Review: ‘The Starling Girl,’ starring Eliza Scanlen, Lewis Pullman, Wrenn Schmidt, Austin Abrams and Jimmi Simpson

May 20, 2023

by Carla Hay

Eliza Scanlen and Lewis Pullman in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl”

Directed by Laurel Parmet

Culture Representation: Taking place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, the dramatic film “The Starling Girl” has an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 17-year-old girl in a strict, religious community has a taboo affair with her married, 28-year-old youth pastor, while her troubled father struggles with his own personal issues.

Culture Audience: “The Starling Girl” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that realistically explore issues of religion, teenage sexual awakenings, self-identity and moral hypocrisy.

Jimmi Simpson and Wrenn Schmidt in “The Starling Girl” (Photo by Brian Lannin/Bleecker Street)

“The Starling Girl” is a memorable coming-of-age story that artfully juxtaposes depictions of repression and rebellion without falling into the usual plot clichés. Eliza Scanlen gives a riveting performance as a 17-year-old experiencing self-discovery. It’s a movie that doesn’t offer easy answers to the main characters’ problems, but it’s made clear to viewers that these problems are made worse in a culture of denial and hypocrisy.

“The Starling Girl” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival) is an impressive feature-film debut from writer/director Laurel Parmet. The movie takes place in Kentucky in the mid-2000s, but “The Starling Girl” has a timeless quality that transcends locations and generations, in the way that it depicts the relatable, restless energy of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood. The teenager wants the freedom of an adult, but legally the teenager has to be treated like a child. Depending on the teenager’s environment and individual personality, this transitional phase can either help or hurt a teenager’s emotional growth.

In “The Starling Girl,” the title character is 17-year-old Jemima “Jem” Starling (played by Scanlen), who is navigating her way to adulthood in a conservative Christian community. It’s a community where people of the female gender are expected to be subservient to people of the male gender. Women and girls in this community are monitored and judged for what they say, do and wear around men and boys. Something as simple as wearing an outfit that shows the outline of a bra underneath can be reason enough for a girl to get scolded or lectured to by an adult.

It’s what happens to Jem after a chaste dance performance that she does with some other local teenage girls at their community church. The girls all wear matching long white dresses. Dancing is a passion for Jem, who also likes to do choreography for the group. After their performance, which gets polite applause from the congregation, Jem is in a very good mood.

But her upbeat mood soon turns to despair when, after the church service, the church pastor’s wife Anne Taylor (played by K.J. Baker) says sternly to Jem in front of Jem’s family and some other people in the congregation: “Mrs. Stone has noticed that the bra is visible from your dress.” Jem’s homemaker mother Heidi Starling (played by Wrenn Schmidt) says apologetically, “We try to be very conscious, but sometimes things slip.”

Within the first 15 minutes of “The Starling Girl,” it becomes obvious that Jem’s parents, especially her mother, want to impress church leader Pastor Taylor (played by Kyle Secor) and his family. Pastor Taylor has two children: 28-year-old Owen Taylor (played by Lewis Pullman) and 17-year-old Ben Taylor (played by Austin Abrams), who is expected to be the one to date Jem and possibly be her future husband. Heidi in particular is enthusiastic about the possibility of Ben and Jem getting married, because the marriage would elevate the status of the Starling family in the community. Even though Ben seems to be attracted to Jem, she is not at all attracted to Ben, who is socially awkward and a little weird.

After being reprimanded about her bra being visible through her dress, Jem goes outside the church to a semi-secluded area of the lawn and cries in shame. Jem think she’s alone, but doesn’t see until it’s too late that Owen is nearby and has been watching her. He tries to start a conversation with her, but she abruptly leaves in embarrassment. It’s soon revealed that Jem has had a crush on Owen for a very long time.

Owen has recently come back to his hometown after spending some time as a missionary in Puerto Rico. Owen is married to a pious and perky woman named Misty Taylor (played by Jessamine Burgum), who is a big believer in sticking to religious traditions. By contrast, Owen is open to non-traditional methods of religious worship. And even though Owen has been appointed as the youth pastor of the church, what he really wants to do with his life is be a farmer.

Jem is also someone who is struggling with what is expected of her and what she really wants to do with her life. For now, Jem is expected to marry and start a family not long after she graduates from high school, but Jem thinks she doesn’t want to be a wife and mother until she’s much older and more emotionally mature. Her mother Heidi has already decided that Ben would be a good match for Jem, but when Jem expresses reluctance to date Ben, her mother dismisses any of Jem’s concerns. Jem’s more lenient father Paul Starling (played by Jimmi Simpson) tells Jem that she doesn’t have to make up her mind right away about whether or not to date Ben.

At home, Heidi is a prudish taskmaster who expects the family to closely follow all of their religious teachings. Jem is the oldest of five kids. Her siblings are Noah Starling (played by Chris Dinner), who’s about 15 or 16; Rebecca “Becca” Starling (played by Claire Elizabeth Green), who’s about 13 or 14; Sarah Starling (played by Ellie May), who’s about 6 or 7; and a toddler named Jeremy Starling (played by Kieran Sitawi). Out of all of Jem’s siblings, Rebecca is the one who has the closest emotional bond to Jem.

During another religious service at the local church, a teenager named Edmond Tike (played by Ike Harrell), who’s about 16 or 17 years old, gets up in front of the congregation to ask for their forgiveness for sins that he says he committed but he does not detail. Edmond looks humiliated and ashamed when he tells the congregation that he’s now a “cleansed man.” He gets a lukewarm response from the audience. Pastor Taylor’s attitude toward Edmond is that Edmond is like an unruly puppy that needs patience and needs to be trained.

