Review: ‘The Hill’ (2023), starring Dennis Quaid, Colin Ford, Joelle Carter, Randy Houser, Jesse Berry, Bonnie Bedelia and Scott Glenn

August 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Colin Ford and Dennis Quaid in “The Hill” (Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

“The Hill” (2023)

Directed by Jeff Celentano

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in 1965 and 1974, the dramatic film “The Hill” (based on the true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Rickey Hill faces major difficulties in his goal to play for a Major League Baseball (MLB) team, including a degenerative spine disease, leg disabilities and a conservative pastor father who does everything he can to prevent him from playing baseball. 

Culture Audience: “The Hill” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a very unique baseball story turned into formulaic mush.

Pictured clockwise from upper left: Joelle Carter, Bonnie Bedelia, Hailey Bithell, Dennis Quaid, Mason Gillett and Jesse Berry in “The Hill” (Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

“The Hill” is a poorly constructed faith-based biopic about disabled baseball player Rickey Hill. This long-winded and preachy drama leaves big questions unanswered about his life. The movie is also plagued with hokey dialogue and corny acting performances. Even though “The Hill” is based on real people and true events, much of this movie looks too much like a fairy tale.

Directed by Jeff Celentano, “The Hill” was written by Angelo Pizzo and Scott Marshall Smith. The movie’s total running time is 126 minutes, but the movie spends the first half spinning its wheels in boring repetition, while leaving out large chunks of Hill’s life, only to fast-forward to another part of his life in the second half and get stuck in more boring repetition. Anyone who knows what happens to Hill in real life before seeing this movie might be disappointed to find out that the most exciting highlights of his career are reduced to being an epilogue in the movie.

Hill was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on August 15, 1956. “The Hill” movie takes place in Texas, in 1965 and 1974. The first half of the movie is about his life when he was 9 years old, while the second half of the movie is about his life when he was 18. The years in between are erased and unexplained in this very flawed and tedious movie.

The movie begins in the small town of Bowie, Texas, where the Hill family is tight-knit but living in near-poverty. (“The Hill” was actually filled in Georgia.) The family patriarch is James Hill (played by Dennis Quaid), a strict and pious Baptist pastor who has a dwindling congregation of working-class people. James can be a loving husband and father, but he’s also very rigid and stubborn in wanting people to do what he thinks is best.

The other members of the family living in the same household are James’ loyal wife Helen Hill (played by Joelle Carter); 9-year-old Rickey (played by Jesse Berry); Rickey’s even-tempered older brother Robert (played by Mason Gillett), who’s about 11 or 12 years old; Rickey’s outspoken younger sister Connie (played by Hailey Bithell), who’s about 7 or 8 years old; and Helen’s pessimistic mother Lillian (played by Bonnie Bedelia, wearing a very bad wig), who is nicknamed Gram.

The movie opens with Rickey, who wears leg braces, practicing playing baseball and perfecting his body swivel so that he can throw the ball without having to strain his legs too much. Viewers later find out that Rickey also has a degenerative spine disease. A neighbor girl named Gracie Shanz (played by Mila Harris) watches Rickey, who tells her, “Girls don’t know spit about baseball.” Gracie, who’s about the same age as Rickey, responds by saying that Rickey won’t play in the major leagues. Gracie also calls Rickey her “boyfriend.”

Gracie’s got her own personal problems. Her father Earl Shanz (played by James Devoti) is an abusive alcoholic. Gracie’s mother/Earl’s wife Carol Shanz (played by Monica Louwerens Kenyon) is passive and is too scared to do anything about Earl’s abuse. The Shanz family members are among the small congregation (less than 50 people) attending the church led by James, who is quite pompous at work and at home.

During a church service, while James is delivering a sermon, he notices that a middle-aged, tobacco-chewing woman named Mrs. Babbitt (played by Taylor St. Clair) is spitting her tobacco juice into a small bowl on the church floor but her spit frequently misses the bowl and is leaving brown tobacco puddles on the floor. Meanwhile, during the same service, Earl is smoking a cigarette. James thinks these actions are very disrespectful in a place of worship.

