Review: ‘Origin’ (2023), starring Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor

December 10, 2023

by Carla Hay

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in “Origin” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Neon)

“Origin” (2023)

Directed by Ava DuVernay

Some language in German and Hindi with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States, Germany, and India, the dramatic film “Origin” (based on the non-fiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents”) features an African American, white and Asian cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After experiencing two major deaths in her family, a grieving non-fiction author decides to write a book investigating how societal prejudices around the world are interconnected through different forms of caste systems, even though some people are skeptical that this is a viable concept for a research book.

Culture Audience: “Origin” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Ava DuVernay and movies that take uncomfortable but necessary looks at how harmful societal prejudices come in many different forms but have the same goals of oppressing other people.

Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor in “Origin” (Photo by Atsushi Nishijima/Neon)

“Origin” weaves a meaningful cinematic tapestry that shows how societal prejudices are interconnected. The acting performances in this drama are admirable, but some viewers might think the movie’s pacing is too slow. “Origin” also presents multiple timeline-jumping storylines alongside the main story. This juggling of different stories in one movie might not appeal to everyone, with some viewers thinking that this narrative is too cluttered and messy. “Origin” (which had its world premiere at the 2023 Venice International Film Festival) is best appreciated by people who have the patience to watch a layered 135-minute movie with no distractions.

Written and directed by Ava DuVernay (who is one of the movie’s producers), “Origin” is based on American journalist-turned-author Isabel Wilkerson’s best-selling 2020 non-fiction book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” In the book, Pulitzer Prize-winning Wilkerson presents the theory that caste systems based on societal prejudices have caused various forms of damaging oppression around the world. In “Origin,” Wilkerson (played by Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor, also known as Aunjanue Ellis) is the movie’s main character, who researches this theory by using three main examples: racism in the United States, the Holocaust in Europe, and the caste system in India.

Racism in the United States includes scenes and mentions about the Trayon Martin tragedy of 2012, when 17-year-old Martin (who was unarmed) was shot and killed in Sanford, Florida, by a man who followed Martin and called 911 to report that Martin looked suspicious. (Myles Frost portrays Martin in “Origin.”) The killing of Martin is widely considered to be a flashpoint for the start of the Black Lives Matter movement.

At the time this tragedy occurred, Isabel is shown to be in a happy interracial marriage with her husband Brett Hamilton (played by Jon Bernthal), who is a mathematician and financial analyst. Isabel’s widowed mother Ruby Wilkerson (played by Emily Yancy), who uses a wheelchair, lives with Isabel and Brett. Isabel and Brett, who do not have children, have an upper-middle-class lifestyle where they go to parties attended by affluent and intellectual people. It’s at one of these parties where Isabel (a former newspaper journalist) is approached by her former editor Amari Selvan (played by Blair Underwood) to do a news article on the Martin tragedy, but she declines the request because she says she doesn’t want to be a journalist anymore.

Although things are going well in the marriage of Isabel and Brett, the spouses have to grapple with the difficult decision of putting Ruby in an assisted living facility when Ruby’s physical condition requires more medical attention than what Isabel and Brett can provide in their home. Isabel has a close emotional bond with Ruby, as well as with Isabel’s cousin Marion Wilkerson (played by Niecy Nash-Betts). Within a year, two of these family members will be dead.

A grieving Isabel then gets the idea to write “Caste” and goes on an international journey to do research for the book. (“Origin” was filmed in Germany, India, and the American cities of Montgomery in Alabama and Savannah in Georgia.) Ellis-Taylor gives a very good performance as the quietly determined Isabel, whose grief is not just on a personal level but also on a collective level for all the suffering and inhumanity that she has to report in her book.

While Isabel is on this research journey (she travels to Germany and India), “Origin” simultaneously shows stories that took place in the past. In 1930s Nazi-controlled Germany, African American husband-and-wife scholars Allison Davis (played by Isha Carlos Blaaker) and Elizabeth Davis (played by Jasmine Cephas Jones) experience racism when they are visiting in Berlin. The racist Germans whom Allison and Elizabeth encounter are openly hostile in their disbelief that black people can be well-educated and intelligent.

Meanwhile, a German shipyard worker named August Landmesser (played by Finn Wittrock), a gentile whose community is largely supportive of the Nazi antisemitic agenda, has to decide how he’s going to handle his secret romance with a Jewish woman named Irma Eckler (played by Victoria Pedretti), who wants to be more publicly open about their relationship. Allison and Elizabeth later team up with Harvard University anthropology spouses Burleigh Gardner (played by Matthew Zuk) and Mary Gardner (played by Hannah Pniewski) for an undercover social experiment that won’t be revealed in this review but is shown in the movie.

