Review: ‘King Richard,’ starring Will Smith

November 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Aunjanue Ellis, Mikayla Bartholomew, Will Smith, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton and Daniele Lawson in “King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“King Richard”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

Culture Representation: Taking place in the early-to-mid-1990s, mainly in California and Florida, the dramatic film “King Richard” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Coming from an underprivileged background, Richard “Richie” Williams becomes the first tennis coach of his daughters Venus and Serena, but his unorthodox methods often clash with the traditions of the elite world of tennis.

Culture Audience: “King Richard” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Will Smith and the real-life Venus Williams and Serena Williams, as well as people who are interested in well-acted sports movies about people who triumph against the odds.

Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton, Will Smith and Tony Goldwyn in King Richard” (Photo by Chiabella James/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The dramatic film “King Richard” is both a tribute and a feel-good Hollywood version of how Richard “Richie” Williams guided his daughters Venus and Serena to tennis superstardom. The movie is set in the early-to-mid-1990s, at the beginning of Venus’ and Serena’s tennis careers. The tennis matches in the story focus more on Venus’ rise to tennis glory, since her championships came before Serena’s.

In the role of Richard Williams, Will Smith gives a very charismatic performance as a flawed but loving and determined father. The movie shows in abundance how Richard Williams’ stubbornness was both an asset and a liability when he became the person who had the biggest impact on Venus’ and Serena’s respective tennis careers. As it stands, this movie is told from Richard’s male and very domineering perspective.

What saves this movie from being unchecked worship of patriarchy is that it gives credit to Oracene “Brandy” Williams (Venus and Serena’s mother, winningly played by Aunjanue Ellis) as being an underrated, positive force in the family. Oracene (who was a nurse when this story took place) was the one who held the family together in their toughest times. She was also the intelligence behind some of the crucial decisions that were made when Venus and Serena were underage children. If Richard was the “king” of the family, then Oracene was undoubtedly the “queen.”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green and written by Zach Baylin, “King Richard” doesn’t shy away from some of the controversial aspects of Richard Williams’ life, nor does the movie portray him as saintly. But the title of the movie says it all: The intention of “King Richard” is to give Richard Williams the same level of respect as the tennis stars who are treated as sports royalty. It’s a bit of a stretch, considering that Richard wasn’t the only coach that Venus and Serena ever had.

The movie acknowledges that Venus (played by Saniyya Sidney) and Serena (played by Demi Singleton) had plenty of other people who helped them along the way. There are moments when “King Richard” puts Richard Williams a little too much on a pedestal for being a “prophet” who predicted, when Venus and Serena were in elementary school, that Venus and Serena would become phenomenal tennis champs. Much ado is made about his 78-page plan where he made these predictions. The movie also depicts how Richard filmed homemade videos as electronic press kits to promote Venus and Serena.

Lots of parents have grandiose plans for their children, but it helps if those kids have the talent for whatever the parents are motivating them to do. This movie could have had a little more insight into the talent that makes Venus and Serena so special, as well as more information on when they started showing an interest in tennis. “King Richard” starts off with Venus at approximately age 11 and Serena at approximately age 10, with Richard as their “tough love” coach, already practicing on run-down tennis courts in their working-class hometown of Compton, California. At the time, Richard worked the night shift as a security guard.

The movie makes it look like all Richard had to do in the earliest days of their tennis career was to get Venus and Serena to practice a lot, in order to put the two sisters on the path to becoming great tennis players. But did Venus and Serena start with that passion for tennis, or were they pushed into it? The movie never says, because Richard (as the protagonist) is the main focus of the story. (It should be noted that Smith is also one of the producers of “King Richard.”) There are countless tennis parents who do the same things that Richard did to prepare their kids to become professional tennis players, but we don’t hear about them because their tennis kids just aren’t talented.

In the movie, Oracene (who was a widow when she married Richard in 1980) is the one who tells Richard that practicing on inferior tennis courts with substandard tennis rackets would get Venus and Serena nowhere, no matter how much hard work they did. Oracene is the one who motivates Richard to make the right connections in the elite world of tennis, where you need the kind of money that’s required to pay for training and entry fees into top tennis tournaments. However, the Williams family couldn’t afford these fees at the time. It’s at this point in the movie that Richard starts to transform himself into a maverick wheeler dealer in the tennis world.

He’s an unlikely tennis maverick. From the opening scene, the movie makes it clear that Richard’s English grammar skills aren’t very good, and he comes from a rough-and-tumble background. In a voiceover, Richard describes the type of upbringing he had: “Tennis was not a game peoples played. We was too busy running from the [Ku Klux] Klan.” (Richard was born in 1942 in Shreveport, Louisiana.)

Later in the movie, Richard tells his daughters: “When I was your age, I had to fight someone every day,” which is why he says that doesn’t get as fazed by setbacks as other people might be. The issues of racial differences and social-class inequalities are ever-present in the movie because a huge part of Venus’ and Serena’s success story is about how they became champions in a sport that’s been accessible mainly to white people who can afford it.

The Williams family members who are also depicted in the movie are Oracene’s three daughters from her first marriage: Tunde Price (played by Mikayla Bartholomew), Isha Price (played by Daniele Lawson) and Lyndrea Price (played Layla Crawford). (In real life, Venus, Serena and Isha are among the executive producers of “King Richard.”) When this movie takes place, the Williams household consists of Richard, Oracene, Venus, Serena, Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea. The girls are seen being being playful and happy around each other, doing things such as karaoke-type talent shows in their home when they spend time together.

However, “King Richard” has fairly shallow portrayals of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea as nothing but characters whose main purpose in life is to agree with Richard and cheer on Venus and Serena when needed. In a household of five sisters, the sisters are never seen arguing with each other, or having jealousy issues because a parent seems to favor one child over another. This lack of sibling conflict is very unrealistic. The movie doesn’t seem to want to acknowledge that Richard’s single-minded focus on making Venus and Serena tennis champs surely came at a cost to his relationship with his stepdaughters, who must have felt treated differently by him.

Even in the best of circumstances, “King Richard” makes it look like Richard didn’t think his stepdaughters were worthy of the same type of attention that he was giving to Venus and Serena. Richard briefly mentions that he thinks that his other daughters in the household are “future doctors and lawyers,” but if he spent any time supporting his stepdaughters’ career goals, the movie never shows it and never shows what those goals were. “King Richard” doesn’t make an effort to distinguish the personalities of Tunde, Isha and Lyndrea, because the movie just makes them background characters in the Richard Williams show.

The only time Richard is showing individual “protective dad” attention to one of his stepdaughters is in an early scene in the movie where 16-year-old Tunde is watching Venus and Serena practice on a Compton tennis court. Richard and his other stepdaughters are there too. Some guys in their 20s are nearby. One of them, who’s named Bells (played by Craig Tate), tries to flirtatiously talk to Tunde, who seems uncomfortable with his attention. She quickly walks away from Bells when Richard sees what’s going on and tells her to get away from this leering stranger. Richard steps in and orders Bells to leave Tunde alone because she’s only 16 and not interested in dating him.

In response, Bells turns into a thug and punches Richard hard enough for Richard to fall to the ground. Richard gets up and walks away, but all five of the girls have witnessed this assault while waiting in Richard’s Volkswagen van. When he gets in the van and he’s asked if he’s okay, that’s when Richard says he had to fight someone every day when he was the same ages as his daughters. “And I didn’t have no daddy to stand in the way,” he adds. “They’re going to respect y’all.”

It won’t be the last time Richard takes a beating. He gets beat up physically, emotionally and mentally in various ways during his unstoppable efforts to make Venus and Serena among the greatest tennis players of all time. He gets plenty of rejections, of course. And he’s openly ridiculed for his decision to take Venus and Serena out of junior league tennis tournaments, so that Venus and Serena could focus on their education and go directly to the professional leagues. He often annoys people with his blunt approach, because he can be arrogant.

Richard is not a smooth talker, but the one characteristic that defines Richard in his key to his success is persistence. He’s well-aware that he doesn’t come from an educated, privileged and well-connected background. But that’s exactly why he’s so hungry for the success that he wants for Venus and Serena. He’s also fiercely proud and supportive of Venus and Serena, even if they lose a match. At least that’s how the movie portrays him.

Because of Richard’s persuasive finagling, Venus and Serena sign on with their first professional coach: Paul Cohen (played by Tony Goldwyn), who agrees to coach Venus and Serena for free because he believes in their talent and wants a cut of any prize money they will eventually win. For a while, Oracene helped RIchard with coaching duties for Serena when Cohen initially said he would only coach one of the sisters for free, and Richard decided it would be Venus. Later, Venus and Serena sign on with coach Rick Macci (played by Jon Bernthal), who agrees to relocate the entire Williams household to Macci’s home base in Florida’s Palm Beach County, where he pays for all of their living expenses and buys them the house where they live.

Macci is also motivated by getting a percentage of the millions that he thinks Venus and Serena will eventually earn. At the time, the Rick Macci International Tennis Academy (in Delray Beach, Florida) was best known for training tennis star Jennifer Capriati (played by Jessica Wacnik), who was an idol of Venus and Serena. Macci is shocked and dismayed when the investment he thought he made in Venus and Serena as future junior league champs turns out to be funding for Venus and Serena to not go on the junior league circuit after all.

It’s because Richard didn’t want his future tennis champs to get burned out on the junior league circuit. Richard tells Macci of this plan after Richard got what he wanted in their contract. Richard made the then-controversial and unheard-of decision to take Venus and Serena out of the junior leagues (the traditional route for tennis players to turn pro), so they could go to school like “normal kids” while training to go straight into the professional leagues.

Richard is further convinced he made the right decision when he sees the scandalous downfall of Capriati, beginning with her 1994 arrest for marijuana possession. The arrest exposed many of Capriati’s personal problems, which she has since largely blamed on the pressures and burnout of her junior league tennis career. Many people doubted that Venus and Serena could turn pro in their mid-teens, but Venus and Serena proved the naysayers wrong.

In addition to Capriati, other real-life tennis players are depicted by actors in brief appearances in the movie. They include John McEnroe (played by Christopher Wallinger), Pete Sampras (played by Chase Del Rey) and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (played by Marcela Zacarias), who is Venus’ opponent in the movie’s big tennis showdown. McEnroe and Sampras are seen training with Cohen during one of Richard’s first meetings with the coach. Don’t expect any of these other tennis stars to have any meaningful lines of dialogue in the movie. Each person only says a few sentences.

In the movie, Richard is depicted as being a proverbial “helicopter dad” who hovers during practice and tries to tell coaches Cohen and Macci how to do their jobs. The movie demonstrates in these scenes that these coaches only tolerated Richard because of Venus’ and Serena’s talent, not because these coaches genuinely liked Richard as a friend or respected him as a business person. Macci, who’s more emotional than Cohen, isn’t afraid to express his anger at feeling deceived or frustrated by Richard. Both coaches are the friendliest to Richard when it’s about how they can make money off of Venus and Serena.

The movie tends to gloss over the fact that for all of Richard’s big talk, what really opened important doors for Venus and Serena were the money and connections of coaches such as Cohen and Macci. Richard was a package deal with Venus and Serena. We’ll never know how differently Richard might have been treated by some of these people if Venus and Serena weren’t his underage children at the start of their tennis careers.

In other words, if Venus and Serena weren’t underage children under Richard’s legal control, would he have been as successful in launching their careers? The movie implies the answer: Probably not, because less people in the tennis industry would’ve tolerated him and his admittedly alienating ways.

