Review: ‘Don’t Look Up’ (2021), starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep, Mark Rylance, Rob Morgan, Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry and Jonah Hill

December 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett, Tyler Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence in “Don’t Look Up” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

“Don’t Look Up” (2021)

Directed by Adam McKay

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States (mostly in Michigan, Illinois and Washington, D.C.) during the six months before an apocalypse, the dark comedy film “Don’t Look Up” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: After a Ph.D. student in astronomy discovers that a catastrophic comet is headed to Earth to destroy the planet in six months, people have varying reactions, including a stubborn refusal to believe that the apocalypse is coming. 

Culture Audience: “Don’t Look Up” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast and apocalyptic comedies that repeat the same types of gags for an overly long runtime of more than two-and-a-half hours.

Pictured in front row, from left to right: Jonah Hill (seated) Paul Guilfoyle (seated), Mark Rylance (standing) and Meryl Streep (seated) in “Don’t Look Up” (Photo by Niko Tavernise/Netflix)

The dark comedy “Don’t Look Up” is the equivalent of watching an annoyingly smug hack comedian tell the same clumsily executed joke for more than two hours. This movie crams in a lot of big-name stars to try to make it look better than it really is. In trying to make a point about complacency and denial about how climate change is a global crisis, writer/director/producer Adam McKay instead mishandles that point in “Don’t Look Up,” by not only overselling it with stunt casting but also selling it short with a bloated and messy story.

In a statement in the production notes for “Don’t Look Up,” McKay says that he was inspired to do the movie after reading David Wallace-Wells’ 2019 non-fiction book “The Uninhabitable Earth.” In the statement, McKay comments on the book: “I couldn’t get it out of my head. It depicts the ways in which global warming will wreak havoc on the planet if nothing is done to combat the climate crisis.”

McKay continues, “And, it all boiled down to this idea I just couldn’t shake: We all know how to react when there is a killer with an ax, or when your house is on fire, but what the author David Wallace-Wells was writing about was a million times worse. How do we get people to realize this is a clear and present danger? How close does that danger have to be for us to have the proper response? I felt like I needed to write this script.”

Based on the disappointing end results of “Don’t Look Up,” McKay should’ve spent more time honing the script, which lazily repeats the same gimmick about climate-change deniers being blithering idiots, and hammers this stereotype all over the movie like a robotic jackhammer on full-blast. Almost all of the people in the movie are caricatures who aren’t very funny at all. In a movie about an impending apocalypse, most of the main characters are not seen with any family members or even shown talking about family members. That’s how phony “Don’t Look Up” is and how it makes these caricatures just hollow vessels for the movie’s dumb jokes.

McKay and the other “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers seem to have spent more energy corralling numerous celebrity cast members (many of whom are Oscar winners and Oscar nominees) to overstuff the movie, rather than giving these cast members well-rounded characters to play. All of the characters are extremely shallow and one-note. And for a movie that has an all-star cast and is set primarily in the United States, it’s appallingly exclusionary and racist that the “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers couldn’t be bothered to cast any Hispanic/Latino people to be among the stars of the movie. When people talk about how Hispanic/Latino people are underrepresented in American-made movies, “Don’t Look Up” is part of that problem.

“Don’t Look Up” is the type of movie that takes more than two-and-a-half hours (138 minutes, to be exact) to tell a story that could’ve been told in 90 minutes or less. And even if the movie had been about 90 minutes, it still would be stretched too thin by the flimsy plot. If you want to watch an apocalypse movie where people deny that an apocalypse is going to happen, and other people get angry at these deniers, while everyone mugs for the camera and tells really pathetic and poorly written jokes, then “Don’t Look Up” is the movie for you.

In “Don’t Look Up,” Jennifer Lawrence portrays Kate Dibiasky, a Ph.D. student in astronomy at Michigan State University. Kate works in an unrealistic-looking high-tech science lab that looks like a movie set, not a lab that’s supposed to be on a university campus. Kate is a character that looks like what an uptight person thinks is “edgy,” because Kate’s hair is dyed bright red, she wears a nose ring, and she likes to smoke marijuana. One day, a bored-looking Kate sees on her computer monitor that an unusual comet is in the universe. She perks up when she finds out that this comet is extremely rare.

She alerts her professor/supervisor Dr. Randall Mindy (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), who is so elated by this comet discovery, he throws an impromptu party with other students in the lab. But that elation soon turns to horror, when Randall calculates during the party that this comet is actually headed toward Earth. He’s so freaked out by these results that he doesn’t tell his students right away and quickly orders them to leave the building. However, he tells Kate to stay behind and confides his suspicions to her. Kate does her own calculations and finds out that the comet will destroy Earth in six months and 14 days.