When Isabel is in India, she does deep-dive research into the caste system and learns more about the horrible treatment of Dalit people, who are considered the lowest of the low in India’s hierarchal society. Isabel also becomes familiar with the teachings of India’s former minister of law and justice Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, a controversial Dalit leader who fought for the civil rights of Dalit people. The parts of “Origin” that take place in India seem a little rushed in toward the end of the film.

The problem that some people might have with “Origin” is that it takes close to an hour into the movie before Isabel starts her research journey. The backstory about her family and the August/Irma romance fill up most of the first half of the film. “Origin” certainly could have used better film editing in this first half. For example, the movie really didn’t need to spend as much time as it did showing Isabel and Brett doing a search for an assisted living facility for Ruby.

A few notable actors have cameos in the parts of “Origin” that take place in the United States. Audra McDonald has the role of Miss Hale, one of the people who’s interviewed by Isabel for the book. Miss Hale shares vivid and painful memories of experiencing racism as a child.

Connie Nielsen has the role of Sabine, a German who meets Isabel in Germany, during a small dinner party at the home of their mutual friend Ulrich (played by John Hans Tester). Sabine is skeptical of Isabel’s theory that the Nazis in 1930s Germany used racial segregation and slavery laws from the United States as a blueprint for the Holocaust. Sabine thinks the book’s concept is flawed and doesn’t hesitate to tell Isabel her opinions. Sabine says that slavery in the United States was about “subjugation,” while the Holocaust in Europe was about “extermination.”

In an earlier scene, Nick Offerman has the role of a plumber named Dave, who visits Isabel’s home to fix a plumbing problem in her basement. Dave wears a Make America Great Again hat (a signature look of Donald Trump supporters), which is supposed to signal that he’s the type of politically conservative person who might clash with politically liberal Isabel. However, the conversation that Isabel and Dave have in the movie will surprise viewers who might be expecting some type of confrontation.

“Origin” takes a while to get to the heart of the story, but its approach to the subject matter should be admired for not being entirely predictable. Just like Wilkerson did in “Caste,” DuVernay wants viewers of “Origin” to understand that although certain laws exist that have banned slavery and genocide in certain countries that have been notorious for both, the toxic prejudices that fueled these horrors still exist in one form or another. By bringing together stories that take place in various time periods, “Origin” succeeds in its intention to show people a deeply moving film that exemplifies Spanish philosopher George Santayana’s famous quote about the pitfalls of forgetting what history has taught: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Neon released “Origin” in select U.S. cinemas on December 8, 2023, with a wider release in U.S. cinemas on January 19, 2024.

Review: ‘The Many Saints of Newark,’ starring Alessandro Nivola, Leslie Odom Jr., Jon Bernthal, Corey Stoll, Michael Gandolfini, Ray Liotta and Vera Farmiga

January 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pictured clockwise, from left to right: Corey Stoll, Joey Diaz, Vera Farmiga, Jon Bernthal, Michael Gandolfini, Gabriella Piazza, Alessandro Nivola and an unidentified actress in “The Many Saints of Newark” (Photo by Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Many Saints of Newark”

Directed by Alan Taylor

Culture Representation: Taking place from 1967 to 1972, in New Jersey and New York, the mobster drama film “The Many Saints of Newark” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class involved in mafia activities.

Culture Clash: Members of the Moltisanti and Soprano families of “The Sopranos” TV series rise through the ranks of the Italian American mafia in New Jersey while having conflicts with each other, as an underage Tony Soprano is groomed to learn the family’s crime business. 

Culture Audience: “The Many Saints of Newark” will appeal primarily to fans of “The Sopranos” and predictable mobster movies with good acting.

Leslie Odom Jr. and Alessandro Nivolo in “The Many Saints of Newark” (Photo by Barry Wetcher/Warner Bros. Pictures)

As a movie prequel to “The Sopranos” series, “The Many Saints of Newark” disappoints by not making Tony Soprano the main character. However, the cast members are so talented, they elevate this typical mobster drama. You don’t have to be familiar with “The Sopranos” to understand “The Many Saints of Newark,” although the movie is more enjoyable to watch for anyone who has a basic level of knowledge about “The Sopranos,” which won 21 Primetime Emmy Awards during its 1999 to 2007 run on HBO. At times, “The Many Saints of Newark” looks more like it’s trying to be a Martin Scorsese mafia film than a “Sopranos” prequel.

Directed by Alan Taylor and written by “The Sopranos” showrunner David Chase and Lawrence Konner, “The Many Saints of Newark” opens with a scene of a graveyard that shows the gravestone of Christopher Moltisanti, Tony Soprano’s troubled protégé, whom Tony killed in Season 6 of the series. Christopher (voiced by Michael Imperioli) is briefly a “voice from the dead” narrator to explain to viewers that this story will go back in time (from 1967 to 1972), to show how Christopher’s father Dickie Moltisanti (played by Alessandro Nivola) became a mafia mentor to Tony.