However, it’s precisely because Richard was the father of Venus and Serena that he protected them in ways that many coaches or managers probably would not have protected them. The issue of race cannot be underestimated because Venus and Serena got “real talk” from Richard about the racism they would experience in the sport of tennis, which has a reputation for being elitist and catering mainly to white people. As such, one of the movie’s obvious “Oscar bait” clips is a scene where a tearful Richard tells Venus in a pep talk about her groundbreaking role in professional tennis: “You’re not just going to be representing you. You’re going to be representing every little black girl on Earth!”

Venus and Serena are portrayed as polite, hardworking children who have no other interests besides tennis and hanging out with their sisters. In the movie, Richard is shown discouraging Venus and Serena from getting too close to kids outside of their family. When Richard wants a “yes” answer from his daughters, they answer, “Yes, Daddy,” like robotic kids on command. Richard expects Venus and Serena to tell him he’s their best friend when he asks. Venus complies with the answer Richard wants to hear, but Serena says Venus is her best friend first.

It’s all played for laughs and feel-good cheer. But some of this banter just seems a little too phony, giving the impression that a lot of the real story is left out about how Richard would lose his temper and say harmful things to Venus and Serena. It’s hard to believe this movie’s rosy portrayal that Richard never really yelled hurtful things to Venus and Serena, when every hard-driving, tough-talking coach does that one point or another to people whom the coach is training. The perspectives of Venus and Serena are not given much importance in this movie, except when it comes to how they’re going to win tennis matches.

For example, viewers never learn what Venus and Serena liked to study in school or what types of friends they made in school, even if the movie makes it look like Richard was the type of father who didn’t want his underage daughters to invite any friends to visit them in their home. The movie never shows how the family celebrated milestones such as Venus’ and Serena’s birthdays, or when they graduated from middle school to high school. It’s a strange omission, considering that in real life, Richard got a lot of criticism precisely because he wanted Venus and Serena to have “normal” school experiences at that age instead of going on tennis tours.

The movie’s erasure of Venus’ and Serena’s childhood experiences that aren’t related to tennis or family all goes back to the patriarchal purpose of the movie: Showing how Richard programmed Venus and Serena on how to be tennis champs, not how to prepare them for life after tennis. There have been several documentaries about Venus and Serena where the two sisters openly admit that they will have a difficult time dealing with life when they both retire from tennis.

And how hard was Richard on Venus and Serena? The movie hints that people had concerns. There’s a scene where a police officer and a government social worker go to the Williams home in Compton to investigate a complaint that Venus and Serena were being abused because of all the rigorous training that Richard made them do.

Richard and Oracene are naturally insulted and defensive. They deny any abuse, and nothing comes of the complaint. The movie makes it look like a jealous neighbor named Ms. Strickland (played by Erika Ringor) is behind the complaint, but you have to wonder if that neighbor character was created in the movie as a villainous stand-in for well-meaning people in real life who had concerns about Richard’s parenting skills.

Whether or not there was any abuse, the family did have serious problems, which is acknowledged in one of the movie’s best scenes. It’s when Oracene confronts Richard for letting his ego stifle Venus’ wishes to play in the professional leagues at the age of 14. Oracene and Richard have an argument, which leads to Oracene verbally ripping into Richard for abandoning the family he had with his first wife and not seeming to care about having a relationship with the children he left behind in the divorce. (Richard had five biological kids and one stepchild with his first wife Betty Johnson, to whom he was married from 1965 to 1973.)

During this argument, Oracene reminds Richard that he’s had a string of failed businesses because he gave up too quickly when things got a little too hard for him. It’s easy to read between the lines, even though the movie doesn’t come right out and say it: Venus and Serena were Richard’s last-ditch attempt to get rich after he failed at starting his own businesses. He needed their talent because his own skills as an entrepreneur were questionable at best.

In the movie’s zeal to put Richard on a “prophet pedestal” and to make Oracene and Richard look like a loving couple that will stay together “’til death do us part,” the movie’s epilogue leaves out this reality: Richard and Oracene divorced in 2002. In 2010, Richard married his third wife Lakeisha Juanita Graham (who’s young enough to be his daughter), they had a son, and then the marriage ended in divorce in 2017. Maybe the “King Richard” filmmakers think that the public shouldn’t care about these details of Richard being a failure as a husband because Venus and Serena turned out to be rich and famous.

Despite the flaws in the movie’s screenplay, “King Richard” has exemplary acting from Smith, who gives one of his best movie performances as the gruff but compelling Richard. Sidney’s portrayal of Venus gets more of an emotional journey than Singleton’s portrayal of Serena, who is mostly in Venus’ shadow at this point in the sisters’ lives. (In real life, Serena would later emerge has having a more assertive personality than Venus.)

In the movie, Richard explains to Serena that he planned for Venus to become a star first. Richard predicts Venus will be ranked No. 1 in the world before Serena achieves that same goal, but Serena will eventually be considered by many to be the “greatest of all time” in tennis. He tells Serena: “I knew you was rough, you was tough, and you was a fighter.”

Sidney and Singleton both adeptly handle the movie’s tennis-playing scenes. A big highlight of the movie is an emotionally gripping, climactic scene at the 1994 Bank of the West Classic tournament in Oakland, California. One of the movie’s strengths is that it doesn’t fall into the usual clichés of how sports dramas usually end. However, the tropes of a “tough love” father/coach are played to the hilt.

As a sports movie, “King Richard” might disappoint some viewers who are expecting more screen time devoted to tennis matches. But more tennis matches on screen should be expected if Venus and Serena were the central characters. “King Richard” never lets you forget that the central character is someone who was never a pro tennis player: Richard Williams. However, the movie has the grace to admit that Venus and Serena turned out to be extraordinary people because of their mother Oracene too.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “King Richard” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on November 19, 2021.

Review: ‘Midnight in the Switchgrass,’ starring Megan Fox, Bruce Willis and Emile Hirsch

August 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Megan Fox and Bruce Willis in “Midnight in the Switchgrass” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Midnight in the Switchgrass”

Directed by Randall Emmett

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

Culture Clash: Law enforcement officials try to capture an elusive serial killer who targets prostitutes for murder.

Culture Audience: “Midnight in the Switchgrass” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching boring, forumlaic and predictable crime dramas.

Lukas Haas and Megan Fox in “Midnight in the Switchgrass” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

It’s quite a stretch to call “Midnight in the Switchgrass” an “original movie,” since this formulaic dud recycles every movie/TV cliché about cops looking for a serial killer who targets prostitutes. If you’ve seen any movie with the same concept, then you know exactly what to expect in “Midnight in the Switchgrass.” A derivative film might be mildly acceptable if there was some excitement in the story or if the characters had charisma.

But the filmmakers of “Midnight in the Switchgrass” made no attempt at having anything in the movie that that could be described as “suspenseful” or “surprising.” And the cast members look like they’re just going through the motions. There are zombies that have better personalities than almost all of the characters in this dull and dreary crime drama.

Directed by Randall Emmett and written by Alan Horsnail, “Midnight in the Switchgrass” doesn’t even have a clever title. The movie’s title refers to a switchgrass field in Florida where the killer keeps some of his victims captive in a hidden storm tunnel. Switchgrass is also mentioned as a place where one of the serial killer’s murder victims used to hide as a child to escape from an abusive father. The movie takes place mostly in Florida’s Pensacola area, where two cops from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement are on the hunt for the serial killer. (This movie was actually filmed in Los Angeles and Puerto Rico.)

“Midnight in the Switchgrass” has probably gotten more publicity for being the movie set where co-stars Megan Fox and Colson Baker (also known as musician Machine Gun Kelly) fell in love. Fox separated from her actor husband Brian Austin Green after finishing the movie. She and Baker went public with their romance after that. It’s probably the only thing that people will remember about this dreadful movie.

Fox and Baker have just one very short scene together in “Midnight in the Switchgrass,” near the beginning of the film. She portrays an undercover cop named Rebecca Lombardi, who usually goes undercover as a prostitute. (How stereotypical.) Baker plays a sleazy pimp named Calvin “Calxco” Colton, who’s got Rebecca in a motel room, and he wants her to do some prostitution work for him, but she’s stalling.

The sting almost goes awry when Calxco starts to get rough with Rebecca, and it seems as if he won’t let her leave the motel room. She fights back in ways that show she’s not a typical hooker but someone who’s got combat skills. Luckily, Rebecca was able to alert her police colleagues through audio surveillance, and the cops arrive in time to arrest Calxco.

One of the colleagues who worked with her on this sting is Byron Crawford (played by Emile Hirsch), an earnest cop with a very fake-sounding Southern accent, thanks to Hirsch’s terrible acting in the movie. Byron ends up taking the lead on the investigation into the prostitute murders that are plaguing the area. Byron and Rebecca want Claxco to give information about who’s been murdering prostitutes and dumping their bodies along the highway. Claxco gives a clue about what the suspected killer’s truck looks like, and then Claxco isn’t seen in the movie again.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because the investigation of this prostitute-murdering serial killer uses the same formula as other similar movies and TV shows. The obligatory grizzled and jaded cop veteran is FBI agent Karl Helter (played by Bruce Willis), who’s only in about 25% of the movie. Translation: “Midnight in the Switchgrass” didn’t have the budget to hire Willis in a role where he would get most of the screen time. Willis looks like he’s just there for the easy salary, and he looks completely “checked out” emotionally in this movie.

The only important thing that Karl tells the Florida cops is that the federal government doesn’t want to get involved in finding this serial killer. And so, Byron and Rebecca do most of the legwork to solve the case. And you know what that means: Rebecca is going undercover as a hooker again, so that she can be bait for the serial killer. You can almost do a countdown to when she gets held captive by the serial killer. (And it would be easy to predict, even if it wasn’t shown in the movie’s trailer.)

Through surveillance footage, the cops find out that the serial killer is most likely a truck driver, because many of the murder victims were last seen at or near a truck stop. There’s even surveillance video of one the of murder victims being forced to leave with him. And sure enough, the killer really is a truck driver. The movie’s trailer shows his face, so it’s not spoiler information to reveal that the killer is a married father named Peter (played by Lukas Haas), who’s been leading a double life.

Predictably, Peter has a “Jekyll & Hyde” personality: He’s mild-mannered and quiet to most people, but he’s a rage-filled monster when he’s alone with his victims. He doesn’t kill all of his victims right away, but he keeps them tied up in the storm tunnel to torture and sexually assault them. Peter also has a barn with a locked door to hide a lot of evidence related to his murders. Because the movie reveals early on who the serial killer is, there’s no mystery or suspense. The screenplay for “Midnight in the Switchgrass” is so lazy and generic, there’s not even an explanation for why Peter turned out the way that he did.

It must be frustrating for aspiring filmmakers who have truly original ideas for movies but can’t get the financing for these movies to be made, while unimaginative junk like “Midnight in the Switchgrass” is churned out, just because some actors with well-known names signed on to the project. You can almost hear the thought process of the “Midnight in the Switchgrass” producers: “Sure, there’s already a lot of movies and TV shows about cops looking for a serial killer, but this movie doesn’t have to be good, as long as we might make a profit from it.”

“Midnight in the Switchgrass” is the type of sexist movie where almost all of the adult female characters have shallow, underdeveloped roles as prostitute crime victims or dutiful wives/mothers at home. Peter has a wife named Karen (played by Lydia Hull) and a daughter named Bethany (played by Olive Elise Abercrombie), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Peter’s wife and daughter have no idea that he has this secret life as a serial killer. Byron has a baby daughter named Bella with his wife Suzanna (played by Jackie Cruz), who does nothing in this movie but fret over her husband

And the movie doesn’t really care to give the prostitute victims any real personalities. They have names like Heather (played by Sistine Rose Stallone), Chastity (played by Katalina Viteri), Tracey (played by Caitlin Carmichael) and Sarah, who has no dialogue in the movie because she’s already dead. Peter’s victims are typically all young and pretty.