Kate and Randall call high-level people at NASA, including NASA chief Dr. Jocelyn Calder (played by Hettienne Park), who is skeptical and doesn’t want to deal with investigating this claim about a comet that will destroy Earth. She passes Kate and Randall off to her underling Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe (played by Rob Morgan), who is NASA’s head of planetary defense. Dr. Oglethorpe essentially becomes an awkward sidekick to Kate and Randall for much of the movie.

The next thing you know, Kate and Randall are whisked on a military plane to the White House, where they meet President Janie Orlean (played by Meryl Streep), who is obviously supposed to be a female version of Donald Trump. (Even if people didn’t know that McKay is an outspoken liberal, his political bias is obvious in his movies.) President Orlean is currently distracted because she’s in the middle of a scandal: Her nomination choice to be a U.S Supreme Court Justice is trigger-happy, right-wing Sheriff Conlon (played by Erik Parillo), whose past as a nude model has been exposed.

The scandal gets worse, when it’s revealed in the news that Sheriff Conlon and President Orlean (who is a bachelorette) have been secret lovers, and she sent him photos of her vagina. This is not spoiler information because—much like all the other crude scenarios in “Don’t Look Up”—it has no bearing on the plot. This movie is filled with a bunch of conversations that do nothing to enhance the story but are just in the movie to try to make everything in the film look like it’s “cutting-edge,” when it’s not. “Don’t Look Up” is really just a dumpster of tawdry and witless jokes thrown together in a monotonous cesspool.

Even though Sherrif Conlon is President Orlean’s choice to be a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, he doesn’t have a law degree. Choosing unqualified people for high-ranking government jobs seems to be President Orlean’s speciality. She has appointed her unqualfied and very obnoxious son Jason Orlean (played by Jonah Hill) as the White House’s chief of staff. (Jason’s father is not seen or mentioned in the movie.)

Jason likes to go on egotistical rants and occasionally spews garbage lines that allude to him having incestuous feelings for his mother. Here’s an example of the not-very-funny dialogue in the movie. At one point, Jason smirks about his mother when he says, “I can’t think of another president I’d rather see in Playboy.” He makes other creepy comments to make it clear that he’s sexually attracted to his mother.

Randall estimates that the comet’s destruction of Earth will be like “a billion Hiroshima bombs.” Kate and Randall desperately try to warn anyone who will listen about this impending apocalypse. The movie wastes a lot of time with repeated scenarios of Randall and Kate seeming to be the only people in America who are really sounding the alarm about this apocalypse and sometimes having emotional meltdowns because people won’t take the warnings seriously.

The over-used “joke” in the movie is that most people whom Kate and Randall tell about the apolcalypse either don’t believe them, or if they do believe, they shame Randall and Kate for being too depressing and paranoid. Meanwhile, other people try to use the apocalypse for their own selfish reasons, which usually have to do with wanting more money and power. A military plan to destroy the comet goes awry when certain greedy people discover there are vaulable minerals inside the comet that could make certain people a massive fortune.

The movie’s title comes from a catch phrase used by “apocalypse deniers,” who say, “Don’t Look Up” as their mantra, which they chant whenever and wherever they fell like chanting it. Many of these “apocalypse deniers” gather at rallies that the “Don’t Look Up” filmmakers deliberately made to look a lot like rallies for Donald Trump supporters, including many attendees wearing red baseball caps. In the movie, the “Don’t Look Up” slogan is used by people to identify themselves as not only apocalypse deniers but also advocates of other conservative-leaning political beliefs.

As an example of how poorly written “Don’t Look Up” is, several characters in the movie are useless and just take up space to further stretch out the running time in the movie. In the beginning of “Don’t Look Up,” Kate has a journalist boyfriend named Phillip (played by Himesh Patel), who adds nothing to the overall story. Somehow, the filmmakers of “Don’t Look Up” think it’s hilarious that there’s a scene of Phillip pondering how he’s going to describe in an article that Sheriff Conlon reportedly had an erection when he was doing nude modeling for an art class. “Was he noticeably aroused or engorged?” Phillip asks aloud when trying to decide which words to use in the article.

Randall is married with two adult sons: Marshall Mindy (played by Conor Sweeney) and Evan Mindy (played by Robert Radochia), who appear to be in ther late teens or early 20s. Marshall and Evan still live at home with Randall and his unassuming wife June Mindy (played by Melanie Lynskey), who has to quickly adjust to their lives changing when Randall starts to be believed and he becomes a celebrity “sex symbol” scientist. Randall also gets the nickname of A.I.L.F. (If you know what the slang acronym MILF stands for, just substitute the word “astronomer” for the word “mother” to know the meaning of the acronym A.I.L.F.)

