Poots) is a woman who’s about 10 years older than he is, and she likes to play music loud enough that Henry and his mother can hear it in their apartment. She also has a few men visiting her, whom she greets warmly when she answers the door.

One evening, while Henry is having dinner with his mother, his girlfriend Rachel (played by Star Slade) texts him. His mother asks Henry to tell Rachel that she’s interrupting their dinner. But because he wants to talk to Rachel, he takes the conversation with her out in the apartment hallway.

While Henry is on the phone with Rachel, a young man named Stevie (played by Kiowa Gordon) stops by the neighbor’s apartment and introduces himself. Stevie asks if Henry is someone named Polo Boy. Henry says no and tells him that his name is Henry. Before Stevie goes into the apartment, Henry politely asks Stevie to tell the friend who lives there to turn down the music.

Henry then meets up with Rachel for a date, which they spend at an arcade. When he gets home, he hears loud music again from the neighbor’s apartment, so he looks through the peephole and sees something bizarre: A tall man, wearing a face mask of a baby, is knocking on the door.

When the door is opened, the man barges in, and there’s the distinct sound of a woman’s scream and a physical fight. It sounds like a crime in progress, but it could also a prank, so Henry doesn’t call 911 or check to see if the neighbor is in danger or not. It’s revealed later in the movie what that incident was all about.

The next day, Henry is at the pharmacy to pick up some medication for his mother. He sees the mystery neighbor woman arguing with the pharmacist, who has refused to fill a prescription for her and threatens to call the police. The neighbor says that her phone is broken and angrily accuses the pharmacist of being rude and unfairly “profiling” her. It’s an obvious sign that the woman has a drug problem and is trying to fill a fraudulent prescription.

After this heated exchange, the neighbor walks away in a huff, while Henry gets the medication for his mother. As he’s about to leave, he sees the neighbor stealing candy from one of the pharmacy shelves. Henry introduces himself and asks her if she’s doing all right because he heard a scuffle in her apartment the night before.

She tells Henry that what he heard was no big deal, and she introduces herself as Ana. She’s also very agitated, and complains to Henry that pharmacies “hook you … and then fuck up your life.” And if it weren’t obvious enough that she’s a desperate junkie, Ana then asks Henry if she could borrow $40. When he tells her that he has no cash with him, she asks to borrow $20. He tells her the same answer.

Ana asks Henry what he was doing at the pharmacy, and he tells her that he was picking up allergy medication for his sick mother. The look on her face tells viewers that she knows Henry is probably lying, and his access to pain medication might be useful to her. Henry mentions that Ana sometimes plays music too loud, and he nicely asks her if she could turn down the music since his mother is sick.

Ana agrees, but then says since she’ll do that favor for him, she needs a favor from Henry. Ana asks Henry if she could borrow his cell phone and if he could give her a ride to somewhere she needs to go. Although Henry has some initial reservations about this obviously shady person, he seems fascinated and somewhat attracted to Ana, so he says yes to her requests.

When Ana is on the phone, she makes angry calls that indicate she’s probably trying to get in touch with someone who can give her drugs. Ana and Henry drive to an abandoned house, and when he gets tired of waiting for her, he goes into the house to see what’s going on. Henry tells Ana that he has to go, but she begs him to give her a few more minutes.

She then calls her doctor to refill her Oxy prescription, since she’s out of methadone. The doctor refuses. So now that it’s been made clear that Ana is a drug addict, Henry has the choice to avoid her or get involved with her. It’s pretty obvious from the way she easily manipulated him what his choice will eventually be.

Shortly after Henry and Ana meet for the first time at the pharmacy, tragedy strikes: Henry’s mother dies in a way that won’t be revealed in this review, but it’s enough to say that he blames himself for her death. Henry is understandably grief-stricken and depressed. He also breaks up with his girlfriend Rachel, since she will be going away to college.