In one unrealistic scene, one of the prostitutes invites Peter into her motel room before they even discuss the price of her services. You don’t have to be a sex worker to know that’s just not the way they do business. A sex worker wouldn’t invite a potential customer to a room until the sex worker knows first how much the customer is going to pay.

As for undercover cop Rebecca, she’s one of the few women in the movie who isn’t a prostitute or a dutiful wife/mother. However, she still spends about half of her screen time pretending to be a hooker. It’s just an excuse to have Fox in a movie where she has to dress like a prostitute and spend a considerable amount of screen time being tied up in the scenes where she’s been kidnapped.

There’s a half-hearted attempt to make Rebecca a little feisty, but the dialogue is so bland for all of the characters, viewers who have the misfortune of sitting through this dreck will have a hard time remembering any specific lines of conversations after the movie is over. If you make it to the end without falling asleep, you’ll find that “Midnight in the Switchgrass” fails to live up to its description as a “thriller,” since there is almost nothing in this horrific misfire that is thrilling.

Lionsgate released “Midnight in the Switchgrass” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 23, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on July 27, 2021.

Review: ‘Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman,’ starring Chad Michael Murray

August 16, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chad Michael Murray in “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures/Voltage Pictures)

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman”

Directed by Daniel Farrands

Culture Representation: Taking place in Washington state, Utah and Florida, from 1974 to 1989, the true crime/horror film “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Hispanics) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Real-life serial killer Ted Bundy goes on a murder spree targeting adolescent girls and young women, as law enforcement officials try to apprehend him. 

Culture Audience: “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching tacky and exploitative re-enactments of true crime cases.

Jake Hays and Holland Roden in “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” (Photo courtesy of Dark Star Pictures/Voltage Pictures)

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is the type of vile and idiotic movie that seems to delight in exploiting the murder sprees of serial killer Ted Bundy, who was imprisoned and electrocuted for his crimes. Too bad there’s no “filmmaker jail” for people who’ve made careers out of dumping this type of horrific garbage into the world. Everything about this movie is laughably amateurish, but it’s actually not funny to see how disrespectfully these filmmakers have treated a real-life horror story where people’s lives were destroyed. The movie has very little regard for these victims because the movie’s focus is on glorifying their murderer as if he’s some kind of legendary horror character.

“Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” was written and directed by Daniel Farrands, whose early career included producing documentary content for fictional horror movies such as “A Nightmare on Elm Street” and “Friday the 13th.” But now, as a feature-film director, he’s made it his specialty to do extremely cheesy dramatic versions of true crimes, beginning with 2018’s “The Amityville Murders” and continuing with 2019’s controversial schlockfests “The Haunting of Sharon Tate” and “The Murder of Nicole Brown Simpson.”

Next on Farrands’ list of true crime stories to annihilate into irredeemable oblivion are “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” and “Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman,” both set for release in 2021. Since there’s no shortage of notorious murders, we can assume that Farrands will keep shamelessly churning out this type of disgraceful dreck until he decides to stop. Farrands is also a producer of the trashy movies that he directs.

True crime stories and stories about real murderers will continue to be made into scripted films and TV projects. But a lot of what’s worth watching depends on the quality of these projects and how respectful these projects are to the victims. You don’t have to be a psychic to know that there’s a massive difference in the quality of 2003’s “Monster” (for which Charlize Theron won an Oscar for portraying Aileen Wuornos) and the tabloid-like excrement of “Aileen Wuornos: American Boogeywoman.”

Other actors have portrayed Bundy before—most notably, Mark Harmon in the 1986 NBC miniseries “The Deliberate Stranger,” Billy Campbell in the 2003 USA Network movie “The Stranger Beside Me” and Zac Efron in the 2019 Netflix film “Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile.” Luke Kirby portrays Bundy in the 2021 RLJE Films drama “No Man of God,” which is set for release on August 27, and got mostly positive reviews after the movie’s world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival. Chad Michael Murray is woefully miscast as Bundy in “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” and is easily the worst portrayal of this notorious serial killer.

In addition to his subpar acting, Murray is in a cheap-looking wig and creepy moustache for the majority of the movie, even though the real Bundy was clean-shaven for most of his crime spree. It doesn’t help that Murray and the rest of the cast are given cringeworthy dialogue that wouldn’t even pass muster in an amateur film made by teenagers in someone’s backyard. “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” offers no real insight into Bundy’s psychology at all, unless you consider it illuminating that he keeps repeating in the movie things like “I’m invisible” and “I am no one” when he commits his crimes.

Bundy’s murder sprees took place in many U.S. states, including Washington, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Oregon, California and Florida. He is believed to have murdered about 100 women and girls, but he confessed to 30 and was ultimately convicted of murdering three females, as well as attempted murder and kidnapping for some of his victims who escaped. Most of his victims were sexually assaulted, even after death. There are plenty of books, documentaries and news reports that have the disgusting details of his crimes.

Because “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is a low-class, low-budget film, the movie only focuses on four law enforcement officials who worked on these cases of missing and murdered Bundy victims. Two of these law enforcement officials get the most screen time and all the credit in this movie for apprehending Bundy, who had escaped from jail in Colorado twice and was arrested for the last time in Florida after another killing spree. This movie is so highly inaccurate, the scene where Bundy is captured in Florida only has one cop going into the building to arrest him, and two other cops showing up later. In real life, Bundy’s fugitive status and notoriety would have warranted a large team of law enforcement to be there to take him down.

There’s a disclaimer before the movie’s opening credits that admits that parts of the movie were fabricated for dramatic purposes. Still, there’s so much that’s hard to take with how moronically everything is staged in the movie and how horrific the acting is. Holland Roden, who portrays real-life Seattle police detective Kathleen McChesney, could get a M.A. degree from this movie alone, if M.A. stood for “melodramatic acting.” Most of her performance looks like an unintentionally bad parody.

Kathleen is portrayed as the only woman on a small Seattle police task force that is investigating Bundy. She has to deal with two very sexist co-workers—a father-and-son lunkhead duo named Capt. Herb Swindley (played by Anthony DeLongis) and Shane Swindley (played by Sky Patterson), who assumes he’s eventually going to be promoted into his father’s job. The movie tries to make up for its rampant female exploitation by making Kathleen the biggest hero of the story.

Too bad they also make Kathleen say and do a lot of dumb things that no self-respecting cop would do, such as go without any backup into a building to arrest armed and dangerous Bundy. In an early scene, Kathleen is giving a lecture to other cops on the task force about the evidence gathered so far. Bundy had a type of victim whom he liked to target: adolescent girls and young women with long dark hair, usually parted in the middle.

Misogynistic cop Shane comments that some of the victims might have had other things in common: long legs and short skirts. He smirks that the victims were “the type that’s maybe out for a good time. Maybe they led this guy on. You know how the old saying goes: ‘If they’re advertising, they must be selling.'” Kathleen replies, “If stupidity were painful, Shane, you’d be in agony.” That’s what’s supposed to pass for “witty” dialogue in this brain-rotting film.

Meanwhile, FBI investigator/profiler Robert Ressler (played by Jake Hays) shows up at this Seattle police station, to inform the cops that the federal government is taking over the investigation. Capt. Swindley is angry about this change in command, because he thinks that the FBI is intruding on an investigation that he wants to lead. This toxic boss also makes a point of telling Robert that Kathleen was only hired as a token female, so that she could “soften up the witnesses” when needed.

Needless to say, any enemy of the Swindleys becomes a fast friend of Kathleen’s. The rest of the movie’s “investigation” essentially just shows Robert and Kathleen working on the case, even though in reality, there were dozens of law enforcement officials (federal, state and local) who were involved in investigating all of Bundy’s widespread crimes. Just because a movie has a low budget to hire a relatively small number of actors doesn’t mean that a movie has to lie about the truth.

In real life, Robert Ressler was credited with coming up with the term “serial killer.” However, this movie makes it look like it was Kathleen McChesney’s idea, and she generously let Ressler take all the credit for it. The scene is badly written as Kathleen comparing serial killers (originally called sequence killers) to serials on television, “because they leave people wanting more. It’s a never-ending cycle.”

Except that it’s law enforcement’s job to stop these serial killings, so that these murders shouldn’t be a “never-ending cycle” from the same person. In response to her asinine comment, Robert says to Kathleen, “You’re going to make one hell of an agent someday, McChesney!” In real life, McChesney eventually did join the FBI to great success, but it’s an insult to her that she’s portrayed as such an over-the-top drama queen in this movie. (By contrast, Hays’ portrayal of Robert Ressler is so bland, it makes barely an impression at all.)

The movie makes Kathleen look like she’s trying to be in Charlie’s Angels, because her long, flowing red hair is worn unrestrained and styled like an actress. In real life, cops who have very long hair usually have to wear their hair pinned up or pinned back while on the job, because long hair can get in the way of their vision if they have to run or fight. Long hair worn unrestrained also makes it easier for an assailant to attack by pulling the hair. It’s standard police procedure to wear long hair in a restrained way, but don’t expect this movie to care about a lot of realistic details.

Bundy’s kidnappings, assaults and murders are filmed just like a violent horror movie, but the filmmakers surprisingly had some restraint by not really showing a lot of the actual physical impact when Bundy bludgeons someone to death. The gruesome sound editing gives people enough of an idea of what’s going on during these blood-soaked scenes. The sexual assaults are not as explicit as some people might think they would be. However, there’s still plenty of disturbing violence that will nauseate people who get easily squeamish.

Even though there are horror movies that are much more graphic with blood and gore than this film, what’s offensive about “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is that it treats the victims as just boxes to check off in Bundy’s “to do” list. The movie re-creates two of his most well-known methods to lure his victims into his Volkswagen Beetle: He either pretended to have an injured arm or injured leg and asked for help near his car, or he pretended to be an undercover cop who told the victim that he saw someone try to break into her car and she needed to come with him to the police station to file a report.

However, the movie makes some of these scenarios pathetically unrealistic. In the movie’s opening scene—which takes place on October 18, 1974, at a pizza place in Midway, Utah—two young female friends (who are in their late teens) become Bundy victims. Their names are Jill (played by Gianna Adams) and Melissa (played by Julianne Collins), and they both encounter Bundy separately, within minutes of each other. One of the pals avoids getting harmed, while the other one doesn’t.

Jill has gone outside to smoke a cigarette, when she sees Bundy (using crutches to fake a leg injury) in the pizza place’s back parking lot. He looks very suspicious, because he’s wearing a face covering from his nose down, like a burglar would. Bundy asks for Jill’s help in picking up his car keys, which are on the ground. And when she hands the keys to him, he drops the keys again—this time, underneath his car. And Jill still falls for this obvious ruse. Her friend Melissa comes out of the pizza place, just minutes later.

Here’s the thing: In real life, Bundy didn’t cover his face like that when approaching victims, because he wanted to catch the victims off guard by gaining their trust. He also told them his real first name. That’s how over-confident he was in not getting caught. It ended up being his undoing when one of his victims escaped and testified against him. And several women who didn’t fall for his scams also reported his suspicious activities to law enforcement.