In the youth group meeting after the church service, some of the assembled teenagers gossip about Edmond, by saying he had just come back from a severe religious camp, which is notorious as a scary place where kids in the community are sent for punishment. According to the gossip, Edmond was sent there because he was caught looking at porn on a computer. Jem says self-righteously, “That’s why you have to be so careful with technology. It’s the easiest way for Satan to get to you.”

But it won’t be long before Jem gets caught up in something that would be an even bigger sexual scandal than looking at porn. At the youth group meeting that Owen is leading for the first time, he makes the group members lie down on their backs and meditate. Most of the group members think this meditation method is bizarre, but Jem is intrigued and can see that Owen isn’t a traditional youth pastor.

Jem’s attraction to Owen deepens when the dance group’s adult leader Mrs. Baker quits, and Owen is the one who gets to decide what to do about it. Jem confidently pitches herself to be the group leader until an adult can be found to replace Mrs. Baker. Owen agrees to this idea because he likes Jem and thinks she’s a talented dancer.

Owen also knows that this decision will make Jem like him even more and be more loyal to him. Owen feels that most of the teens in the youth group don’t really like him because they think Owen is “different” and maybe too liberal. Jem also feels a little bit like an “outsider” in this community. Just like Owen, Jem thinks there are certain traditions in the community that she doesn’t necessarily want to follow.

Jem and Owen start to spend some more time alone together, and the attraction becomes mutual. Eventually, Owen and Jem open up to each other about their personal lives. Owen tells Jem that he’s miserable in his marriage to Misty, who wants to start a family with Owen, but Owen tells Jem that he doesn’t want to have kids with Misty. Owen says his dream would be to go back to Puerto Rico and start a farm. Jem has vague plans to possibly become a dance teacher after she graduates from high school.

Just as things are looking up for Jem as leader of the dance group and finding a new “friend” in Owen, her life at home starts to experience some turmoil. The day that Jem finds out that she’s going to lead the dance group, she comes home and accidentally walks in on her father sitting naked on his bed and snorting an unknown powder that was on his hand. Horrified and in shock, Jem quickly leaves the room and doesn’t say anything to anyone about what she saw.

It’s eventually revealed that before Paul got married and had a family, he used to have a wild life as a substance-abusing musician in a country/rock band named The Deadbeats, which didn’t make it past the level of playing bars and nightclubs. Paul recently found out that one of his former band mates committed suicide. And this news sends Paul on a downward spiral and relapse into secretive drinking and drugging. Heidi knows about Paul’s past, and it’s implied that she was the one who convinced him to become a sober, born-again Christian.

The rest of “The Starling Girl” shows the drama that happens in Jem’s family life, her new leadership role for the dance group, and the growing attraction between Jem and Owen. In Kentucky, 16 years old is the minimum age of consent for people to have sexual relations. What happens between Jem and Owen is no surprise. But the last third of “The Starling Girl” does have a few surprises that look authentic and not overly contrived for a movie.

Scanlen is absolutely fantastic in how she depicts a teenager feeling trapped while transitioning into adulthood. Jem goes through a sexual awakening that both fascinates and frightens her. Jem uses some of her feminine charms to get her way, but she also experiences the harsh realities of living in a sexist community that treats women and girls as inferior to men and boys. It’s a community that is quick to shame and blame women and teenage girls for the same things that men and teenage boys can often do without punishment.

One of the best things about “The Starling Girl” is how the cast members (especially Scanlen) express emotions without saying a word. It’s an essential reason why so much of this movie looks realistic in showing people who are living lives of quietly desperate repression. So much is left unsaid or denied by these characters, but their facial expressions and body language tell the real story.

“The Starling Girl” writer/director Parmet has accomplished a tricky feat of crafting a story that is specific yet universal. This gem of a movie is more than just about a teenage girl who wants to break free of her strict, religious environment. It’s about summoning the courage to be yourself, even if it means going through painful experiences of finding out who you really are. The ending of “The Starling Girl” won’t satisfy some viewers who want more answers, but the movie has a clear message that finding some kind of happiness in life is what you make of it.

Bleecker Street released “The Starling Girl” in select U.S. cinemas on May 12, 2023, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on May 19, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on July 11, 2023.

Review: ‘Silk Road’ (2021), starring Jason Clarke and Nick Robinson

March 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nick Robinson and Alexandra Shipp in “Silk Road” (Photo by Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate)

“Silk Road” (2021)

Directed by Tiller Russell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Baltimore, Austin, San Francisco and briefly in Utah and Australia from 2010 to 2013, the crime drama “Silk Road” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Based on real events, a rebellious young man becomes a multimillionaire after starting a darknet website called Silk Road, which becomes a popular destination to buy illegal items, and he becomes the target of FBI and DEA stings after bragging about the website in media interviews.

Culture Audience: “Silk Road” will appeal to people who are interested in true crime movies that have good acting but are ultimately predictable and formulaic.

Jason Clarke and Darrell Britt-Gibson in “Silk Road” Photo by Catherine Kanavy/Lionsgate)

Even if you didn’t know that the crime drama “Silk Road” is based on a true story, it’s very easy to see within the first 10 minutes of the film that the main character is going to get busted for something major and illegal. “Silk Road” (written and directed by Tiller Russell) is the dramatic retelling of what happened when a brash tech entrepreneur named Ross Ulbricht launched a darknet website called Silk Road as an online marketplace to sell illegal items through cryptocurrency—just because he didn’t feel like working in an honest job.

It’s a tale of hubris and greed that’s somewhat oversimplified in this film. “Silk Road” has solid performances from most of the cast members, but also too many eye-rolling moments of melodrama that were obviously fabricated for the movie. The movie gets a lot of elements wrong in how the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) investigated this case.