Alone and despondent, Henry is staying in the apartment with no visible means of income. However, viewers can assume that he might have gotten an inheritance from his mother, because Henry refuses an offer from his Uncle Yosef (played by Joseph Ziegler) to live with him and his wife.

When Henry goes through his mother’s belongings, he inevitably sees her bottles of medication. He continues the ritual of crushing the pills, but this time, he’s the one taking the drugs. And when he goes over to visit Ana at her place, she finds out that Henry has been getting high on his mother’s medication, which he ends up sharing with Ana.

The rest of the movie follows Henry’s downward spiral, as he gets more and more involved in Ana’s dangerous games. She’s constantly broke, so she owes drug dealers money, and she’s always thinking up ways to get money for drugs.

Ana has a job as a bartender at a local restaurant/bar, but she also gets money from her enabling mother, who pays for Ana’s rent. Ana’s mother is neither seen nor heard in the movie, but Ana frequently communicates with her worried mother by phone. Ana’s father is not seen or mentioned in the story.

As the more experienced drug user, Ana also gives Henry advice on what she considers to be the best way to use opioids. She doesn’t have a car, so Henry essentially because her willing chauffeur. Henry lets Ana use his cell phone, and eventually he gives her his dead mother’s cell phone, because Ana says that her phone is “busted” and she can’t afford a new one right now. (More likely, she’s stopped paying her cell phone bill.)

Ana constantly seems to be hiding from people who are looking for her, but she downplays any threats to their safety. However, Henry can’t ignore it when he and Ana start getting followed by men in a mysterious white van. And she also shows signs of paranoia that someone could try to break into her apartment while she’s gone, which is why she sometimes stays at Henry’s place.

Henry finds out that Ana’s main drug connection is a young dealer named Richard (played by Keir Gilchrist), who goes by the name Polo Boy because he used to wear preppy shirts with polo logos. Ana used to babysit Polo Boy, so she sometimes taunts him about his youth and tells him that he’s an “amateur” drug dealer who doesn’t have what it take to be in the big leagues.

However, Ana also offers sexual favors to Polo Boy when she can’t pay for the drugs that she wants. She makes this type of offer right in front of Henry—which is an indication that she doesn’t care if Henry knows how far she’s willing to go to get drugs. In a private conversation with Polo Boy and Henry, Polo Boy warns him about Ana: “She will sell your soul for something … that’s probably going to kill her.”

There’s also a fellow opioid addict named Jimmy (played by Tom Cullen), who’s close to Stevie and is part of Rachel’s circle of druggie friends. And this isn’t a harmless group: Jimmy, other clique members and the drug dealers they encounter carry guns and aren’t afraid to use them.

“Castle in the Ground” has some suspenseful moments, but much of the film realistically captures the foggy-minded, sluggish pace of people in the throes of opioid addiction, when there are long pauses in conversations, frequent nodding out, and difficulty focusing or doing simple things such as getting out of bed.  People should not expect this movie to have a lot of non-stop adrenaline-pumping action where the drug addicts careen from one dangerous situation to the next. There are some elements of that in the story, but “Castle in the Ground” is more of a character study than a crime thriller.

And this movie also isn’t one where the addicts are involved in moving large quantities of dope. Instead, “Castle in the Ground” is a microcosm of how addiction affects young, middle-class white people, who usually get sentenced to rehab instead of prison if they’re convicted of possession of drugs in small, personal quantities. The racial disparity in how drug addicts are treated by law enforcement is probably why police officers are nowhere to be seen in this movie, even though Ana and Henry go to a well-known drug house in the neighborhood and they hang out with gun-toting drug users.

There is no real backstory for Ana, other than she’s been a drug addict for a number of years. Because Ana is such a liar and a manipulator and because very little is known about her background, the movie gives no indication if she was always an untrustworthy person or if she turned into a habitual liar because of her drug addiction. Poots gives a good performance, but the character is the type of “dishonest and flaky” junkie who’s been seen before in many other movies and TV shows about drug addiction.