June gets a little bit of a story arc in “Don’t Look Up,” but Marshall and Evan are completely generic. The movie makes no effort to distinguish between Marshall and Evan, in terms of their personalities. All the movie shows is that Randall has two sons who adore and almost worship him. This seemingly blissful family life is supposed to make Randall look like even more of a jerk when he gives in to temptation to cheat on June. (This review won’t reveal who becomes Randall’s mistress, but it’s not the most obvious guess.)

Other caricatures in the movie include Mark Rylance as a billionaire tech mogul named Peter Isherwell, who physically resembles Apple Inc.’s Tim Cook but who talks more like an Elon Musk type who wants to be a spaced-out New Age guru. Peter is a major donor to President Orlean, who kowtows to his every whim. It’s an obvious satire of how corrupt elected politicians will serve their biggest donors rather than serve the people whom the politicians are supposed to represent.

And in a lazily conceived apocalypse movie involving the U.S. government, “Don’t Look Up” has the most stereotypical of apocalypse movie stereotypes: a war-mongering military officer who’s in charge of a military operation to try to stop the apocalypse. His name is Colonel Ben Drask (played by Ron Perlman), who spouts a lot of racist and xenophobic comments. It’s all so the movie can further put an emphasis on showing that President Orlean surrounds herself with a lot of unhinged, extreme right-wingers.

More useless characters include an on-again/off-again music celebrity couple named Riley Bina (played by Ariana Grande) and DJ Chello (played by Scott Mescudi, also known as real-life rapper Kid Cudi), whose relationship drama further clogs up the movie. It seems like the only reason why these shallow lovebird characters are in the movie is to show their concert scenes, where they perform songs that refer to the apocalypse. Oh, and so Grande could do an original song (“Just Look Up,” the anthem of the movie’s apocalypse believers) that the filmmakers obviously wanted to be nominated for an Oscar.

And there’s a silly running “joke” in the movie that a character named General Themes (played by Paul Guilfoyle), who hangs out at the White House, charges people money for snacks and drinks that are supposed to be free at the White House. When Kate finds out that she was conned into paying General Themes for free food and drinks, she gets very snippy and bratty about it, which seems to be her reaction to most things. Kate’s ranting about having to pay for snacks at the White House seems to be the movie’s heavy-handed way of showing that even in an impending apocalypse, when people should be worried about more important things, people will still go out of their way to get angry over petty things.

Two of the more memorable characters in “Don’t Look Up” are slick and superficial TV news co-hosts Brie Evantee (played by Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (played by Tyler Perry), who would rather talk about the status of the relationship between Riley and DJ Chello than talk about the apocalypse. Blanchett and Perry understood the assignment of being in a dark comedy, because their Brie and Jack characters are the only ones in “Don’t Look Up” who come closest to being characters that viewers can laugh at and laugh with, in these news anchors’ non-stop parade of vanity. Brie gets more screen time than Jack because the movie has a subplot about her personal life.

Brie and Jack host a program called “The Daily Rip” on a 24-hour news network. Kate and Randall are guests on the show multiple times. And each time, Brie and Jack dismiss and disrespect the warnings about the apocalypse. The first time that Kate and Randall are on “The Daily Rip,” Kate has a very angry tantrum and storms off of the show. Kate’s meltdown becomes an unflattering meme. Meanwhile, just because Brie flirts with Randall and flatters him on the show, he suddenly becomes a sex symbol.

Kate’s relationship with Phillip doesn’t last when she becomes the laughingstock of the world, and he writes a tell-all article about her. She ends up working as a cashier at a convenience store called DrinkMo! that sells a lot of liquor (it’s an obvious spoof of the real-life BevMo! liquor store chain), where she meets a disheveled skateboarder named Yule (Timothée Chalamet), who comes into the store with a few friends. Yule is about 10 years younger than Kate, and he immediately flirts with her. You know where this is going, of course.

One of the worst things about “Don’t Look Up” is how predictable it is. And that predictability makes everything move along at a much more tedious pace. In addition to the terrible jokes, “Don’t Look Up” falters with cheap-looking visual effects, and the film editing is often careless and amateurish. “Don’t Look Up” has a lot of talented cast members, who get no cohesive direction in the movie. For example, Lawrence’s acting in the movie is very uneven: Sometimes she plays the comedy in a deapan way, while other times she’s way too over-the-top.