Another more ridiculous scenario is staged in the movie in a nighttime scene that takes place on October 31, 1974, in American Fork, Utah. Bundy is driving in his Volkswagen Beetle on a secluded road that’s deserted except for a young woman named Laura (played by Gabrielle Haugh), whom he follows and asks, “Need a lift?”

She immediately yells at him, “Fuck off and die!” He gets angry, stops the car, and runs after her. And instead of running toward an area where people will be, Laura runs into a dark greenhouse, thereby making it easy for Bundy to find her in that enclosed space. It’s so predictably stupid.

The movie also depicts Bundy’s abduction of the real-life Carol DaRonch (played by Olivia DeLaurentis) on November 8, 1974, in Murray, Utah. This time, Bundy uses his undercover cop scam in this kidnapping. Carol mistakenly gets in his car, instead of following him in her own car. Carol manages to escape but not before Bundy hits her on the head with a crowbar. He lets out a howl of frustration that might make people laugh at how terrible Murray’s acting is in this scene.

It gets worse. Bundy’s real-life obsession with violent pornography is depicted in the movie in ways that you can’t un-see, such as Bundy masturbating to this type of porn, which he looks at in magazines. The movie doesn’t show anything extremely explicit—just quick images of scantily clad female body parts, but no actuall full-frontal nudity. If you waited your whole life to see Chad Michael Murray as a vicious serial murderer in a movie where he’s shown getting off on sleazy snuff porn, then “Ted Bundy: American Boogeyman” is the movie for you.

At one point, just like in real life, Bundy (using the alias Chris Hagen) is shown renting a room at a mostly female boarding house near the Florida State University campus, after the second time he escaped from jail in Colorado. The boarding house’s manager Dottie (played by Alice Prime) was an aspiring fashion designer and still keeps many nude female mannequins inside the house. You know what comes next: There are scenes where Bundy is alone with the mannequins, and he starts kissing the mannequins like the pervert that he is. It’s implied that he does other things to the mannequins besides kiss them.

And then it turns into a weird hallucinatory scene (complete with psychedelic red lighting) of Bundy imagining himself rolling around on a bed with three hooded women dressed in dominatrix gear, while one of the women hits him with a club. At the end of the scene, it’s shown that Bundy actually took some of the house’s mannequins and was role playing this sex scene with the mannequins, which are now dismembered.

Horror film “scream queen” Lin Shaye embarrasses herself in her unhinged performance as Louise Bundy, Ted’s biological mother who comes across as having disturbing psychological problems of her own, except that she’s not a murderer. A famous true story about Ted is that he found out a dark family secret when he was a young man: The woman he thought was his older sister was actually his mother, who gave birth to him out of wedlock, and his mother’s parents raised him as their own son.

In the movie, Louise hints that Ted was born from incest rape by Louise’s abusive father, although in real life there was never any concrete evidence presented to prove who Ted’s real biological father was. Louise says like a woman possessed, “Father used to say that Ted was conceived in hell. I suppose that would make him the devil!” Louise is in the movie for just two scenes—both with her being interviewed by Kathleen and Robert. The second scene is one of the worst in this bottom-of-the-barrel trash dump of a movie.

If you still have the stomach to watch this movie until the very end (which includes a ludicrous re-enactment of Ted Bundy’s 1989 death by electrocution at the age of 42), you will learn nothing new or interesting about this notorious criminal, his victims or the real story of how he was caught by law enforcement. The only thing you will learn is that this movie will surely hold the title of the worst movie ever made about Ted Bundy. This isn’t just like watching a train wreck. It’s like watching a nuclear bomb of extremely bad taste and putrid filmmaking.

Dark Star Pictures and Voltage Pictures released “Ted Bundy: An American Boogeyman” in select U.S. cinemas (through Fathom Events) for one night only on August 16, 2021. The movie’s release date on digital, VOD and DVD is on September 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Zola,’ starring Taylour Paige and Riley Keough

June 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Riley Keough and Taylour Paige in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Zola”

Directed by Janicza Bravo

Culture Representation: Taking place in Florida and briefly in Detroit, the comedy/drama “Zola” features a racially diverse cast of characters (African American, white and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A stripper-turned-waitress in Detroit meets and quickly befriends a scheming stripper, who entices to the waitress to travel to Florida to make easy money stripping for a weekend that ends up wilder than they both expect.

Culture Audience: “Zola” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramedies about the perils of being a sex worker that are raunchy and violent with a quirky and sometimes off-kilter vibe.

Nicholas Braun, Riley Keough, Taylour Paige and Colman Domingo in “Zola” (Photo courtesy of A24)

The dramedy film “Zola” (directed by Janicza Bravo) has been getting a lot of comparisons to director Harmony Korine’s 2013 violent and hedonistic romp “Spring Breakers” and director Lorene Scafaria’s 2019 stripper crime drama “Hustlers.” It’s probably because all three movies, which blend carefree partying with an ongoing sense of danger, are about women unapologetically using their bodies and sex appeal to get what they want, as they have various levels of involvement with sleazy characters. “Zola” is not as hilariously bonkers as “Spring Breakers,” and it’s not as well-paced as “Hustlers,” but there are enough offbeat comedic moments and memorable performances for people curious enough to take this bumpy ride with two very different strippers.

The “Zola” screenplay, written by director Bravo and Jeremy O. Harris, is based on a series of real-life tweets made in 2015 by A’Ziah “Zola” King, who went on an epic 148-tweet rant about her misadventures during a stripper road trip with a fast friend who eventually became her enemy. (The movie’s prologue has a statement that reads, “What follows is mostly true.”) In real life, this friend-tuned-foe is named Jessica Rae Swiatkowski. In the movie, her name is Stefani Jezowski.

And in the beginning of the movie, Zola (played by Taylour Paige) gets right to the point when she says in a voiceover: “You want to know how me and this bitch here fell out? It’s kind of long but full of suspense.” Much of the comedy in the movie comes from the racial and cultural dynamics when Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough) end up clashing and getting on each other’s nerves.

Zola, who is African American, can best be described as a free spirit with boundaries. She has no problem with being a stripper, but she refuses to be a prostitute. She’s fun-loving but level-headed, trusting but cautiously jaded. Stefani, who is white, can best be described as someone with insecurities over her identity. Stefani desperately wants to sound like she’s a tough black person who’s “from the streets,” but she switches to an “innocent white girl” persona when it suits her. Stefani has no qualms about being a prostitute, and she’s very impulsive and manipulative.

Stefani (who is 21) and Zola (who is 19) meet one day when Stefani is a customer at the Detroit diner where Zola works as a waitress. (In real life, Zola worked at Hooters.) Stefani’s way of complimenting Zola is by telling her, “Damn, bitch. You’ve got perfect titties. I wish I had titties like that. They look just like little apples.”

Stefani’s date with her at the restaurant is a man named Johnathan (played by Nasir Rahim), who’s about 15 to 20 years older than Stefani. In reaction to Stefani complimenting Zola about Zola’s breasts, Johnathan says, “Oh, so you’re just going to pull that dyke shit in front of me and not include me.” Stefani replies like a gum-chewing teenager, “You’re so dumb!”

Stefani is so intrigued with Zola that she follows her into a back room for the diner’s employees only. Stefani tells Zola that she’s sure they’ve met somewhere before, so Stefani asks if Zola is a dancer. Zola says she used to dance, and Stefani’s eyes light up. She tells Zola that they should dance together sometime. Stefani also mentions that she’s a single parent to a daughter, whom she calls her baby, and shows Zola a picture of the girl.

In the beginning of the movie, there are hints that Zola and Stefani might be sexually attracted to each other. When they have their first conversation, the movie shows heart graphics on screen, as if there’s instant infatuation. Although it would be very predictable for Zola and Stefani to be openly bisexual and act on it with each other—a very common trope in stripper movies that are usually directed by men—Bravo doesn’t use that formula.

Instead, Zola’s attraction to Stefani is how easily Stefani can make someone feel like an instant best friend. Zola also seems fascinated by this woman who clearly wants to be accepted by the African Americans. And so, when Stefani calls Zola the next day to invite her to go on a road trip to Florida to make some easy stripping money, Zola is intrigued but doesn’t immediately say yes. Zola wants to know who else is going on the trip before she agrees to go on the trip.

One of the people on the trip is Stefani’s dimwitted boyfriend Derreck (played by Nicholas Braun), who is very passive and has anxiety issues. The other person on this road trip is in the driver’s seat, literally and metaphorically: a Nigerian immigrant who doesn’t have a name in the movie but who is listed in the film credits as X (played by Colman Domingo), who switches back and forth between his Nigerian and American accents. A recurring joke in the film is that people keep bungling X’s real name when they say it, so it’s unclear what his name really is. In real life, the alleged pimp’s name was Akporode “Rudy” Uwedjojevwe.

Zola has a live-in boyfriend named Sean (played by Ari’el Stachel), who isn’t thrilled that Zola will be going back to stripping, even if it’s only for a weekend. Zola has sex with Sean to ease some of his disapproval. She also convinces him that the trip will be good for them because they need the extra money. And so, when Zola gets into the black Mercedes SUV with Stefani, X and Derrek, she’s feeling pretty good about this trip to Tampa, Florida. That feeling won’t last long.

Within 24 hours, Zola finds out that X is Stefani’s domineering pimp. And he wants Stefani and Zola to turn tricks for him. He’s the type of gun-carrying pimp who will take all or most of his prostitutes’ money, and say it’s for their “expenses.” And when Zola tries to leave, X threatens her and tells her that he knows where she lives.

One of the biggest flaws in the movie is how supposedly street-smart Zola couldn’t figure out a way to leave this bad situation, since she’s not being held captive physically (she’s never tied up or locked in a room), and X isn’t with Zola and Stefani all of the time. Zola has her purse with her at all times. Couldn’t she use a credit card, debit card or another method to pay for a way back home? And if she was afraid to call the cops, why didn’t she at least call her boyfriend Sean to tell him what was happening so that he could help her get out of there?

The movie isn’t concerned about letting Zola find a way to escape because it’s implied throughout the movie that a big part of Zola likes to seek out danger as a way to bring excitement to her life. Zola’s biggest regret seems to be that she misjudged Stefani, who at first seemed like someone Zola could trust as a friend, but ends up being someone who becomes extremely annoying and mistrustful to Zola.

The best parts of “Zola” have to do with some of the “ratchet” banter between Zola and Stefani. There are also some characters they encounter who bring some laughs. In a strip club dressing room, there’s a hilarious scene of a stripper prayer huddle, led by a “large and in charge” husky-voiced dancer named Hollywood (played by Ts Madison), where the strippers pray for men with “good credit,” “culture” and “big dicks.” The stripper named Hollywood acts like a melodramatic church preacher who’s praying for a miracle.

There’s also a recurring catch phrase that Zola says in a deadpan voice when she’s stuck in a room where Stefani is having sex with someone: “They started fucking. It was gross.” And during a scene where Zola is on a strip club stage and getting a bill tucked into her bikini bottom by a middle-aged white customer, he says to her with some excitement, “You look a lot like Whoopi Goldberg!” It’s the movie’s way at poking fun at white people who think that all black people look alike.

The movie also parodies the racial differences between Zola and Stefani, in a segment where Stefani gives her “rebuttal” version of what happened, based on a series of Reddit messages that are re-enacted in the movie. In Stefani’s version, she’s an innocent Christian girl who was led astray by a “trashy” black woman. In this re-enactment of Stefani’s version of the story, Stefani is wearing a conservative-looking pink skirt and blazer and Zola is literally wearing garbage bags when they get in the car on the road trip. It’s an obvious commentary on how the race card can be played in trying to manipulate people’s perceptions of who’s “guilty” and who’s “innocent,” based on someone’s physical appearance.