It’s not the ghost of Christopher who really haunts “The Saints of Newark.” It’s the ghost of James Gandolfini, the actor who made Tony Soprano an iconic character in “The Sopranos.” Gandolfini died in 2013, at the age of 51. Any TV show or movie that’s about “The Sopranos” saga has a huge void to fill without Gandolfini playing the role of the adult Tony Soprano. It’s a void that really can’t be filled, but “The Many Saints of Newark” makes an attempt to create another “larger than life” mafia character for “The Sopranos” saga, but it’s extremely difficult for any “Sopranos” character to overshadow Tony and his legacy.

“The Many Saints of Newark” is about Dickie (Tony’s first mentor) more than anyone else. The movie reveals the family tree in bits and pieces for any viewer who doesn’t know the family background. Dickie’s father is Aldo “Hollywood Dick” Moltisanti (played by Ray Liotta), who has an identical twin brother named Salvatore “Sally” Moltisanti (also played by Liotta), who is in prison for murder. Dickie is a cousin of Carmela De Angelis (played by Lauren DiMario), Tony’s high-school sweetheart who would later become his wife. Even though Dickie is not related to the Sopranos by blood, he becomes so close to Tony, Dickie is eventually referred to as Tony’s “uncle.”

Tony’s parents are Giovanni Francis “Johnny Boy” Soprano (played by Jon Bernthal) and Livia Soprano (played by Vera Farmiga), who have very different personalities. Johnny is gregarious and fun-loving, while Livia is uptight and judgmental. During the five years that this movie takes place, Tony is seen when he’s 11 years old (played by William Ludwig) and when he’s 16 years old (played by Michael Gandofini, the real-life son of James Gandolfini).

Tony, his parents and his two younger sisters live in the Ironbound neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey. Tony’s sisters Janice and Barbara are doted on by their parents, while Tony feels negelcted in comparison. (Mattea Conforti portrays Janice as a child, Alexandra Intrator portrays Janice as teenager, and Lexie Foley portrays Barbara as a child.)

A family party celebrating Janice’s confirmation in the Catholic religion shows how much Tony feels like an ignored outsider in his own family. Dickie is one of the people who’s a regular at the Soprano family gatherings because members of the Soprano family and the Moltiscanti family work for the DiMeo crime family that rules this part of New Jersey. It’s at Janice’s confirmation party that Tony sees his father Johnny and Dickie talking about some mafia business. Tony is intrigued.

Tony is intelligent, but his academic grades don’t reflect that intelligence because Tony doesn’t really like school. It’s the first sign that he’s not comfortable with authority figures or following rules. Livia is overly critical of Tony and thinks he’s not as smart as Tony actually is. At one point, Tony’s teacher Mrs. Jarecki (played by Talia Balsam) tells Livia that Tony is intelligent and has leadership potential. Livia’s reaction is to say that there’s a difference between being smart and being a smart aleck.

Johnny’s older brother Corrado John “Junior” Soprano Jr. (played by Corey Stoll) is more stoic and serious-minded than Johnny. (Dominic Chianese played Junior in “The Sopranos” TV series.) Johnny and Junior eventually have a rivalry over who will rise the highest in the DiMeo crime family. But when this story takes place, Dickie’s father Hollywood Dick has more seniority than Junior and Johnny.

Much of the family drama in “The Saints of Newark” is about the tensions between Dickie and his father. Hollywood Dick abused his first wife (Dickie’s mother), who is now deceased. It’s implied that she was killed by her husband, who got away with the crime. Dickie’s father was abusive to him too when Dickie was a child. Dickie’s childhood is not shown in flashbacks, but it’s described in conversations. As an adult, Dickie has a love/hate relationship with his father.

In 1967, Hollywood Dick arrives back in Newark from a trip to Italy and has someone with him: a much-younger Italian woman named Giuseppina (played by Michela De Rossi), whom Hollywood Dick impulsively married in Italy. Giuseppina, who is described as a beauty queen, barely knows English and is young enough to be her new husband’s daughter. She’s really a trophy wife who doesn’t hide the fact that she married Hollywood Dick so that she could live in America as the wife of a man who can take care of her financial needs.

Hollywood Dick introduces Giuseppina to Dickie for the first time after she has already become Hollywood Dick’s wife. Dickie and his wife Joanna (played by Gabriella Piazza) eventually become parents to Christopher, their first child. Even though Dickie and Giuseppina are married to other people, it doesn’t take long for Giuseppina and Dickie to start looking at each other lustfully. Their feelings are also accelerated when Dickie finds out that his father is abusing Giuseppina. Dickie feels very protective of her, and he wants to help Giuseppina in her dream to own her own hair salon.

Meanwhile, Dickie is in regular contact with some of the African Americans who are part of the criminal underground in Newark. Harold McBrayer (played by Leslie Odom Jr.) collects bets for the mafia. In an early scene in the movie, Harold is shown beating up Leon Overall (played by Mason Bleu), the leader of an African American gang called the Saints, because Leon is suspected of stealing from Harold.