Most people who’ve heard of Silk Road associate it with sales of illegal drugs. However, the website was also known for many other types of sales, such as illegal weapons, stolen identity information and even the services of assassins. When Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco in 2013, at the age of 29, Silk Road had been operational for two years, and his net worth was estimated at $28 million, according to Forbes.

In 2015, Ulbricht was convicted of money laundering, computer hacking, conspiracy to traffic fraudulent identity documents and conspiracy to traffic narcotics by means of the Internet. That same year, he was sentenced to a double life sentence plus 40 years without the possibility of parole. Ulbricht and his supporters have been trying to get his prison sentence reduced.

All of this information has been widely reported. And therefore, many people watching this movie will already know what happened to Ulbricht and his punishment in real life. Viewers of “Silk Road” will mainly watch out of curiosity to see what led to Ulbricht’s rapid rise as a cybercriminal and how it all came crashing down on him.

However, the “Silk Road” movie spends almost as much time on the story of a fictional DEA agent named Rick Bowden (played by Jason Clarke), who ends up playing a “cat and mouse” game in his quest to bust Ulbricht. Nick Robinson portrays Ross Ulbricht with the expected mix of cockiness and insecurity that’s typical of people who commit these audacious crimes. The Rick Bowden character, who has a quick temper and a troubled soul, is supposed to be a composite of real-life law enforcement agents who worked on the Ulbricht investigation.

Clarke is a very good actor, but the movie’s deep dives into Rick’s personal life, including his alcoholism and marital problems, just seem superfluous and don’t leave much room to answer a lot of questions about Ulbricht. Do viewers really need to know that Rick has a special-needs daughter at home and is worried about how to pay for tuition to a private school that can better handle her needs? No.

There’s a disclaimer in the movie’s intro that cheekily reads: “This story is true. Except for what we made up and changed.” Writer/director Russell’s “Silk Road” is based on David Kushner’s 2014 Rolling Stone magazine article “Dead End on Silk Road: Internet Crime Kingpin Ross Ulbricht’s Big Fall.” This movie is not to be confused with director Mark de Cloe’s 2017 Norwegian “Silk Road” movie that covered the same topic.

In the movie’s opening scene, which takes place in San Francisco in 2013, Ross makes his way to a public library as he says in a voiceover: “For years, I was frustrated by what seemed to be insurmountable barriers between the world as it is and the world I wanted. So, I began making a website where people could buy and sell anything anonymously.”

Ross continues, “Silk Road is about something much bigger than thumbing your nose at ‘the man.’ It’s about taking back our liberty. As corny as it sounds, I just want to look back on my life and know I did something that helped people.” As he sits down at a library desk with his laptop computer, Ross gets a phone call. And then, the movie goes into flashback mode. It’s at this point you know that the movie will go back to this library scene because it has something to do with his arrest.

“Silk Road” jumps back and forth in the timelines for Ross and Rick, as if to show how these two men’s lives eventually collide. (The movie takes place from 2010 to 2013.) In 2010, Ross was a well-educated, aspiring entrepreneur living in his hometown of Austin, Texas. He was a graduate of the University of Texas at Dallas (he graduated in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in physics) and Pennsylvania State University (he graduated in 2009 with a master’s degree in materials science and engineering), but his career was floundering with some failed business ventures, including a mobile bookstore called GoodWagon.

During this time in his life, Ross declared himself to be a Libertarian. He was also a devotee of the iconoclastic political theories of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises. As Ross smugly explains to someone at one of the many parties he’s depicted as going to in the movie: “Every action that we take outside of the government control strengthens the market and weakens the state.”

He also imparts this philosophy that he believes in passionately: “The state cannot legislate what a person can and cannot do. It’s un-American.” And later in the movie, Ross repeats to people closest to him what he believes about himself: He thinks he was destined to change the world. Is it any wonder that this guy thought that the law didn’t apply to him?

It’s at one of these parties in Austin that Ross meets Julia (played by Alexandra Shipp), a student at the University of Texas at Austin who shares Ross’ love of partying. (The Julia character is based on the real-life Julia Bates.) She’s intrigued by his self-assured ways. And they quickly become lovers, by hooking up on the same night that they meet. When he tells Julia what his philosophies on life are, this is Julia’s response: “Seriously? I fucked a Libertarian.”

Meanwhile, in 2010, as Ulbricht was planning to “change the world,” DEA agent Rick Bowden is shown in Baltimore trying to get his life back on the right track. Fresh out of rehab for alcoholism and a stint in a psych ward, Rick is cranky when he makes his way to a convenience store, where he tries not to stare at the liquor on sale. Rick is looking disheveled and rough around the edges, as if he no longer cares about his physical appearance.

At the convenience store, Rick sees a confidential informant named Rayford (played by Darrell Britt-Gibson), who’s happy to see Rick. But Rick isn’t thrilled to see Rayford, especially when Rayford loudly mentions that he heard that Rick was recently in rehab and a psych ward. When Rayford notices Rick’s standoffish demeanor and says, “I thought we were friends,” Rick growls in response: “I have no friends. I have informants.”

The movie eventually reveals (but does not show in flashbacks) that Rick had a meltdown during a drug bust in Puerto Rico (he called a crime boss a “Mongloid”), and this meltdown sent him over the edge and eventually into rehab. Because he’s now been labeled as a loose cannon, Rick has been reassigned to work in the DEA’s cybercrimes unit. He argues with his supervisor Johnny Morales (played by David DeLao) about the transfer, but Johnny tells him that the decision was made by his superiors and there’s nothing he can do about it.

It’s a transfer that Rick hates, because he thinks it’s a demotion and a wimpy office job. He prefers to be out in the field as an undercover agent. And to make matters worse, Rick doesn’t even know how to use a computer and he has to teach himself. This part of the movie is very far-fetched. It’s as if we’re supposed to believe that the DEA couldn’t be bothered to train Rick in computer skills.

