Review: ‘The Hater’ (2022), starring Joey Ally, Bruce Dern, Meredith Hagner, Ian Harding, Ali Larter and Nora Dunn

March 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front, from left to right: Nora Dunn (second from left), Joey Ally, Meredith Hagner, Bruce Dern and D’Angelo Lacy in “The Hater” (Photo by Elizabeth Kitchens/Vertical Entertainment)

“The Hater” (2022)

Directed by Joey Ally

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Alabaster, Texas, in 2020, the comedy/drama film “The Hater” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A progressive liberal Democratic campaign worker goes back to her politically conservative Texas hometown and poses as a conservative Republican in a state representative primary election, in order to defeat a politician who bullied her when they were children. 

Culture Audience: “The Hater” will appeal primarily to people interested in political dramedies and who have a high tolerance for watching abrasive personalities.

Ian Harding in “The Hater” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Once you get past all the obnoxious ranting by the movie’s main character, “The Hater” is a comedy/drama that has as much to say about political and cultural wars in America as it does about family, female empowerment and the grieving process. It’s not a film that everyone is going to like, simply because the protagonist is a loud, aggressive and unapologetically liberal “social justice warrior.” However, “The Hater” is not a movie that completely bashes political conservatives, who are presented not as a monolith but as people who have beliefs that vary within conservative ideology. The movie has some sly commentary about political campaigns and how candidates of any political leaning are capable of giving in to corruption.

Joey Ally is the star of “The Hater,” which is her feature-film debut as a writer/director. In the movie, she plays Dorothy Goodwin, a political junkie who has been obsessed with politics since she was a child growing up in the fictional city of Alabaster, Texas. The movie opens with a flashback to Dorothy at about 11 or 12 years old (played by Elizabeth Kankiewicz) giving a campaign speech to an assembled group of students in her bid to run for class president. She earnestly talks about civic-minded duties, and she quotes Thomas Jefferson. The students seem bored or downright hostile to Dorothy’s speech.

Dorothy’s opponent is rich kid Brent Hart (played by Wesley Kimmel), who shouts: “I want to be class president so we can have [French] fries all day, every day!” The crowd cheers, while Dorothy is shown looking dismayed at the side of the stage. Needless to say, Dorothy lost the election. And it’s later revealed through conversations in the movie that Brent bullied her when they were in school together.

“The Hater” then flash forwards to the year 2020, with Dorothy as an adult in her late 20s or early 30s. She’s a speech writer for a Democratic political candidate named Scott Park (played by Rob Yang), who has to bail her out of jail because she’s been arrested during an environmental protest where she and other protestors wore pig masks and chanted, “Trees not greed!” The video of her arrest went viral, and Scott isn’t pleased about how her arrest will affect his political campaign. Scott hints that he wants to fire Dorothy, but before he goes through with it, Dorothy decides to quit.

Feeling adrift and rejected, Dorothy decides to fly back to her hometown of Alabaster and stay at the house that she co-owns with her widowed paternal grandfather Frank Goodwin (played by Bruce Dern), who lives alone at the house. Frank is a curmudgeonly political conservative who regularly watches Fox News. Dorothy inherited the house from her late father Theodore “Ted” Goodwin, who raised her as a single parent. Dorothy’s mother is never seen or mentioned in the movie.

Frank is the type of person who uses sarcasm to express himself. When Dorothy shows up unannounced at the door, Frank pretends to disapprove of Dorothy’s nose ring and slams the door in her face. Just as Dorothy is about to remove the nose ring, Frank opens the door and chuckles that he was just messing with Dorothy, whom he hasn’t seen in about a year.

“I didn’t know if you were even alive,” Frank tells Dorothy. “I never thought I’d see you again.” Dorothy says about Frank’s remark: “It’s a little dramatic. I was home last year for your birthday.” Dorothy is a Democrat who works on political campaigns, but she also shows signs that she distrusts the government. She lectures Frank about not leaving “digital thumbprints” because of “all the data the government is collecting” on people.

It’s never really said outright, but observant viewers will figure out that Dorothy left her hometown behind and cut off contact with a lot of people she knows there because of too many bad memories for her. Not only was she bullied in school, but she’s also emotionally wounded by the death of her father, who was a schoolteacher who taught theater classes. Dorothy and Ted were very close. His cause of death is not mentioned in the movie, but it happened when she was a child. It’s implied that he was the one who influenced her to become politically liberal in a place that is mostly politically conservative.

“The Hater” makes several references to the fact that the movie is taking place in 2020. Without mentioning his name, Dorothy is extremely upset with who is president of the United States. There are mentions of the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns that happened as a result. People aren’t wearing a lot of face masks because Texas is a state well-known for having a large population of people who are against wearing face masks during the pandemic and who protest against any government-ordered pandemic lockdowns.

