Review: ‘The Good Mother’ (2023), starring Hilary Swank, Olivia Cooke, Jack Reynor and Hopper Penn

August 2, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hilary Swank in “The Good Mother” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“The Good Mother” (2023)

Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte

Culture Representation: Taking place in Albany, New York, in 2016, the dramatic film “To Good Mother” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An alcoholic journalist, whose adult son has been murdered, reluctantly teams up with her dead son’s pregnant girlfriend to find the killer, while the mother’s other son is a police officer whose department is also investigating the case. 

Culture Audience: “The Good Mother” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Hilary Swank and procedural crime dramas, but this low-grade movie is often shallow and poorly staged.

Olivia Cooke and Hilary Swank in “The Good Mother” (Photo courtesy of Vertical)

“The Good Mother” had the potential to be a better mystery thriller than it is, but the movie is undone by scenes that are either monotonous or predictable, until it limps along to a very underwhelming ending. The big “plot reveal” is not surprising. “The Good Mother” also has a very generic and forgettable title (there are at least three other feature films with the same title) that is a reflection of this movie’s very generical and forgettable story.

Directed by Miles Joris-Peyrafitte (who co-wrote “The Good Mother” screenplay with Madison Harrison), “The Good Mother” was originally titled “Mother’s Milk.” In the movie (which takes place in Albany, New York, in 2016), Mother’s Milk is the nickname of a dangerous mix of heroin, cocaine and Fentanyl that is being sold in the Albany area and has been killing several people in the area. The story involves a missing stash of Mother’s Milk, with the stash worth an estimated $50,000.

The beginning of “The Good Mother” shows a man in his 20s jogging on a residential street in the early morning daylight, right before he gets killed. Viewers later find out that this man’s name was Michael “Mike” Bennings (played by “The Good Mother” co-screenwriter Harrison), and he was a drug addict and a drug dealer. It’s also later revealed that Michael was shot in a drive-by shooting by someone driving a white truck. The shooter also has a large tattoo of a caduceus on one of his hands.

Michael’s widowed mother Marissa Bennings (played by Hilary Swank) is an alcoholic journalist who works for the Times Union, a newspaper for the Albany area. Marissa’s husband Frank died in 2013. The movie never bothers to mention how Frank died. On the morning that Marissa finds out that Michael was murdered, she wakes up from a drunken stupor and takes a swig from a liquor bottle near her bed.

Marissa has another son named Toby Bennings (played by Jack Reynor), who is a cop for the Albany Police Department. Toby is Michael’s older brother. Marissa gets the tragic news about Michael’s death when Toby suddenly shows up at Marissa’s job while she’s in a conference-room meeting with her co-workers.

Toby interrupts the meeting to say that he has to tell Marissa something important. What’s odd about this scene is that it isn’t revealed until a few scenes later that Toby is Marissa’s son. He approaches the meeting as if he’s a cop who knows Marissa on a professional level, not as a son telling his mother that her other son has been murdered.

At the graveside part of the funeral service, Marissa is angry to see Michael’s girlfriend Paige (played by Olivia Cooke) has shown up uninvited. Marissa walks over to Paige and punches Paige hard enough for Paige to fall down, just as Paige blurts out, “I’m pregnant.” Then, there’s an abrupt cut to the next scene of Marissa and Paige having coffee together at a diner. It’s one of many awkward transitions in this disappointing movie.

During this conversation, Marissa tells Paige that she’s sorry for punching her and says that she wouldn’t have hit her if she knew that Paige was pregnant. Paige, who is a recovering drug addict, comments to Marissa about Michael: “I didn’t make him a junkie.” Marissa replies bitterly, “You made him a thief.” Paige then says that she loved Michael.

Marissa knew that Michael was a drug addict, but she doesn’t know to what extent he was involved in drug dealing. Paige knows that Michael was involved in drug dealing with Michael’s friend Ducky (played by Hopper Penn), a disheveled drug addict who’s in the movie for only about 15 to 20 minutes. Almost nothing is revealed about Ducky or his personality except that he’s heavily involved in drugs.