Just like in “Hustlers,” the lingering camera angles on the stripper activities and dancer bodies are meant to be more sensual than exploitative. Pole dancing is presented as an athletic art form that requires talent in balance and precision. And although Stefani and Zola both have sex scenes and stripper scenes, neither has full-frontal nudity in the movie. It’s a very “female gaze” film because only men have full-frontal nudity in “Zola,” during a montage where Stefani entertains a series of customers in a hotel bedroom.

Zola, Stefani, X and Derrek are an unusual quartet that will keep viewers interested in seeing what’s going to happen to them. And without the talents of the actors depicting these characters, “Zola” wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. Ari Wegner’s cinematography is vibrant and eye-catching. It was influenced by Hieronymus Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” according to the “Zola” production notes. But how a movie looks won’t matter much if the movie’s characters don’t hold people’s attention.

Some of the movie’s editing gives “Zola” almost a hypnotic quality, particularly in scenes where Zola and Stefani stand in front of a mirror and seem mesmerized by their own images. As if to demonstrate how in sync they are before their friendship turns sour, there’s a scene where Zola and Stefani do their hair and makeup together with almost identical movements. However, as visually striking as many of the scenes are in “Zola,” the movie’s pacing tends to drag in the middle of the film.

There’s also a shady character named Dion (played by Jason Mitchell), whose intentions are telegraphed so blatantly, it leaves no room for suspense or mystery for why Dion is in the movie. He’s a stranger who chats up Derrek at the hotel where they’re staying at, and when Dion shows up again later in the movie, viewers won’t be surprised why. People can easily predict what can happen in any movie where a pimp with a gun carries around a lot of cash and makes it obvious that he’s traveling with prostitutes and no backup security people. The last third of “Zola” crams in an action scene that’s a little clumsily handled and fizzles out some of the naughty comedy that enlivens the movie.

“Zola” can also get a little too repetitive with the back-and-forth interactions of Stefani doing something to irritate Zola, and Zola reacting by calling her a “bitch” or some other insult. Derrek’s relationship with Stefani is exactly what you think it is: He’s madly in love with her and easily forgives her transgressions when she makes cutesy romantic talk to him. There’s no backstory of how Derrek and Stefani met and how long they’ve been together, but it’s clear that she’s not really in love with him and she’s just using him.

Very few movies can successfully balance violence and raunchiness with satire and emotional gravitas. “Zola” makes an attempt and often succeeds, but it’s a movie that might disappoint people who are expecting a more unique, madcap adventure. The movie also somewhat glosses over the real horrors of sex trafficking, just to get some cheap and tawdry laughs. Zola might be skilled at making sassy and salty remarks, but she’s got a lot to learn about being a truly powerful and independent woman.

A24 will release “Zola” in U.S. cinemas on June 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Some Kind of Heaven,’ starring Dennis Dean, Barbara Lochiatto, Anne Kincer and Reggie Kincer

January 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dennis Dean in “Some Kind of Heaven” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

“Some Kind of Heaven”

Directed by Lance Oppenheim

Culture Representation: Taking place in the retirement community of The Villages, Florida, the documentary “Some Kind of Heaven” features an all-white group of mostly senior citizens who live in The Villages, with a few people of color shown who are non-residential employees.

Culture Clash: Some of the people in the documentary aren’t entirely comfortable with the self-contained “bubble” lifestyle of being in this retirement community.

Culture Audience: “Some Kind of Heaven” will appeal primarily to people interested in seeing how people in a Florida retirement community live, but don’t expect to see any real diversity in this community.

Barbara Lochiatto in “Some Kind of Heaven” (Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures)

The first few scenes of “Some Kind of Heaven” almost look like an infomercial for The Villages, Florida—the retirement community that is the subject of this documentary. Residents gush about how close to perfect their life is in The Villages, which had a population of about 120,000 to 130,000 people in the 2010s decade, according to various statistics. This movie was filmed from 2018 to 2019. But as the documentary goes on to focus on four people in particular, it’s revealed that things aren’t quite so rosy as they first seem to be at The Villages.

“Some Kind of Heaven” is the first feature film from director Lance Oppenheim, who mixes whimsical travelogue-type shots that look like idyllic recreational group activities for senior citizens and contrasts these scenes with the harsh realities of what some of these residents are dealing with in their private lives. The four people who get the spotlight are:

  • Anne Kincer and Reggie Kincer, a married couple who celebrated their 47th wedding anniversary during the filming of this documentary.
  • Barbara Lochiatto, a widow whose husband Paul had died about four months before she was filmed for the documentary.
  • Dennis Dean, a homeless bachelor who was living out of his van and illegally squatting at The Villages.

The Villages, located in central Florida’s Sumter County, was co-founded in the 1970s as a development for mobile homes. However, business was slow and didn’t flourish until Harold Schwartz and his son Harold G. Morse (who took his stepfather’s last name) began developing The Villages as a middle-class retirement community in 1983. Schwartz and Morse wanted The Villages to be self-contained and marketed as a “Disney World of retirement communities.” There are no amusement park rides in The Villages, but there are numerous activities that are typical of what’s offered on cruise ships.

The documentary includes archival footage of Morse (who died in 2014) explaining that the idea was to make The Villages a place so full of activities and conveniences, that residents would feel like they didn’t have to leave The Villages borders for anything else. It’s technically not a gated community, but it has security people who patrol the area, to give it an “exclusive” and “protected” ambience. Morse also mentions that the retro architecture and landscaping of The Villages were made to remind retirees of the places where they grew up.

And apparently, that includes reminders of a racially segregated America, since there are almost no people of color who seem to live in The Villages, based on what’s shown in the documentary. The few people of color who are featured in the documentary are those who work in this retirement community, but don’t live there and certainly aren’t shown in the myriad of residential group activities (such as dancing, swimming or playing golf) that get considerable screen time in the documentary.

As an example of how people of color are mostly relegated to submissive “servant” roles that are meant to comfort the residents, there’s a scene where Lochiatto gets her nails done at a salon, and an Asian female manicurist gives Lochiatto some sympathetic advice on being a widow. The manicurist says that she was a widow and is now remarried. The documentary shows that the people in The Villages don’t seem to care about having racial diversity in their community, since they never talk about it, and they readily admit that they like to live in this community “bubble” that has been manufactured for them. What they don’t say in the film is this reality: People tend to move to areas where they feel welcome, which is why some communities are racially diverse and others are not.

It should come as no surprise that The Villages is most definitely a community that believes in the “Make America Great Again” political slogan originally made famous by Ronald Reagan and later used by Donald Trump. It’s a known fact that most of The Villages residents are conservative-leaning Republicans. However, “Some Kind of Heaven” goes out of its way to erase this big part of The Villages’ identity. It’s as if the filmmakers didn’t want to alienate potential viewers of this documentary by even mentioning that The Villages is a hub of conservative political activity.

In the production notes for “Some Kind of Heaven,” director Oppenheim explains: “I saw an opportunity to tell a story that went beyond partisan politics and spoke to something that I found more existentially interesting and unsettlingly relatable: the absurd lengths that many Americans go to—especially those nearing the end of their lives—to live inside of a fantasy. The Villages—by design—offers a decidedly conservative vision of the American Dream, and my goal in making this film was to inhabit that fantasy and call it into question. By documenting the experiences of those who didn’t fit into the community’s advertised way-of-life, I was able to explore something more honest, open and universal about how the human struggle—no matter how much you try to evade it—continues throughout the rest of life.”

Despite the questionable decision to exclude any mention of The Villages’ identity as a mostly conservative Republican community, “Some Kind of Heaven” is more entertaining than not, even if several scenes look staged. The dialogues often look semi-rehearsed. That’s not to say that people in the documentary had lines of dialogue fed to them. But “Some Kind of Heaven” is the type of documentary where you get the impression that the people being filmed were asked to repeat their words and actions, so that the filmmakers could choose the best versions for the movie.

The film’s editing is at times haphazard and random. One minute, the documentary is showing viewers a roomful of women who all say, one by one, “Hi, my name is Elaine,” as they all wear “Elaine” name tags. The next minute, something else is shown, and these women are never seen in the documentary again. There’s no explanation of who these Elaines really are and what kind of group discussions or activities they have. The documentary has scattershot, brief introductions to other groups of people, who are then also never seen again.

The beginning of the movie features a montage of The Villages residents giving various praise about their community. There are comments such as, “Everything is so positive,” “This is nirvana,” and “When you live here, you kind of become younger.” People are shown in various polished and playful settings, looking as if they’re always in the middle of a dream vacation. Throughout the film, there’s some impressive work from cinematographer David Bolen, who sets up some very scenic, colorful and eye-catching shots.

Anne Kincer says, “When you move here, it’s kind of like going to college.” Dean observes, “Where else can you party seven days a week? It’s a great place.” Lochiatto explains why she moved with her husband Paul from Massachusetts to this Florida retirement community: “The Villages seemed like a magical, beautiful place. I decided that I would sell my house, and we decided that we would move down here and start fresh.”

But slowly, the cracks of discontent begin to show with the documentary’s four main subjects. The passion has dwindled in Anne and Reggie Kincer’s marriage, and they mention that they feel more like “roommates” than a married couple. To make matters worse, Reggie (who says he feels like a misfit in The Villages) has become hooked on illegal drugs in his quest for “spiritual enlightenment.” He’s shown smoking what looks like hashish, and he admits that he also regularly indulges in marijuana. And later in the documentary, he has to go to court after being arrested for possession of marijuana and cocaine. (His arrest is not shown in the documentary.)

Dean, who says he was 81 years old when this documentary was made, is a self-admitted hustler. He somewhat brags that the only reason why he’s hanging out at The Villages is so he can find an attractive, financially generous woman whom he can date, with the hope that she will financially support him and let him move in with her. Dean hasn’t had much luck in finding a “sugar mama” by going to the community’s nightclubs and churches, but he says he’s been having better luck at the community’s main public swimming pool. The documentary shows him making moves on a few women, who see right through his act and don’t fall for his pickup lines.

Lochiatto’s storyline is the least interesting of the documentary’s four main subjects, simply because her situation of being a lonely widow isn’t that unusual in a retirement community. Lochiatto, who often looks sad and rarely has a genuine smile, gripes that she wishes she could go back to Massachusetts, but she can’t afford to do that because all of her savings are gone. She also seems self-conscious about still having to work full-time (she answers phones in an office job), compared to most of The Villages residents who are comfortably retired.

Later in the documentary, Lochiatto shows more of a personality when she takes a group acting class and gives an impressive dramatic monologue. She also has a mild flirtation with a golf cart salesman named Lynn Henry, who tells her up front that he’s “playing the field” by dating more than one woman. However, it’s clear that Lochiatto is starting to develop a crush on him, based on how she finally starts to smile and appear more light-hearted after meeting him.

Henry is a big fan of singer Jimmy Buffett (whose fans are nicknamed Parrotheads), so he invites Lochiatto to a Parrothead outdoor party. However, Lochiatto pouts and looks hurt when Henry spends time dancing with a pretty blonde at the party. It’s as if the documentary wants to show that even in old age, someone can still feel like an awkward teenager when it comes to dating.

The drug addiction drama with the Kincers isn’t as explosive as it could have been, mainly because Anne is a stoic, non-confrontational spouse who prefers to be in denial about the problem for too long. Reggie is the type of person who believes that his spiritual health should involve doing a lot of tai chi and doing a lot of mind-bending drugs. Even when Reggie is clearly hallucinating and seeming to lose touch with reality—at one point, Reggie says that he’s died and has been reincarnated as God—Anne still doesn’t really want to deal with it.