Other cast members try too hard to be funny. There’s a reason why DiCaprio rarely does comedies. Maybe he should stick to the dramas that he does best. Streep obviously used Trump as a template for her performance, so there’s nothing new and surprising about how she plays President Orlean. (And she’s played many bossy characters in other movies.) Rylance lets the shiny white teeth veneers he’s wearing as Peter do a lot of the acting for him.

Most the cast members seem to have been told to act as irritating as possible while in character. Only a few characters (such as Randall’s wife June and sidekick Dr. Oglethorpe) appear to be decent people. Riley and DJ Chello are too vapid to make an impact on the story.

And this is yet another “end of the world” movie where the male actors far outnumber the female actors. It’s not what the real world looks like at all, because females in reality are 51% of the world’s population. The same 51% female statistic applies to the U.S. population.

“Don’t Look Up” makes half-hearted attempts to show sexism, when people overlook Kate and shower attention on “sex symbol” Randall, who gets most of the glory for work that Kate did. But if the filmmakers intended to have any insightful commentary on women overcoming sexism, it’s overshadowed and negated by the movie making any woman in power (namely, President Orlean, NASA chief Dr. Calder and media star Brie Evantee) use sex to get what she wants and act like groupies when they brag about powerful men they had sex with or dated. “Don’t Look Up” does not celebrate female empowerment. The movie degrades female empowerment, by making it look like women have to sleep with men to gain power, with a woman’s worth in the workplace being valued more for sex appeal rather than talent, personality and intelligence.

Dark comedies are supposed to offer acerbic wit in poking fun at society’s problems, but “Don’t Look Up” is only concerned with stringing together a bunch of scenes where people say and do tacky and annoying things. Simply put: “Don’t Look Up” is boring, sloppily made, and nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. For a better-made and much-funnier all-star apocalyptic comedy film with adult jokes, watch 2013’s “This Is the End.”

Netflix will release “Don’t Look Up” in select U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021, and on Netflix on December 24, 2021.

Review: ‘Nightmare Alley’ (2021), starring Bradley Cooper, Cate Blanchett, Willem Dafoe, Rooney Mara, Richard Jenkins, David Strathairn and Toni Collette

December 3, 2021

by Carla Hay

Cate Blanchett and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” (2021)

Directed by Guillermo del Toro

Culture Representation: Taking place the U.S. (including Buffalo, New York) from 1939 to the mid-1940s, the dramatic noir film “Nightmare Alley” features an almost all-white cast of characters (with one African American and one Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A con man finds work at a carnival, where he learns how to use phony psychic skills to swindle people; he then leaves the carnival and teams up with a psychiatrist to con people in high society. 

Culture Audience: “Nightmare Alley” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s star-studded cast, director Guillermo del Toro and noir dramas that are too bloated for their own good.

Rooney Mara and and Bradley Cooper in “Nightmare Alley” (Photo by Kerry Hayes/Searchlight Pictures)

“Nightmare Alley” is a beautiful-looking noir film about many people with very ugly personalities. The movie’s production design, cinematography and costume design are impeccable. Unfortunately, the movie’s sluggish pacing, hollow characters and corny dialogue drag down this film into being a self-indulgent bore. It’s disappointing because there’s so much talent involved in making this film, but a movie like this is supposed to intrigue viewers from beginning to end, not make them feel like they want to go to sleep.

The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” (which clocks in at an overly long 150 minutes, or two-and-a-half hours) is a remake of director Edmund Goulding’s 1947 film “Nightmare Alley,” starring Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell, Coleen Gray and Helen Walker. The movie is based on the 1946 “Nightmare Alley” novel by William Lindsay Gresham. The 2021 version of “Nightmare Alley” is also Guillermo del Toro’s directorial follow-up to his Oscar-winning 2017 fantasy drama “The Shape of Water.” Most of the “Nightmare Alley” remake’s stars, producers and department chiefs also have Academy Award recognition, as Oscar nominees or Oscar winners. What could possibly go wrong?

For starters, all this talent cannot overcome this movie’s dreadfully dull pacing and painfully heavy-handed screenwriting that’s filled with hokey conversations. The “Nightmare Alley” remake screenplay (written by del Toro and Kim Morgan), which takes place from 1939 to the mid-1940s, lacks enough flair and nuance to bring these characters to life as well-rounded people. And fans of the original “Nightmare Alley” movie should be warned: This remake has an ending that’s much bleaker than the original movie.

In addition, better judgment should have been used in trimming parts of this movie that didn’t further the story very well. The first half of the movie takes place in a carnival, while most of the second half takes place in more upscale environments, when the central character (who’s a con artist) decides to go after wealthier targets than the type of people who go to carnivals. It seems like the filmmakers were so enamored with the elaborate production design for the carnival scenes, they overindulged in this part of the movie, which has a lot of drab dialogue and scenes with repetitive intentions.

