Review: ‘Vengeance’ (2022), starring B.J. Novak, Boyd Holbrook, Issa Rae and Ashton Kutcher

January 12, 2023

by Carla Hay

Ashton Kutcher and B.J. Novak in “Vengeance” (Photo by Patti Perret/Focus Features)

“Vengeance” (2022)

Directed by B.J. Novak

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas and briefly in New York City, the comedy/drama film “Vengeance” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A New York City podcaster is persuaded to go to rural Texas to investigate the drug-overdose death of a woman whom he briefly dated. 

Culture Audience: “Vengeance” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star/filmmaker B.J. Novak and movies about crime investigations that take dark comedic jabs at society.

B.J. Novak asnd Boyd Holbrook in “Vengeance” (Photo by Patti Perret/Focus Features)

The comedy/drama “Vengeance” puts a satirical spin on a familiar movie concept of a stranger coming to an area to investigate a possible crime, with the stranger feeling like a “fish out of water.” The stranger then usually lets judgment get clouded by internal prejudices, as well as the prejudices of people around the stranger. “Vengeance” makes some of its cultural stereotypes too broad and heavy-handed, and the movie’s ending could have been better. Overall, the story can hold viewers’ interest, as long as there’s tolerance for what the movie is saying about personal biases.

B.J. Novak, a former co-star and writer of the U.S. comedy TV series “The Office,” makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Vengeance,” a movie that he also wrote. “Vengeance” starts out very strong with biting comedy. And then, it meanders back and forth between an intriguing investigation and clumsily handled culture shock, with jokes that are hit and miss. The ending of “Vengeance” is meant to be a surprise twist, but observant viewers can see some clues leading up this ending and can figure out why Novak chose to end the movie this way.

In “Vengeance” (which had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival), Novak portrays Ben Manalowitz, a politically liberal podcaster who lives and works in New York City. Ben, who is also a writer for The New Yorker, is every cliché (for better or worse) of what many people think about a college-educated, New York City media person. Depending on someone’s perspective, Ben is either well-versed and knowledgeable about many topics, or he’s a a smug intellectual snob.

The movie opens with a hilarious scene of Ben and musician John Mayer (portraying himself) having a conversation at a rooftop party in New York City. The conversation topic for these two bachelors is dating. John says, “I don’t ever want to go past knowing what someone’s parents do for a living. If I know what someone has done for a living, I’ve hung too long.”

Ben replies in agreement: “Or siblings. Why does anyone care about your siblings, especially so early [of meeting a potential partner]? Has that ever changed whether you want to date somebody?” John says, “People say guys like us are afraid of commitment. No, we’re afraid of commitment to something we can’t get out of.”

Ben adds, “There’s no such thing as commitment. Fear of commitment is fear of regret.” John replies, “100%. Or fear of intimacy. Please. I’m intimate with everybody.” If only “Vengeance” had more of this type of banter in the movie, it would have been a lot funnier. Viewers won’t get to see much of Ben’s life in New York City, because he will soon be plunged into an unexpected investigation in rural Texas.

It just so happens that Ben wants to do a new investigative series for his podcast, so he pitches an idea to his podcast producer Eloise (played by Issa Rae), who is smart and sarcastic. Ben says that he wants to do a series about why the United States is so divided. However, as he tells Eloise his theory: “America isn’t divided by space. America is divided by time.”

Eloise replies, “Not every white guy in New York needs to have a podcast. You got the verified checkmark. You got The New Yorker position.” Ben says, “I want something more. I don’t just want to be writer. I want to be a voice. As dorky as it sounds, I care about America.”

At home one night, Ben is asleep when he is woken up by the sound of his phone ringing. The person on the other line is sobbing, and he identifies himself as Ty Shaw (played by Boyd Holbrook), who is a complete stranger to Ben. Ty lives in a rural part of western Texas, about five hours away from the city of Abilene. It’s a very politically conservative part of Texas that has almost the opposite of the environment and lifestyle that Ben has in New York City.

At first, Ben doesn’t know the reason for Ty’s call, until Ty tells Ben that Ty is the older brother of Abilene “Abby” Shaw (played by Lio Tipton in flashbacks), who recently died of an opioid overdose at a party in a Texas oil field. Ben and Abby had a fling some years ago that he almost forgot about until Ty’s phone call.

Ty is under the impression, based on the way Abby talked about Ben, that Ben and Abby were in a serious, long-distance relationship. The reality is that Ben and Abby haven’t seen or been in contact with each other for years. Ben tries to tell Ty this information, but Ty is so grief-stricken and insistent that Ben was the love of Abby’s life, Ben goes along with it.