Rick is also annoyed that his new supervisor in the cybercrimes unit—a 26-year-old guy named Shields (played by Will Ropp)—is young enough to be Rick’s son. Shields knows that Rick is practically computer illiterate, so he tells Rick in a condescending manner that Rick should think of this reassignment as a way to coast on the job and collect an easy paycheck. But hard-driving Rick can’t be that complacent. Needless to say, Shields and Rick clash with each other in this story.

Meanwhile, back in Austin, the relationship between Ross and Julia heats up and it becomes serious enough where they end up living together and she meets his parents. In one of the better scenes in the movie, Ross and Julia have dinner with Ross’ parents at the parents’ house. This scene gives a lot of insight into his family dynamics and what might have driven Ross to become an antisocial criminal.

During this dinner, Ross’ father Kirk (played by Mark Silversten) doesn’t hold back on belittling Ross in front of Julia. Kirk expresses his disappointment in Ross not being able to find a steady career path. Ross has a pattern of coming up with business ideas, sometimes launching these businesses, and then giving up when things don’t happen as quickly as he’d like. And that pattern has led his father to lose respect for Ross. Ross’ mother Lynn (played by Beth Bailey) is portrayed as someone who’s more understanding and not as judgmental as her husband is about Ross’ business failures.

Based on this “meet the parents” dinner scene, it’s easy to speculate that one of Ross’ motivations to start Silk Road was to get rich quick to impress a lot of people, including his father. Sure enough, shortly after that dinner, when a scowling Ross walks away from the house with Julia, he comes up with the idea for Silk Road. And almost immediately, the website because a darknet sensation. It isn’t long before Ross is making millions from Silk Road.

Julia and Ross’ close friend Max (played by Daniel David Stewart) know about Ross’ illegal activities and express their concerns to him, but Ross ignores their warnings that he could get arrested. As Ross says, “The war on drugs is a farce.” In the movie, Julia and Max are portrayed as stoners who prefer to have a “don’t ask, don’t tell” attitude when it comes to Silk Road.

Just as in real life, the movie shows that Ross used the alias Dread Pirate Roberts (the name of a character in “The Princess Bride” fantasy novel and movie) as his Silk Road persona. Ross doesn’t call attention to himself by lavishly spending his fortune. Just like in real life, the movie shows that he continued to live in a modest apartment up until the day of his arrest.

However, Ross made the mistake of giving an interview about Silk Road to the gossip website Gawker. He did the interview based on an impulsive suggestion by Julia, who knew the Gawker reporter personally. The reporter, whose name is Adrian Chen (played by Walter Anaruk), does the interview by phone, and Ross obviously doesn’t use his real name for the interview. But Ross gives enough information about Silk Road so that it will be easy to find.

The subsequent publicity from the Gawker article and coverage by other media outlets made Silk Road more popular than ever and Ross made millions more in revenue. But it came at a very steep price. You can’t really have an “underground” website if it’s getting a lot of media coverage. And so, law enforcement inevitably started investigating Silk Road.

In an obviously contrived part of the movie, Rick ends up enlisting his informant Rayford to teach him more about darknet activities. The movie makes it look like Rick never even heard of cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin until Rayford told him. Seriously, did the “Silk Road” filmmakers think that people watching this movie are going to believe that a DEA agent is that clueless? And then, there are the inevitable scenes of Rick trying out Silk Road himself by buying illegal drugs off of the website as a test to see how Silk Road works.

Rick feels territorial about wanting to get the most credit for busting the owner of Silk Road, so he’s not very cooperative when the FBI also does its own investigation. Two of the FBI agents who are part of the sting include Chris Tarbell (played by Jimmi Simpson) and Kim Yum (played by Jennifer Yun). Rick also doesn’t want to share too many details about his investigation with his boss Shields, because he thinks Shields will ruin Rick’s chances of completing the investigation.

Meanwhile, there’s an entire subplot about Rick’s shaky marriage to his wife Sandy (played by Katie Aselton), a nurse who wants to continue to be loyal to and supportive of him, but he makes it difficult with his erratic ways. They have a daughter named Edie (played by Lexi Rabe), who is about 7 or 8 years old and has a learning disability. It’s hinted at in the movie that Sandy and Rick have been separated in the past, and not just because he was in rehab.

Edie has an opportunity to get a scholarship to a private school that’s better-equipped to teach special-needs kids. Rick becomes so consumed with the Silk Road investigation, that it puts more strain on his marriage. There’s a scene where Rick’s workaholic ways result in him blowing a chance for Edie to get that school scholarship because he skips a meeting that he and Sandy were supposed to have with school officials.

Ross’ obsession with Silk Road also causes problems in his personal life, as Julia becomes fed up with Ross spending more time locked in a room with his laptop computer than paying attention to her. At one point in the story, Ross goes to Australia, where he is visited by his younger sister Cally (played by Raleigh Cain), who sees that Ross is preoccupied and hiding something, but she’s kept in the dark about his illegal activities.

Ross eventually relocates to San Francisco. And one of Ross’ main Silk Road sellers named Curtis Clark Green (played by Paul Walter Hauser), who lives in Utah and uses the online alias Chronic Pain, plays a key role in Ross’ downfall. The movie makes it look like Rick orchestrated the sting that eventually led to Ross’ arrest.

By spending so much time on the personal problems and office politics of DEA agent Bowden, “Silk Road” gets distracted and doesn’t provide a lot of details that would have improved this movie. For example, there’s not much insight into how Ross was able to set up his Silk Road business so quickly. One minute he’s talking about selling illegal things on the Internet. The next minute, Silk Road has launched with no explanation for how he was able to get such a large network of sellers—the people who listed their items for sale on the website and were responsible for mailing these items to customers.