At the world premiere of “Nightmare Alley” in New York City, producer J. Miles Dale said in an introduction on stage that the movie had been completed just two weeks before the premiere. That might explain why more thought wasn’t put into the film editing, which fails to sustain a high level of suspense and intrigue. This type of thrill is essential in a movie that pays homage to film noir of the 1940s.

And this is not a good sign: Many people at the premiere were laughing at lines that weren’t intended to be funny. (I attended the premiere, so I saw all of this firsthand.) As the movie plodded on, more and more people were checking the time on their phones, and the audience seemed to get more restless. But the bigger indication that this movie might not be as well-received as the filmmakers intended is that audience members at the premiere were openly giggling at lines of dialogue that were supposed to be dead-serious.

For example, there’s a scene where a character is physically assaulted in an attempted murder, which is thwarted when help arrives. When the character is asked how they’re feeling right after this attack, the character says in a melodramatic tone, “I’ll live.” It’s supposed to be a moment of high drama played to maximum effect, but several people were laughing because of how the scene is delivered in such a hammy way.

At the end of the movie, people in the audience politely applauded. (Keep in mind, that the audience also consisted of numerous people who worked on the film.) However, it wasn’t the kind of thunderous, standing-ovation applause that usually happens at a premiere for an award-worthy movie that’s going to be a massive, crowd-pleasing hit. Considering that there were many awards voters in the audience, this type of underwhelming response indicates that—at least for this particular premiere audience—many people weren’t that impressed with this remake of “Nightmare Alley.”

Even if the audience response had been more enthusiastic, it wouldn’t be able to cover up the movie’s problems. All of the cast members seem to be doing the best that they can, but they are often stymied by some of the trite dialogue that mostly renders them as caricatures. Very little is revealed about the characters’ backgrounds to give them a story behind their personal motivations.

Bradley Cooper (who is one of the film’s producers) portrays the lead character: Stanton “Stan” Carlisle, a con-man drifter who ends up working at a seedy traveling carnival. He starts off doing lowly odd jobs, such as helping with construction and clean-ups. But eventually, he charms his way into becoming part of the fake psychic act at the carnival.

The carnival’s psychic act is led by a married couple named Zeena Krumbein (played by Toni Collette) and Pete Krumbein (played by David Strathairn), who coordinate their act through code words, body language and hidden written prompts underneath the stage. Zeena (whose carnival nickname is The Seer) is the flamboyant “psychic” who acts and dresses like a stereotypical fortune teller. While she’s on stage, Pete is underneath the stage, where he writes information on placards that Zeena can see from where she’s standing. The information supplies the hints and codes that prompt Zeena to correctly guess personal facts about someone who gets a “psychic reading” from her.

The Krumbeins have recorded the secrets of their con game in a small journal-sized book that is mostly kept in Pete’s possession. Stan is eager to read the book, but the Krumbeins won’t let him, although they eventually divulge some of their main secrets. Although the Krumbeins have had a partnership in work and in marriage for several years, the romantic passion has left their relationship.

Pete (a former magician) has become an alcoholic, and his alcoholism has caused him to be sloppy and unreliable in his work. He might pass out during one of Zeena’s performances, which is what happens in one scene where Stan has to quickly take over for a barely coherent Pete. It’s implied that Pete has become an alcoholic because he feels guilty about conning people. At one point, Pete warns Stan that the Krumbeins’ con-game secrets should not be abused, and anyone who does so could be cursed. “No man can outrun God!” Pete says ominously.

Zeena openly has affairs with other men. And you know what that means. It isn’t long before Stan and Zeena have an affair, but it’s all lust and no love. And considering that Stan is a con artist, he has ulterior motives for getting close to Zeena. This is an example of the cornball dialogue in the movie: Zeena says this pickup line to Stan before they begin their sexual relationship: “You’re a maybe. And maybes are real bad for me.”

While Stan is carrying on an affair with Zeena, he finds himself more attracted to a virtuous young carnival worker named Molly Cahill (played by Rooney Mara), who performs as an electricity-absorbing phenomenon named Elektra. Molly’s Elektra act consists of being tied to an electric chair and absorbing shocks of voltage that could kill or injure most people. Molly has a trusting nature that makes her blind to Stan’s manipulative ways. Not much information is given about Molly’s background to explain why she’s so naïve about the “smoke and mirrors” carnival business and the con artists that this type of business attracts.

