Review: ‘The Hill’ (2023), starring Dennis Quaid, Colin Ford, Joelle Carter, Randy Houser, Jesse Berry, Bonnie Bedelia and Scott Glenn

August 25, 2023

by Carla Hay

Colin Ford and Dennis Quaid in “The Hill” (Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

“The Hill” (2023)

Directed by Jeff Celentano

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in 1965 and 1974, the dramatic film “The Hill” (based on the true events) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Rickey Hill faces major difficulties in his goal to play for a Major League Baseball (MLB) team, including a degenerative spine disease, leg disabilities and a conservative pastor father who does everything he can to prevent him from playing baseball. 

Culture Audience: “The Hill” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching a very unique baseball story turned into formulaic mush.

Pictured clockwise from upper left: Joelle Carter, Bonnie Bedelia, Hailey Bithell, Dennis Quaid, Mason Gillett and Jesse Berry in “The Hill” (Photo courtesy of Briarcliff Entertainment)

“The Hill” is a poorly constructed faith-based biopic about disabled baseball player Rickey Hill. This long-winded and preachy drama leaves big questions unanswered about his life. The movie is also plagued with hokey dialogue and corny acting performances. Even though “The Hill” is based on real people and true events, much of this movie looks too much like a fairy tale.

Directed by Jeff Celentano, “The Hill” was written by Angelo Pizzo and Scott Marshall Smith. The movie’s total running time is 126 minutes, but the movie spends the first half spinning its wheels in boring repetition, while leaving out large chunks of Hill’s life, only to fast-forward to another part of his life in the second half and get stuck in more boring repetition. Anyone who knows what happens to Hill in real life before seeing this movie might be disappointed to find out that the most exciting highlights of his career are reduced to being an epilogue in the movie.

Hill was born in Fort Worth, Texas, on August 15, 1956. “The Hill” movie takes place in Texas, in 1965 and 1974. The first half of the movie is about his life when he was 9 years old, while the second half of the movie is about his life when he was 18. The years in between are erased and unexplained in this very flawed and tedious movie.

The movie begins in the small town of Bowie, Texas, where the Hill family is tight-knit but living in near-poverty. (“The Hill” was actually filled in Georgia.) The family patriarch is James Hill (played by Dennis Quaid), a strict and pious Baptist pastor who has a dwindling congregation of working-class people. James can be a loving husband and father, but he’s also very rigid and stubborn in wanting people to do what he thinks is best.

The other members of the family living in the same household are James’ loyal wife Helen Hill (played by Joelle Carter); 9-year-old Rickey (played by Jesse Berry); Rickey’s even-tempered older brother Robert (played by Mason Gillett), who’s about 11 or 12 years old; Rickey’s outspoken younger sister Connie (played by Hailey Bithell), who’s about 7 or 8 years old; and Helen’s pessimistic mother Lillian (played by Bonnie Bedelia, wearing a very bad wig), who is nicknamed Gram.

The movie opens with Rickey, who wears leg braces, practicing playing baseball and perfecting his body swivel so that he can throw the ball without having to strain his legs too much. Viewers later find out that Rickey also has a degenerative spine disease. A neighbor girl named Gracie Shanz (played by Mila Harris) watches Rickey, who tells her, “Girls don’t know spit about baseball.” Gracie, who’s about the same age as Rickey, responds by saying that Rickey won’t play in the major leagues. Gracie also calls Rickey her “boyfriend.”

Gracie’s got her own personal problems. Her father Earl Shanz (played by James Devoti) is an abusive alcoholic. Gracie’s mother/Earl’s wife Carol Shanz (played by Monica Louwerens Kenyon) is passive and is too scared to do anything about Earl’s abuse. The Shanz family members are among the small congregation (less than 50 people) attending the church led by James, who is quite pompous at work and at home.

During a church service, while James is delivering a sermon, he notices that a middle-aged, tobacco-chewing woman named Mrs. Babbitt (played by Taylor St. Clair) is spitting her tobacco juice into a small bowl on the church floor but her spit frequently misses the bowl and is leaving brown tobacco puddles on the floor. Meanwhile, during the same service, Earl is smoking a cigarette. James thinks these actions are very disrespectful in a place of worship.

James stops the sermon to politely ask Mrs. Babbitt and Earl to stop spitting and smoking in the church. Mrs. Babbitt seems annoyed by this request but stops. However, Earl is defiant and keeps smoking. James gets irritated and scolds Earl, by saying: “I am not going to let the Lord’s house by soiled by Satan!” Earl gets up and begins to argue with James in a bullying way. Earl eventually storms out of the church.