“The Many Saints of Newark” makes some attempt to be more racially diverse than “The Sopranos” by having a subplot about how Harold’s relationship with Dickie changes over time. The movie also has scenes depicting racial tensions, such as the Newark race riots and what happens when Harold’s relationship with Dickie is tested for another reason. But because the African American people in this movie are supporting characters, issues of racism are not at the forefront of this story.

And where is Tony Soprano during all of Dickie’s family drama? The movie trailers for “The Many Saints of Newark” make it look like the teenage Tony Soprano will be in nearly all of the film. He’s not. The teenage Tony Soprano doesn’t appear until 51 minutes into this two-hour movie.

Tony is a rebellious teen who needs a father figure more than ever when his father Johnny is arrested and sent to prison for assault with a deadly weapon. The arrest takes place in front of Tony and Janice. During Johnny’s incarceration, Dickie becomes even more of an influence on Tony.

Viewers who are looking for more insignt into Tony and Carmela’s teenage relationship won’t really get it in “The Many Saints of Newark.” There’s a scene where Tony and a few friends show off to Carmela by stealing an ice cream truck and giving away free ice cream to people in the neighborhood during this theft. At this point, Tony and Carmela aren’t officially a couple. He’s showing a romantic interest in her, but she’s not really all that impressed with him.

“The Many Saints of Newark” gives more background information about Tony’s rocky relationship with his mother Livia. There’s a minor subplot about Livia being in therapy (it’s implied that she might have bipolar disorder), she’s prescribed Elavil, and Tony wants some of the Elavil too. The only point to this subplot is that it’s a foreshadowing nod to a well-known “Sopranos” story arc about an adult Tony being in psychiatric therapy. Tony’s sessions with his therapist Dr. Melfi (played by Lorraine Bracco) were among the most-praised aspects of the TV series.

In addition to Tony and his sisters, “The Many Saints of Newark” has the younger versions of some other “Sopranos” characters, but they aren’t given much to do in this movie. John Magaro portrays a younger Silvio Dante, who was played by Steven Van Zandt in the TV series. Billy Magnussen depicts Paulie Walnuts, a role played by Tony Serico in the TV series. Samson Moeakiola is in the role of Pussy Bonpensiero, who was played by Vincent Pastore in the TV series.

However much “The Many Saints of Newark” might have been marketed as a Tony Soprano origin story, this movie is really a Dickie Moltisanti story, with Tony as a supporting character. The movie’s tagline is “Who Made Tony Soprano?,” but it still seems like a “bait and switch” marketing ploy. Throughout much of the movie, viewers might be asking instead, “Where is Tony Soprano?”

Fortunately, the performances by all of the movie’s cast members (especially Nivolo, Liotta, Odom and Farmiga) maintain a level of interest, along with the suspenseful aspects of the story. However, people who’ve seen enough American mafia movies will find a lot of familiar tropes in “The Many Saints of Newark.” Taylor doesn’t do anything spectacular with the movie’s direction. Chase and Konner approached the screenplay as if delving into Tony Soprano’s underage youth ultimately wouldn’t work as the central focus of a movie that showcases very adult crimes.

“The Saints of Newark” is not a bad movie, but it’s not a great one either, considering the high bar set by “The Sopranos.” The movie’s technical aspects, including the cinematography and production design, are perfectly adequate, but everything about “The Many Saints of Newark” looks like a made-for-TV movie, not a big event movie that was made for a theatrical release. As long as viewers know in advance that Tony Soprano is not the central character of “The Many Saints of Newark,” they have a better chance of enjoying this watchable but not essential entry in “The Sopranos” saga.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “The Many Saints of Newark” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘King Richard,’ starring Will Smith

November 21, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“King Richard”

Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Small Engine Repair’ (2021), starring John Pollono, Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro, Ciara Bravo and Spencer House

September 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jon Bernthal, Shea Whigham, Jordana Spiro and John Pollono in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Small Engine Repair” (2021)

Directed by John Pollono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Manchester, New Hampshire, the comedy/drama film “Small Engine Repair” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A middle-aged mechanic, who has recently been released from prison, reunites with two of his longtime friends after they’ve had a falling out, but their reunion becomes a test of loyalty and morality. 

Culture Audience: “Small Engine Repair” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in unpredictable movies that put a dark comedic spin on serious issues.

Ciara Bravo in “Small Engine Repair” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Three middle-aged men who’ve been friends since childhood reunite after spending several months apart. They hang out, party, and reminisce about the good old days. It sounds a lot like other movies, but “Small Engine Repair” is like no other film.

That’s because what seems at first to be a straightforward and predictable comedy/drama takes a very sharp, dark and unexpected turn in the last third of the film. What saves “Small Engine Repair” from being an unremarkable depiction of machismo is a sinister plot twist that walks a fine line between absurd and realistic.