Ana might be a lost cause for rehab and redemption, but is Henry? Wolff does a very effective portrayal of someone whose life has changed for the worse in a short period of time. One of the strong points of “Castle in the Ground” is that the movie shows how quickly addiction can take over people’s lives.

Henry’s co-dependent relationship with his mother also explains why he gravitated to getting involved with Ana, another “sick” person whom he wants to “take care” of because he thinks she’s incapable of fully taking care of herself. And if that parallel isn’t made clear enough, toward the end of the film, Ana starts wearing a dress that used to be owned by Henry’s dead mother. Ana admits to Henry that she took the dress after his mother died, but he doesn’t object to her wearing it. It’s a haunting and disturbing image, indicating that Henry has to overcome other issues besides drug addiction in order to have a healthy life.

Gravitas Ventures released “Castle in the Ground” on digital and VOD on May 15, 2020.

Review: ‘Bad Education,’ starring Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney

April 26, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney in “Bad Education” (Photo by JoJo Whilden/HBO)

“Bad Education” (2020)

Directed by Cory Finley

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily on Long Island, New York, and partially in Las Vegas, the drama “Bad Education” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Indian Americans) representing the middle-class and upper-class.

Culture Clash: Based on true events, the movie tells the story of corrupt administrators and their accomplices, who embezzled an estimated $11 million from the school district of Roslyn High School in Roslyn, New York.

Culture Audience: “Bad Education” will appeal primarily to Hugh Jackman fans and people who like dramas based on true crime.

Hugh Jackman and Geraldine Viswanathan in “Bad Education” (Photo courtesy of HBO)

“Bad Education” follows many familiar tonal beats of true-crime movies, but the riveting performances of Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney elevate what could have been a somewhat mediocre film. Based on true events that happened in 2002, “Bad Education” portrays the investigation that led to the downfalls of several people involved in an embezzlement/fraud scam that stole an estimated $11 million over several years from the high-school district in the upscale suburban city of Roslyn, New York. It’s said to be the largest prosecuted embezzlement in the history of American public schools.

The two people at the center of the crimes against Roslyn High School are school superintendent Frank Tassone (played by Jackman) and assistant superintendent/business manager Pam Glucklin (played by Janney), who work closely together and also cover up for each other. As it’s eventually revealed in the movie, they cared about more than just increasing the prestige level of Roslyn High School, the high-ranking  jewel in their school-administration crown. They also cared a great deal about increasing their personal wealth using illegally obtained school funds, mostly by billing the district for lavish trips, homes, cars and other personal expenses.

In the beginning of the film, which is effectively bookmarked with a similar scene at the end of the film, Frank is introduced like a rock star at a school assembly, which has gathered to celebrate Roslyn High School’s achievement of ranking at No. 4 in the U.S. for being the highest academically achieving high school. The school has reached this level under Frank’s leadership, and his goal is to elevate Roslyn High School to No. 1.

Frank’s friendly charm and winning smile have made him very popular with his co-workers, parents and students. By contrast, Pam has a prickly and dismissive personality, but her strong alliance with Frank has given her a lot of clout in the school district. Their boss is school board president Bob Spicer (played by Ray Romano), who is Frank’s biggest champion.

One of the school’s goals is a skywalk proposal, which would build a multimillion-dollar skywalk bridge to link the school from end to end. A bright and inquisitive student named Rachel Bhargava (played by Geraldine Viswanathan) is tasked with doing an article about the skywalk for Roslyn High School’s newspaper, The Beacon. At first, when she does a very brief interview with Frank for the article, she thinks it’s going to be a boring puff piece.

Rachel thinks so little of the assignment that she even tells Frank that it will be a puff piece. His response: “It’s only a puff piece if you let it be a puff piece. A real journalist can turn an assignment into a story.” It’s unknown if the real Frank Tassone ever said those words to any of the real student reporters of The Beacon who broke the news of the embezzlement scandal, but those words will come back to haunt Frank in this movie.