Earl isn’t the only congregant who wants to smoke in church, so James knows he could be alienating other members of his congregation with his rule of “no smoking and no spitting in church.” Lillian is quick to warn James that he can’t afford to lose congregants whose donations they need to keep the church running and to provide the Hill family with a steady income. James says he’s willing to take that risk if it means keeping this place of worship as sacred as possible.

At home, around the dinner table, Lillian expresses her disgust that James’ low income can barely feed the family. Rickey also needs an operation that the family can’t afford. Lillian berates James for not having a job that pays more money, while James gets defensive and lectures Lillian by telling her she doesn’t have enough faith in God. Helen tries to keep the peace and doesn’t like to see her mother and husband arguing, but Helen usually sides with James.

James knows that Rickey loves baseball, but James discourages Rickey’s dream to one day play for a Major League Baseball team. In fact, James thinks Rickey shouldn’t be playing baseball at all, because James thinks it will lead to getting Rickey getting seriously injured. Instead, James tries to instill into Rickey that Rickey’s calling in life is to become a pastor, just like James.

One day, Rickey and Robert are playing baseball in open field. Instead of a baseball bat and a ball, Rickey is using a stick and a rock. He hits the rock so hard and far, it breaks a side rear view mirror of an empty car parked dozens of feet away. The car belongs to Ray Clemmons (played by Randy Houser), the owner of a local scrapyard.

Rickey is a very honest boy who believes in confessing to causing this damage and making amends. When Rickey and Robert go over to Ray’s place to tell him what happened and offer to pay for the repairs, Ray is isn’t angry but is impressed with Rickey’s baseball skills. Ray asks Rickey to use the stick to hit the rock again from the same distance. Rickey does it again, this time causing the car’s front window to crack. Because he owns a scrapyard, Ray tells Rickey and Robert that he already has many other car parts that can replace the parts that are damaged.

James has become an unpopular leader in his own church, so the Hill family moves away before James can be officially fired. It’s also implied that they relocated to avoid paying a lot of James’ unpaid bills in the area. With no new home or new job prospects lined up, the Hill family packs up and goes on a road trip to an uncertain future. Rickey and Gracie say goodbye to each other, but you just know from the way this movie is made, Rickey and Gracie will see each other again.

“The Hill” is the type of movie that piles on cornball situation after cornball situation. While driving on a deserted road, the car runs out of gas. And then, the car immediately gets a flat tire. Just as James says out loud that things couldn’t get worse, it starts to rain heavily. The family has a laugh over it, in the way that people laugh when they have nothing left to lose.

An elderly couple named Linda Meyers (played by Judy Leavell) and Josh Meyers (played by Wilbur Fitzgerald) happen to be driving by, and they come to rescue of this unlucky family. Linda and Josh are generous to let the Hill family stay in their home temporarily. James tells Linda and Josh that he’s a pastor. And it just so happens that Linda knows about a church that’s looking for a pastor. Whoever gets the job will also get to live with any family members in a house that’s owned by the church.

James immediately accepts the position before seeing the church and the living quarters. As soon as Linda says that the job has been vacant for a year, you just know that this job is too good to be true. And sure enough, the church and accompanying house are run-down dumps. With no other place to go and no other job offers, James decides he can rebuild the church and the house.

Unfortunately, most of Rickey’s childhood depicted in “The Hill” is a back-and-forth slog of him practicing baseball with Robert in nearby play areas, and Rickey being scolded by James for playing baseball. Rickey is desperate to play on his school’s baseball team, but he needs a signed permission slip from his father. James also gets upset when he sees Rickey has been collecting baseball cards, which James thinks are sinful because they represent “worshipping false idols.”

A teacher at Rickey’s school named Coach Don (as David Marshall Silverman) notices Rickey’s special talent and personally goes over to the Hill household to try to convince James to let Rickey play baseball for the school’s team. However, James stubbornly refuses to change his mind about not giving permission for Rickey to play any baseball. Coach Don, who says he used to be a preacher too, berates James for “crushing” Rickey’s soul and squandering the blessing of Rickey’s athletic talent. There’s more than one scene where James physically punishes Rickey for playing baseball.

“The Hill” also has the expected scenes of Rickey being bullied by other boys, who think he’s delusional for wanting to play baseball. A mean-spirited brat named Quinn (played by Tyler Johnson) is the chief bully. However, several other local boys admire Rickey and are rooting for him to succeed. Robert is also a very loyal brother who protects Rickey from the bullies as much as he can.