“Small Engine Repair” is the vision of John Pollono, who is the writer, director and star/protagonist of the movie, which is based on Pollono’s stage play of the same name. For the first two-thirds of the movie, it’s about the up-and-down friendship between recently released prison felon Frank “Frankie” Romanowski (played by Pollono) and two pals he’s had since childhood: Terrance Swaino (played by Jon Bernthal) and Packie Hanrahan (played by Shea Whigham). Frank, Terrance and Packie have lived in Manchester, New Hampshire, since they were children.

Frank is a single father to a foul-mouthed, tough-talking teenager named Crystal Romanoski (played by Ciara Bravo), who is in her last year of high school. Despite her brash and often-crude personality, Crystal is quite intelligent and doesn’t like to show her sensitive side to very many people. She loves her father but she hates how his problems have negatively affected her life.

Terrance is happily married, and he is the most likely one out of the three friends to show common sense and think logically. He has a quick temper like Frank does, but Terrance is less likely than Frank to get violent. Because Terrance is a husband who has settled into a content life for himself, he’s also less likely to want to get into trouble, compared to how he was in his rebellious youth.

Packie is a bachelor who is somewhat simple-minded, irresponsible and emotionally immature. Packie is more likely than Terrance to want to get Frank’s approval. Packie and Frank are sometimes at odds with Terrance, who doesn’t like to think of himself as a “third wheel” but as someone who is smarter and more deserving than Packie to be Frank’s closest confidant.

Frank, Terrance and Packie come from generations of working-class people who think that getting a university degree is either a waste of time or an unaffordable dream. And where they live in Manchester has been ravaged by the opioid epidemic and devastated by a steep decline in the types of factory jobs that used to keep the community thriving. During the course of the story, the three buddies will push each other’s buttons and decide how loyalty and morality play roles in their friendship with each other.

In the beginning of the movie, Frank has been released from prison for a crime or crimes that aren’t mentioned in the film. However, it’s later shown many times in the movie that Frank is a hothead, so it’s likely he spent time in prison for a violent crime. It also isn’t mentioned how long he was in prison, but it was definitely more than a few months. Now that he’s out of prison, Frank resumes his work as a mechanic. He owns his own shop called Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

Where and who is Crystal’s mother? Her name is Karen Delgado (played by Jordana Spiro), a drug addict who lives in the Los Angeles area. Frank and Karen were never married, and their breakup was very bitter. Based on what people say about Karen, she’s even more irresponsible than Frank, which is why he has custody of Crystal and has been the parent who has primarily raised her.

While Frank was in prison, Terrance and Packie looked after Crystal. As guardians, they’re permissive, since they’re the ones who sometimes supply Crystal with the marijuana that she smokes. Crystal has a rebellious streak, but she’s a good student who has done well enough academically that she can attend a major university.

One of the first conversations that Frank has with Crystal when he gets home from prison is about where she wants to go to college. Her first choice is the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), but Frank wants her to go to a university that’s closer to Manchester. He doesn’t deny it when Crystal accuses Frank of discouraging her to go to UCLA because it’s in the same area where her mother Karen lives.

At first, Frank says he wouldn’t be able to afford UCLA’s tuition. Crystal says she’ll take out student loans to solve that problem. However, Frank is still down on the idea of her going to UCLA. Crystal explodes in anger and shouts that if she goes to the University of New Hampshire at Manchester, she’ll end up as “a 49-yearold supermarket checkout girl with carpal fucking tunnel!”

Finally, Frank relents and agrees to support Crystal if she’s accepted for admission into UCLA. He tells her he’ll figure out a way to help pay for the tuition. A happy and relieved Crystal promises Frank that getting a UCLA degree will be worth it. “I’ll make a lot of money,” she says.

Not long after Frank comes home from prison, he finds out from Terrance and Packie that Karen will be back in Manchester for a visit. Terrance and Packie use a lot of derogatory words to describe Karen. Frank doesn’t like Karen either, but he objects to Terrance and Packie saying degrading things about Karen, because she’s the mother of Crystal.

When Karen shows up at Frank’s house, Terrance and Packie are there too. She’s rude and very rough around the edges, with indications that she hasn’t given up her hard-partying ways. In her tense and hostile conversation with the three buddies, she makes it clear that she is only interested in spending time with Crystal, not in resolving any hard feelings that she has toward this trio of pals whom she’s known since childhood. Karen quips sarcastically, “Hey, remember when when we were all friends, before I had tits?”

Frank reluctantly lets Crystal spend some time with Karen on a girls’ night out. With Crystal out of the house, the three pals decide to let off some steam by going to a local bar. Because Frank is on parole, he has to be careful about what he says and does in public. For example, he doesn’t want to get drunk in public because that could be considered a parole violation.