Anne comments with a weary tone on Reggie’s escalating drug addiction and its damage to his mental health: “I don’t understand it and I don’t like it, because I think it’s a dependency on something that just is not good for you. But I can respect what he found and what he’s looking for.”

Anne eventually admits that she thought about leaving Reggie, but she decided against it because she believes in her wedding vows to stay married in sickness and in health. Reggie’s arrest seems to have shocked her out of denial about how bad his drug problem is and how it could have long-lasting, negative effects on both of their lives. Reggie decides to be his own attorney in the court proceedings, and this decision leads to unintentionally embarrassing results for him. The documentary uses the courtroom’s closed-circuit camera footage to show what happened.

In court, Reggie talks too much and talks out of turn, prompting the judge to remark in open court that Reggie is the rudest person he’s even dealt with in court—even ruder than rapists and murderers. Reggie then tries giving smarmy compliments to the judge, which doesn’t work. Reggie then tries to appeal to the judge’s sympathy by claiming he has health issues, such as getting a recent MRI and experiencing mini-strokes. The judge’s decision in this court case is not a surprise, considering that there’s an obvious racial difference in the U.S. criminal justice system when it comes to punishment for drug possession and other crimes. If Reggie had been a person of color, his punishment most likely would’ve been very different.

The documentary shows that Dean, whose background is very vague, also has a criminal record, and he moved to Florida to avoid something from his past. He’s obviously a skilled liar/con artist, so whatever he says about himself is questionable. The filmmakers definitely were not concerned with fact-checking anything he said. It’s pretty obvious that Dean was chosen to be in this movie only to liven up the film, because a lonely widow and two emotionally conflicted elderly spouses look kind of boring in comparison.

While Dean illegally squats on The Villages property, there are hints that the community’s security people and some other residents know that Dean is homeless and shouldn’t be there, but no one bothers to kick him out. Dean outright denies that he’s homeless when certain people tell him that they know he’s living out of his van. Dean also shows an anonymous note that was left on his van that said, “I know that you don’t live here. If you want to avoid trouble, don’t come back.”

However, Dean doesn’t take this note seriously and he continues his hustling games. How does he get money? He says he has a background in handyman work, so he does occasional handyman odd jobs. For food, he often gets free food at churches and at places that serve buffet meals. And he takes showers in his swim trunks in the swimming pool areas that have public showers. He deals with other hygiene issues (such as brushing his teeth and shaving) in public bathrooms.

Dean’s low point in the movie comes when he completely runs out of money, and there’s a montage of him making desperate phone calls to people he knows and asking to borrow money from them. After a series of rejections, he starts dropping hints to the people he calls that if he doesn’t get the money he needs, he’ll kill himself. It’s quite the display of emotional manipulation.

Finally, an ex-girlfriend of his named Nancy Davis comes to Dean’s rescue (what she does won’t be revealed in this review), but even that’s not enough to satisfy him. During his “I’ve run out of money” point in the movie, Dean comments on his life: “I said from the get-go that I would live fast, love hard, and die poor. I’m right there now. I’m poor.”

Although Dean is the most memorable person in the documentary, he’s also the most mysterious. Any background information about Dean is only told by him, and even that information is dubious because he seems to be a pathological liar. He vaguely mentions a past marriage and a string of bad relationships with women. He doesn’t mention having any living relatives, except for his mother.

And it’s clear that he doesn’t go to church for religious reasons but to see how he can get money or favors from people he meets in church. Dean has a private counseling session with one of the church ministers named Rev. Norman Lee Schaffer. This scene is almost comical because it’s obvious that Dean doesn’t care at all about religion or spiritual beliefs but wants some kind of handout.

Rev. Schaffer is a middle-aged man who mentions that he had a wild past as a touring musician. But at around the age of 40, Rev. Schaffer says he changed his ways because he didn’t want to end up having the kind of life that Dean has. After they pray together, Dean seems disappointed that the reverend didn’t give him any money, food or other donations. And so, Dean continues trying to hustle women.

One of the odd things about this documentary is that there’s no mention of Dean, Lochiatto and the Kincers having any children or grandchildren, nor are they visited by any relatives. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to convey a sense that The Villages is a place that “disconnects” people from the real world. But this family omission also makes the people in this documentary less relatable, almost like they’re playing a part in a movie, instead of truly letting a documentary crew show all aspects of their lives.

Surprisingly, the homeless and rootless Dean is the documentary’s only featured person who’s shown having a connection, albeit a brief one, to a family member who lives outside of The Villages. There’s a short scene of Dean talking to his mother on the phone and lying to her about being employed and saying that his life is going very well. Dean’s mother must’ve given birth to him when she was very young, because Dean says more than once in the movie that he’s 81. But given all the lies he tells in the movie, who really knows if that’s true?

“Some Kind of Heaven” has enough moments where people will be curious to see what happens and how the movie is going to end. That curiosity will keep viewers engaged, but this documentary has a tendency to treat people more like plot devices and photo ops instead of as well-rounded human beings. The Villages retirement community might want to be a bubble removed from reality, but “Some Kind of Heaven” ultimately made a very safe and passably entertaining attempt to burst that bubble.

Magnolia Pictures released “Some Kind of Heaven” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 15, 2021.

Review: ‘The Infiltrators,’ starring Maynor Alvarado, Manuel Uriza, Chelsea Rendon, Dino Nicandros, Marco Saavedra, Viridiana Martinez and Mohammad Abdollahi

May 1, 2020

by Carla Hay

Manuel Uriza and Maynor Alvarado (both pictured leaning forward, at far left) in “The Infiltrators” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

“The Infiltrators”

Directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra

Partially in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Broward County, Florida, the docudrama “The Infiltrators”—about a group of young Dreamer activists who want undocumented immigrants to be set free at a detention center—has a cast that is predominantly Latino, with some representation of white people, African Americans and Asians.

Culture Clash: The activists, who are part of group called the National Immigrant Youth Alliance, have an underground network to free undocumented immigrants from a U.S. detention center in Broward County, and they have conflicts with immigration officials to achieve their goals.

Culture Audience: “The Infiltrators” will appeal mostly to people who are sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants and Dreamers, but the movie’s “split personality” of being a documentary and a scripted drama ends up being a distraction to the overall message.

Chelsea Rendon and Dino Nicandros in “The Infiltrators” (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

At what point does a movie that tries to be a documentary end up being a docudrama? When the scripted re-enactments with actors take up most of the screen time instead of actual interviews with the documentary subjects. It’s why the “The Infiltrators” (directed by Alex Rivera and Cristina Ibarra), although well-intentioned, has an uneven tone that dilutes and muddles what could have been a more impactful film if it let the real people involved tell most of the story, instead of actors.

About 65% of the screen time in “The Infiltrators” consists of scripted re-enactments of what are said to be true events. About 25% of the movie consists of archival footage, while the remaining 10% consists of interviews with the actual people who went through the experiences that are depicted by actors in the movie. It would be inaccurate to call this movie a “documentary,” because the movie is really a docudrama or a scripted dramatic movie with some documentary elements. “The Infiltrators” co-director Rivera wrote the movie’s screenplay with Aldo Velasco.

“The Infiltrators,” which takes place mostly in 2012, tells the story of how members of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance (NIYA) formed an underground network to get undocumented immigrants (or illegal aliens, depending on your viewpoint) released from Broward Detention Center in Florida. NIYA consists primarily of Dreamers: people who came to the U.S. as children of undocumented immigrants.

Three of the NIYA members, who were in their early 20s at the time, get the spotlight in “The Infiltrators”—group leader Marco Saavedra, Viridiana “Viri” Martinez and Mohammad Abdollahi. Saaverda and Martinez are of Mexican descent, while Abdollahi is of Iranian descent. Because they were underage when they immigrated to the U.S., they are in a gray area of not being legally responsible for breaking immigration laws themselves, since they were brought into the U.S. by adults.

However, Dreamers are still not eligible to become legal U.S. citizens. There are very divisive and heated debates on what should be done about undocumented immigrants who are working, productive members of society, and what should be done about Dreamers who want to work or go to college after they turn 18. Should they be deported or should they be given a path to citizenship?

“The Infiltrators” undoubtedly takes the side of the immigrants getting a path to legal citizenship, since NIYA’s goal is to prevent deportations of undocumented immigrants in the U.S. who are productive members of society. In order to get immigrants at detention centers released, NIYA members who are Dreamers got themselves deliberately put into the detention center to contact certain immigrants whose families enlisted the help of NIYA.

While at the detention center, NIYA got the targeted immigrants to sign privacy waiver forms that allowed NIYA members on the outside to get petitions signed on the behalf of the detained immigrants. The movie shows that the waiver forms could be smuggled out by detention-center people who had access to the visitor area (such as people on cleaning duty), and then the waiver forms could be given to pre-planned visitors. Because the detention centers are overcrowded, someone can be released without being deported, if enough political pressure is put on people in the U.S. Congress or other influential politicians who represent the region where the detainee usually lives.

“The Infiltrators” shows scripted re-enactments of experiences that Saaverda (played by Maynor Alvarado) and Martinez (played by Chelsea Rendon) had in deliberately getting themselves locked up in Broward Detention Center. Saaverda and Martinez (at separate times) just walked up to a local U.S. Border Patrol Office, revealed their immigration status by playing dumb, and were then taken to the detention center. Meanwhile, the movie (through some archival footage, but mostly through re-enactments) shows that Abdollahi spearheaded the NIYA efforts outside the detention center to get petitions signed and garner media attention for their detention cases. In the movie, the Abdollahi character’s name is changed to Radam Berlinger, and he is portrayed by actor Dino Nicandros.

In “The Infiltrators,” the detained undocumented immigrants who get help from NIYA include Claudio Roja (played by Manuel Uriza), a middle-aged married father who was detained after he reneged on his promise to voluntarily go back to Mexico. Emiliano, Claudio’s oldest son (played by Orlando Peña), also received NIYA assistance when he was in the detention center for three months. Another immigrant named Beni (played by Juan Gabriel Pareja) also gets help from NIYA.

Viewers would be mistaken to think that “The Infiltrators” will show a lot of abuse by detention workers. No one gets beat up or called racist names. The worst “abuse” shown in the movie is when a guard gets angry at a detainee for loitering while on janitor duty. The guard yells at the detainee to keep mopping the floor, and then angrily kicks the detainee’s mop bucket away. The movie is obviously a very toned-down version of how people are treated in facilities such as this one.

And the detention center looks like an unrealistic movie version of a detention center, considering the horrific conditions of real immigration detention centers, which are basically jails under a different name. And the movie unrealistically avoids showing any fighting or unsanitary conditions in the detention center. It’s hard to believe that an overcrowded, incarcerated population would be this peaceful and clean. It’s one of the reasons why the dramatized, scripted parts of the movie don’t look very authentic and does a disservice by not showing people the grim and disturbing realities of what really go on in these detention centers.

The main “detention tension” shown in the movie is when Marco and Claudio get paranoid that the detention center’s “frogs” (the word used for detainees who snitch to the guards) will find out about their plans. And toward the end of the film, Marco convinces a group of detainees to join him in a protest by fasting. But aside from Claudio showing some signs of weight loss, the movie glosses over the impact of fasting, and it’s treated in a way that’s almost glib. One of the detainees quips that the reason why he immediately agrees to fasting is because the food in the detention center isn’t very good anyway.