Stan and Zeena’s affair eventually fizzles out, and he begins ardently courting Molly. However, the carnival has a strong man named Bruno (played by Ron Perlman), who is very protective of Molly and is suspicious of Stan’s intentions. Bruno has a co-star named Major Mosquito (played by Mark Povinelli), who also sees himself in a patriarchal role for the carnival. Bruno’s hostility toward Stan doesn’t stop Molly from falling for Stan’s charms. Eventually, Molly and Stan become lovers.

Not much is revealed about Stan’s background except that he’s originally from Mississippi, and he has “daddy issues.” On a rare occasion that he opens up to someone about his past, he talks about a treasured watch that he has that was previously owned by Stan’s dead father. In brief flashbacks, it’s slowly revealed what Stan’s relationship with his father was like.

Meanwhile, other characters at the carnival are in the story, but they are essentially superficial clichés. The carny boss (played by Tim Blake Nelson) is a typical huckster. The carnival barker Clem Hoatley (played by Willem Dafoe) is a gruff taskmaster with a cruel and sadistic side. He likes to torment the carnival’s caged “freak” (played by Paul Anderson), a pathetic, gnarled, and dirty human being whose birth name is never revealed in the story and who is usually referred to as the Geek.

Clem tells people that the Geek can go days without food and water. The Geek doesn’t talk but instead snarls and growls like an animal. As part of the Geek’s “act,” Clem or other people feed live chickens to the Geek, who tears the chickens apart and eats them raw. Sensitive viewers should be warned that the movie shows these acts of animal cruelty in detail, through visual effects.

Cruelty and degradation (to animals and to human beings) permeate throughout “Nightmare Alley,” which is nearly devoid of any intended humor. The scenes are staged with immense attention to detail on how everything looks, but the filmmakers didn’t pay enough attention to how these characters are supposed to make viewers feel. Most of the main characters are obnoxious and/or smug, which makes it harder for viewers to root for anyone. Molly is the only character in the movie who seems immune to becoming corrupt, but she’s written as almost too good to be true.

When too many people in a movie are unlikable, that can be a problem if they’re unable to convey some shred of humanity that can make them more relatable to viewers. And the result is a movie where viewers won’t care much about the backstabbing, selfish and greedy characters that over-populate this movie. Because so many of the characters (except for Molly) are so blatant with their devious ways, there’s no suspense over who will end up double-crossing whom. And that makes almost everything so predictable.

Due to a series of circumstances, Stan ends up becoming Zeena’s partner in the fake clairvoyant act. Stan thinks that he’s got real talent for this type of con game, so he decides to run off with Molly and target wealthier “marks” so he can become rich too. Considering that Bruno is the type to get physically rough in his disapproval of Molly and Stan’s relationship, and Bruno isn’t leaving the carnival anytime soon, Stan and Molly believe the time is right to leave the carnival for a better life. Molly and Stan relocate to Buffalo, New York.

Stan then become a semi-successful solo psychic named the Great Stanton, who does his act at sleek nightclubs attended by upper-class people. Molly is his willing accomplice, as long as Stan confines his act to entertaining people as a performer who shouldn’t be taken too seriously. Stan often wears a blindfold for added effect when he makes his guesses about people, based on their body language, the way that they dress and any information he can get about the guests before the show. Stan is no longer financially struggling like he was as a carnival worker, but he wants to be as wealthy as or wealthier than the people who attend his shows. He’s about to meet his new partner his crime.

During one of his performances, Stan has a heckler in the audience who challenges his authenticity. Her name is Dr. Lilith Ritter (played by Cate Blanchett), a psychiatrist who tries to humiliate Stan by demanding that he tell everyone what is hidden in her purse. Through a series of observant deductions, Stan correctly guesses that she has a gun in her purse. He then proceeds to turn the tables on Lilith and publicly embarrass her with scathing comments for trying to prove that he’s a fraud.

Under these circumstances, any fool can see that Lilith is not the type of person to forgive and forget this public shaming. However, when Lilith invites Stan to her office, Stan readily accepts. She tells him that she knows he’s a con artist and won’t believe otherwise. Stan then admits it and tells Lilith how he figured out that she was carrying a pistol in his purse. The stage has now been set for two people who think they’re more cunning than the other, as they both try to see what they can get out of any relationship they might have.

Lilith tells Stan that she secretly records all of the sessions that she has with her patients, who are among the richest and most powerful people in the area. Stan immediately has the idea of using that information to target some of these people with his phony psychic act, by using their private information from these recorded sessions to convince them that he knows their secrets. Stan asks Lilith which of her clients is the wealthiest.

And that’s how Stan hears about ruthless business mogul Ezra Grindle (played by Richard Jenkins), who is successful when it comes to his career, but his personal life is filled with bitterness and loneliness. Ezra has confessed to Lilith that he’s been plagued with guilt over causing the death of a young woman he once loved. It’s information that Lilith and Stan use to concoct a scheme to swindle Ezra out of a fortune that they want to get in cash.