Unemployed and looking for work on a political campaign, Dorothy doesn’t have much luck finding any paying jobs, so she reluctantly decides to become a campaign volunteer for a Democrat running to be a state congressional representative. Her name is Sally Jensen (played by Melora Walters), who has run for this political office before but has always lost. However, Dorothy nixes those volunteer plans when she finds out that her former school nemesis Brent Hart (played by Ian Harding) is Sally’s Republican opponent in the primary election. Dorothy comes up with a plan to ensure Sally’s victory.

Dorothy remembers a loophole in Texas state law that says that if a candidate wins a primary election, and then drops out of the general election, there can be no other candidate from the candidate’s political party to be in the general election. Because American political elections usually come down to Democrats vs. Republicans (in terms of who gets the most votes), Dorothy decides she’s going to pretend to be a conservative Republican, run against Brent with the hope of winning the primary election, and if she wins, she’ll drop out of the general election, making it easy for Sally to win.

It’s a long-shot gamble, but Dorothy is willing to take it, if only to get some revenge on Brent. Even though Dorothy is a hardcore liberal Democrat, she’s still registered as a Republican voter in Texas. There’s some vague mention that she was a registered Republican in her youth before she changed her political opinions, but Dorothy never changed her Republican party registration in Texas. The house that she owns in Alabaster (in Paula County) is enough for Dorothy to establish the residency she needs to be an eligible candidate. The movie never says how long Dorothy has lived out of the area, so no one comes forward to challenge her Texas residency.

During her hometown visit, Dorothy reconnects with a former school acquaintance named Greta Hoffman (played by Meredith Hagner), who is happy to see Dorothy, but the feeling isn’t mutual. Greta is friendly, but Dorothy’s feelings about Greta are tainted by Dorothy’s memories of Greta being in their school’s “popular kids” clique that would shun outcasts such as Dorothy. Greta is now a married homemaker and mother of a daughter named Mae (played by Ruby June Arnold), a polite, bubbly child who is about 5 or 6 years old. Greta often feels lonely because her husband is a helicopter pilot for the U.S. Army, and he spends a lot of time away from home.

Dorothy treats Greta as someone who is intellectually inferior to Dorothy. When Dorothy declares her candidacy, the only people who know her secret about her true beliefs as a progressive liberal are her grandfather Frank and her openly gay best friend Glenn (played by D’Angelo Lacy), who is an aspiring singer who also works as a stylist. Glenn is very skeptical that Dorothy will win the election, but he flies out to Alabaster to visit Dorothy more than once to show his support.

Dorothy enlists the political backing from the leader of the local chamber of commerce women’s group. Her name is Genie (played by Nora Dunn), and she’s a right-wing conservative Republican. There’s also an ambitious TV reporter named Victoria Upson (played by Ali Larter), who becomes a big part of Dorothy’s campaign, especially after Dorothy accidentally becomes known as a gun-toting hero when Dorothy thwarts an armed robbery of a convenience store.

As for Brent, he and his hard-driving senator father Trent Hart (played by James L. Brewster) plan to demolish the Alabaster community center to make way for the Hart family’s car dealership. Dorothy is using the car dealership as leverage against Brent in the election to make him look like he and his family are greedy corporate types who want to tear down a place that benefits the community. Brent is being pushed into his election by his father Trent, who says at one point about Dorothy’s ability to get gain support and rise in the poll numbers: “We’ve got this MeToo shit stepping on our necks.”

“The Hater” has some comedic twists and turns that aren’t too far-fetched from what could happen in real life. Dorothy can be extremely off-putting and rude, even to people who agree with her political beliefs. But over time, Dorothy shows a very vulnerable side that will makes her more relatable to people in her life, as well as viewers of this movie. All of the cast members give performances that are capably entertaining, but not outstanding. The ending of “The Hater” is a little too contrived and pat, but the movie is a mostly clever take on the political process and how much political candidates can choose to retain their humanity (or not) in brutally competitive elections.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Hater” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 18, 2022.

Review: ‘The Gateway’ (2021), starring Shea Whigham, Olivia Munn, Frank Grillo and Bruce Dern

December 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Shea Whigham and Olivia Munn in “The Gateway” (Photo by Antony Platt/Lionsgate)

“The Gateway” (2021)

Directed by Michele Civetta

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Gateway” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A well-meaning bachelor, who works for a city’s social services department, finds himself caught up in criminal warfare when he tries to protect a mother and her young daughter after the child’s father gets out of prison.

Culture Audience: “The Gateway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in forgettable and formulaic crime dramas.