It isn’t long before Ty has convinced Ben to go to Texas for Abby’s funeral, where Ben is asked to give a eulogy about Abby. At the funeral, Ben finds out that Abby was an aspiring singer, so he awkwardly says in his speech: “I know she loved music. She will always be a song in our hearts.”

Ty soon tells Ben that he believes that Abby’s overdose death was murder. Ty also insists that he and Ben are going to track down whoever allegedly murdered Abby. Ty says to be: “You and me, we’re the men in their lives. And they fucked with the wrong two guys.”

Ben tells Ty: “I don’t avenge deaths. I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie.” Ty responds, “You kind of look like a guy in a Liam Neeson movie.” Ty names “Schindler’s List” as “my least-favorite Liam Neeson movie. Huge downer.” Ty adds, “Stay down here and avenge Abby’s death with me.”

Ben doesn’t take Ty’s murder theory seriously, but Ben sees this investigation as the perfect idea for his next podcast series. He tells Eloise about it and says, “This isn’t a story about vengeance. It’s a story about the need for vengeance, the meaning of vengeance.” Eloise asks, “Dead white girl?” Ben replies, “The holy grail of podcasts.”

And so, Ben ends up getting to know Ty and the rest of the loud and boisterous Shaw family. They include Ty’s three other siblings: 24-year-old sister Paris (played by Isabella Amara), who’s an aspiring filmmaker; 17-year-old sister, Kansas City (played by Dove Cameron), who’s an aspiring “celebrity”; and 9-year-old El Stupido (played by Eli Abrams Bickel), who isn’t called by any other name in the movie.

The siblings’ mother is feisty Sharon Shaw (played by J. Smith-Cameron) and grandmother Carole Shaw (played by Louanne Stephens), who is very racist against people of Mexican heritage. One of the movie’s jokes about Carole is that she doesn’t know that Texas lost the battle of Alamo. Unfortunately, all of the Shaw family characters except for Ty are very underdeveloped and are nothing but hollow stereotypes.

Ben and Ty are told that Mexican drug dealers probably killed Abby. During this investigation, Ben meets and interviews several local people who might have information on what happened to Abby on the night that she died. These locals include a smarmy music producer named Quentin Sellers (played by Ashton Kutcher), who was working with Abby on some music recordings; a drug dealer named Sancholo (played by Zach Villa); and County Sheriff Jimenez (played by Rio Alexander), who is every cliché of an unsophisticated cop.

“Vengeance” has some subtle and not-so-subtle comedy poking fun at stereotypes of “city slickers” and “country hicks.” Ben is doing a podcast series about vengeance, but it begins to dawn on him that he’s experiencing his other podcast series idea about America being a divided country. Not surprisingly, Ben gets some resistance to his investigation because many of the locals think that Ben is an “outsider” who can’t be trusted. The cast members give competent performances, although enjoyment of “Vengeance” will be affected by how much a viewer thinks Kutcher is convincing or not convincing in portraying a Texan.

All of the characters in “Vengeance” are portrayed as alternately amusing or annoying, which seems to be the movie’s point. “Vengeance” doesn’t point fingers at any particular lifestyle or political belief as better than the rest. The movie shows there’s something irritating and ultimately toxic about any mindset that wants to lump people of different cultures into one degrading stereotype. And sometimes, when people get consumed by an “us versus them” mentality, they can end up with the worst traits of the people they despise.

Focus Features released “Vengeance” in U.S. cinemas on July 29, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on August 16, 2022, and on Blu-ray and DVD on September 20, 2022. Peacock premiered “Vengeance” on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘The Cursed’ (2022), starring Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly and Alistair Petrie

April 3, 2022

by Carla Hay

Boyd Holbrook and Kelly Reilly in “The Cursed” (Photo courtesy of LD Entertainment)

“The Cursed” (2022)

Directed by Sean Ellis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed English village in the late 1882, and briefly in France in 1917, the horror movie “The Cursed” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A small village in England is plagued by disappearances and murders that are being blamed on a possible werewolf. 

Culture Audience: “The Cursed” will appeal primarily to people interested in werewolf horror stories that have elements of intrigue and visual terror that are better than most horror films.

Amelia Crouch and Kelly Reilly in “The Cursed” (Photo courtesy of LD Entertainment)

“The Cursed” makes some unique and effective visual departures from a typical werewolf horror movie. The movie’s pace is sometimes sluggish, but the terror scenes more than make up for the film’s minor flaws. It’s not a movie that’s going to be considered the best horror film of the year, but “The Cursed” is very memorable and has the benefit of talented cast members who make their characters entirely believable.

