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: ‘No Exit,’ starring Havana Rose Liu, Dennis Haysbert, Dale Dickey, Danny Ramirez, David Rysdahl and Mila Harris

February 25, 2022

by Carla Hay

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” (2022)

Directed by Damien Power

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the dramatic film “No Exit” features a racially diverse group of characters (white, Asian, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: During a blizzard that has caused road blockages and closures, a young woman finds herself trapped in a visitor center shelter with four strangers, when she finds out that a van owned by one of the strangers has a kidnapped girl inside.

Culture Audience: “No Exit” will appeal mainly to people who like any suspense thriller, no matter how idiotic the plot gets.

Havana Rose Liu in “No Exit” (Photo by Kirsty Griffin/20th Century Studios/Hulu)

“No Exit” is an apt description for how this mystery thriller gets trapped in its own stupidity. It starts off suspenseful and then it takes a steep nosedive into illogical nonsense. There’s a long stretch of the film, which takes place during a snow blizzard, where the criminal element in the movie frantically struggles to get access to a car to make an escape. Meanwhile, the filmmakers are expecting viewers to forget that the entire point of the movie is that all the movie’s characters who are trapped in the blizzard know that the blizzard has caused the roads to blocked, with police guarding the roadblocks, and an escape isn’t really possible.

It’s not spoiler information to reveal that “No Exit” is about a serious crime that’s been committed, and whoever has committed this crime is in a small group of people at a visitor center shelter during this blizzard. The movie’s protagonist decides she’s going to be a one-woman police force to solve the mystery and get justice for this crime. Directed by Damien Power, “No Exit” was written by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari. The movie’s screenplay is based on Taylor Adams’ 2017 novel of the same name. Even though some of the cast members give good performances, the entire movie has a flawed premise that’s poorly executed in the last half of the film.

“No Exit” begins with protagonist Darby (played by Havana Rose Liu) looking bored and emotionally disconnected in a drug rehab center somewhere in California. (“No Exit” was actually filmed in New Zealand.) Darby is in her early 20s, and she’s in court-ordered rehab for a crime that is not mentioned in the movie. Through conversations in the movie, it’s revealed that Darby has been in rehab or tried to get clean and sober seven times already in her life.

During a rehab group meeting, Darby is told that she has an emergency phone call. When she takes the call, she finds out from her uncle Joe (voiced by David Chen) that her widowed mother has had a brain aneurysm and is in a hospital in Utah. Darby’s mother is scheduled to get a brain operation, but it’s a risky procedure. The medical diagnosis is that Darby’s mother might not have much longer to live.

Darby is estranged from the two family members who know her the best: her mother and Darby’s older sister Devon. And despite Darby’s pleas to make a phone call for this emergency, she’s denied this request by her rehab group leader Dr. Bill Fletcher (played by James Gaylyn) because it’s the rehab center’s rule that patients can’t make outgoing phone calls. Any incoming phone call for a patient has to be an emergency, and the call is monitored by the rehab center staff.

But this obstacle isn’t enough to stop Darby. She borrows a cell phone that was snuck in by another rehab patient, whose name is Jade (played by Nomi Cohen). Jade and Darby don’t like each other, but Jade reluctantly agrees to let Darby use her phone because Darby threatens to tell the rehab officials that Jade broke the rules by sneaking in a cell phone.

Darby uses the phone to call Devon (played by Lisa Zhang), who tells Darby in no uncertain terms that she’s doesn’t want Darby to contact her or visit their mother. Darby says she’s going to find a way to visit. Devon abruptly and angrily tells Darby, “I don’t have time for your bullshit. Don’t call me back!”

This rejection still doesn’t stop Darby. In broad daylight, she sneaks out of the rehab center to steal the car of an orderly named Mike (played by Nick Davies), nicknamed Mikey, who seemed to take pleasure in denying Darby any phone privileges. Darby has also stolen Jade’s phone. Darby’s plan is to take the stolen car and drive to Utah to see her mother. But this trip comes at a very bad time because she isn’t on the road for long when a blizzard hits while she’s in California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains.

One of the first things that Darby found in Mike’s car was a small packet of cocaine hidden in the driver’s window shade. The movie plays guessing games with viewers over whether or not Darby will relapse by using this cocaine. Darby describes her drug addiction as being willing to do any drug that comes her way.

During this blizzard, Darby gets text messages from Devon that say, “Mom doesn’t want you here.” “You’ll only make it worse.” “Don’t come.” Darby is still undeterred. She pulls over on a road to get some sleep, and she has a nightmare that people outside the car are trying to get her. She wakes up to a state trooper named Ron Hill (played by Benedict Wall), who finds out why she’s traveling during a blizzard.

He tells Darby that the only road leading to Utah is closed, and she has one of two choices: She can either reverse and go back to where she came from, or she can stay at a visitor’s center a few hundred yards away. The center is being used as a temporary shelter during the storm. The trooper also mentions that some other travelers are already at the shelter.

Darby decides to go to the shelter. Inside, there are four other strangers. Ed (played by Dennis Haysbert) is a former U.S. Marine who served in Operation Desert Storm. Ed’s wife is Sandi (played by Dale Dickey), a former nurse who met Ed when she was working at a Veterans Administration hospital. This middle-aged couple is traveling to Reno, Nevada, to do some gambling. Rose and Ed are immediately friendly and welcoming to Darby.

The other two people in the shelter are men in their 20s: Lars (played by David Rysdahl) is introverted and eccentric. He’s the type of person who talks to himself out loud when other people are around. Ash (played by Danny Ramirez) is talkative and a little flirtatious with Darby. He can also be crude and insensitive. Darby and the other four people in the shelter make small talk as they get to know each other.

No one in the shelter can get any cell phone service or WiFi service because of the blizzard and because of where they are in this remote mountain area. Still, Darby occasionally goes outside the shelter near the parking lot to see if her phone can pick up a signal. It’s during one of her trips outdoors when Darby is alarmed to see a hand and noises coming from a van parked outside.

She goes inside the van and finds a kidnapped girl, who’s about 9 or 10 years old. The girl is bound and gagged and desperate to escape. However, Darby knows that she can’t use her phone to get help, so she tells the girl that she will help her, but she has to be patient. Darby later finds out that the girl’s name is Jay (played by Mila Harris), as well as more things about who Jay is and why she was kidnapped.

Feeling trapped and helpless, Darby goes back into the shelter and acts like nothing is wrong, in order to figure out who’s the driver of the van. Before she went back into the shelter, Darby noticed that the van has Nevada license plates. The rest of the movie is a ridiculous cat-and-mouse game where Darby tries to solve the mystery and get help for the kidnapped girl without getting caught by whoever is responsible for the abduction. It’s this second half of the movie that unveils some twists and turns, with each becoming more ludicrous as times goes on.

“No Exit” has so many bad decisions, not just with the characters, but also with how the filmmakers staged everything to look so phony in the latter half of the movie. As the flawed hero Darby, Liu does her best to try to make everything in this moronic film believable, but the movie completely buries any credibility with some of the stupid plot twists, just like the blizzard in this movie buries things in the snow. The rest of the cast members are fairly solid in their roles, except for Ramirez, whose performance becomes campier as the story devolves into an irredeemable mess. You know a movie is bad when it’s called “No Exit,” but everything that happens in the last half of the movie is as if the reason for this movie’s title doesn’t exist.

Hulu premiered “No Exit” on February 25, 2022.

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