Shannon Adawn and Frank Grillo in “The Gateway” (Photo by Antony Platt/Lionsgate)

“The Gateway” is such a generic and unimaginative rehash of many other crime dramas, it’s likely to be soon forgotten after people see it. It’s yet another story about a hero who has an “against all odds” struggle against gangster thugs. In “The Gateway,” the protagonist does battle against drug-dealing goons, in order to save (cliché alert) a damsel in distress and her child. It’s all very hackneyed and boring. There’s absolutely nothing creative about this movie, which lumbers along until its very predictable end.

“The Gateway” was directed by Michele Civetta, who co-wrote the drab screenplay with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas. The movie is Civetta’s second feature film as a director. His feature-film directorial debut was the unremarkable 2020 horror flick “Agony,” which describes what any viewer might have felt if they watched that painfully dull film. And although Civetta says in “The Gateway” production notes that “The Gateway” was inspired by crime thrillers such as John Huston’s “Fat City” (released in 1972) and John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (released in 1976), “The Gateway” has none of the intrigue or style of those films.

The name of the U.S. city where “The Gateway” takes place is never shown or mentioned by the characters in the movie, which was actually filmed in Norfolk, Virginia. Wherever “The Gateway” is supposed to take place, it’s a city where gambling is legal, because the “damsel in distress” is a blackjack dealer in a casino. She’s not the movie’s protagonist though. The story’s main character is yet another stereotype of a “regular Joe” who suddenly has to battle gangsters as if he’s an experienced member of law enforcement. Yawn.

The protagonist of “The Gateway” is Parker (played by Shea Whigham), a lonely middle-aged bachelor whose life revolves around his job working as an investigator for the city’s social services department. In the movie’s opening scene, viewers see that Parker is compassionate when he responds to a complaint about child endangerment in a house that’s basically a drug den. Parker finds a boy at the house who’s about 7 years old, and he comforts the boy when it’s discovered that the boy’s mother has overdosed. Two men in the house are then arrested.

For an unspecified period of time, Parker has been looking out for another child named Ashley (played by Taegen Burns), who’s about 12 years old. His interest in Ashley extends beyond his social worker job. He has become somewhat of a father figure to Ashley, whose father has been in prison for an untold number of years. Ashley’s mother Dahlia (played by Olivia Munn) has been raising Ashley while Dahlia holds down a job as a blackjack dealer.

Viewers never see any flashbacks of how Parker became close to this family, so the relationship that he has with Dahlia and Ashley feels too rushed and contrived in this movie. As an example of how Parker goes beyond his social worker duties for Ashley, Parker volunteers to take Ashley to school when he’s needed. It’s hinted that maybe Parker is attracted to Dahlia, but he doesn’t cross the line into making any inappropriate and unprofessional moves on her.

Dahlia might have a substance abuse problem, because the reason why Parker takes Ashley to school in an early scene in the movie is because she seems to be drunk or high, and Parker doesn’t want Dahlia to drive under the influence. The dynamics between Parker, Dahlia and Ashley change when Ashley’s father Mike (played by Zach Avery) gets out of prison and makes it clear to Parker that Mike wants to be the only father figure in Ashley’s life.

Soon after Mike get out of prison, he goes right back into a criminal lifestyle. At a bar frequented by shady people, Mike meets up with a local drug kingpin named Duke (played by Frank Grillo, in yet another one of his “tough guy” roles) to set up a heroin deal. Mike tells Duke and Duke’s associate Louis (played by Alexander Wraith) that Mike knows about two bricks of heroin that were stolen from a Mexican drug cartel.

Mike offers to deliver this heroin to Duke. In exchange, Duke says that he will set Mike and Louis up with enough money for Mike and Louis to open their own bar. Duke also offers to lend out the services of his henchman Hector (played by Mounir Quazzani) to help Mike and Louis for protection in retrieving this heroin, which is hidden in a place that could be guarded.

“The Gateway,” which already has a very simple-minded plot that would barely be enough for a short film, stretches everything out to tedious levels with repetitious scenes of Mike and his cronies committing crimes; Mike and Dahlia having tensions in their already shaky relationship; and Mike threatening Parker to stay away from Ashley. Parker was assigned to check on the welfare of Ashley, so he tells Mike that it would be up to the city to decide when Parker will no longer have to check up on her.

This movie is so poorly written that it does little to show who Parker is as a person. The only thing about his personal life that’s shown is that he has a rocky relationship with his father Marcus (played by Bruce Dern), because (as shown in flashbacks) Marcus was a verbally abusive alcoholic to Parker when Parker was a child. In fact, all of the characters in the movie don’t have much depth or personality. They’re just hollow vessels to act out the movie’s unimpressive action scenes. Two police detectives named Detective Vaughn (played by Shannon Adawn) and Detective Bachman (played by Nick Daly) are essentially useless, since this movie is about making Parker the biggest hero.