Stan and Lilith have the type of relationship where they trade insults but are sexually attracted to each other. It doesn’t take long for Stan to cheat on Molly with Lilith. Blanchett fully commits to the role of a classic noir ice queen, but her portrayal of Lilith is so transparently calculating, it’s never convincing that Lilith can be trusted in this con game that she’s agreed to with Stan.

Ezra isn’t the only “mark” who’s a target of Stan and Lilith. A well-to-do married couple named Charles Kimball (played by Peter MacNeill) and Felicia Kimball (played by Mary Steenburgen) get caught up in the deceit and fraud that Stan and Lilith have in store for them. It has to do with the Kimballs’ emotional pain over the death of their 23-year-old son Julian, who died while he was enlisted in the military. And it’s an example of how low Stan and Lilith are willing to go to exploit the death of a loved one for money.

As lead character Stan, Cooper is in almost every scene of “Nightmare Alley.” His character remains mostly an enigma because, like many con artists, he changes his persona to fit whatever perception will work to get people to do what he wants. He’s the most complex character of the movie, but his personality never comes across as genuine. Over time, Stan shows that he’s not only heartless, but he also doesn’t have much of a conscience unless he’s the one who might get hurt. He’s not even an anti-hero, although the last 10 minutes of the film try to garner some viewer sympathy for Stan.

Ezra can sense that Stan can’t be trusted, so Ezra goes back and forth with how skeptical he is when Stan tries to charm his way into Ezra’s life. However, Stan knows so many private details about Ezra, it’s enough to convince Ezra that maybe Stan is the telling the truth about being psychic. Ezra is supposed to be a brilliant businessman, but at no point is he smart enough to figure out that maybe his psychiatrist has been leaking his personal information.

Stan is supposed to be a skillful con artist, but at no point is he wise enough to figure out that if Lilith has a recording device in her office to secretly record people, maybe she would use it to secretly record Stan too. After all, the recording can be cleverly edited to leave out any incriminating things that Lilith would say. This is all just common sense, which is why it’s a bit of a slog when the movie lumbers along to make it look like there’s some kind of mystery about Lilith’s intentions. The only thing in the movie that might be considered a little unpredictable is what happens with the Kimballs.

“Nightmare Alley” is not the first retro-noir-inspired movie directed by del Toro. He also directed 2015’s “Crimson Peak” (starring Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston and Mia Wasikowska), which also yielded mixed results because the pacing for the movie was so lethargic. At least “Crimson Peak” has a less tedious length of two hours. “Nightmare Alley” tries to convince people that it’s fascinating to watch monotonous scene after monotonous scene of Stan working his way up the carnival hierarchy, when the real story is what he does once he decides he’s going to become a phony psychic. The pace of the movie would’ve been better-served if about 20 to 30 minutes of the movie’s first half had been edited out.

The movie’s screenplay is still problematic though because of how it leaves no room to care about the story’s overabundance of distrustful and shallow characters, who spout a lot of words that don’t have much substance. “Nightmare Alley” takes so long to get to the inevitable end result of Stan and Lilith’s partnership, many viewers might have emotionally checked out by the time it happens. It’s enough to say that Molly is really the only character that viewers might care about by the time the movie is over. This remake’s revised ending has a well-acted, emotional final scene, but it’s not enough to make up for the character soullessness throughout most of the movie.

Searchlight Pictures will release “Nightmare Alley” in U.S. cinemas on December 17, 2021.

UPDATE: Searchlight Pictures will release a black-and-white version of “Nightmare Alley” titled “Nightmare Alley: Vision in Darkness and Light” for a limited engagement in select U.S. cinemas on January 14, 2022.

Review: ‘Monster Hunter,’ starring Milla Jovovich

December 19, 2020

by Carla Hay

Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa in “Monster Hunter” (Photo by Coco Van Oppens/Screen Gems)

“Monster Hunter”

Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson

Culture Representation: Taking place on Earth and in an alternate world, the sci-action flick “Monster Hunter” has a racially diverse cast (white, Asian, African American and Latino) representing the U.S. military and otherworldly warriors.

Culture Clash: Members of the U.S. military find themselves transported to another world, where they have to fight off monsters with other people from that world.

Culture Audience: “Monster Hunter,” which is based on the videogame of the same name, will appeal primarily to people who like simplistic, formulaic action movies with little to no surprises or substance.