Outside the bar, in the parking lot, Frank flirts with a woman named Dottie (played by Jennifer Pollono), whom he later finds out is a 35-year-old divorced mother to a 4-year-old son. Just as Frank and Dottie are about to exchange numbers and continue with their flirtation, Karen and Crystal show up. Crystal sheepishly asks Frank for some cash because Karen doesn’t have any money and Kaen says her credit cards are all maxed out. Frank expresses his disapproval but gives some cash to Crystal, who gives him a big hug and compliment to thank him.

Frank thinks that Karen is under the influence of drugs at that moment, and Crystal doesn’t deny it. However, Crystal assures Frank that Crystal, not Karen, is driving the car that they’re using. Frank doesn’t want to be an overbearing parent, so he doesn’t interfere in the plans for Crystal and Karen to spend time together.

Even though Karen and Frank haven’t been a couple in several years, Karen still acts a little jealous and possessive when she senses that Frank and Dottie have sexual chemistry together. Karen asks Dottie in a hostile tone of voice, “Who the fuck are you?” Dottie doesn’t want to get in the middle of any family drama with a man she just met, so she makes a hasty exit.

This unexpected visit from Karen has unnerved Frank, who’s also annoyed that Karen ruined his potential hookup with Dottie. When he goes back in the bar, several people are drunk, including Packie and Terrance. And not surprisingly, a bar fight breaks out, with Packie, Terrance and Frank getting involved.

Frank’s violent temper erupts and he viciously and repeatedly punches one of the instigators of the fight. It’s the type of beating where people can tell that Frank has lost total control of his anger. When he realizes that he just violated his parole with this assault, Frank yells at Terrance and Packie: “I knew this would happen! You stay away from my family! I don’t want to see you again!”

The movie then picks up six months later. Frank, Terrance and Packie have a tentative reunion. Frank has invited them to his mechanic’s shop to watch a boxing match, drink alcohol and have some steaks that he’s cooking. It’s mentioned that during their six months apart, Terrance and Packie were also estranged from each other because Terrance slapped Packie during an argument that’s not shown in the movie.

“Small Engine Repair” has occasional flashbacks showing Frank, Terrance and Packie together at various points in their lives. These flashbacks usually happen when the three pals are together and reminiscing on their past. There’s a flashback to when Crystal was 6 years old (played by Nina Peterson), when she was with the three pals and someone took a smiling photo of Crystal holding a wrench. That photo would later be used on signs and other promotional materials for Frank’s Small Engine Repair.

A harrowing flashback of when the three pals were about 11 or 12 years old shows that their childhoods included violence and other domestic abuse inflicted by their fathers. (Zachary Hernandez plays a young Frank, and Hunter Jones plays a young Terrance.) This childhood abuse serves as context for why Frank, Terrance and Packie think it’s normal to have a “rough and tumble” lifestyle where they get involved in violent fights.

Frank tells his buddies during this reunion that he wants more than alcohol and marijuana for their partying. Frank says that he recently met a university student named Chad Walker (played by Spencer House) who sells Ecstacy. Chad is coming over with some Ecstacy that Frank wants to buy. The other guys are eager and willing to do Ecstacy at this small party.

What happens after that is what makes “Small Engine Repair” so memorable and not your typical buddy movie. However, this sudden change in the movie’s plot comes fairly late in the film. Some viewers might get bored with the meandering way that the story unfolds in the first two-thirds of this 103-minute movie, which can get a tad repetitive in showing how volatile this three-way friendship can be. Other viewers might be turned off by all cursing in “Small Engine Repair.” However, if viewers stick with the movie and watch it from beginning to end, then they will see why the last third of the film is the best part.

It’s not easy to bring a comedic touch to disturbing scenarios, but “Small Engine Repair” manages to accomplish this balancing act, which could easily go wrong and become very offensive with the wrong dialogue, horrible acting or a tone-deaf perspective. All of the actors do well in their roles. However, the real star of this movie is the somewhat shocking twist, which tests the boundaries about what people might think is an acceptable way to solve problems.

Vertical Entertainment released “Small Engine Repair” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 10, 2021.

Review: ‘Those Who Wish Me Dead,’ starring Angelina Jolie

May 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Finn Little and Angelina Jolie in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (Photo by Emerson Miller/New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Those Who Wish Me Dead”

Directed by Taylor Sheridan

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Montana’s Beartooth Mountains area and briefly in Florida, the dramatic film “Those Who Wish Me Dead” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans) representing the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A daredevil smokejumper unexpectedly finds herself trying to protect a 12-year-old boy who is being targeted by assassins. 

Culture Audience: “Those Who Wish Me Dead” will appeal primarily to people interested in formulaic but suspenseful thrillers.