James is overly strict but he isn’t a complete tyrant. He is genuinely concerned about Rickey’s health. James clearly has unspoken guilt that he’s powerless to prevent Rickey’s health issues and can’t afford to pay for Rickey’s medical treatment, so James overcompensates by using religion as a way to wield power over his family. After the Hill family finds out that Rickey needs an operation that the family can’t afford, the movie shows the efforts made by the family’s church and other people in the community to raise money for the operation.

The Hill family household is oppressive in many ways, but there’s also a lot of love in the family. A tender scene happens early in the movie when Rickey and Robert go to a local diner to buy one of James’ favorite meals as a surprise gift: a hamburger and a soda, using money that the boys saved up. James is genuinely touched by this loving gesture and shows appreciation for his sons’ thoughtfulness.

For all the time and repetitive effort that “The Hill” puts into showing how much James blocks and discourages Rickey from playing baseball, the movie then does an awkwardly abrupt fast-forward to Rickey (played by Colin Ford) in his last year of high school in 1974. He’s 18 years old and a star player on his school’s baseball team.

What happened during all those years between Rickey being a dejected kid who wasn’t allowed to play baseball to being a star baseball player for his high school? Who coached him during this crucial development period? Rickey being 18 presumably means he no longer needed a parent’s permission to be on a baseball team. But how did he get medical clearance from a doctor to play for his school’s team? Don’t expect “The Hill” to answer any of those questions.

Instead, the last half of the movie drags out with MLB hopeful Rickey wanting to be discovered and chosen for a team during MLB tryouts. And what do you know: Gracie (played by Siena Bjornerud) just happens to have moved to the same area, so now she and Rickey can reunite and fall in love. During this time when Rickey hopes to be recruited to the major leagues, James has refused to watch Rickey play any baseball games. However, Rickey’s mother Helen and siblings Robert (played by Ryan Dinning) and Connie (played by Carina Worm) are supportive spectators at Rickey’s games.

During the MLB tryouts, Rickey catches the eye of MLB scout Red Murff (played by Scott Glenn), who gives very stereotypical tough-but-tender pep talks. And there’s plenty of preaching and praying in “The Hill” too. A lot of this sanctimonious talk ranges from generic to extremely sappy. The baseball game scenes aren’t very interesting, and neither are the acting performances in this bloated biography.

“The Hill” treats Rickey’s medical issues as pesky annoyances. Any excruciating pain he experiences are depicted with some superficial grimaces and groans, some limps and some clutching of his back. There’s a scene in his childhood where Rickey breaks off his leg braces himself and then claims he feels no pain in his legs.

Everything in “The Hills” looks fake, which is a disservice to the real-life physical agony that this talented baseball player experienced. Because the movie ends when Rickey is 18, it cuts off right before the most fascinating part of his baseball journey. Although “The Hill” certainly has an inspirational story, the way that this dreadful dud tells this story is by hollowing it out and replacing a lot of meaningful parts with surface-level preaching and cringeworthy dialogue.

Briarcliff Entertainment released “The Hill” in U.S. cinemas on August 25, 2023.

Review: ‘She’s in Portland,’ starring Tommy Dewey, Francois Arnaud and Minka Kelly

October 11, 2020

by Carla Hay

Francois Arnaud and Tommy Dewey in “She’s in Portland” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“She’s in Portland”

Directed by Marc Carlini

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, Oregon and suburban Washington, D.C., the romantic drama “She’s in Portland” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians and African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two former college classmates in their mid-30s—one who’s a married father and the other who’s an available bachelor—go on a road trip to track down a bachelorette who knew them from college and who might be interested in dating the bachelor.

Culture Audience: “She’s in Portland” will appeal primarily to people who like realistic relationship dramas with touches of comedy.

Tommy Dewey and Minka Kelly in “She’s in Portland” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

If people wonder where are all the good movies about male bonding that don’t involve action-packed stunts, war combat or juvenile comedy, then point them in the direction of “She’s in Portland,” a gem of a film that deserves to be discovered. Directed with appealing charm by Marc Carlini (who co-wrote the screenplay with Patrick Alexander), “She’s in Portland” doesn’t strike a false note throughout the entire film. It’s not a perfect movie, but it has an authenticity that’s refreshing when movies too often portray men as caricatures or as people who do extraordinary things that require huge suspensions of disbelief. “She’s in Portland” is also about the pitfalls of having “grass is greener” envy about other people’s lives, when in reality those other people might have problems that aren’t enviable at all.