While preparing the article, Rachel needs to get some facts and statistics about the skywalk construction proposal bids that the school district received from contractors. She has to get permission from Pam to access those documents, which are in a very cluttered storage area of the school. While Frank was accommodating and gracious in giving his time to Rachel, Pam is impatient and condescending when talking to Rachel for the article. Pam gives Rachel the room key to access the requested documents, but warns her that the area is so messy and disorganized that it will be challenging for her to find the paperwork that she’s seeking.

The storage area turns out to have a treasure trove of documents that Rachel’s assigning editor Nick Fleischman (played by Alex Wolff) happens to notice when he accidentally knocks some of the papers out of her backpack when he impatiently tries to stop her while walking down a school hallway. (It’s one of those moments in the movie that probably didn’t happen in real life, but was fabricated for dramatic purposes.)

Nick thinks she may be on to a big story, so Rachel finds out through further investigation that the documents have a lot of proof that invoices charging a fortune have been billed to the school district, but many of the companies listed on the invoices don’t exist. Rachel gets help from her father David Bhargava (played by Hari Dhillon) in doing the grunt work of making calls to investigate the legitimacy of companies that are listed on the school invoices.

Why does Rachel’s father have that much free time on his hands? In a minor subplot, it’s revealed that he lost his job because of accusations that he was involved with insider trading. In the midst of investigating corruption at her own school, Rachel at one point asks her father if he really was guilty of insider trading. His answer serves to telegraph Rachel’s decision to report what she’s found out.

What happens next has a domino effect that exposes elaborate, longtime schemes orchestrated by Frank and Pam. Because of this high-profile case, many viewers might already know about the outcome. However, screenwriter Mike Makowsky (a Roslyn native who graduated from high school seven years after the scandal) and director Cory Finley infuse the movie with enough suspense and sly comedy to make it a slightly better-than-average telling of a crime story.

“Bad Education” takes a sometimes sardonic look at how manipulative and cunning Frank was in covering up his crimes. He was a man of many faces—literally, since his vanity facelifts and meticulous application of makeup are shown in the movie—and many secrets, which he covered up with a web of lies that eventually unraveled. Even in his personal life (Frank was a closeted gay man), he deceived the people who were closest to him. The movie is also a takedown of the weak-willed enablers who knew about the corruption, but were complicit in covering it up because they didn’t want to lose their jobs and they wanted to keep up the appearance that they had an ideal school district.

Frank also mastered the art of deflection, so that when he was under scrutiny, he was able to turn it around on potential accusers to make them afraid of getting in trouble for not detecting the problem earlier. He also used, to his advantage, the administration’s fixation on increasing the prestige of Roslyn High School, which tied into many administrators’ ulterior motives of raising the property values in Roslyn too.

Janney doesn’t have as much screen time as Jackman does, but she makes the most of characterizing Pam as being more than just a selfish and greedy shrew. The movie shows how she was generous to a fault in sharing her illegally funded wealth with her family. That generosity would turn out to be her downfall, since she allowed certain family members to use school credit cards to fund their lavish personal spending. The family members who were also part of the widespread scam included Pam’s husband Howard Gluckin (played by Ray Abruzzo); Jim Boy McCarden (played by Jimmy Tatro), her son from a previous marriage; and her co-worker niece Jenny Aquila (played by Annaleigh Ashford), who relies on Pam for financial help.

All of these family members are dimwitted in some way—they didn’t do much to hide their identities in the paper trail that exposed their crimes—but Jenny is portrayed as particularly loathsome. At one point in the movie, even after some of the crimes were exposed, Jenny tries to take over her aunt/benefactor Pam’s job at the school. Jenny also makes a pathetic and botched attempt to blackmail Frank, who quickly puts Jenny in her place and reminds her that she’s no match for him and his devious manipulations.

When Pam’s world starts to unravel, Janney uses subtle cues in showing how this character’s carefully constructed façade starts to crumble, as her perfectly posh, enunicated English starts to give way to a very working-class Long Island accent. Pam is so obsessed with keeping up appearances that she makes the mistake of being too loyal to Frank when things start to crash down on them.