Aidan Gillen and Nicholas Hoult in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” (Photo by Emerson Miller/New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a life-or-death chase thriller that brings plenty of predictability, but there’s more than enough suspense and credible acting to make up for some of the far-fetched and formulaic aspects of the film. It’s entertainment that doesn’t demand a lot of intellectual analysis—but that’s a big part of the movie’s appeal. It’s not pretentious and it’s exactly the type of movie that you think it is.

Directed by Taylor Sheridan, “Those Who Wish Me Dead” is based on Michael Koryta’s 2014 novel of the same name. Sheridan, Koryta and Charles Leavitt co-wrote the movie’s screenplay, which doesn’t waste a lot of time before the story’s mayhem starts. The movie isn’t cluttered with too many characters, so viewers will find it easy to understand what’s happening.

In “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” Angelina Jolie depicts a smokejumper named Hannah, who lives and works in Montana’s remote Beartooth Mountains area, in Park County. She’s in a very male-dominated job and doesn’t want to be just like “one of the guys”—she wants to outdo all of the guys. And when they joke around with each other, she’s more than up for their raunchy humor.

The beginning of the movie shows that Hannah is quite the daredevil. She parachutes from the back of a moving truck. And she’s quickly arrested for it by Park County’s sheriff deputy Ethan (played by Jon Bernthal), who happens to be an ex-boyfriend of Hannah’s. Her parachute stunt is a misdemeanor, so Hannah is able to easily bail herself out of jail.

Ethan is happily married to Allison (played by Medina Senghore), who is six months pregnant with their first child. Allison, with Ethan’s help, used to run the Soda Butte Survival School for people who want to learn how to survive in the wilderness. Ethan and Allison are going to need a lot of survival skills later in the movie.

Hannah (who is not married, has no children and lives alone) gives the appearance of being a carefree daredevil. But underneath, she’s in a lot of emotional pain. She’s traumatized by a fire that happened in the previous year. During this fire, she and her co-workers could not save three boys from a fiery death because the fire was too intense.

Hannah still has nightmares of witnessing the children die. And it’s implied that she has post-traumatic stress disorder because of this tragedy. Hannah lives and works in a house-like observation center that’s built on a high tower that allows her to look out for smoke from far-away, elevated places.

Meanwhile, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, two men show up at the front door of the home of a district attorney named Thomas, whose wife Maggie (played by Laura Niemi) answers the door. One man (who’s wearing a business suit) is in his early 50s and identifies himself as working with the fire department. The other man (dressed in a utilties company uniform) is in his 30s and is identified as working with Florida Gas.

The men don’t say their first names, but tell Maggie that they are investigating a computer alert of a gas leak in the house. They ask if her husband is there, and Maggie says yes, but he’s in the shower. And then the two men ask if they can come inside to inspect the house for a possible gas leak. Maggie (who should know better, since she’s married to a district attorney) lets the men in the house.

This is the part of the movie where people who watch a lot of true crime shows might be yelling at the screen, because not only did these men not even say what their names were, they also didn’t show any identification. What people are supposed to do in this situation is not let any strangers in the house and call the gas company to verify that employees were sent to check on a gas leak. It’s also suspicious that someone from the fire department would be there too when there’s no smoke or fire.

Of course, these two men aren’t who they say they are. When they leave the house, they talk about trying to make it on time for their scheduled car trip to Jacksonville, Florida, to do what they need to do next. As they drive away, the district attorney’s house explodes, killing everyone inside.

Who are these two cold-blooded murderers? Their names are Jack (played Aidan Gillen) and his younger subordinate Patrick (played by Nicholas Hoult), who are hired assassins. Jack is the more calculating and more intelligent person in this deadly duo. And their next mission is to kill someone who’s a key witness in a case being prosecuted by the district attorney who was just murdered.

Their target in Jacksonville is a forensic accountant named Owen (played by Jake Weber), a widower who lives with his inquisitive and bright son Connor (played by Finn Little) in a quiet neighborhood. Owen’s wife/Connor’s mother died of cancer three years prior to this story. Owen and Connor are having breakfast in their kitchen when Owen sees a TV news report about the house explosion that killed the district attorney and his family. Owen looks panic-stricken because he seems to know that he could be the next target.

While driving Connor to school, Owen suddenly decides to speed away because he fears that something could happen to Owen if he leaves him at the school. During this tension-filled escape, Owen quickly tells Connor that they are in danger and it’s because Owen found out something in his job that could get “a lot of people, like governors and congressmen” in trouble. “We can only trust the people we know.” Owen adds.

Connor is shocked, but he has no choice but to go with his father when they go on the run. While they stay at a motel, Owen writes down the secrets that are the reasons why Owen is on a hit list. What Owen writes down takes up two pieces of notepad-sized paper, which he then gives to Connor for safekeeping.

Owen tells Connor not to read what’s on the paper. He also cautions Connor by saying that if Owen is no longer able to take care of Connor, then Connor needs to give these secrets to someone who is completely trustworthy. Owen is contemplating going to the media with his secrets and says that Connor should give the secrets to the media if necessary.