“She’s in Portland” is Carlini’s feature-film debut, and if the movie seems very realistic, that’s because it’s loosely based on some of Carlini’s real-life experiences. According to the production notes for “She’s in Portland,” Carlini, who has years of experiences as a film/video editor, was single and in his 30s when he was presented with a chance to reconnect with a bachelorette who was a former college classmate. He and the woman had a brief flirtation in college that could’ve ended up as a romantic relationship, but it didn’t. He then had to decide if it was worth it to see if that mutual attracted still existed.

That’s the dilemma facing Luke (played by Francois Arnaud), a bachelor in his mid-30s who works as an underpaid and underappreciated music video editor in Los Angeles. Luke is the passive “beta male” in this story about a longtime friendship between two men who met when they attended the same college together. The assertive “alpha male” in this friendship is Wes Hill (played by Tommy Dewey), a seemingly confident venture capitalist who has what most people consider to be the American Dream. 

Wes lives in a Virginia suburb of Washington, D.C., and he makes enough money to afford a comfortably upscale home. Wes is a smooth talker with a “take charge” personality, which is one of the reasons why he’s successful in his job. He has a beautiful wife named Sarah (played by Minka Kelly), who was his college sweetheart and who clearly adores him. Wes and Sarah are parents to a daughter who is nearly 2 years old. They are all healthy and seemingly happy. 

But Wes is feeling bored and restless in his marriage. And it doesn’t help that Sarah’s parents—Dennis (played by Robin Gammell) and Joan (played by Elaine Partnow)—live in the same house. The first sign that Wes is feeling discontent in his home life is early on in the movie, when Dennis criticizes a defensive Wes over not getting a household repair done in the way that Dennis would’ve liked.

It’s clear that there’s tension between Wes and Dennis, probably because Wes doesn’t feel like he’s the real head of the household, as long as his father-in-law Dennis is there. Wes also isn’t sure if his wife Sarah would take Wes’ side if she had to choose between Wes and Dennis in an argument. In fact, Sarah refuses to criticize her father or show that she’s more loyal to her husband than she is to her parents.

Meanwhile, Wes has been trying to reach Luke over the phone and has to leave voicemail messages asking Luke to call him back. Based on what Wes says in one of the messages, Wes has not heard from Luke in more than a month. Their college class is having an upcoming reunion that Wes plans to attend, and he hasn’t been able to find out if Luke will be there too.

And in the voice messages that Wes leaves for Luke, it’s clear that Wes imagines that Luke is living a carefree bachelor life in Los Angeles, which is a mecca for good-looking people who want to be famous and in showbiz. Wes makes a slightly sarcastic comment that Luke must be too busy dating all the hot women he meets in Los Angeles, while Wes is stuck in a boring corporate job and living in the same house as his demanding father-in-law.

The reality is that Luke isn’t all that happy with his life either. He lives in a cramped one-bedroom apartment. He’s struggling to pay his bills, since it’s not unusual for his clients to underpay him or pay him very late. And there’s more than a hint that Luke would rather be doing something else with his talent than doing low-paying editing jobs. (It’s a frustration that writer/director Carlini had for years, according to what he says in this movie’s production notes.)

As for Luke’s love life, he’s shown morosely deleting his profile on an online dating site. Luke ends up not going to his college reunion. But Wes does, and he runs into a woman named Maggie (played by Nicole LaLiberte), whom Wes and Luke knew only on an acquaintance level. However, shortly before they graduated, Luke and Maggie had an amazing connection when she invited herself over to Luke’s graduation party. Later in the movie, Luke tells the details of that night, in one of the film’s best scenes.

The romantic sparks between Luke and Maggie didn’t go anywhere because they never dated each other. After graduation, she moved to Europe, while Luke also moved on with his life and didn’t keep in touch. But at the college reunion, when Wes and Maggie begin talking, she says that she’s an aspiring painter who works as a bartender in Portland, Oregon. She also asks if Luke is at the reunion, and she looks very disappointed when Wes tells her that Luke probably won’t be there.

Maggie’s dismayed reaction plants an idea in Wes’ head to play matchmaker to Luke and Maggie. Wes has an upcoming business trip to go to San Francisco. And so, Wes decides that before he does his business dealings in San Francisco, he’ll stop over in Los Angeles and tell Luke about this risk-taking adventurous idea: Take a road trip to Portland, find Maggie, and see if she and Luke can rekindle what they almost started in college. Los Angeles is about 960 miles from Portland, so it will take several days to make the trip by car with all the stops that Wes plans to take along the way.