The movie also does an inadequate job at addressing how racism plays a role in how people are treated in the immigration system. A lot of viewers probably won’t notice that there are no white people shown as detainees in the detention center. The racial disparity is not mentioned at all in the film. It’s necessary to point it out to make people aware that white undocumented immigrants (and a lot of them do exist, contrary to what’s shown in the media) are not rounded up and put in detention centers to the same degree that people of color are targeted for this type punishment.

The majority of the detainees in this detention center are Latino, while the rest are African or Asian. Think of how many white immigrants in the U.S. are undocumented or have expired visas, but they’re usually not yanked out of their homes or jobs and taken to detention centers. And considering that the majority of immigration officials are white, it’s no wonder that immigration is a hot-button racial issue in the United States.

And there’s another level of racial preference that’s glossed over in the film: As depicted in the movie, NIYA members give priority help to Latinos, since most of the NIYA members are also Latino. There’s a scripted scene that shows Martinez somewhat befriending an African immigrant named Neema Mukun (played by Délé Ogundiran), who shares a cell-room with her, and the African woman shows interest in having the NIYA help her. But in the end, the only people in the movie who get freed with NIYA’s help are people who “remind them of their families” (as the actress portraying Martinez says in the scripted portion of the movie)—in other words, people who are Latino.

That racial preference might also be a function of how racially segregated detention centers can be, but the movie could have been a lot more honest about this racial preference instead of using an African woman as a token character.  If the NIYA made equal efforts to help detainees of non-Latino races, it’s not shown in “The Infiltrators,” which is another reason why the movie’s over-reliance on scripted re-enactments ends up short-changing what could have been more of a well-rounded picture.

When the movie cuts to scenes of the real people (not the actors) in archival footage or in interviews, it’s a reminder of how much better the movie would have been if the majority of the scenes were in documentary format. That’s because the real people tell the story in much more compelling ways. They actually lived these experiences and can tell eyewitness  details that would be more impactful, as opposed to a second-hand interpretation of events.

If the interviewees were dull or awkward on camera, then it would be understandable for the filmmakers to rely so heavily on re-enactments. But Saavedra, Martinez and Abdollahi are not only charismatic, they also have a great sense of humor. And the former detainees who got assistance (such as the real Claudio and Emiliano Rojas) have a lived-through trauma in their eyes and demeanor, which can’t be faked by actors. The actors in this movie do an adequate job, but they’re not as memorable as the real people.

The NIYA “infiltrators” ended up getting a lot of media attention, which kind of defeats the purpose of keeping things “underground” in order to operate without detection from authorities. Because the identities of the “infiltrators” were exposed in the media, they had to stop what they were doing because immigration officials now know about it. And since their tactics have been revealed to the public, it would be much harder for other people to try the same methods.

The problem with putting all of this in a dramatic, scripted format while trying to pass this movie off as a nonfiction is that the viewers don’t know how much of the script was exaggerated or fabricated for dramatic purposes. Toward the end of the movie, it flashes forward to Election Day in 2016, to show documentary footage of the real Saavedra (not the actor) watching on TV, to his dismay, the impending results of the U.S. presidential election. The film ends very abruptly on another scene of the real Claudio Rojas on his way to a required check-in appointment with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). But the Election Day 2016 footage in the movie is a reminder that when it comes to current ICE policies and issues, “The Infiltrators” is not just an overly scripted film but it’s also an outdated one.

Oscilloscope Laboratories released “The Infiltrators” in virtual cinemas on May 1, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is June 2, 2020.

Review: ‘Diving With Dolphins,’ starring Roger Horrocks, Didier Noirot, Tad Luckey, Joe Mobley, Laura Engelby, Angela Zillener and Paul Atkins

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Roger Horrocks in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Diving With Dolphins”

Directed by Keith Scholey

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary is a behind-the-scenes look at the making of the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef,” with an all-white crew of filmmakers who worked in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida to make the documentary.

Culture Clash: The film crew sometimes had to battle the weather and unpredictable nature of ocean life.

Culture Audience: “Diving With Dolphins” will appeal mostly to people interested in documentaries about ocean animals, but it’s not essential viewing for people who see the “Dolphin Reef” documentary.

Didier Noirot in “Diving With Dolphins” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Diving With Dolphins” is a “making of” documentary about the Disneynature documentary “Dolphin Reef.” And just like “Dolphin Reef,” the movie gives almost as much screen time to humpback whales as it does to dolphins. People who’ve seen “Dolphin Reef” don’t really need to see “Diving With Dolphins” because it seems more like a series of outtakes strung together by narration rather than a documentary with a fascinating storyline.

Directed by Keith Scholey (who co-directed “Dolphin Reef”) and narrated by Celine Cousteau (granddaughter of Jacque Cousteau) has a lot of the same gorgeous cinematography that “Dolphin Reef” has, but the movie doesn’t really give much insight into the filmmakers’ personalities. It’s kind of a tedious repeat of “get to a location, set up cameras, shoot some film, and then go to the next location.”

The documentary takes place in three main areas: French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida. There are also separate shoots for the dolphins and the humpback whales. “Dolphin Reef” focuses on two bottlenose dolphins bottlenose dolphin mother named Kumu her 3-year-old son Echo), as well as two humpback whales (a mother named Moraya and her newborn female calf Fluke.

The people on the film crew include cinematographers Roger Horrocks, Paul Atkins, Didier Noirot and Jamie McPherson. They are accompanied by scientists Angela Zillener, Laura Engelby and Joe Mobley. And there are some skippers shown in the movie, such as Tad Luckey (whose Luckey Strike boat is in a lot of the humpback whale footage), Carl Ellington and Paris Basson, who’s a jet ski skipper.

Horrock has a clear preference for dolphins, which he’s been filming for decades. He says, “Dolphins are the probably most charismatic mammals that you can get in the ocean. They have a mammalian conscious, so we feel a kinship to them.” Horrock believes that dolphins are the “most welcome” animals he’s ever filmed and adds, “filming dolphins is the most physical because they’re constantly on the move.”

Meanwhile, Noirot, who used to be part of Jacque Cousteau’s crew, is described as someone who’s has more than 30 years of experience of ocean filming. He’s shown in the humpback whale film shoots. Noirot comments, “Hawaii is a good location to film humpback whales because of the whale population. You’re sure to see whales [and] crystal-clear water.”

Most of the filming was underwater, and the scenes that were film outside the water was done mainly by bot, by jet ski and by helicopter. Underwater, a scooter was used with a torpedo-like propeller to get some of the fast-moving shots. But there was a lot of down time during the film shoots, since it took several weeks to get close enough to a humpback whale and a calf to film for the movie.

Although scientist Zillener says that the crew got to know amore than 200 dolphins during the film shoot and that “to understand the animals, you have to be one of them,” there’s no effort made to single out any of the other animals (besides the four main stars) by describing their personalities in “Diving With Dolphins.” The movie would have benefited from more anecdotes about some of the animals who had standout personalities. In the movie, all of the animals appear to be generic. In “Dolphin Reef,” the some of animal personalities of the “supporting characters” seem to be crafted through creative editing.

The narration of “Diving With Dolphins” also tends to take on dramatic, hyperbolic tones, such as the description of the humpback whale courtship competition to become a female humpback’s chief protector: “It’s the most spectacular battle in nature.” Given all the wild animals in the world, that statement seems a bit too broad and subjective for a nature documentary.

One of the strengths of “Diving With Dolphins” is that it calls attention to the coral-reef crisis that desperately needs protection from human plundering and pollution that can cause climate change. The ocean is the foundation of almost every animal’s food chain, so it’s alarming that so much of the essential coral reef is disappearing due to climate change.  “Diving With Dolphins” mentions that in the three years it took to make this documentary, one-third of the film locations’ coral reef died. (More on this subject can be found in the excellent 2017 Netflix documentary “Chasing Coral.”)

“Diving With Dolphins” places a lot of emphasis on tiger sharks toward the end of the film, by saying tiger sharks are “misunderstood” and have an “overblown reputation as frightening and deadly predators.”  One of the reasons why French Polynesia was chosen as a location to film was because it’s one of the few countries that have laws protecting sharks, which are necessary for the food chain.

And cinematographer Atkins, who has more than 30 years of experience filming in the ocean, calls sharks “extraordinarily beautiful and graceful.” Atkins shows through a demonstration while being surrounded by tiger sharks, that giving them a gentle nudge on the face should do the trick in preventing them from attacking you. (It’s a lot easier said than done, and there should’ve been a caveat that only professionals with animal experience should try this tactic.)

Overall, “Diving With Dolphins” is kind of a scattered film that doesn’t reveal anything surprising about the making of “Dolphin Reef.” And the movie is much more than about diving with dolphins, since the filmmakers’ interactions with humpback whales and tiger sharks also take up a great deal of screen time.

Disney+ premiered “Diving With Dolphins” on April 3, 2020.

Review: ‘Dolphin Reef,’ narrated by Natalie Portman

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

“Dolphin Reef” 

Directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill

Culture Representation: This Disneynature documentary chronicles some of the coral-reef life in French Polynesia, Hawaii and Florida, with an emphasis on dolphins and humpback whales.

Culture Clash: The dolphins and humpback whales are in danger of being killed by orcas.

Culture Audience: “Dolphin Reef” will appeal primarily to people who like movies about ocean animals.

A scene from “Dolphin Reef” (Photo courtesy of Disney+)

Disneynature’s “Dolphin Reef” is a beautifully filmed and unevenly edited documentary about coral-reef life in oceans. Viewers should know in advance that the movie isn’t just about dolphins. Humpback whales get almost as much as screen time in the movie as the dolphins, but since dolphins are “cuter,” that might be why dolphins are made the selling point in the movie’s title. The documentary is a pretty good lesson on the ocean’s ecosystem, but it also serves as a warning that much of the ecosystem is in danger of becoming extinct by the end of the 21stcentury if environmental protections aren’t implemented.

Narrated by Oscar-winning actress Natalie Portman, “Dolphin Reef” focuses on a bottlenose dolphin mother and child, as well as a humpback whale mother and child. (They’re the only animals in the movie that have names.) Kumu is the dolphin mother of 3-year-old son Echo, a mischievous, playful child with a short attention span. Echo has reached a point in his life when he has to learn to be independent from his mother, but he lets other things easily distract him. Echo becomes fascinated with Moraya, a 40-foot humpback whale and her newborn female calf Fluke. The dolphins and the whales sometimes cross paths with each other, as they mingle with other ocean life and try to dodge the deadly jaws of orcas.

Without question, the best thing about “Dolphin Reef” is the gorgeous, immersive cinematography, which is usually the case with Disneynature documentaries. (And the atmosphere of “Dolphin Reef” might look kind of like a real-life version of the Pixar animation classic “Finding Nemo,” but without animals talking like humans, of course.) The vibrancy of the colors and animal life in the documentary’s coral reefs will give viewers the feeling of experiencing the beauty and dangers of the ocean firsthand.

However, unlike Disneynature films, which tends to focus on only one kind of animal, the story in “Dolphin Reef” isn’t as focused and could have benefited from tighter editing. Soon after viewers are introduced to dolphins Kumu and Echo, it veers into an educational narrative about other ocean life. The corals are the foundation, and they are kept from overgrowing by the ocean’s “gardeners”—the animals that feed on the corals. The gardeners are food for meat-eating ocean “predators” (such as dolphins, humpback whales and sharks), who are in turn eaten by “superpredators,” such as orcas.