Needless to say in a predictable movie like “The Gateway,” Parker, Dahlia and Ashley unwittingly get caught up in Mike’s big heroin deal when the heroin stash goes missing. Expect the usual chase scenes and shootouts that clog up substandard thrillers such as “The Gateway.” The cast members and the filmmakers don’t put much effort into bringing any creative spark to this tired story. With all the better-quality movies that have already been made about drug deals gone bad, viewers don’t have to waste their time on “The Gateway.”

Lionsgate released “The Gateway” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7, 2021.

Review: ‘Death in Texas,’ starring Ronnie Gene Blevins, Bruce Dern, Lara Flynn Boyle and Stephen Lang

July 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ronnie Gene Blevins in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas”

Directed by Scott Windhauser

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in El Paso, Texas, the dramatic film “Death in Texas” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A recently released ex-con finds himself returning to a life of crime so that he can get enough money to pay for his mother’s life-or-death liver transplant. 

Culture Audience: “Death in Texas” will appeal primarily to people who like watching violent crime movies with badly written, unrealistic scenes.

Bruce Dern in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas” has too many far-fetched scenarios to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this dreadful crime drama takes itself way too seriously. There’s a lot of corny acting from experienced actors who embarrass themselves by being in this movie. And anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of organ transplants and hospitals will be cringing at the preposterous plot development in the last third of the movie.

Written and directed by Scott Windhauser, “Death in Texas” is also exceedingly tedious with its nonsensical murders that are nothing but excuses to fill this movie with violent and often-unrealistic fight scenes. The first clue that “Death in Texas” is a constant failure at realism is in the opening scene when 37-year-old prisoner Billy Walker (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins) is in a parole hearing and gets paroled in a very phony “only in a movie” moment. (“Death in Texas” takes place primarily in El Paso, Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.)

During the parole hearing, which has a parole board of only two people—one named Charles (played by Clark Harris) and one named Antonio (played by Daniel Steven Gonzalez)—Billy is being questioned about his rehabiltation while in prison. Billy is asked, “Do you take responsibility for your crime?” Billy replies, “As much as I can.” It’s not exactly a sign of remorse, which is a requirement to get paroled.

Billy says that he wants to be paroled so that he can take care of his mother. Charles and Antonio are not convinced that Billy has been fully rehabilitated and is ready for release. Just as they’re about to deny parole to Billy, a woman who is later revealed as parole officer Sarah Jensen (played by Veronica Burgess) suddenly appears and shows Charles and Antonio something in a file of papers. And just like that, Charles and Antonio change their minds and sign off on Billy getting parole.

Through flashbacks, the movie shows that Billy was in prison for manslaughter, and he served seven years in prison for this crime before being paroled. When his mother Grace Edwards (played by Lara Flynn Boyle) was a waitress at a diner, Billy witnessed a customer (played by Morgan Redmond) physically harassing Grace. And so, an enraged Billy beat up this man so badly that he died. The deadly assault took place in full view of other people at the diner, so there was no mystery over who committed the crime.

It’s shown many times throughout “Death in Texas” that Billy is so devoted to his mother that he will do anything for her. And yet, after Billy gets paroled, he’s shown walking by himself on a deserted highway, like a pitiful ex-con with no one who cares about him, and then showing up at Grace’s house unannounced. She seems elated and surprised to see him.

This homecoming scene doesn’t ring true, because Billy is such a mama’s boy that he would be the type to tell his mother that he was paroled, so she would be ready for him when he got released. After all, Billy has nowhere else to go but to live with his mother after getting out of prison. Considering all the extreme trouble that Billy goes through for his mother in this story, you’d think he’d tell her that he was paroled and that he needed a place to stay instead of just showing up without telling her in advance.

It’s one of many inconsistent and sloppily written scenes in the movie, which awkwardly tries to be gritty when it comes to all the criminal activities, but then attempts to be mawkishly sentimental when it comes to anything to do with Grace. Her backstory is revealed in bits and pieces of conversations in the movie. Grace gave birth to Billy when she was 15 years old, and her marriage to Billy’s father’s ended in divorce. She also got divorced from her second husband.

Soon after Billy is released from prison, Grace (who is currently a receptionist for a law firm) is having a small house party attended by her current boyfriend Todd (played by Craig Nigh), who brags to Billy about the four days that he spent incarcerated. It should come as no surprise that Billy and Todd clash immediately, and they end up having a fist fight. Grace admits to Billy that Todd is a jerk and that she has horrible taste in men. Todd is never seen again for the rest of the movie.

Grace has a much bigger problem than a tendency to get involved with losers. She needs a liver transplant, but she has rare type AB blood and can’t find a donor match. Her liver is failing not because she abused alcohol or drugs but because it might be a congenital conditon. If Grace doesn’t get the transplant, she’ll die. And what Billy does to try to solve this problem is more eye-rolling nonsense.