When Wes shows up unannounced at Luke’s door, Luke is surprised to see him. When Wes tells Luke about how Maggie asked about Luke at the reunion, Luke is less than enthusiastic about taking a road trip to Portland to see Maggie. In fact, Luke hates the idea. Luke tells Wes that he’s “taking a break from women” and that he’s been celibate for the past six months.

There’s more to Luke saying no to this trip than Luke not being interested in dating. Luke hasn’t been feeling that great about his life in general, because he sees other friends in his age group thriving in their careers, getting married and having children. Meanwhile, Luke feels stuck in a rut and wonders why he isn’t living his best life. Observant viewers can figure out pretty easily that the main reason why Luke has been avoiding Wes, who seems to have a nearly perfect life, is because of Luke’s diminished self-esteem when comparing himself to his closest friend from college. 

Wes decides to make the best of his time with Luke, so they hang out at a bar, where a drunk woman named Mallory (played by Paige Spara) sees Luke and makes a beeline for him. She playfully tells Luke that he was “mean” to her, and it’s clear from his reaction that they probably had a casual relationship that she wanted to be more serious that he did, so he probably distanced himself from her. Sure enough, Luke tells Wes that Mallory and Luke used to hook up, but he just wasn’t that into her and ended the relationship.

Mallory tries to be flirtatious with Luke, but he’s not having it. A female friend with Mallory attempts to get Mallory to leave the bar with her, but Mallory refuses, so the friend gives up and leaves. Mallory is then surrounded by some rough-looking men at the bar who look like they’re probably going to take advantage of Mallory in her drunken state.

Wes and Luke are nearby seeing all of this take place with Mallory and the sleazy-looking men. Wes puts Luke on a guilt trip and says that they shouldn’t leave Mallory alone with these strangers. And so, Luke reluctantly invites Mallory to crash at his place. (A predictable vomit scene then happens.)

The next morning, Mallory mistakes Luke’s kind gesture as a sign that he wants to start dating her again. She tries to kiss him, and when Luke makes it clear that he’s not interested, Mallory goes on a tirade and insults Luke by telling him he’s a “loser,” while Wes is nearby watching this mini-meltdown. After Mallory leaves in a huff, Luke tells Wes that he’s changed his mind about taking the road trip. And off they go.

For whatever reason, Wes has brought a duffel bag full of cash with him on the trip. One of the things that Wes does before the road trip is impulsively buy a bright orange Ford Bronco that he saw for sale on a nearby street. This Bronco is what Wes and Luke use for the road trip, with Wes in the driver’s seat, literally and figuratively.

One thing that’s very apparent in the movie is that Wes seems overly invested in making a love connection between Luke and Maggie. It’s as if Wes wants to believe that true romance can happen against the odds, perhaps because he’s starting to doubt how much he loves his wife Sarah. There are bits and pieces of this inner turmoil that come out in the way that Wes looks and talks whenever his marriage and “ideal” life are mentioned in conversations.

Wes and Luke end up taking the Pacific Coast Highway on their trip north. They stop off in places such as Santa Barbara, Big Sur, Monterey, San Francisco and Humboldt County. And along the way, they encounter different people who give viewers more insight into the contrasting personalities of Wes and Luke, as well as how each of these two buddies interact when they meet new people.

Even though Luke is the one who’s the bachelor, he’s much more hesitant about approaching women than Wes is. In Santa Barbara, Wes and Luke end up partying with two fun-loving college girls who are about 15 years younger than Wes and Luke. Bayla (played Olivia Crocicchia) is a sorority type who is attracted to Wes, like Constance (played by Medalion Rahimi) is a hippie-ish type who has a connection with Luke.

Wes and Luke tell them why they’re going to Portland, and Bayla and Constance think it’s a romantic idea and encourage Luke to find Maggie. Luke still has some doubts and fears about how Maggie will react to this surprise visit, but Wes is so enthusiastic about the trip that Luke goes along with what Wes has in mind. Bayla and Constance need to go to Big Sur, which is in the same direction as where Wes and Luke are going, so Wes and Luke offer them a ride to Big Sur. This carpool leads to some mildly amusing situations.

Luke is also thinking that even if he and Maggie did rekindle what they started, it would probably be a long-distance relationship because he has no plans to move to Portland. Luke has become fed up with living in Los Angeles, and he’s considering moving to Richmond, a suburb in the San Francisco area, because Luke’s brother Phil has offered to help Luke get a corporate job at a sanitation company. It’s definitely not Luke’s dream job, but he’s tired of being broke.