Paige has told Marissa that Paige, Michael and Ducky had been planning to move to a farm together shortly before Michael was murdered. However, Paige is now estranged from Ducky, because Paige thinks that Ducky had something to do with Michael being murdered. Toby also believes that Ducky is a person of interest in this murder case. Ducky is a drifter who has become hard to find since Michael’s murder.

Paige is about to find out the hard way that some drug dealers are looking for $50,000 worth of Mother’s Milk that was last known to be in Michael’s possession. Shortly after Paige finds this stash hidden in the house where Michael used to live with her, some of these thugs break into her house at night when Paige is home alone. Paige is able to escape with the stash of Mother’s Milk.

And the first place she goes to is Marissa’s house, because Paige has nowhere else to go. Marissa reluctantly agrees to let Paige stay with her. And eventually, the two women decide that the police aren’t moving fast enough for the investigation into Michael’s murder. And so, Marissa and Paige decide to do their own sleuthing. Paige’s main way of “investigating” consists of posting inquiries on social media. Paige gets a lead in the case much more quickly than the police.

Meanwhile, Toby is not put on the case because his supervisors realistically know that Toby won’t be objective in this investigation. “The Good Mother” has an off-balance tone for Toby’s storyline, by putting a lot of emphasis on the fertility issues of Toby and his wife Gina (played by Dilone), who has been undergoing IVF (in vitro fertilization) treatments. At times, Toby seems more concerned about his wife getting pregnant than finding out who murdered his brother.

One of the biggest problems with “The Good Mother” is that there are so many missing parts to the story and so many gaps in logic, the movie quickly falls apart. For example, if these drug dealers are looking for Paige and the missing Mother’s Milk stash, one of the first places they would go to if Paige escaped from her house would be to the home of Michael’s next of kin. They probably wouldn’t go to Toby’s place, because Toby is a cop, but Marissa’s place would be the most logical place where Paige would try to hide.

During at least half of the story, Paige is openly living with Marissa. And yet somehow, the drug dealers looking for her don’t seem to find out this obvious information and find Paige at Marissa’s place. Paige is about seven or eight months pregnant, but she has action scenes that look unrealistic for someone in this late stage of pregnancy. In the scene where Paige escapes from her own house, she jumps out the house’s window and falls down hard on the ground, but she doesn’t even mention later how this fall could have injured her unborn child.

The movie makes it look like Paige is the only one investigating who could possibly know which criminal in the area has a large caduceus tattoo on a hand, even though in real life, police would most likely have that information on file. Another unrealistic thing about “The Good Mother” that’s never explained is why most people in this movie use outdated flip phones. In real life in 2016, most people with mobile phones were using smartphones. It’s as if “The Good Mother” director Joris-Peyrafitte wants to make 2016 look like 2006.

All of the characters in “The Good Mother” are written in superficial and trite ways. In a few private conversations that Marissa has with her understanding boss Jim (played by Norm Lewis), it’s mentioned that Marissa dislikes her co-workers and is an “old school” journalist who doesn’t like technology very much. Her boss and many other people in her life know that she’s an alcoholic, but no one really tries to get her professional help for this health problem. Marissa is also a chainsmoker who tries to quit smoking.

Jim tells Marissa that he thinks Marissa is the newspaper’s most talented writer but she hasn’t written anything in a while. Marissa took a three-month leave of absence after her husband died three years ago. But now, soon after the death of her younger son, Marissa wants to be back on the job. Jim thinks she should take some time off to grieve.

Toby is described as the “good son” and Michael as the “bad son.” But beyond a few quick flashbacks of their childhoods in home videos, there is nothing in “The Good Mother” that gives meaningful backstories about Toby and Michael. The relationship between Michael and Paige is also vague. All viewers know is that Michael and Paige had a drug fueled-relationship, but she stopped using drugs around the time of her pregnancy.

There were several people at Michael’s funeral, but then they are nowhere to be seen during the rest of the movie. Observant viewers will notice that Marissa, Paige, Toby and Gina don’t seem to have any friends or other relatives in their lives. No one checks in on them after the funeral to help them cope with their grief. Who were those people at the funeral? It’s a question that the movie never bothers to answer.