The direction of the movie also takes a ludicrous turn when it tries to make it look like Rick going “rogue” was the reason why the investigation progressed in the way that it did. In reality, a DEA agent would have a hard time keeping the sheer amount of work needed for this investigation a secret from a supervisor and other co-workers. And the movie has an unnecessary subtext that Rick has a personal resentment toward millennials (based on some demeaning comments he makes), which is one of the motivations for him to take down Ross.

However, one of the things that “Silk Road” writer/director Russell does get right is including solid counterpoints to Ross’ constant claims that he was operating a “victimless” business. The movie mentions drug fatalities that came directly from drugs bought on Silk Road. There’s really no telling how many people died in other ways because of Silk Road transactions, but Ross is portrayed in the movie as not too concerned (or in a lot of denial) about people getting hurt by Silk Road.

Unfortunately, the movie missed an opportunity to have more exploration of who else profited from Silk Road, since the website required a vast network of people for it to become as huge as it was. Ulbricht might have been the mastermind, but he had plenty of help along the way. And that would’ve been a more fascinating story than the typical “burnout/workaholic cop out for revenge” story arc that takes up so much screen time in “Silk Road.”

Lionsgate released “Silk Road” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 19, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on February 23, 2021.

Review: ‘Breaking News in Yuba County,’ starring Allison Janney, Mila Kunis, Awkwafina, Wanda Sykes, Juliette Lewis, Samira Wiley and Regina Hall

February 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

Allison Janney in “Breaking News in Yuba County” (Photo courtesy of Anna Kooris/MGM)

“Breaking News in Yuba County”

Directed by Tate Taylor

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional U.S. Southern city of Stanlow, the dark comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County” features a predominantly white cast (with some African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A lonely, middle-aged woman pretends that her philandering criminal husband has been kidnapped (even though he really died of a heart attack), so that she can get sympathy and attention.

Culture Audience: “Breaking News in Yuba County” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Allison Janney and to people who don’t mind watching incoherent movies about people behaving badly.

Allison Janney, Mila Kunis and Regina Hall in “Breaking News in Yuba County” (Photo Anna Kooris/MGM)

Oscar-winning actress Allison Janney has worked with director Tate Taylor in all of his feature films so far, and she usually plays supporting or minor characters in these movies. The dark and violent comedy “Breaking News in Yuba County” is the first Taylor-directed film where Janney is front and center as the movie’s lead character. And it’s a dreadful misstep not only for Taylor and Janney but also for everyone involved in this embarrassing mess. “Breaking News in Yuba County” (whose producers include Taylor and Jake Gyllenhaal) is proof that having a talented cast doesn’t automatically equal a good movie.

In “Breaking News in Yuba County” (whose horrendous screenplay was written by Amanda Idoko), Janney portrays Sue Buttons, a lonely woman who feels neglected and under-appreciated and goes to extreme lengths to get attention. The movie shows obvious signs that Sue doesn’t get the respect that she thinks she deserves, to try and make her look sympathetic. But her personality and actions are so off-putting (and so are almost all of the characters in this stinker film) that the movie’s attempts to be comedic are pathetic and monotonous.

“Breaking News in Yuba County” takes place in an unnamed U.S. state in the South, in a fictional city called Stanlow, located in Yuba County. In the movie’s opening scene, viewers see Sue listening to motivational affirmations on her iPod as she goes to a supermarket. She repeats these mantras several times throughout the movie: “My story matters. I am enough. I am confident.” Sue’s self-directed pep talks do little to change the way that the outside world treats her. And something happens on her birthday that causes her to snap and go from being a mild-mannered, law-abiding citizen to being a stone-cold, heartless fraudster.

She arrives at the grocery store to pick up her small birthday cake, which is inscribed with the words “Happy Birthday, Sue.” But Sue notices that the “e” looks more like a “c.” She points out this mistake to the pastry worker behind the counter, with a tone of voice implying that she wants the error corrected. But the worker just ignores Sue’s attempt to assert herself and asks if Sue is paying by cash or credit.

Sue is married to a corrupt banker named Karl (played by Matthew Modine), who’s first seen at their home talking dirty to a woman whom he plans to meet later for a sexual tryst. Sue doesn’t know about this affair but she’ll soon find out on her birthday. She’ll also find out later about her husband’s illegal activities. In the meantime, Sue has made plans for her and Karl to have a romantic dinner at a restaurant on her birthday.

But as soon as she arrives home, Karl is out the door to go meet up with his mistress. Meanwhile, Sue takes her birthday cake and makes the correction on the letter “e” herself. She then goes to her job, a place called Sidewinder Safety Tubs, where she works in customer service at a call center. The only work on the job that the movie shows her doing is taking one phone call from a rude customer who curses at her.

Considering all the ludicrous shenanigans that Sue gets up to later that take up all of her time, the movie shouldn’t have bothered showing her having a job at all. This movie is so badly written that it’s never explained how Sue took all the time off from work that she takes to try to cover up her web of lies. But the filmmakers seem to assume that everyone who’s watching this movie is as idiotic as the characters.

Sue just happens to be driving near a motel when she sees Karl’s car parked outside. She gets out and sees him holding some flowers and going into a motel room while calling a woman inside “honey” before he shuts the door. An alarmed Sue goes to the motel’s front desk and correctly assumes that the room is reserved in Karl’s name. Sue tells the front desk clerk that she’s his wife and pretends to have accidentally locked herself out of that room, so she asks for a spare key.