While in Monterey, Luke gets a call from Phil, who tells him that the potential sanitation-company job needs to interview Luke that coming Monday. And just like that, Luke has to decide whether or not to continue on to Portland or go to the job interview. Luke makes a bet with Wes that will determine the decision.

Meanwhile, during their last night in Monterey, Luke and Wes meet another pair of female friends: Rebecca (played by Joelle Carter) and Ellen (played Lola Glaudini), who are in their 30s and seated nearby at an outdoor lounge area. Wes is the one who takes the initiative and approaches them, while Luke sits nearby and watches.

Wes invites Rebecca and Ellen to join him and Luke for dinner and drinks. This dinner scene is one of the standouts in the movie because the four of them open up about their relationships and what they think about finding true love. It’s a mature, very realistic conversation that will resonate with a lot of people who watch this movie. 

Luke and Wes have told Rebecca and Ellen why they decided to take the road trip, and the two women weigh in with their opinions. Rebecca is newly divorced (she literally signed the divorce papers that morning) after 17 years of marriage. She and her ex-husband, who lives a few hours away in Palo Alto, share custody of their 11-year-old son Jesse and their 9-year-old daughter Caroline. Ellen, who traveled from Berkeley to comfort Rebecca through this final stage of the divorce, has never been married and she says that she doesn’t want kids.

There’s another pair of female friends whom Luke and Wes encounter later on, after a few surprise twists and turns in the story. It’s enough to say that Wes didn’t want this road trip only to play matchmaker for Luke. Wes is also using the trip to figure out his feelings about love and evaluating how he’s been living his life. His “grass is greener” envy about Luke is that Luke has the freedom to come and go wherever he pleases as a bachelor with no children, while Wes has a much more constrained and regimented lifestyle.

“She’s in Portland” makes great use of locations for what is obviously a low-budget film, whether it’s the intoxicating party atmosphere of Santa Barbara, the laid-back beaches of Big Sur or a somber cliffside gravesite in Elk, California. And, of course, any movie that’s about a road trip on the Pacific Coast Highway should have majestic views of the highway and nearby landscape, which cinematographer Devin Whetstone captures with breathtaking aplomb.

Beyond these production elements, the greatest strength of “She’s in Portland” is the heart of the story: the well-acted, well-written portrayal of Wes and Luke’s friendship. The supporting characters also make this story seem very naturalistic and genuine, but everything hinges on and ultimately succeeds with the convincing performances of Dewey and Arnaud.

On the surface, “She’s in Portland” seems like a road-trip movie to find love with a woman, but it’s really a journey about two male buddies who come to realistic terms about who they are and what they want out of love. And what they discover is that “grass is greener” envy isn’t so much about wanting someone else’s life, but it’s a fear that your own life has been about settling for less than what you want and deserve. 

Freestyle Digital Media released “She’s in Portland” on digital and VOD on September 25, 2020.

Review: ‘The Big Ugly,’ starring Vinnie Jones, Malcolm McDowell, Nicholas Braun, Leven Rambin, Lenora Crichlow and Ron Perlman

July 31, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vinnie Jones in “The Big Ugly” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Big Ugly” 

Directed by Scott Wiper

Culture Representation: Taking place in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, the crime drama “The Big Ugly” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few black people) representing the wealthy, middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash:  British criminals who are in Virginia for a shady business deal find themselves at odds with a longtime American ally who is a powerful oil baron with a troublemaking son.

Culture Audience: “The Big Ugly” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic B-movie crime thrillers and don’t mind if the movie’s pace is much slower than it should be.

Brandon Sklenar in “The Big Ugly” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

British footballer-turned-actor Vinnie Jones is known for starring in high-octane B-movie action schlockfests that showcase his fighting abilities, so viewers of “The Big Ugly” (written and directed by Scott Wiper) might be disappointed to see how slow-paced this movie is. And it’s not just because the movie takes a long time (about two-thirds of the film) before a really big fight scene happens. This is the type of movie where the people speak with long pauses in between sentences, as if they’re zonked-out on medication or their brain cells are being killed by some of the moronic dialogue that they have to utter.

The movie begins with a group of British criminals on a private plane, as they fly to Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains to do a business deal: laundering money with a local millionaire oil baron named Preston (played by Ron Perlman, in yet another menacing role as a ruthless and shady character). The movie’s title comes from an area of the Appalachians called the Big Ugly, where Preston’s employees do a lot of their work.