In the meantime, Owen plans to hide out in Montana with Ethan, who happens to be the brother of Owen’s late wife. And so, Owen and Connor go on a road trip to Montana. Hiding out with a relative is one of the most obvious things to do, but there’s no telling how well people can think logically when they’re in panic mode.

Not surprisingly, Jack and Patrick show up at Owen’s house, only to find it completely deserted. Jack is able to hack into Owen’s computer and finds out that Owen has recently withdrawn $10,000 from Owen’s bank accounts, indicating that Owen has taken the cash to go into hiding. Jack and Patrick look around the house for clues and see a photo of Owen, Connor, Ethan and Allison, posed right next to a big sign that reads “Soda Butte Survival School.” Guess who’s going to Montana?

Jack and Patrick go to Montana and manage to find Owen and Connor. Owen ends up dead (how he’s killed won’t be revealed in this review), and Connor escapes into the woods, where he eventually meets Hannah and tells her that he’s hiding from assassins. This plot development isn’t spoiler information, because the majority of the movie is about how Connor and Hannah try to elude these killers in the middle of a forest fire.

Yes, it’s not just a chase movie but it’s also a forest fire movie. How the fire started is also shown in the movie. It’s enough to say that the fire didn’t start from the electrical storm that happens during part of the story. Viewers can easily predict, even before it’s shown, who’s responsible for the forest fire.

At first, Connor is very wary of Hannah. He even punches her when she tries to help him after she first sees Connor running by himself in an open field. But eventually, Connor trusts Hannah and tells her what happened to him and his father. And when Connor gives Hannah the paper with Owen’s secrets, Hannah fully understands why Connor is in grave danger.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” is a taut thriller that keeps things simple, which is both an asset and liability to the film. On the one hand, the plot is very uncomplicated, and that helps the movie, because there are too many thrillers that try to be too complex for their own good. On the other hand, whatever Owen’s secrets are, a vast conspiracy is involved, so it seems a little far-fetched that only two assassins are in this story.

However, the movie has a brief explanation for having only two killers tasked with killing the witnesses and their family members. Jack even gripes about being “understaffed” in certain scenes in the film. He thinks it would have been better if a second group of assassins had been in Jacksonville to kill Owen around the same time that Jack and Patrick set off the bomb that killed the district attorney in Fort Lauderdale. A drive from Fort Lauderdale to Jacksonville takes nearly five hours. Jack believes that would be enough time for Owen to hear about the district attorney’s murder and flee. And that’s exactly what happened.

Tyler Perry has a brief scene in the movie as a man named Arthur, who meets with Jack and Patrick after Owen is murdered. Arthur isn’t pleased at all that Connor escaped. And when Jack complains that maybe more people should’ve been hired for this assassin assignment, Arthur scolds Jack and Patrick for being incompetent. The movie never explains who Arthur is, so it’s left up to interpretation if he’s one of the corrupt politicians trying to cover up this big scandal or if he’s someone who was hired as a “fixer” or some type of middle man.

One thing is clear: Whoever hired these assassins thought that keeping the number of people hired to a bare minimum would make things less complicated. Less people would need to be paid, and having more people involved poses a greater risk of someone in the group snitching or being careless. In other words, Jack and Patrick have no cronies to back them up when they try to track down Connor to kill him.

“Those Who Wish Me Dead” keeps an adrenaline-like pace throughout the movie. And the movie admirably shows that Hannah isn’t the only hero of the story, because Allison and Ethan have big moments too. However, character development in this movie takes a back seat to the action, since viewers will still know very little about Allison and Ethan by the end of the film.

Where the movie falters most is with the added storyline of the forest fire. There are some scenes where characters are able to outrun avalanche-sized flames or avoid deadly smoke inhalation in very absurd ways. One of the characters also catches on fire but unrealistically is able to walk around just minutes later with no visible bodily injuries except a big facial burn and clothes that look barely singed. In reality, someone who caught on fire that badly wouldn’t be able to move their arms and legs easily because of the severe burns. The person was not wearing a fire-proof outfit either.

The movie’s visual effects are adequate and definitely won’t be nominated for any major awards. What will keep people interested in “Those That Wish Me Dead” are the many suspenseful moments and how the talented cast members are able bring authenticity to characters that aren’t necessarily written to show a lot of depth because they’re fighting for their lives for most of the movie. Jolie and Bernthal have done many other action-oriented films before, so there’s a familiarity to what they do in “Those Who Wish Me Dead” that’s satisfying but not groundbreaking. Sometimes a movie delivers exactly what viewers expect it to deliver—and that’s enough to be entertaining.

New Line Cinema/Warner Bros. Pictures released “Those Who Wish Me Dead” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on May 14, 2021.

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