Written and directed by Sean Ellis, “The Cursed” was originally titled “Eight for Silver” when it premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Although “The Cursed” is a very generic title that’s the name of several other horror movies, it’s actually a more accurate description of this movie’s plot than “Eight for Silver.” “The Cursed” has some gruesome violence that isn’t overly excessive. One of the best aspects of the movie is in how it builds suspense.

“The Cursed” opens with a scene taking place in France’s the Somme in 1917, during World War I. (History buffs might nitpick because World War I’s famous Battle of the Somme actually took place in 1916.) Soldiers wearing gas masks are in the battlefield trenches when they come under attack. Some of the wounded soldiers are then taken to a very chaotic medical tent. One of those soldiers, whose identity is revealed at the end of the film, undergoes emergency surgery, where a doctor extracts a large silver bullet from this soldier.

The movie than jumps to a scene taking place in an unknown country, where a middle-aged woman named Charlotte Laurent (played by Annabel Mullion) begins to tell a story about a life-changing experience that she had 35 years ago, in 1882, when she was about 14 or 15 years old. Most of “The Cursed” consists of Charlotte’s flashback memories to this point in time in her life.

The teenage Charlotte (played by Amelia Crouch) lives with her family in a very isolated small village, which does not have a name in the movie. And as is typical for a horror movie, this village is near a heavily wooded area. The village is presumably in England, since the residents have English accents, but there are a lot of people with French names in the village too. (“The Cursed” was actually filmed in France.)

Charlotte comes from a wealthy family whose patriarch, Seamus Laurent (played by Alistair Petrie), is a tyrant who’s used to getting what he wants. Seamus and his dutiful wife Isabelle Laurent (played by Kelly Reilly) are the parents of Charlotte and Edward (Max Mackintosh), who’s about 11 or 12 years old when this story takes place. They all live in a mansion that will soon become hub of supernatural and terrifying activities.

Seamus is not only a bully, but he’s also greedy and racist. In an early scene in the movie, he and several other men are having dinner at his home and conspire to take land away from the gypsies who are living in an outdoor camp on this property. Meanwhile, an unnamed gypsy woman (played by Pascale Becouze), who appears to be the gypsies’ spiritual leader, tells her tribe that a storm is coming. She says of an unnamed entity: “We have protected it for generations. It has protected us for generations.” Then she begins chanting.

It isn’t long before Seamus and his group of marauders invade the gypsy camp on horseback and armed with guns. A massacre occurs that will be very hard for sensitive viewers to watch. The gypsies who aren’t shot to death are captured, tortured, and murdered in other ways.

The gypsy leader has an unnamed male companion (played by Jicey Carina), who is a blacksmith. They both suffer the cruel fate of being tortured before dying. He is strung up like a scarecrow and hanged to death. She is thrown into a shallow grave and buried alive.

Before she is buried alive in this grave, Seamus and his men steal from her a denture mold of a human mouth that has silver teeth, because they want the silver. Of course, the gypsy woman is no ordinary spiritual leader. She is somehow connected to the supernatural, and she places a curse on the murderers who have massacred her tribe. And you know what that means in a horror movie.

Meanwhile, a pathologist named John McBride (played by Boyd Holbrook) has arrived in the village to investigate what appears to be a series of animal attacks. The villagers are starting to suspect that this is no ordinary animal but something supernatural and evil. John is a scientist whose beliefs about the supernatural evolve, based on what he experiences during his stay in this village. John is also a widower who has his own tragic story that’s eventually revealed.

Not long after this murder spree, Edward starts having nightmares of seeing the gypsy leader coming to attack him in the same field where she died. Edward has no idea about the terrible crimes his father Seamus has committed, so Edward is frightened and confused by what he’s seeing in his nightmares. The wives and children of the massacre killers also have no knowledge that these husbands and fathers have committed these heinous crimes.

One of these children is Timmy Adam (played by Tommy Rodger), who is about 11 or 12 years old. Timmy is the son of John Adam (played by Sean Mahon), one of the men involved in the gypsy massacre. One day, Timmy and Edward are outside playing when Timmy finds the denture mold with the silver teeth. Timmy then viciously bites Edward on the neck, while Charlotte (who is nearby and witnesses this attack) runs away to get help.

Edward is wounded, but it’s not fatal. The doctor treating Edward tells the Laurent family that the bite wound looks like Edward was attacked by a wild animal. The wound is infected, but the doctor gives some medicine to treat it. Not long after this bite attack, while Edward is bedridden during his recovery, Charlotte starts seeing strange things in Edward’s room at night, such as slimy creatures coming out of Edward while he’s in bed.