“Bad Education” is a very Hollywood version of a seedy true crime story. In real life, none of the people were as glamorous-looking as the actors who portray them in the movie—although, in real life, the embezzlers spent money as if they were Hollywood celebrities. The movie accurately shows that people got away with crimes of this length and magnitude because they were able to fool others by having a “respectable” image. The ending scene effectively illustrates that Frank’s inflated ego and arrogance led him to believe that he was a legend in his own mind—and the results were reckless crimes that destroyed school finances, careers and people’s trust.

HBO premiered “Bad Education” on April 25, 2020.

Review: ‘Human Capital,’ starring Liev Schreiber, Marisa Tomei, Peter Sarsgaard, Maya Hawke, Alex Wolff and Fred Hechinger

March 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liev Schreiber in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Human Capital”

Directed by Marc Meyers

Culture Representation: Taking place in upstate New York, the dramatic film “Human Capital” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and the upper-class.

Culture Clash: A hit-and-run car accident and financial pressures affect the lives of two families from different socioeconomic classes.

Culture Audience: This movie will appeal primarily to people who like suspenseful dramas and who won’t mind that the story is told in a non-chronological manner.

Alex Wolff and Maya Hawke in “Human Capital” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

The tightly wound dramatic film “Human Capital” shows what happens when desperate people do desperate things and how they deal with the ethical dilemmas they face in the process. Based on Stephen Amidon’s 2004 novel “Human Capital” (which was adapted into the 2014 Italian film “Il Capitale Umano”), this American movie version begins with the incident that is at the center of the turmoil in the movie, which takes place in an unnamed suburb in upstate New York.

While riding his bicycle home from work one night, a restaurant waiter is suddenly stuck by a speeding Jeep Wrangler in a hit-and-run-accident. The Jeep Wrangler briefly stops and the unseen driver does not get out of the car before speeding off. Observant viewers can immediately notice some clues (including the make and model of the car), but even then it’s best not to assume that these clues are proof of who the perpetrator really is.

The mystery unfolds in layers, as the three acts in the story are each told from the perspective of three of the main characters: financially desperate real-estate broker Drew Hagel (played by Liev Schreiber), rich housewife Carrie Manning (played by Marisa Tomei) and high-school student Shannon Dark (played by Maya Hakwe), who is Drew’s daughter from his first marriage. (Shannon took her mother’s maiden name after her parents got divorced.) All of them are or will be connected to the hit-and-run accident in some way.

Drew’s perspective is told first. He’s first seen on screen with Shannon, as he drives her to the home of her new boyfriend Jamie Manning (played by Fred Hechinger), who is the son of a wealthy hedge-fund mogul named Quint Manning (played by Peter Sarsgaard). While Drew marvels at the Manning family’s large estate, Shannon acts like she’s not impressed by the family’s wealth and she looks like she just hopes that her father doesn’t embarrass her when he drops her off at the home.

Drew first meets Quint’s wife Carrie. In the space of a few minutes, Drew tells Carrie that he owns his own real-estate company, he and his first wife (Shannon’s mother) did not have friendly divorce, and he’s now married to a woman whom Drew calls “his trophy wife.” These are indications that Drew wants to give the impression that he’s a rich and successful businessman.

As Drew is getting ready to leave, he meets Quint, when Quint asks Drew to join him in a game of doubles tennis on the mansion’s tennis court. After the game, Drew asks Quint if he’s taking any more investors in his hedge fund WNV. Quint tells Drew that the only new investors he’ll accept are family and friends. But since they’ve gotten along so well in their short time together, Quint tells Drew that the minimum investment is $300,000.

Drew can get the money, but only through borrowing via home equity at a fairly high interest rate. Drew discusses the matter with his business manager Andy (played by James Waterston), who advises him against the deal. It’s a risky move because Drew’s real-estate business (he’s the only employee) hasn’t been doing well, but he’s too embarrassed to admit his financial problems to anyone other than Andy. Drew seems determined to impress Quint, with the hopes of making a profit from the investment, so Drew ignores Andy’s advice and goes through with the investment deal by doing something illegal.