James stops the sermon to politely ask Mrs. Babbitt and Earl to stop spitting and smoking in the church. Mrs. Babbitt seems annoyed by this request but stops. However, Earl is defiant and keeps smoking. James gets irritated and scolds Earl, by saying: “I am not going to let the Lord’s house by soiled by Satan!” Earl gets up and begins to argue with James in a bullying way. Earl eventually storms out of the church.

Earl isn’t the only congregant who wants to smoke in church, so James knows he could be alienating other members of his congregation with his rule of “no smoking and no spitting in church.” Lillian is quick to warn James that he can’t afford to lose congregants whose donations they need to keep the church running and to provide the Hill family with a steady income. James says he’s willing to take that risk if it means keeping this place of worship as sacred as possible.

At home, around the dinner table, Lillian expresses her disgust that James’ low income can barely feed the family. Rickey also needs an operation that the family can’t afford. Lillian berates James for not having a job that pays more money, while James gets defensive and lectures Lillian by telling her she doesn’t have enough faith in God. Helen tries to keep the peace and doesn’t like to see her mother and husband arguing, but Helen usually sides with James.

James knows that Rickey loves baseball, but James discourages Rickey’s dream to one day play for a Major League Baseball team. In fact, James thinks Rickey shouldn’t be playing baseball at all, because James thinks it will lead to getting Rickey getting seriously injured. Instead, James tries to instill into Rickey that Rickey’s calling in life is to become a pastor, just like James.

One day, Rickey and Robert are playing baseball in open field. Instead of a baseball bat and a ball, Rickey is using a stick and a rock. He hits the rock so hard and far, it breaks a side rear view mirror of an empty car parked dozens of feet away. The car belongs to Ray Clemmons (played by Randy Houser), the owner of a local scrapyard.

Rickey is a very honest boy who believes in confessing to causing this damage and making amends. When Rickey and Robert go over to Ray’s place to tell him what happened and offer to pay for the repairs, Ray is isn’t angry but is impressed with Rickey’s baseball skills. Ray asks Rickey to use the stick to hit the rock again from the same distance. Rickey does it again, this time causing the car’s front window to crack. Because he owns a scrapyard, Ray tells Rickey and Robert that he already has many other car parts that can replace the parts that are damaged.

James has become an unpopular leader in his own church, so the Hill family moves away before James can be officially fired. It’s also implied that they relocated to avoid paying a lot of James’ unpaid bills in the area. With no new home or new job prospects lined up, the Hill family packs up and goes on a road trip to an uncertain future. Rickey and Gracie say goodbye to each other, but you just know from the way this movie is made, Rickey and Gracie will see each other again.

“The Hill” is the type of movie that piles on cornball situation after cornball situation. While driving on a deserted road, the car runs out of gas. And then, the car immediately gets a flat tire. Just as James says out loud that things couldn’t get worse, it starts to rain heavily. The family has a laugh over it, in the way that people laugh when they have nothing left to lose.

An elderly couple named Linda Meyers (played by Judy Leavell) and Josh Meyers (played by Wilbur Fitzgerald) happen to be driving by, and they come to rescue of this unlucky family. Linda and Josh are generous to let the Hill family stay in their home temporarily. James tells Linda and Josh that he’s a pastor. And it just so happens that Linda knows about a church that’s looking for a pastor. Whoever gets the job will also get to live with any family members in a house that’s owned by the church.

James immediately accepts the position before seeing the church and the living quarters. As soon as Linda says that the job has been vacant for a year, you just know that this job is too good to be true. And sure enough, the church and accompanying house are run-down dumps. With no other place to go and no other job offers, James decides he can rebuild the church and the house.

Unfortunately, most of Rickey’s childhood depicted in “The Hill” is a back-and-forth slog of him practicing baseball with Robert in nearby play areas, and Rickey being scolded by James for playing baseball. Rickey is desperate to play on his school’s baseball team, but he needs a signed permission slip from his father. James also gets upset when he sees Rickey has been collecting baseball cards, which James thinks are sinful because they represent “worshipping false idols.”