First, Billy goes to see Grace’s physician Dr. Perkins (played by Sam Daly) to find out what he can do to help Grace find a donor. Dr. Perkins says that he can’t reveal certain information about Grace’s condition because of doctor-patient confidentiality. And then, Dr. Perkins proceeds to violate that confidentiality and all sorts of other medical ethics by telling Billy everything private about Grace’s medical situation that Billy wants to know.

Dr. Perkins tells Billy that Grace has six months to one year to live. The doctor keeps changing this life-expectancy number to a shorter period of time the more this idiotic movie goes on, until Grace supposedly only has a few days left to live. Dr. Perkins also mentions that because Grace is so far down on a waiting list to find a donor, it’s impossible for her to get a liver in time, unless she can get a liver on the black market.

Dr. Perkins says that he knows someone in Guadalajara, Mexico, who can sell a liver for $160,000. And as a warning to Billy not to report any medical violations, the doctor tells Billy, “I’ll obviously deny that we had this conversation.” The $160,000 price tag is way beyond what Billy can afford, so it makes him desperate. Even if Billy had ever heard of legal ways to raise money for a health crisis, such as starting a crowdsourcing campaign on GoFundMe, there would be no “Death in Texas” movie if he did things legally to solve this problem.

Billy makes several attempts to find a legitimate job, but he’s rejected by every place he goes to find work because he’s an ex-con on parole. A friend of his named Kevin (played by Rocko Reyes) is a manager at a car dealership that’s owned by Kevin’s father. In a job interview, Kevin tells Billy that he would hire Billy, but Kevin’s father is the one who doesn’t want any felons working for the company.

And so, with time running out to get the money for the liver, it becomes inevitable that Billy turns to a life of crime. He decides he’ll get the money he wants by robbing other criminals. First, he targets a drug dealer named Tyler Griggs (played by Mike Foy), a former acquaintance of Billy’s, who looks and acts like a bad parody of a rapper, complete with gold teeth and a laughably horrible attempt to sound like he’s a white guy who grew up in a black ghetto.

An even bigger robbery target is a drug rehab guru named Richard Reynolds (played by Bruce Dern), a rich entrepreneur with a shady past. He currently owns a well-known drug rehab center called Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch. Billy sees a TV news report that Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch has received a large of amount of funding from a recent deal with El Paso General Hospital.

Through an Internet search, Billy finds out that several years ago, Reynolds was acquitted on marijuana drug smuggling charges. Billy also discovers that Reynolds has ties to a major drug cartel. And in a silly movie like “Death in Texas,” Billy decides that Reynolds will be a perfect person to rob. Never mind that Reynolds has a small squad of violent thugs who are his bodyguards and enforcers.

Meanwhile, Grace has ended up at El Paso General Hospital because her liver condition has gotten worse. One day, while she’s in her hospital room, she’s feeling so sick that she vomits on the floor. A hospital orderly comes into her room to check on her and clean up the mess. And that’s how she meets hospital orderly John Scofield (played by Stephen Lang)—their “meet cute” moment happens when he has to clean up her vomit.

Grace jokes to John that it’s “love at first sight.” He continues the flirtation, and there are romantic sparks between them. You know where this is going, of course. Just when Grace is dying, she meets someone who could be the love of her life. It’s not stated if John is divorced or widowed, but he’s definitely an available bachelor. Billy eventually meets John, and it leads to a very tacky soap opera moment that’s part of a big, heavy-handed plot twist in the movie.

Amid all the bloody carnage in the story, Billy meets a possible love interest too. Her name is Jennifer (played by Cheryl “Cher” Cosenza), who’s a street-smart bartender with a heart of gold. Tyler is also interested in her, but Jennifer thinks Tyler is a disgusting creep. Billy doesn’t have enough money to buy a liver on the black market, but he has enough money to become a regular customer at the bar where Jennifer works.

One of the worst things about “Death in Texas” is the movie’s pathetic depiction of law enforcement. Billy’s parole officer is Sarah Jensen, the same person who barged in his parole hearing to show a mystery file to the parole board. The information in that file is eventually revealed in the movie, but it’s definitely not surprising, considering what happens later in the story. The information in the file wouldn’t be enough in real life for a parole board to suddenly switch its decision to not parole someone.

Sarah’s first meeting with Billy after his release happens when she shows up at Grace’s house unannounced to interview Billy. Billy is outside, hosing down his car, because it has blood on it from a murder that he committed the night before. But this dimwitted parole officer doesn’t even notice the blood on the car when she’s talking to Billy. And throughout the story, she keeps showing up unannounced at the house, as if parole officers never make office appointments.