The story’s main protagonist is a brooding thug named Neelyn (played by Jones), and he’s accompanied on the trip by his girlfriend Fiona (played by Lenora Crichlow), whom he’s been dating for six years. Also on the plane is the British crime group’s boss: a suit-wearing, bespectacled overlord named Harris (played by Malcolm McDowell), who has his underlings do his dirty work for him. “Back in London,” Neelyn says of the criminal hierarchy there, “Harris is the king.”

Harris is on this trip because he personally wants to deliver $32.7 million (which is about £25 million) in cash to Preston, who owns a large swath of land in the Appalachians, where he employs a loyal group of redneck types to mine the land for precious resources, such as oil. Harris and Preston are longtime allies who became friends after one of them saved the other’s life years ago. (It’s shown as a flashback in the movie.)

The reason for the trip, as Neelyn explains in one of his many gruff, Cockney-accented voiceovers in the film: “Preston needs cash flow. Harris needs a cleaner. Win win—for most.” It isn’t long before viewers see that Neelyn and Harris have a strained relationship with each other because Neelyn tends to be a bit rebellious. We see later in the film that Neelyn is the type of employee who will sometimes question what his boss tells him to do instead of blindly following orders.

The cash tradeoff happens smoothly after the private plane lands on the tarmac. Preston might be involved in illegal deals, but he wants everyone to know that he’s got a noble conscience when it comes to race relations and respecting the environment. But when it comes to murdering people who might get in his way, Preston’s “morality” flies right out the window.

After he gets Harris’ money, Preston has several employees gathered outside, when he sees that a few of his scruffy male employees have arrived in a truck displaying a Confederate flag. Preston immediately rips the flag from the truck, because he says he’s “read history” and he knows that the flag represents divisiveness. When the employees object to Preston taking the flag, he reacts by throwing the flag in a nearby garbage can. “This shit offends me,” Preston growls. “Riding around with [this flag] just says, ‘I’m a fucking loser.'”

Preston also starts lecturing to employees about his political philosophies: “You know, one of our biggest crimes as Americans is that our righteous morality towards nature rarely extends beyond our own backyard … I don’t frack. I don’t use bullshit chemicals. I treat the land with honor and leave it like God intended it to be.”

Now that viewers know that Preston is a criminal who hates the Confederate flag but loves the environment, it isn’t long before the source of the story’s conflict is shown: Preston’s only child Junior (played by Brandon Sklenar), a sleazy and entitled troublemaker who uses his father’s power to bully people and commit all kinds of mayhem because he knows he can get away with it. Preston has some loyal enforcers to carry out his wishes (and clean up Junior’s messes), including top henchman Mitt (played by Bruce McGill), Thomas (played by David Meyers Gregory) and Stoney (played by Dan Buran).

Now that Harris and his posse have done their business deal with Preston, these British criminals don’t expect to be in town for long. There’s a random scene in a barn, where Neelyn is pointing a gun at a older man who arrived with the group on the plane. “We had a good run, you and me,” Neelyn tells the man, who clearly knows what’s going to happen next. The man replies “Yeah,” before Neelyn shoots him dead.

What is the purpose of this poorly written scene? Harris shows up near the barn right after the shooting, so it’s implied that Neelyn shot the guy because Harris ordered him to do it. But it’s never really explained what this murder victim did to deserve being killed in such a cold-blooded manner. If Neelyn has any remorse over this murder, he doesn’t show it.

Meanwhile, at a local bar called 86 Roadhouse, which appears to be the only hotspot in town, Neelyn and Fiona party with their group and some of Preston’s employees. In one of the restrooms, Neelyn and Fiona do cocaine together. Harris looks very out of place in this seedy bar, as if he’d rather be downing cocktails at the ritzy Savoy Hotel in London.

And when Harris sees a coked-up Neelyn, he expresses his disapproval at Neelyn’s intoxicated condition. You see, Harris wants his people to be “classy” criminals, as if he somehow forgot that murdering someone in cold blood in a dirty barn isn’t exactly “classy.” Neelyn inevitably gets in a rough physical fight with a couple of bar patrons, and Neelyn is thrown out of the place.

Harris is outside of the bar and furious with Neelyn. Harris yells at Neelyn: “Only you can can get eighty-sixed from a bar called the fucking 86! I mean, wild animals can’t get thrown out of that fucking place! You are a humiliation to us! You are a fucking embarrassment!”