The sleuthing done by Marissa and Paige often looks phony. For someone who’s supposed to be an experienced journalist, Marissa doesn’t do much investigating. Marissa lets Paige do a lot of the real work. Paige has a very blunt and impatient style of interrogation, so there are some scenes of Marissa and Paige clashing with each other because Marissa doesn’t really like Paige’s personality. However, Paige is the one who actually gets results in their investigation.

“The Good Mother” is really just a lazy recycling of every Lifetime TV-movie about mothers seeking justice for their murdered children. But there are Lifetime TV-movies with more depth than “The Good Mother.” The acting talent in “The Good Mother” is better than in most Lifetime TV-movies, but that talent is underused in a very substandard screenplay that doesn’t care to show the main characters in a well-rounded way.

Swank has played many prickly characters before, while Cooke (who is British in real life) tends to portray a lot of working-class American characters who are rough around the edges. There’s nothing new or groundbreaking about their performances. The rest of the characters in “The Good Mother” are as generic as generic can be. No one is doing anything special in this hackneyed movie.

The trailer for “The Good Mother” is somewhat misleading, because Marissa and Paige teaming up for their investigation doesn’t get as much screen time in the actual movie as the trailer might lead viewers to believe. Worst of all, “The Good Mother” hastily throws in a plot development about something that “cures” Marissa’s writer’s block, which then leads her to make a life-changing decision where the aftermath is never shown. If “The Good Mother” had bothered to show the Bennings family as something other than stereotypes, then maybe viewers would care more about what happens to this dysfunctional family.

Vertical released “The Good Mother” in U.S. cinemas on September 1, 2023.

Review: ‘Devil’s Peak,’ starring Billy Bob Thornton, Hopper Penn, Brian d’Arcy James, Jackie Earle Haley and Robin Wright

April 15, 2023

by Carla Hay

Hopper Penn and Robin Wright in “Devil’s Peak” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

“Devil’s Peak”

Directed by Ben Young

Culture Representation: Taking place in Jackson County, North Carolina, the dramatic film “Devil’s Peak” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A young man tries to start a life apart from his drug-dealing father, who expects him to take over this family’s criminal business, while the father of the young man’s girlfriend is the district attorney who has been targeting the drug-dealing father in a sting operation. 

Culture Audience: “Devil’s Peak” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching convoluted and fake-looking crime dramas.

Billy Bob Thornton in “Devil’s Peak” (Photo courtesy of Screen Media Films)

The novelty of real-life mother-and-son duo Robin Wright and Hopper Penn portraying a mother and a son in “Devil’s Peak” is not enough reason to watch this dreadful crime drama with a putrid plot and subpar acting. Almost nothing in this flop is believable. It’s the type of dreck that is overstuffed with bad dialogue and ridiculous plot twists that add up to a complete waste of time.

Directed by Ben Young, “Devil’s Peak” is based on David Joy’s 2015 novel “Where All Light Tends to Go.” Robert Knott wrote the low-quality adapted screenplay for “Devil’s Peak.” Just when you think the movie can’t get any worse, the last 15 minutes are such a pile-on of utter stupidity, it will have viewers rolling their eyes more than the tweaking meth addicts who are the customers of the drug-dealing family at the center of the story.

“Devil’s Peak” opens with a scene of a terrified-looking guy in his late teens named Jacob McNeely (played by Penn), who is half-crouched behind his truck that’s parked on an deserted road. He’s pointing his rifle at an approaching car and has the stance of someone who’s expecting a shootout. The movie circles back to this scene in the last third of the film to reveal who’s in this showdown with Jacob.

Viewers will know from the beginning of “Devil’s Peak” to brace for some bad dialogue when Jacob is heard saying in this voiceover narration: “In Jackson County, North Carolina, my family name meant something. Our family was a matter of blood, just like hair color and height. By the time I was 9 or 10, Daddy had me breaking down big bags of crystal meth.”