Even more incompetent is a homicide detective named John Wayne Asher (played by John Ashton), who is the lead investigator in the murders that Billy commits during his crime spree. Billy makes no attempt to cover his tracks, because he easily leaves his DNA and fingerprints all over his crime scenes. As a convicted felon, Billy would have his fingerprints on record and his DNA would be in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is a nationwide DNA database for convicted offenders. And yet, the dumb cops in this movie have a hard time finding out that Billy committed these crimes.

In addition to all of this idiotic portrayal of how law enforcement works, “Death in Texas” also bungles depictions of how hospitals work and what certain hospital employees would be able to do while on duty. There’s a big plot development revolving around the liver transplant part of the story that will make people groan or laugh at the stupidity of how this plot twist is handled. There’s almost nothing realistic about “Death in Texas,” except for a few conversations in the blossoming romance between Grace and John.

All of the acting in this movie veers between hokey and robotic. It’s as if no one was giving the cast members any consistent direction. And if they were given any competent direction, they certainly weren’t paying attention. Not that better acting would’ve saved this terrible movie, because “Death in Texas” was dead on arrival with its horrendously awful screenplay.

Vertical Entertainment released “Death in Texas” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 4, 2021.

Review: ‘The Artist’s Wife,’ starring Lena Olin, Bruce Dern, Juliet Rylance, Avan Jogia and Stefanie Powers

September 30, 2020

by Carla Hay

Bruce Dern and Lena Olin in “The Artist’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing)

“The Artist’s Wife”

Directed by Tom Dolby

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York state in the cities of East Hampton and New York, the dramatic film “The Artist’s Wife” has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans and one Indian American) representing the middle-class and upper-middle class.

Culture Clash: A woman who is married to a famous artist has problems dealing with his dementia, and she regrets abandoning her own artistic career to cater to her husband.

Culture Audience: “The Artist’s Wife” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching dramas about privileged people who find out that money and fame can’t make them immune from certain problems.

Lena Olin in “The Artist’s Wife” (Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing)

The dramatic film “The Artist’s Wife” takes an often frustratingly uneven look at a mid-life crisis of a woman coming to terms with some of the decisions that she’s made in her life. On the one hand, the movie is mostly well-acted and has some scenes that are heartfelt and genuine. On the other hand, “The Artist’s Wife” writer/director Tom Dolby makes some inconsistent choices in tone and editing that lower the quality of the movie. Ultimately, the movie’s occasional lack of cohesion is superseded by the good (but not great) performances by lead actors Lena Olin and Bruce Dern.

“The Artist’s Wife” will no doubt annoy people with feminist sensibilities because it’s about a submissive woman who spends most of the story coddling, enabling and making excuses for her awful husband. However, as uncomfortable as this movie might make some people feel about this very unequal partnership, the reality is that a lot of people have a relationship that’s just like the dysfunctional marriage of Richard and Claire Smythson, the fictional couple at the center of the movie. People’s lives can be messy and complicated, and they don’t always make the right decisions.

In the beginning of the film, Richard (played by Dern) and Claire (played by Olin) are being interviewed on TV while they sit on a couch together. Richard is a very famous artist who hasn’t shown a completed new painting in years, so he’s been coasting on his legacy. During the interview, Richard says as Claire looks lovingly at him: “I create the art. She creates the rest of our life. Everything we do is up to Claire.”

This interview might paint a rosy picture of Claire being a strong leader, but the reality is that Claire is not the one in charge in this marriage. She spends most of the movie doing whatever it takes to please Richard, who is demanding, stubborn, self-centered and extremely rude to everyone around him. Claire abandoned her own promising career as an artist to become a full-time homemaker.

It’s a decision that both Claire and Richard seemed happy with, as they’ve led a charmed and privileged life in East Hampton, New York. But then, Claire gets some bad news that turns her comfortable life upside down: Richard has been diagnosed with dementia. Claire knew that Richard was being more forgetful lately, but she assumed it was because of the natural aging process and because he’s been drinking more alcohol. However, it’s clear as the movie goes on that Richard’s terrible personality was a problem, even before he got dementia.

After Claire gets over the shock and denial about Richard’s dementia, she goes into “I’m going to fix this” mode, even though she’s been told by medical professionals that there’s no cure for dementia. One of the first things that Claire does is call Richard’s estranged daughter Angela (Richard’s only child) to tell her the news. Angela’s reaction is emotionally distant, as she tells Claire: “I didn’t want your money five years ago, and I don’t want it now.” Angela says, almost as an afterthought, “I’m sorry about Richard.”

It’s during this phone call that Claire finds out that Angela has a son whom Claire and Richard have never met. The son, who is 6 years old, can be heard in the background during the phone call. It’s clear that Angela doesn’t really want to talk to Claire for long, because Angela is abrupt and dismissive during their brief phone conversation.