And then, Edward mysteriously disappears from the home without any of his family members seeing him leave. His family finds out that he’s missing the next morning, when they see that he’s nowhere in the house. Timmy has no memory of biting Edward, and he is among the villagers who participate in the frantic search for Edward. Edward’s disappearance leads to more people vanishing or being murdered in the village. And the murders seem to be coming from a wolf-like animal.

The rest of “The Cursed” shows the mystery behind what’s happening in this plagued village. The werewolf creature is not a typical hairy monster with fangs. The movie does some clever re-imagining of werewolf lore, in terms of how this creature looks and how it attacks. Fabien Houssaye, Carl Laforêt and Miko Abouaf are the three actors who portray this werewolf creature in “The Cursed.”

One of the best things about “The Cursed” is that it looks convincing as a story that takes place in the years that it takes place, due in large part to the authentic-looking production design and costume design. The most terrifying scenes in the movie are absolutely gripping. And although there are some predictable jump scares, not everything in the movie is formulaic.

“The Cursed” writer/director Ellis is also the movie’s cinematographer. He infuses the movie with a lot of brown and gray tones that make the movie look foreboding instead of drab. Likewise, the camera angles keep audiences feeling a certain tension that anything can happen, even when the movie’s pacing tends to slow down.

Holbrook and Reilly have the standout roles as John and Isabelle, because they are the adults in the story with the best moral compass. All of the cast members do well in their performances, but no one is going to be nominated for any major awards for this movie, whose dialogue can be a bit forgettable. “The Cursed” is a solid addition to werewolf movies that should satisfy most horror fans who like a horror film to have an intriguing mystery along with the frightening scenes.

LD Entertainment released “The Cursed” in U.S. cinemas on February 18, 2022. The movie was released on digital and VOD on March 15, 2022. “The Cursed” is set for release on Blu-ray and DVD on May 10, 2022.

2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Two/One’

April 28, 2019

by Carla Hay

Boyd Holbrook in “Two/One”


Directed by Juan Cabral

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 28, 2019.

Two strangers share an unknown connection until they have a chance meeting that reveals how they are linked. It’s not a new concept for a movie, but the drama “Two/One” attempts to bring a unique twist to the concept: Someone’s life is another person’s dream. Unfortunately, this first feature film from writer/director Juan Cabral has a premise that is so deeply flawed that it goes beyond a logical suspension of belief that you sometimes have to have for a fictional story.

The first three-quarters of the movie alternate between two men who don’t know each other: Kaden (played by Boyd Holbrook) is a professional ski jumper who lives in Canada. Khai (played by Song Yang) is a business executive who lives in China. Both men are so consumed by their work that their love lives have taken a back seat to their careers. Kaden’s family has also become fractured, as his adulterous father Alfred (played by Beau Bridges) has announced that he’s left his longtime wife, Kaden’s mother Olina (played by Marilyn Norry), because he’s become tired of the marriage. Even though Kaden’s father is selfish and insensitive, Kaden still seeks his father’s approval, which is an issue that Khai has with his own father.

Both Khai and Kaden are emotionally closed off, but love unexpectedly enters their lives. With Kaden, he has a chance encounter with a long-lost love named Martha (played by Dominique McElligott), who is now married and has a child with another man. Khai’s love interest is Jia (played by Zhu Zhu), a young woman he first saw in nude videos posted on the Internet, and she unexpectedly becomes his co-worker at the office. Khai and Jia have a whirlwind romance, and not long after they begin dating, she moves into his apartment. But their relationship hits a major speed bump when Khai finds out that Jia is a victim of revenge porn, and he has difficulty coping with it. It’s easy to see that Khai and Kaden have control issues when it comes to their romantic partners, whom they view somewhat as damsels in distress who need rescuing.

People watching this film who don’t know that it’s supposed to reveal the connection between Kaden and Khai will be left wondering during most of the movie, “Where exactly is this going?” When the big reveal happens, people in the movie have suffered serious injuries because of the connection that Kaden and Khai have. “Two/One” is so ambitious in its concept that it overlooks the major plot holes that ensue when the two characters finally meet. If the idea had been written more skillfully, then the issue of narcolepsy and other sleep disorders would have had more of a wide-reaching effect on the characters in the movie. Because “Two/One” takes such a slow-paced, long-winded approach to get to the big reveal, it wouldn’t be surprising if some people watching this movie will fall asleep out of sheer boredom.

UPDATE: Gravitas Ventures will release “2/1” (previously spelled “Two/One”) in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on February 7, 2020.

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