Jacob continues, “He got them from the Mexicans through his biker buddy Ed McGraw. The auto shop was a front, where I worked with Gerald Cabe and his skinny-ass brother Jeremy Cabe. They were the ones who did Daddy’s dirty work. And everyone in these parts knew he was not the kind of man you want to cross.”

If you can get past the ridiculousness that a guy who’s being groomed by his father to be a menacing drug dealer is still calling his father “Daddy,” there’s still more phony garbage to come in “Devil’s Peak.” It doesn’t help that many of the cast members either over-act or their acting is too stiff. Try not to laugh at the cringeworthy utterings of Jacob as he continues to tell his story in voiceover narration.

“Even though they were mean as hell,” Jacob says, “the Cabe brothers were the closest thing I had to kin. Methamphetamine was a living, breathing body in Jackson County. Daddy was the heart-pumping blood in every vein in the region.”

Jacob continues, “I got a cut from the sales, like most kids got allowance. But Daddy held on to my money. Maybe it’s a life I could’ve accepted, like generations of McNeelys had done before me, But Maggie Jennings, she made it so I couldn’t.”

Viewers soon find out that Maggie (played by Katelyn Nacon) is Jacob’s 18-year-old girlfriend, who lives with her mother and stepfather in an upper-middle-class part of Jackson Country. Maggie is a “good girl” who plans to go to the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Maggie wants Jacob to go to the same university with her at the same time.

But Jacob’s ruthless father Charlie McNeely (played by Billy Bob Thornton) has other plans for Jacob: He expects Jacob to stay in the family’s meth distribution business. Charlie says to Jacob at one point in the movie: “We did not choose this way of life. It chose us. It’ll be that way until we ain’t breathing.”

And to make matters more complicated, Maggie’s stepfather is district attorney Bob Jones (played by Brian d’Arcy James), who is up for re-election and has been targeting Charlie and his gang for a major drug bust. Bob has secrets that are eventually revealed in the movie. The secrets should come as no surprise to viewers who’ve seen enough of these types of films where politicians can be just as corrupt as the criminals.

As a money-laundering cover for his drug dealing, Charlie owns and operates a mechanic shop called McNeely’s Automotive. All of the men who work at the shop, including Jacob, are really part of the McNeely drug gang. The aforementioned brothers Jeremy Cabe (played by Jared Bankens) and Gerald Cabe (played by David Kallaway) are stereotypical sleazeballs. (The story in “Devil’s Peak” takes place in North Carolina, but the movie was actually filmed in Georgia.)

One of the worst and most unbelievable things about “Devil’s Peak” is that the McNeelys are supposedly the most powerful drug-dealing family in Jackson County for generations, with the current district attorney intent on busting them. But only two cops are part of this story: Sheriff Rogers (played by Jackie Earle Haley) has been in law enforcement in Jackson County for years and knows all about the McNeely family. A junior officer named C. Bullock, also known as Bull (played by Harrison Gilbertson), is a hothead bully who likes to pick on Jacob.

Sheriff Rogers has a soft spot for Jacob’s mother Virgie (played by Wright), a forlorn meth addict who has been trying unsuccessfully for years to conquer her addiction and clean up her act. Virgie and Charlie have been divorced since Jacob was a child. Charlie is still bitter because Virgie cheated on him when they were married, but viewers will get the impression that hypocrite Charlie isn’t exactly the “faithful spouse” type either.

Virgie is currently down on her luck, unemployed, and living in near-poverty. She doesn’t have a car, but sympathetic Sheriff Rogers sometimes gives her car rides and looks out for Virgie as much has he can. The movie shows hints that Sheriff Rogers probably has romantic feelings for Virgie. Because of her drug addiction, Virgie has been in and out of Jacob’s life. Charlie has been the parent who has primarily raised Jacob. And Charlie doesn’t let Jacob forget it.