Sure enough, when Sue lets herself into the motel room, Karl is having sex with another woman, whose name is Leah Norton (played by Bridget Everett), whom Sue has never met before. Sue gets angry, while Karl and Leah are naturally startled and horrified at being caught. Karl is so surprised that he falls off the bed, has a heart attack, and dies.

While Leah is freaking out and babbling, Sue finds out that Leah is also married. She slaps Leah and tells her that she will inform Leah’s husband about Leah’s cheating if Leah doesn’t leave the motel immediately. Sue also tells Leah that Sue will take care of the problem of Karl’s dead body. Leah doesn’t hesitate to quickly leave the motel.

Instead of being upset that Karl is dead, Sue forlornly says out loud as she sits on the bed, “You forgot my birthday.” Sue then hatches a plan to bury the body in a lot near the motel. This movie is so stupid, that it shows Sue digging the grave in plain view where anyone could have easily seen her. But there would be no “Breaking News in Yuba County” if she were caught that quickly and easily.

Meanwhile, Sue doesn’t find out until after Karl dies that he was involved in a money-laundering scheme with some local criminals, who used Karl to launder millions of dollars. The people in this illegal enterprise are a ruthless crime boss named Mr. Kim (played by Keong Sim); his sometimes-bungling daughter Mina (played by Awkafina), who tries to be as tough as her father; a menacing, trigger-happy thug named Ray (played by Clifton Collins Jr.); and Karl’s younger brother Petey (played by Jimmi Simpson), who’s been trying to leave his criminal life behind.

Petey works as a salesperson at a furniture store named Rita’s, owned by a sassy lesbian named Rita (played by Wanda Sykes), who manages the store with her equally feisty live-in girlfriend Debbie (played by Ellen Barkin). Rita and Debbie know that Petey has a criminal background, but he’s told them that he’s trying to “go straight” and stay out of trouble. Debbie is often suspicious of Petey and sometimes accuses him of stealing from the store. Meanwhile, Rita has a friendly rapport with Petey, and she strangely tells Petey that she wouldn’t mind too much if he was caught stealing because she would understand that he would be stealing out of desperation.

Sue is fixated on a local news/public affairs TV program called “The Gloria Michaels Show,” which has been doing constant coverage of a missing 13-year-old girl named Emma Rose. After Sue has buried Karl’s body, she goes home and watches the show. She has a silent “a-ha” moment when she sees Emma Rose’s parents Jonathan and Robin (played by Michael A. Newcomer and Liz Elkins Newcomer) being interviewed by host Gloria Michaels (played by Juliette Lewis), who tells the distraught parents that they have the unwavering support of the community in finding Emma Rose. Gloria is a TV personality who’s a mix of Nancy Grace and Deborah Norville, even down to having the same type of blonde bob hairstyle and Southern accent.

Sue decides that she can get the public’s sympathy and attention if she pretends that Karl is missing. Sue calls the restaurant to cancel the dinner reservation by saying that her husband isn’t feeling well. It’s a discrepancy (and plot hole) that a good investigation team would be able to uncover when Sue later reports that Karl is missing. She foolishly claimed that Karl disappeared during the time she said that he was too “sick” to go to the restaurant. Another big plot hole is that Sue never bothers to contact anyone to try to look for Karl. But, of course, this movie has incompetent cops who investigate and overlook many of these things that would expose her lies.

Sue goes to the local police station to report Karl’s disappearance, but the officer on duty, Detective Cam Harris (played by Regina Hall), is impatient and dismissive, especially when Sue tells her that Karl has been missing for less than 48 hours. Detective Harris doesn’t file a report and instead advises Sue to ask Karl’s friends and relatives if they know where he is, because many missing spouses usually have just gone somewhere without telling their spouses. Once again, Sue feels ignored and disrespected.

The gravity of what Sue has done begins to sink in with her. When she goes home, she has a meltdown and starts trashing her house. She picks up the birthday cake, as if she’s going to destroy it too, but she can’t bring herself to do it. It’s symbolic of how she’ll take extreme measures later in the story to save herself and destroy others, just so she won’t be exposed for committing the crimes of illegal disposal of a corpse and lying to the police.

Sue has a younger half-sister named Nancy (played by Mila Kunis), who comes over to visit shortly after Sue has her meltdown. The house looks like it’s been ransacked, so Sue pretends to be distraught that Karl is missing. Sue also plays along with Nancy’s assumption that Karl was probably kidnapped during a home invasion.

It just so happens that Nancy is a highly ambitious and competitive TV reporter who works for a local station that’s a rival to the station that has “The Gloria Michaels Show.” Sue and Nancy see Karl’s “disappearance” as an opportunity to get media attention for themselves. Predictably, Nancy offers to interview Sue on TV about the “disappearance.” Nancy doesn’t really care that Karl could be missing; she just wants to get a “news scoop” over the competition.

This TV interview is the first time that Petey finds out that his older brother Karl is missing. And that’s a problem because Karl had $3 million that he was supposed to launder, so now that money is missing too. In a panic, Petey tells Mina and Ray that he doesn’t know where Karl or the money is. And inexplicably, Mina decides to tell Petey that she and Ray have kidnapped Karl, so that they can extort $20,000 in ransom money from Petey. It’s a dumb decision by any standard, but it’s an example of how bad this movie is.

What follows is a convoluted and messy farce, with betrayals, more lies, and people inevitably getting killed in brutal ways. Detective Harris is the only cop on the case who gets suspicious of Sue. But Detective Harris is stonewalled by her dimwitted junior cop partner Officer Jones (played by T.C. Matherne) and their boss Captain Riggins (played by Dominic Burgess), who both think that Sue doesn’t seem like the type who could be a criminal mastermind. It’s a subtle commentary on how certain people, because of their physical appearance, are given a “privileged pass” with law enforcement.