The movie doesn’t go into details over what happened to Angela’s mother (who is not seen or mentioned in the film), but it’s implied that Angela’s parents probably got divorced when Angela was very young. It’s unclear whether or not Claire was the reason for the divorce, but Claire and Richard weren’t the ones who primarily raised Angela.

Richard has not had a good relationship with Angela for years. Angela comments to Claire about Richard: “He’s never really known me.” Later in the movie, Angela makes a snide offhand remark to Claire about Richard being good at disappointing people.

One day, Claire takes it upon herself to go unannounced to Angela’s apartment in New York City, to see if Angela wants to discuss reconciling with Richard. Claire also wants Richard to get to know his grandson before Richard dies. Claire’s unannounced visit goes as badly as you might expect it would.

Claire’s closest confidant is Richard’s art agent Liza Caldwell (played by Tonya Pinkins), who has resigned herself to thinking that Richard isn’t going to show any of his new paintings anytime soon. During a dinner videoconference call that Richard and Claire have with Liza, he refuses to show Liza a new painting he says he’s working on because his policy is that he and Claire are the only two people who get to see any of his unfinished paintings.

Even though Richard is not making any money from his unfinished paintings, apparently he has enough money to afford a $94,000 clock that’s the size of a cuckoo clock. Claire finds out that Richard made this purchase when the clock arrives in the mail and she opens the package and sees the total cost. She mildly scolds Richard, who angrily responds that he did nothing wrong because he wanted that clock. Claire then mutters to herself that she’s going to return the clock and get a refund.

To take her mind off of Richard’s grim medical diagnosis, Claire spends a night out in New York City with Liza at a gallery opening. Claire ends up getting drunk and misses the bus that would take her back to East Hampton. And so, Claire decides to make another unannounced visit to Angela’s apartment.

Claire asks Angela if she could stay over at Angela’s place. Claire says that she doesn’t want to take a taxi or rideshare drive back to East Hampton because she doesn’t want to be stuck in a long car ride with a stranger. Angela immediately says no, but then she reluctantly agrees to let Claire spend the night at her apartment. Angela also astutely tells Claire that Claire probably subconsciously wanted to get drunk and miss the last bus to East Hampton so Claire could use it as an excuse to come over to Angela’s place.

The next morning, Angela is introduced to Claire’s bright and adorable son Diego, nicknamed Gogo (played by Ravi Cabot-Conyers), and his caregiver Danny (played by Avan Jogia), who is an aspiring musician in his 20s. Angela is a lesbian who is going through a difficult divorce from her estranged wife (who is not seen in the movie), who is Gogo’s other parent.

Angela tells a sympathetic Claire that her estranged wife ended the relationship and moved in with a female fitness instructor eight days after leaving Angela. In other words, Angela is not in an emotionally good place in her life right now. But is Angela willing to mend her relationship with her father Richard and for Richard to get to know his grandson? That question is answered in the movie.

Meanwhile, it’s easy to see why Angela is reluctant to be in Richard’s life: He’s an emotionally abusive bully. Richard teaches an art class at a university, where he berates his young students about what he thinks it means to be a true artist. It’s horrendous behavior that he’s been getting away with for years because of his status as a famous artist.

During one of these sessions, he asks a female student what she paints with, and she gives a puzzled look before answering, “My brush?” That’s the wrong answer for Richard, who responds by pointing to a male student and says that the male student “paints with his cock. You paint with your cunt.”

Before the shocked and embarrassed female student can say anything, Richard sneers, “Maybe I should’ve taken a sensitivity training class before I came in today.” He tells the female student, in case she’s thinking about quitting on the spot: “The minute you go out that door, you’re telling me and everyone else in the class that you don’t have it. It’s not a painting unless you leave a piece of yourself on the canvas.” Rather than walking out of the class, the female student stays, probably out of fear.

In other class session, Richard asks a male student to explain the inspiration and meaning for one of the student’s paintings that has been completed and is sitting on an easel. The nervous and tongue-tied student can’t really answer the question, so Richard takes the painting and destroys it by smashing it on top of an easel. The shocked student is crushed by this humiliating act.

Claire is shown in the movie having a meeting with a school administrator, who tells Claire that the school had no choice but to fire Richard because of all the complaints that he was getting over the years. Claire’s reaction is to get angry and tell the administrator that Richard is just temperamental because that’s just part of his creative process and that the school should feel lucky to have Richard teaching there. The administrator takes out her phone and shows Claire a video of the incident where Richard destroyed the student’s painting. Claire just clucks her mouth and looks away, as if she doesn’t want to believe that Richard is that bad.

As Claire leaves the building in a huff, she removes one of Richard’s donated paintings that was on display in the building’s lobby. When a school employee tries to stop Claire from taking the painting, which was given as a gift to the school, Claire haughtily replies that the school was happy to use Richard’s name to attract students, and she thinks she has a right to take back the painting since Richard doesn’t work there anymore.