As the emotionally broken Virgie, Wright gives perhaps the closest thing to an authentic-looking performance in “Devil’s Peak.” Unfortunately, she’s not in the movie for very long (her screen time is less than 20 minutes), and her scenes consists mostly of Virgie apologetically trying to reconnect with Jacob, or Virgie defensively trying to convince suspicious Charlie that she’s not a confidential informant for the police. Virgie is openly driving around with Sheriff Rogers in his squad car, so it’s no wonder that Charlie thinks that desperate drug addict Virgie might be getting paid to set up Charlie to get arrested.

Charlie has a girlfriend who’s young enough to be his daughter. Her name is Josephine, nicknamed Josie (played by Emma Booth), and she goes along with whatever Charlie wants. Josephine shows a little bit of sassiness and occasionally talks back to Charlie, but he’s really the one in control of the relationship. “Devil’s Peak” is ultimately a male-dominated movie where the few female characters in the film just react to whatever the men are doing.

The rest of “Devil’s Peak” involves murders, a kidnapping, chase scenes and a race against time for people who want possession of Charlie’s hidden stash of cash. Thornton’s portrayal of Charlie is a caricature of a villain, with every action utterly predictable and soulless. Penn, who pouts his way through his performance, lacks charisma in his role as protagonist Jacob. And that’s a problem when viewers are supposed to be rooting for the protagonist.

“Devil’s Peak” tries to cram in too many “surprises” in the last 15 minutes of the film. It all looks so fake, because the movie makes it look like there are only two cops in Jackson County who are dealing with the huge mess that Charlie causes in this story. There are many more than two people to blame for the mess that is “Devil’s Peak.”

Screen Media Films released “Devil’s Peak” in select U.S. cinemas on February 17, 2023. The movie was released on digital and VOD on February 24, 2023.

Review: ‘The Cleaner’ (2021), starring King Orba, Shelley Long, Eden Brolin, Shiloh Fernandez, Luke Wilson and Lynda Carter

December 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

King Orba in “The Cleaner” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Films)

“The Cleaner” (2021)

Directed by Erin Elders

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

Culture Clash: A down-on-his luck house cleaner gets mixed up in dangerous activities when he’s hired to find a woman’s missing and wayward adult son.

Culture Audience: “The Cleaner” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a poorly constructed crime movie with subpar acting.

Lynda Carter in “The Cleaner” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Films)

There’s something dirty and rotten about “The Cleaner.” And it’s not just the scumbag characters in this movie. It’s a crime drama that tries to go for gritty realism, but it’s just a ridiculous mess of a story with terrible dialogue, lousy acting and uneven pacing. The ending is so cliché, it’s cringeworthy.

“The Cleaner” is the feature-film directorial debut of Erin Elders, who co-wrote the movie with King Orba. Unfortunately, Elders seems to have let his screenwriter collaboration with Orba cloud his judgment on who to cast as the movie’s protagonist/title character. Orba is the lead character in this movie, and his wooden acting is by far the worst in this cast, which has a random mix of longtime actors whose careers peaked years ago.

It’s also one of those movies that takes too long (the first third of the movie) to get to the point of the story. In “The Cleaner,” Orba portrays Buck Enderly, a down-on-his-luck house cleaner who lives alone in a trailer in an unnamed U.S. city. Before he was a house cleaner, he sold RVs, but he got fired from his job for being an underperforming salesperson. Buck is so broke that he has to get around by bicycle because his car blew its transmission, and he can’t afford to get the car fixed or buy a new car.

Enderly Cleaning is a company that Buck’s cranky mother Sharon Enderly (played by Shelley Long) founded years ago. She’s now retired but concerned that Buck won’t be able to keep the business going. And she has cause for concern: Business has been very slow lately. Because of a recession, people are making cutbacks on their household budgets, including housecleaning services.

“The Cleaner” is a slow-paced film with a rushed ending. Much of the slow pace is because the movie wastes a lot of time showing Buck’s somewhat tense relationship with his mother Sharon, and how he gets to know two new neighbors who move in next door to Sharon. These neighbors are live-in lovers Trent (played by Hopper Penn) and Becky (played by Eden Brolin), who have a volatile relationship because Trent physically and emotionally abuses Becky.