The movie explains that Moraya the humpback whale has arrived from a cold polar location to give birth in warmer, tropical climate of the Pacific Ocean. A good deal of the documentary then shows how her whale calls attract the attention of male humpback whales, who sing and dance and then compete to become her protector. One only whale can emerge victorious.

There’s also a lot of screen time given to some of the memorable ocean residents who come in contact with the dolphins and whales. Razorfish are popular dining options for dolphins, which look for food by using a highly sophisticated sonar called echo location. It’s a skill that takes dolphins years to develop. Even though razorfish can hide in the sand, they can be detected if a dolphin has a highly attuned echo location.

Other fish who get a spotlight in the movie are humphead parrotfish, which are described as “the single most important protectors of the reef,” since they are essentially the “garbage collectors” of the ocean. In turn, the humphead parrotfish, whose enormous teeth can start to rot if not cleaned enough, are groomed smaller fish and other animals, in a ritual that goes back eons. If you ever wanted to know that humphead parrotfish excrement looks like sand, and they excrete about five tons a year, then you have this documentary to thank.

Cuttlefish are cast as the mysterious “villains” to smaller creatures, since cuttlefish have the ability to disguise themselves by changing the appearance of its scales. Cuttlefish can also transfix its prey by making its scales glow in the dark. It sounds like the kind of villain that you’d see in a Disney cartoon movie.

Also part of this ocean community are peacock mantis shrimp (notable for their obsessive grooming), crabs and sting rays. The editing of “Dolphin Reef” is clearly inspired by “Finding Nemo,” since these different ocean animals are sometimes made to look like they have cartoonish personalities, such as when the camera focuses on a wide-eyed fish that looks around and ducks when predators get into a fight. That footage might not actually be of the fish reacting to the fight, but it’s edited to look that way.

There’s even a “Finding Nemo” moment in the movie when Echo gets separated from his mother, is stuck with a friendly turtle in a very deep crevice. There’s a race against time for the Echo and the turtle to try to find an opening in the crevice, so they can rise to the ocean surface to breathe in much-needed oxygen. Moraya and her daughter Fluke also have a scary moment when they’re surrounded by orcas. Viewers can watch the the movie to find out what happened in both situations.

“Dolphin Reef” (directed by Keith Scholey and Alastair Fothergill) gives the impression that it was filmed mainly in the Pacific Ocean (including French Polynesian islands and in Hawaii), but Disneynature’s behind-the-scenes documentary “Diving With Dolphins” shows that filming of the movie spread all the way to the Atlantic Ocean coast of Florida. Therefore, there’s a lot of editing that looks manipulated to appear that things are happening in the same general location, when in fact they are not.

Portman’s narration is much like a the conversational tone of an elementary school teacher when she has to say lines describing the Polynesian islands’ as providing a “backdrop of an amazing story, with characters as fantastical as a fairy tale, but as real as you and me.” And she has a dramatically ominous tone when she says of the ocean: “This world operates under a different set of rules.”

Because the movie spreads the storyline across two types of ocean mammals—dolphins and humpback whales—as well as various “supporting characters” of ocean life, a more accurate title for the movie would be “Coral Reef,” even though it’s not as eye-catching as “Dolphin Reef.” Although dolphins and humpback whales are very different in many ways, they both have striking similarities, since they are each very intelligent, group-oriented animals that have distinctive languages and show affection through touching.

“Dolphin Reef” is not the best Disneynature documentary, but it can be enjoyed by people looking for a family-friendly film that gives some eye-popping views of ocean life.

Disney+ premiered “Dolphin Reef” on April 3, 2020.

Diplomat Beach Resort in Hollywood, Florida opens after $100 million in renovations

April 3, 2017

The Diplomat Beach Resort
(Photo courtesy of The Diplomat Beach Resort)

The following is an excerpt from a Diplomat Beach Resort press release:

A new icon has officially taken center stage in Hollywood, Florida, The Diplomat Beach Resort, Curio Collection by Hilton. Emerging from a $100 million transformation, The Diplomat Beach Resort is an oceanfront, experiential destination resort offering a fresh new take on vacationing. From the Atlantic coast to Intracoastal, the reinvented resort pays homage to the hotel’s storied past as a social hub, which began in 1958, with a modern take on design and amenities, including more than 10 new culinary concepts. As part of Curio Collection by Hilton, a global set of remarkable upper upscale hotels handpicked for their unique character, The Diplomat Beach Resort redefines comfort and style with 1,000 re-imagined guestrooms and suites and indoor and outdoor public spaces, bringing the resort’s sunny, beachfront location to life. And, the property’s variety of culinary offerings and programming creates a central hub for the surrounding community, giving locals a new Hollywood destination to call home.

 The Diplomat Beach Resort’s all-inclusive mindset and offerings provides travelers and locals with the ease they seek, whether visiting for business or pleasure, by bringing a collection of experiences together in one place, all set around the resort’s pristine footprint between the Atlantic Ocean and Intracoastal Waterway.
THE HEART OF IT ALL

The Diplomat Beach Resort
(Photo courtesy of The Diplomat Beach Resort)

Nestled between the aquamarine shores of the Atlantic Ocean and the peaceful Intracoastal Waterway, The Diplomat Beach Resort stands at the very heart of Hollywood, Florida. With an ideal location, the property’s transformation caters to those looking for seamless travel and local experiences with easy access to key destinations.

  • 10 minutes from Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Airport
  • 30 minutes from Miami International Airport
  • 5 minutes from Hollywood’s historic oceanfront Boardwalk
  • 10 minutes from world-class shopping at Aventura Mall
  • 20 minutes from Las Olas Boulevard in Fort Lauderdale
  • 30 minutes from South Beach

ROOM TO RETREAT

The Diplomat Beach Resort
(Photo courtesy of The Diplomat Beach Resort)

With more than 1,000 guest rooms—including a Presidential suite, 515 king rooms and 484 double rooms, with 96 being suites—The Diplomat Beach Resort is the largest hotel in Broward County, offering sweeping views of the Atlantic Ocean or Intracoastal Waterway with an abundance of natural light. Designed by the world’s leading hospitality interior design firm, Hirsch Bedner Associates, the resort’s stylish and thoughtfully designed rooms offer refreshed spaces, befitting the prime beachfront location in Hollywood.  A strong sense of place is weaved throughout, reflecting a sophisticated oceanfront design that nods to the storied history of the Diplomat Hotel of the 1950s. Carefully selected artwork throughout the property highlights the local-regional lifestyle, with modernized spaces harkening back to the hotel’s vibrant past.

All rooms feature unobstructed ocean or Intracoastal vantage points, while most suites boast 180-degree views of the tropical surroundings including a variety of premier suites, the Governor and Presidential suites, each with an individual identity delivering on guest’s needs.  Suites exude a mix of midcentury elements with refreshing ocean tones, creating the perfect backdrop to relax and recharge complete with hand tufted rugs, natural wood furnishings, crisp white bedding backed by driftwood headboards and nautical touches that speak to the location.

Guestrooms at the property depict two separate design schemes: Sunrise and Sunset. Sunrise rooms are modern, vibrant and refreshing with earthy tones that provide a soothing, calm atmosphere accented with blue ocean colors. Tactile rope accents are weaved into bedside lighting and deckchairs, while custom designed carpets recall the organic coral and sand patterns found locally. Vintage artwork reflects the region’s history and streamlined furniture lend to the spacious room layouts. Sunset rooms present a more subtle, modern and organic design scheme with views overlooking the famous South Florida west horizon, giving guests a front seat view to famous and stunning sunsets.

A CULINARY DESTINATION

The Diplomat Beach Resort
(Photo courtesy of The Diplomat Beach Resort)

The Diplomat Beach Resort has a new and simple approach to food: whatever you want, wherever you are. Helmed by Howard Wein of Howard Wein Hospitality, whose expertise in the culinary world brings knowledge and creativity, the resort now offers 10 innovative and surprising culinary destinations.

Unique dishes and drinks highlight ingenuity and variety, using locally sourced ingredients and fresh mixes for cocktails created on-site. Each destination is rooted in strong culinary sensibilities and exudes brand individuality, creating distinct spaces and experiences:

  • Bristol’s BurgersSouth Florida’s best burgers, salads and shakes in a fun, playful space.
  • Candy & Cones – Sweets parlor that makes candy dreams come true, offering candies and innovative house-made ice creams.
  • Counter Point – An extension of Point Royal offering gourmet grab-and-go options, with coffee drinks, juices, house-made pastries, sandwiches and light bites.
  • Diplomat Prime – 1950s inspired, sophisticated steakhouse with steaks aged in-house and a chef driven, seasonal menu with an extensive wine list.
  • Monkitail – Famed Chef and Restaurateur Michael Schulson’s modern Izakaya, coupling sharable Japanese-inspired fare with craft cocktails, sake, and a hidden karaoke bar.
  • Playa – Beachfront Nuevo-Latina restaurant and bar featuring an extensive rum and tequila selection.
  • Point Royal – A Coastal American restaurant featuring Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s approachable American cuisine complete with indoor/outdoor seating, a large center bar for drinking, and a grand yet modern raw bar.
  • Portico Beer & Wine Garden – Beer, wine and cocktails on tap, and a menu of light Italian fare situated on the Intracoastal Waterway.
  • The Canteen – Supply & trading company offering convenience food and beverage items for hotel guests.
  • The Hotel Bar – A modern take on the classic hotel bar, featuring signature upgraded cocktails from hotels around the world.

A VACATION FOR EVERYONE

The Diplomat Beach Resort
(Photo courtesy of The Diplomat Beach Resort)

The Diplomat Beach Resort is perfect for family-focused guests, providing a variety of activities and amenities meant to create happy, genuine and memorable vacation experiences. Guests and smaller travelers will find unique offerings throughout resort:

  • The Water Works: With two beachfront pools, jet skiing, ocean kayaking, paddleboard rentals, and the property’s newest addition, the Dip + Slide water play area, The Diplomat Beach Resort Hollywood is the ideal destination to cool down. Designed with an interactive water bucket that playfully tips over when full, the area entertains small travelers and is strategically located to give parents a direct line of sight from the lagoon pool, allowing them to relax poolside.
  • Kids Only: From sand castle building and poolside games to bounce houses and behind-the-scenes resort tours, younger guests ages 4-12 are always entertained and supervised at the fun-filled, Diplomat Kids Club.
  • Relax and Recharge: Guests can recharge by melting stress away at the expansive 24-hour fitness center or get pampered at the new, full-service spa overlooking the Atlantic Ocean.
  • Designer Luxury Pool Cabanas by Trina Turk: Exclusively designed for The Diplomat Beach Resort, specialty cabanas created by fashion designer Trina Turk are available for rent on the second floor of the pool deck, providing a relaxing and stylish oasis for the day.

COME TOGETHER AT THE DIPLOMAT BEACH RESORT

The Diplomat Beach Resort
(Rendering courtesy of The Diplomat Beach Resort)

With 209,000 square feet of flexible function and meeting space, The Diplomat Beach Resort, Curio Collection by Hilton continues to serve as the premier location for business travel and large-scale conferences, weddings and milestone celebrations. With recent upgrades in comprehensive technology, transportation services and unbeatable ocean views, travelers and locals can expect thoughtfully designed and unique spaces meant to create memorable meetings, events and weddings:

  • 50,000-square-foot unobstructed Great Hall
  • Four ballrooms, including 20,000-square-foot Grand Ballroom overlooking the Atlantic
  • 39 breakout rooms, ideal for smaller events
  • Outdoor special event areas including the pool deck and 33rd floor lounge space
  • On-site IT and audio-visual support
  • Specialty packages, rates and programming

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