The movie has a few supporting characters that don’t have much to do except be possible targets of violence. Petey has a pregnant girlfriend named Jonelle (played by Samira Wiley), who grows concerned at how strange he’s been acting lately. Her pregnancy only seems to be in the movie so there’s an inevitable scene of a pregnant woman in a vicious fight. And then there’s one of Karl’s bank colleagues named Steve (played by Chris Lowell), who doesn’t do much but act frightened when Mina and Ray predictably show up at the bank to look for Karl.

This type of low-quality movie usually has a cast of unknown actors. But it’s very disappointing to see how many talented and famous actors (who are all known for doing much better work elsewhere) are in this atrocious movie. Not even the action stunts are interesting to watch.

And the tone of the film is horribly uneven, as the actors do their performances as if they’re in very different films. Awkwafina, Barkin, Sykes, Kunis, Hall and Simpson act as if they’re in a goofy slapstick comedy. Matherene, Burgess, Wiley and Lowell act as if they’re in a serious drama. Janney, Lewis, Collins, Sim and Everett come closest to capturing the movie’s intended dark satire. Modine isn’t in the movie long enough for most viewers to care about his Karl character, who seems to be despicable anyway.

Almost as annoying as this movie’s characters is the music score by Jeff Beal, because it’s the epitome of sitcom smarm. Given how violent this movie is, the music is completely out-of-place and awkward, because it sounds like something that should be for an outdated family comedy series on TV. The overall direction of the movie is lazy, as if Taylor just let the actors do their own thing instead of having a cohesive tone for the film. And clearly, the filmmakers didn’t do enough to fix the many problems in the screenplay.

It seems as if “Breaking News in Yuba County” tried and failed to be like a Guy Ritchie crime film, by having a story where lawbreakers comically try to outdo each other in absurd ways, while they attempt to cover up everything and blame their misdeeds on other people. There are plenty of female-centric dark comedy satires that get all the elements right, including 2017’s “I, Tonya,” the movie that garnered Janney her Academy Award. Sometimes bad movies are fun to watch, but “Breaking News in Yuba County” is the type of irritating movie where viewers can’t wait for it to be over and won’t care what happens to the characters in the end.

MGM’s American International Pictures released “Breaking News in Yuba County” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on February 12, 2021.

Review: ‘Unhinged’ (2020) starring Russell Crowe

August 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Russell Crowe in “Unhinged” (Photo by Skip Bolden/Solstice Studios)

“Unhinged” (2020) 

Directed by Derrick Borte

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic action film “Unhinged” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A woman becomes the stalking target of a stranger who wants deadly revenge after they were involved in a road rage incident.

Culture Audience: “Unhinged” appeals primarily to people who like formulaic “stalking” movies that often have unrealistic and illogical scenes.

Caren Pistorius in “Unhinged” (Photo by Skip Bolden/Solstice Studios)

The dramatic action film “Unhinged” is the type of movie that wants people to turn off their logic and common sense and just go along for the chaotic and often-ludicrous ride of this story’s demented stalking. “Unhinged” could be considered a horror film, but the tone is more about being suspenseful than being scary. The way that “Unhinged” was made is as if it’s a Lifetime drama movie made for people who want manic, testosterone-fueled action with cars.

Directed by Derrick Borte and written by Carl Ellsworth, “Unhinged” shows right from the opening scene that the movie’s title describes the story’s villain. This deranged antagonist doesn’t have a name in the movie (although he uses the alias Tom Cooper later in the story), and he’s played by Russell Crowe, an Oscar-winning actor who should be doing higher-quality movies than this awful dreck. For the purposes of this review, we’ll call the villain Unhinged Man.

The movie begins with Unhinged Man parked outside a house on a quiet residential street on a rainy night in an unnamed U.S. city. (“Unhinged” was actually filmed in the New Orleans area.) He’s sitting in his pickup truck, he pops a pill, and then lights a match before the match extinguishes. He then takes a hammer, goes up to the house he’s been watching, and uses the hammer to break down the front door.

He then viciously murders a man and woman inside the house with the hammer while the house’s door is open. The murder victims can be heard screaming as they’re being attacked. After he kills them, he sets the house on fire before calmly driving away.

All of this loud mayhem would definitely get the neighbors’ attention in real life, but as Unhinged Man drives away, there are no signs of neighbors even knowing what just took place. No lights go on in the surrounding houses, no neighbors go outside or peek through their windows to see what’s happening. It’s the first sign that this movie is going to have some dumb scenes set up so that Unhinged Man can brazenly commit murder in front of numerous potential witnesses and get away with it for as long as possible.

During the movie’s opening credits, there’s a montage showing TV news footage or viral videos about how angry people are in America and how that rage is turning into random acts of violence. This montage is intended to get viewers in the state of mind that Unhinged Man is one of those people who will violently lash out at strangers, so whoever becomes his next target better watch out.

As for the people he murdered in that house, the movie never reveals who they are and why they were murdered. It’s one of many loose ends and plot holes in “Unhinged.” The identities of these murder victims seem to be kept deliberately anonymous as a metaphor for how anyone could be a target for Unhinged Man, and he can have very petty reasons for wanting to murder.

So who will be his next unlucky victim? It’s hair stylist Rachel (played by Caren Pistorius), who’s about to have a very bad day. (Most of the action in “Unhinged” takes place during a 24-hour period.) Rachel, who is in her 30s, is also going through some tough times. She’s in the middle of a contentious divorce that has reached a point where her estranged husband now wants to have the house where she lives with their son Kyle (played by Gabriel Bateman), who’s about 13 or 14 years old.