Becky invites Sharon to a housewarming party, where Sharon gets drunk and then sprains her ankle. And so, there’s some drama with Buck having to take Sharon to a hospital, but he doesn’t have a car, so he has to ask Trent and Becky for a ride. It’s all just a contrivance because it leads to a subplot where Sharon is prescribed medication that her insurance doesn’t fully cover.

That leads to Buck stealing batteries (don’t ask) when he goes to the pharmacy to get her prescription medication and finds out he doesn’t have the money to cover the cost. Buck gets arrested for shoplifting after a silly chase scene where he tries to get away. But what do you know: The cop who arrests Buck just happens to be his estranged younger brother Craig Enderly (played by Faust Checho), who hasn’t spoken to Buck in months because he thinks Buck is a loser.

Luckily for Buck, the pharmacy manager decides not to press charges, so Buck doesn’t spend any time in jail for the shoplifting. And did we mention that Craig has a girlfriend named Vanessa (played by Milena Govich), whom Sharon can’t stand, even though Craig plans to marry Vanessa? Craig and Sharon have a rocky relationship because Craig blames Sharon for her husband (the father of Craig and Buck) leaving the family when Craig and Buck were children.

All of this family drama with Sharon and her children has nothing to do with what this movie is really about, but the filmmakers clogged up “The Cleaner” with this storyline, in order to pad out a very thin plot. There are also several time-wasting scenes with Buck hanging out with his marijuana dealer James (played by James Paxton), who’s young enough to be Buck’s son. Even though Buck whines to a lot of people about how broke he is, he still has enough money to buy marijuana. Priorities.

What “The Cleaner” is really about is an unexpected job that Buck is hired to do: He agrees to be an unofficial private investigator (even though he has no experience in this area) to find a missing person. The job comes about when one of Buck’s housecleaning clients named Jim Russell (played by Luke Wilson) lays him off due to budget cuts. Jim feels bad about letting Buck go, so Jim refers Buck to a neighbor who might need housecleaning services.

This neighbor is a has-been/retired singer named Carlene Briggs (played by Lynda Carter), who lives alone and isn’t interested in hiring Buck for housecleaning services. When Buck goes over to Carlene’s house for the first time, she openly flirts with him and makes him listen to her croon in her living room, as if it’s some kind of cabaret lounge. She wears a frilly négligée and even has a microphone for this living-room performance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Buck resists Carlene’s flirtatious advances, so she then asks him if he can provide some investigative services for her. Apparently, even though Buck has no experience in private detective work, Carlene thinks that Buck looks like the type who knows his way around the seedy underbelly of this community. And so, she asks Buck to find her missing adult son Andrew Briggs (played by Shiloh Fernandez), whom she describes as a drug addict and a thief.

Carlene is only paying $1,000 to Buck if he finds Andrew, which is an appallingly low amount of money for this type of private investigator work. Buck, like an idiot, doesn’t ask for more money. He’s so desperate for money, he says yes to the job. Carlene doesn’t seem concerned that she’s hiring someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing. It’s one of many eye-rolling aspects of this moronic movie.

“The Cleaner” then goes down a rabbit hole of stupidity as viewers are expected to believe some of the things that happen when a woefully incompetent Buck does some “detective work” that involves some “only in a movie” type of dumb luck. The only realistic thing about Buck’s “detective work” is that he has to ask his cop brother Craig for help in accessing information records that only law enforcement or real private detectives would be able to access.

The movie also has somewhat strange and random casting of actors that’s an awkward mix. Soleil Moon Frye, best known for starring in the 1980s sitcom “Punky Brewster,” has a cameo as a trashy-looking barfly named Kristi. She’s not believable in this role. And it seems like the only reason why Carter took the role in this film is to showcase her singing, which does not fit this supposedly gritty story well at all. The ending of “The Cleaner” ties in to the movie’s opening scene, where a shooting takes place at a diner. But it’s not enough to cover up all the loose ends and unnecessary scenes that make the movie an insufferable, tangled mess.

1091 Pictures released “The Cleaner” on digital and VOD on October 12, 2021.

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