A teacher at Rickey’s school named Coach Don (as David Marshall Silverman) notices Rickey’s special talent and personally goes over to the Hill household to try to convince James to let Rickey play baseball for the school’s team. However, James stubbornly refuses to change his mind about not giving permission for Rickey to play any baseball. Coach Don, who says he used to be a preacher too, berates James for “crushing” Rickey’s soul and squandering the blessing of Rickey’s athletic talent. There’s more than one scene where James physically punishes Rickey for playing baseball.

“The Hill” also has the expected scenes of Rickey being bullied by other boys, who think he’s delusional for wanting to play baseball. A mean-spirited brat named Quinn (played by Tyler Johnson) is the chief bully. However, several other local boys admire Rickey and are rooting for him to succeed. Robert is also a very loyal brother who protects Rickey from the bullies as much as he can.

James is overly strict but he isn’t a complete tyrant. He is genuinely concerned about Rickey’s health. James clearly has unspoken guilt that he’s powerless to prevent Rickey’s health issues and can’t afford to pay for Rickey’s medical treatment, so James overcompensates by using religion as a way to wield power over his family. After the Hill family finds out that Rickey needs an operation that the family can’t afford, the movie shows the efforts made by the family’s church and other people in the community to raise money for the operation.

The Hill family household is oppressive in many ways, but there’s also a lot of love in the family. A tender scene happens early in the movie when Rickey and Robert go to a local diner to buy one of James’ favorite meals as a surprise gift: a hamburger and a soda, using money that the boys saved up. James is genuinely touched by this loving gesture and shows appreciation for his sons’ thoughtfulness.

For all the time and repetitive effort that “The Hill” puts into showing how much James blocks and discourages Rickey from playing baseball, the movie then does an awkwardly abrupt fast-forward to Rickey (played by Colin Ford) in his last year of high school in 1974. He’s 18 years old and a star player on his school’s baseball team.

What happened during all those years between Rickey being a dejected kid who wasn’t allowed to play baseball to being a star baseball player for his high school? Who coached him during this crucial development period? Rickey being 18 presumably means he no longer needed a parent’s permission to be on a baseball team. But how did he get medical clearance from a doctor to play for his school’s team? Don’t expect “The Hill” to answer any of those questions.

Instead, the last half of the movie drags out with MLB hopeful Rickey wanting to be discovered and chosen for a team during MLB tryouts. And what do you know: Gracie (played by Siena Bjornerud) just happens to have moved to the same area, so now she and Rickey can reunite and fall in love. During this time when Rickey hopes to be recruited to the major leagues, James has refused to watch Rickey play any baseball games. However, Rickey’s mother Helen and siblings Robert (played by Ryan Dinning) and Connie (played by Carina Worm) are supportive spectators at Rickey’s games.

During the MLB tryouts, Rickey catches the eye of MLB scout Red Murff (played by Scott Glenn), who gives very stereotypical tough-but-tender pep talks. And there’s plenty of preaching and praying in “The Hill” too. A lot of this sanctimonious talk ranges from generic to extremely sappy. The baseball game scenes aren’t very interesting, and neither are the acting performances in this bloated biography.

“The Hill” treats Rickey’s medical issues as pesky annoyances. Any excruciating pain he experiences are depicted with some superficial grimaces and groans, some limps and some clutching of his back. There’s a scene in his childhood where Rickey breaks off his leg braces himself and then claims he feels no pain in his legs.

Everything in “The Hills” looks fake, which is a disservice to the real-life physical agony that this talented baseball player experienced. Because the movie ends when Rickey is 18, it cuts off right before the most fascinating part of his baseball journey. Although “The Hill” certainly has an inspirational story, the way that this dreadful dud tells this story is by hollowing it out and replacing a lot of meaningful parts with surface-level preaching and cringeworthy dialogue.

Briarcliff Entertainment released “The Hill” in U.S. cinemas on August 25, 2023.

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.

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