This scene is problematic but entirely consistent with Claire’s enabler attitude about the troublesome way that Richard mistreats other people. Claire doesn’t just stand by and do nothing; she vehemently defends Richard, despite knowing how much he hurts other people. There are plenty of real-life examples of people who are married to famous and powerful abusers, but they stay in marriages like this because they don’t want to give up access to power, which usually involves money and massive egos.

At home, Richard is an emotionally unavailable husband who is prone to unprovoked temper tantrums. And he’s far from a passionate lover. There’s a sex scene in the movie between Richard and Claire where he has some performance problems that Claire is understanding about and seems to be used to experiencing.

Earlier in the film, Claire asks her housekeeper Joyce (played by Catherine Curtin) why Joyce left her husband Bill and got divorced. Joyce replies, “I guess you could say we left each other … I didn’t know until Bill moved out how unhappy I’d been.” This conversation is an indication that Claire has also contemplated leaving Richard and divorcing him.

Although “The Artist’s Wife” has some realistic dialogue and acting, where the movie falters is in some of the hokey and predictable scenarios that are in the story. (Dolby wrote the movie’s screenplay with Nicole Brending and Abdi Nazemian.) In one scene, Claire is in her kitchen and squeezing a pomegranate to make some juice. She’s wearing a white T-shirt, and some of the pomegranate juice gets on the shirt. She then crushes the rest of the pomegranate so more juice can be spilled on her, as if her shirt is an art canvas.

It’s at this point you know that Claire’s desire to become a painter again is somehow “awakened.” And sure enough, Claire suddenly starts to paint as if her life depended on it. (Just like Richard, she does abstract art.) She buys art supplies and uses a barn-like shed on her property as her secret studio. Despite this reignited urge to paint again, she’s still afraid of what Richard will think.

Another motivation for Claire starting to create art again is when she visits an old friend she hasn’t seen in about 10 years: an avant-garde European artist named Ada Risi (played by Stefanie Powers), who just happens to have a retrospective exhibit in New York City. Claire goes to the exhibit, which has a lot of modern and futuristic pieces, and admires the art displays, probably with a little bit of envy. At the exhibit space, Claire has a friendly reunion with Ada, who definitely is an uninhibited free spirit, because during Claire’s visit, Ada does a photo session fully nude with other naked people.

There’s also a subplot about how Claire tries to get to know Angela and Gogo better, which means that Claire is also spending more time with Danny. When Claire and Danny first met, she assumed that he was gay, just like Angela. But he cheerfully corrected her and told her that he’s straight. You can easily predict the scenario that eventually happens between Claire and Danny.

“The Artist’s Wife” tries very hard to make it look like Claire is having some kind of feminist awakening in the last third of the movie. But it’s a false impression because she makes choices that all come back to how she feels in relation to her suffocating marriage to Richard, instead of how she feels as an individual. And she never really confronts Richard and holds him accountable for how he’s mistreated her and other people. Throughout the story, Claire goes out of her way to please Richard instead of being honest with him over how she really feels.

The movie also has a very “straight male gaze” to it, because only Olin is shown in a state of undress in the bedroom scenes. There’s a scene where Olin is standing around in a lacy bikini lingerie, as the camera lingers on her toned body. And the full-frontal nude scene with Powers also makes sure to highlight her physically fit body.

There’s almost a self-congratulatory way that director Dolby frames these fully nude and partially nude scenes with the women, as if to say, “See, I’m showing that women over the age of 60 can be sexy.” But it’s not exactly feminist when the male characters aren’t filmed in the same way. Jogia, who plays Danny, is a very good-looking man, and Danny might or might not end up being a “boy toy” for Claire. And yet, Jogia isn’t even seen with his shirt off in the movie.

There are so many things in the movie that are reminders that although the movie is called “The Artist’s Wife,” the women are written as hovering entities in Richard’s orbit. The character of Angela remains an enigma and could have been written better. The whole purpose of having Angela in the story is so that Richard can get a chance to redeem himself.

During many parts of the movie, Claire is almost like a supporting character, because she spends so much time focused on Richard’s wants and needs and cleaning up his messes. And she literally cleans up after him in more than one scene, such as when he smashes a bowl full of cereal on the kitchen floor, or when Claire comes home to find out that Richard has destroyed all of the furniture in the living room.

It’s questionable if “The Artist’s Wife” is really more concerned about the wife’s self-esteem or the husband’s redemption. The movie wants to give safe and predictable answers, by showing some trite scenarios that don’t always ring true. The most emotional authenticity in the movie comes from how Dern and Olin bring their characters to life in depicting a marriage that is a lot unhealthier than the spouses would like to admit.

Strand Releasing released “The Artist’s Wife” in select U.S. cinemas and on VOD on September 25, 2020.

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