Neelyn replies, “You finished? Or shall I pull up a chair?” Harris snaps back, “Wind your neck in son, or I’ll cut it off.” That’s a typical example of the cringeworthy dialogue in this movie.

While Harris is verbally ripping into Neelyn outside, Junior is inside the bar making moves on the paid escort named Jackie (played by Elyse Levesque) who accompanied Harris on this trip. Junior’s seduction technique is to ooze out cheesy lines such as “Your beauty is so bright, it hurts my eyes,” while holding up a hand to his face. Jackie is either really drunk, desperate or both, because Junior’s smarminess works on her.

The next thing you know, Jackie and Junior are having sex outside in a not-so-secluded area near the bar. One of the people who sees this impromptu tryst is mild-mannered Will (played by Nicholas Braun), one of Preston’s employees. Junior happens to be Will’s immediate boss, so Will (just like most people who don’t want to see their boss having sex) backs away and says nothing.

Meanwhile, Neelyn and Fiona (who are both drunk and high) are in their hotel room, where they get into a little bit of a lovers’ spat because she wants him to talk about where their relationship is headed, after six years of dating each other. Neelyn is not in the mood for that kind of talk, so Fiona storms out of the room in a huff.

While she’s smoking a cigarette outside, Junior comes sidling up to her like a snake ready to pounce. (He definitely gets around fast.) Junior starts flirting with Fiona and invites her to go back to 86 Roadhouse with him. She politely declines, but he keeps insisting. And then when he walks away, he says she can still change her mind.

When a very hungover Neelyn wakes up the next morning, he notices that Fiona is missing. Harris and the rest of his group are getting ready to board their plane back to London, but Neelyn is frantic over finding Fiona. Harris and Neelyn get in another argument, where Harris orders Neelyn to leave with the group, but Neelyn insists on staying so that he can find Fiona.

Meanwhile, Junior has moved on to another potential sexual conquest: Will’s girlfriend Kara (played by Leven Rambin), who works as a bartender/waitress at another local bar. Kara rebuffs Junior’s aggressive advances (and he uses the same “you’re so beautiful, it hurts my eyes” line with her too), but it’s clear that he doesn’t want to take no for an answer.

Junior later tells Will that Kara is a “hot piece of ass” who doesn’t need to belong to one man. It’s a test of Will’s moral strength in defending his girlfriend from Will’s sexual harassment, but Junior is also testing how far he can abuse his power as Will’s supervisor. People in the area know that Junior is an out-of-control bully, but they’re afraid to do anything about it because they know that Junior’s powerful father Preston will protect him.

Neelyn does some private-detective sleuthing into Fiona’s disappearance. Actually, he just goes back to the 86 Roadhouse and bribes the owner/manager Tomi (played by Joelle Carter) to give him information. To no one’s surprise, Neelyn finds out that Junior was the last person seen with Fiona, because they were hanging out together at the bar until closing time, and Fiona and Junior left the bar together.

Fiona left her wallet behind (a sign of probable foul play), and Neelyn checks his phone and finds a disturbing voice-mail message from Fiona that sounds like she’s being attacked and is yelling for help. When Neelyn confronts Junior about being the last person seen with Fiona, Junior insists that he walked Fiona back to the hotel and that she was perfectly safe the last time he saw her. (No one in this movie bothers to ask for any surveillance video.)

Junior is obviously the main “person of interest” in Fiona’s disappearance, but when Neelyn tells Harris about his suspicions, Harris tells Neelyn to back off of going after Junior. Harris knows that Preston is very protective of his rotten son, so Harris doesn’t want anything to happen to put his own friendship with Preston in jeopardy

Does Neelyn obey Harris’ orders to “back off” of Junior? It’s pretty easy to see where the rest of the movie will go from here, so when the inevitable showdown happens, there’s nothing really unique or surprising about it. “The Big Ugly” isn’t an unwatchable film. It’s just a very forgettable and derivative film that tries to be very lofty and serious-minded, as if it’s pretending that it’s not a substandard B-movie.

In the very beginning of the film, Neelyn is heard declaring in a monotone voiceover: “God. Land. Oil. It’s often said that war is waged for just these three … I didn’t come hear to West Virginia for God.” Actually, the battles in this movie are about none of those three things. “The Big Ugly” might give the impression that there will be a lot of thrilling fight scenes, but instead the movie is an often-tedious drama that takes too long to get to the real action.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Big Ugly” in select virtual U.S. cinemas on July 24, 2020. The movie’s digital/VOD release date is July 31, 2020.

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