Drew doesn’t tell his current wife Ronnie (played by Betty Gabriel) about this deal. But she’s got news for him: After having multiple miscarriages in the past, she’s now pregnant with twins. Ronnie is a therapist, but her salary wouldn’t be enough to cover the financial losses if Drew’s investment turns out to be a bad decision. Needless to say, the impending birth of the children puts even more financial pressure on Drew.

Meanwhile, the movie’s second act focuses on the perspective of Quint’s wife Carrie. Viewers find out that she’s interested in buying a run-down performing-arts theater in the area and turning it into a cultural center for movie screenings, stage performances and other events. But first, she needs her husband Quint’s money, and she convinces him to buy the theater for their nonprofit foundation.

One of the people on the foundation board is a professor (played by Paul Sparks), who recognizes Carrie as a former actress who used to do horror movies. When he’s alone with Carrie, he flirts with her and confesses that he’s a fan of her work. He also mentions that if the theater needs an artistic director, he’d like to be considered for the position.

During a lunch appointment with him, Carrie confesses that her marriage has had some problems, including Quint having “three affairs in 20 years.” When the professor asks Carrie if she’s ever cheated on Quint, her response is that she’s thought about it many times, but never actually did it. When Quint finds out about the lunch, he tells Carrie about a decision he made about the theater. You can see where this is headed, so it comes no surprise at what happens next.

The third and final act of the story is told from Shannon’s perspective. Viewers find out that she’s a lot more angst-ridden than she first appeared in the other parts of the story. She’s desperate for love and attention outside of her family, but hides that desperation behind a façade of appearing emotionally distant and insolent. While visiting her stepmother Ronnie at Ronnie’s job, Shannon is in the waiting area and meets another teenager named Ian, who is one Ronnie’s patients. They exchange some sarcastic banter, but it’s obvious that they’re attracted to one another.

There’s too much spoiler information to talk about what happens during other parts of the movie, but it’s enough to say that there are several flashbacks that revolve around what happened the night of a gala event where Jamie’s elite private school gave a prestigious award to one of its students. Seated at the same table at the event were Quint, Carrie, Jamie, Quint’s obnoxious lawyer Godeep (played by Aasif Mandvi), Godeep’s wife (played by Christiane Seidel), Shannon, Ronnie and Drew.

The American version of “Human Capital” (directed by  Marc Meyers) is not as stylishly filmed as director Paolo Virzì’s Italian version. While the Italian version had a sleek, minimalistic look to its production design and cinematography, the American version opts for a grittier, more cluttered look. The American version of the movie is a straightforward mystery thriller, while the Italian version seemed to have more to say about the dark sides of ambitious social climbing.

Oscar-nominated screenwriter Oren Moverman (2009’s “The Messenger”) does a capable job with the American version of the “Human Capital” screenplay, which certainly ramps up the “whodunit” tension throughout the film. However, the film’s middle section that’s shown from Carrie’s perspective really doesn’t add much to the story, compared to the beginning and ending to the film.

One character in particular has a backstory that is mentioned but never seen in the movie. It would have been interesting to explore more of this person’s history. However, enough of this person’s background is revealed to explain why this person does an extreme act toward the end of the film. All of the actors do a very good job with their roles, but Hawke’s Shannon character is probably the hardest one to pull off because her character is the least predictable.

For people who want to know who committed the hit-and-run, the movie does end up showing the entire set of circumstances that led up to the hit-and-run, who was responsible, and what happened afterward. However, the American version of “Human Capital” doesn’t fully address some of the illegal acts that certain characters committed in the movie that might or might nor be related to the hit-and-run crime. In other words, some loose ends are tied up, but not all.

Vertical Entertainment released “Human Capital” on DirecTV on February 20, 2020, and on VOD on March 20, 2020.