Also living in the house is Rachel’s younger brother Fred (played by Austin P. McKenzie), who’s in his early 20s and unemployed, but he says he has some great business ideas. In other words, he’s a freeloader. Fred has a girlfriend named Mary (played by Juliene Joyner), who might or might not live there too. The movie doesn’t make it clear where Mary lives, but she has a serious-enough relationship with Fred that she’s often at the house.

Rachel’s divorce lawyer Andy (played by Jimmi Simpson) happens to be her best friend, as he’s described later in the movie. One morning, before Rachel is about to drive Kyle to school, Andy calls to tell Rachel the bad news that her soon-to-be ex-husband Richard (who’s never seen on camera) is going to put up a big fight to get the house. Rachel is already running late for an appointment with her most important client Deborah Haskell (played by Anne Leighton), and she’s also in a rush to get Kyle to school.

Before they drive off, Rachel and Kyle debate on which route she should take to get him to school: Should they take the freeway or surface streets? Either way, they’re going to be in rush-hour traffic but they have to guess which might be the faster way. They take the freeway and run into a traffic jam, so Rachel decides to get off the freeway and drive on the streets.

These driving scenes have increasing tension, because during this car trip, Rachel gets two phone calls with bad news. Richard calls to let Kyle know that he has to cancel their upcoming father/son get-together for a sports game, because Richard just started a new job that is requiring him to do some work that conflicts with the game schedule. And then, Deborah calls Rachel in frustration over Rachel’s tardiness. Deborah tells Rachel that not only is she canceling the appointment but she’s also firing Rachel.

It’s during this phone call that Deborah mentions another setback that Rachel went through not too long ago: Rachel used to own her own hair salon, but she lost that business. The movie doesn’t reveal exactly when or why Rachel lost the salon, but this business failure is brought up as another example of how Rachel is under tremendous financial pressure. Losing her most important client has just made things worse.

Therefore, by the time Rachel encounters Unhinged Man, she’s feeling very stressed-out and anxious. While waiting at an intersection at a stoplight, she notices that the pickup truck in front of her won’t move after the light turns green. She loudly honks her horn, but the driver still won’t move. Finally, she decides to pass the truck and gives the driver a dirty look as she passes. The driver is Unhinged Man, of course.

Rachel hits another traffic jam on the streets, where she notices that Unhinged Man has followed her. He eventually drives up next to Rachel’s car, where Kyle (who’s in the back seat) has the window next to him rolled down. Fearing that she could be dealing with a nutjob, Rachel tells Kyle not to talk to the stranger. And it just so happens that when Kyle tries to close the window with the automatic button, there’s a malfunction and the window is stuck.

Unhinged Man has his window rolled down. He starts a conversation where he asks Rachel why she had to lean hard on her car horn instead of giving it a polite tap. She tells him that it was justified because he wouldn’t move while the light was green. Rachel also says that she’s in a hurry and she’s having a bad day. Unhinged Man then apologizes and asks Rachel to apologize too, but she refuses.

His demeanor then becomes menacing as he tells Rachel, “I don’t think you even know what a bad day is. But you’re going to find out. You’re going to fucking learn.”

And this heated exchange sets off the stalking and chase scenes in the movie, which includes numerous car crashes and some more people who end up murdered. The worst things about the movie are how many unrealistic things happen and how Rachel is written as a dimwit who makes horrible decisions.

For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Unhinged Man is chasing after Rachel while they’re in their cars. Rachel finds out that her phone is missing (for reasons that are shown in the movie), and she frantically tries to go through her purse to look for her phone while she’s driving. When she sees that her phone isn’t there, instead of going somewhere to get help and use a phone, she keeps driving.

There’s another scene where Unhinged Man goes after Rachel and he traps her in a packed fleet of cars that are locked in a traffic jam. Unhinged Man then acts like he’s at a monster truck derby and starts ramming cars. And yet, there’s no sign of people in any of the cars getting on their phones to call 911.

Unhinged Man also causes mayhem at a diner in another unrealistic scene. Unhinged Man just casually does what he does and stays too long in places where he knows that the cops are going to show up any minute. Let’s just say that the police take too long to arrive in many scenes in this movie.

And there’s another scene where after the cops show up, the people who were brutally attacked by Unhinged Man aren’t even taken to a hospital. The cops just take the report and then leave. The movie’s sloppy screenwriting also includes Rachel coming up with an illogical and unnecessary idea to lure Unhinged Man to the nursing home where her mother lives. Whether or not she goes through with the idea is shown in the movie.

But the biggest illogical thing about the movie is how, during all of this madness, Rachel doesn’t go to a police station. Instead, she wastes a lot of time making stupid decisions while she’s being chased by Unhinged Man. Crowe’s performance is almost campy, because there are some scenes where he literally growls as he gets angry. The rest of the cast don’t do anything particularly noteworthy in their roles, because their characters are written as fairly generic.

There are hints that Unhinged Man is someone with a troubled past. It’s revealed that he has problems holding on to a steady job (he was fired after just a month on his most recent job) and it’s implied that he went through a painful divorce. Based on how he reacts when he finds out that Rachel is in the middle of a divorce, it seems as if Unhinged Man felt he was the “victim” in his own divorce and he’s extremely bitter about it.

“Unhinged” essentially takes a trope that’s common for a Lifetime movie (a woman in peril) but with male rage given more weight in the story. The high-octane chase scenes and car crashes are meant to appeal to people who like “bang ’em up” action and don’t really care about the reasons for why this destruction is happening. Don’t expect to get a lot of insight into why these characters behave as illogically as they do. Viewers who get to the end of this movie will feel like they were trapped in a badly structured video game where only the chase scenes matter and the characters are as hollow and mindless as they can be.

Solstice Studios released “Unhinged” in U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.

Copyright 2017-2024 Culture Mix