Rathalos in “Monster Hunter” (Photo courtesy of Screen Gems/Sony Pictures)

The sci-fi/action time waster “Monster Hunter” is a perfect example of why most video games that get made into movies have bad reputations for being dumb, predictable and lacking a compelling storyline. Written and directed by Paul W.S. Anderson (who’s best known for the critically panned “Resident Evil” movie franchise, which is also based on a video game), “Monster Hunter” is based on Capcom’s video game of the same title. At least with the video game, audiences can control the action. With the “Monster Hunter” movie, audiences have to sit through an often-incoherent mess that seems recycled from countless other generic sci-fi/action flicks that have been done before and done much better.

The plot of the movie is as simple as its title. It’s really just a series of battles against giant monsters. Some of the creatures live in desert sand, while others live in caves. The monsters have names like Rathalos, Nerscylla and Black Diablos and resemble everything from giant scorpions to oversized versions of the deadly creatures in “Gremlins.” And just like many other sci-fi movies of this ilk, there’s a mysterious gateway portal that separates Earth from the world where the monsters live.

The beginning of “Monster Hunter” shows a glimpse of the other world, when a ship traveling in treacherous icy waters is attacked by giant monsters. Two of the people on the ship end up playing a pivotal role later on in the story: The ship’s captain named Admiral (played by Ron Perlman, wearing a silly-looking blonde pompadour wig) and Hunter (played by Tony Jaa), a bow-and-arrow slinging warrior who also has the stunt skills of a trained gymnast. It’s also shown that Hunter has a few superpower tricks.

The movie then cuts to an unnamed desert on Earth, where a small squad of U.S. Army soldiers are making their way across the land in jeeps. The squad is led by Capt. Lt. Natalie Artemis (played by Milla Jovovich, also of the “Resident Evil” franchise), who is tough and fearless but also shows a compassionate side and a sense of humor during the course of the story. She might be tough, but she also makes a lot of ludicrously bad decisions.

The soldiers in the squad don’t have much character development in the movie, but they are named Dash (played by Meagan Good); Marshall (played by Diego Boneta); Link (played by Tip “T.I.” Harris); Axe (played by Jin-Au Yeung); and Steeler (played by Josh Helman). Axe and Steeler seem to be good buddies since they have a rapport where they joke around with each other. However, the personalities in this group are fairly interchangeable because they’re so generic.

A tornado-like massive sandstorm with electrical current suddenly appears and overwhelms the squad. They soon find themselves in an even more isolated desert area that they can’t find on their map. Their GPS and communication devices aren’t working. It doesn’t take long for them to discover that they’re not on Earth anymore, because giant monsters (larger than dinosaurs) emerge from the sand and attack the humans. The military firearms and other weapons are no match for these monsters.

Dash is the only one in the group who openly disagrees with Artemis when Artemis tells her squad that they have to fight back against the monsters instead of hiding. Through a series of very predictable events, Artemis ends up meeting Hunter. And there’s the typical long stretch of the movie where Artemis and Hunter clash and don’t know how much they can trust each other.

The visual effects in a movie like “Monster Hunter” should be one of the main attractions, but the quality is uneven. The monsters are convincing in most scenes, but then there are other scenes with cheesy effects, where it’s obvious that the actors were in front of a green screen. One of the main reasons to make a video game into a movie is to have the movie look better than than the video game, but “Monster Hunter” falls short of that intention.

Even worse than the visual effects are scenarios where Artemis sustains injuries that would cripple most people, but she’s later able to demonstrate superhuman strength later on in the story. And let’s not get into the continuity and logic problems, where weapons are used that seem to come out of nowhere. And there are several scenes where Artemis is covered in dirt and grime everywhere except her face.

There are also some scenes that don’t make any sense at all. In one of these moronic scenes, Artemis (who’s already injured, exhausted and getting very dehydrated) is seen on top of a stone structure that’s about as tall as two skyscrapers. It’s a climb that would take several hours, but she’s suddenly shown standing on top, as if she’s some kind of super mountain climber.

Why would Artemis make this long and grueling climb that would deplete her energy and make her even more desperate for water? She did it so she could throw a rock onto the sand to see if any monsters would react. And sure enough, after she throws a rock, a monster emerges from beneath the sand and tries to attack. Keep in mind, this idiotic “test” is well after Artemis barely survived a vicious attack by several monsters that she already knows exist.

Jovovich seems to be doing her best to bring a sense of adventure to her role in “Monster Hunter,” but Artemis is really just a variation of her Alice character in the “Resident Evil” movies. Jaa’s Hunter character isn’t that memorable or unique. And viewers will have a hard time taking Perlman’s Admiral character seriously as a badass leader when he’s wearing a hot mess of a mane that looks like a reject from the Joan Rivers Wig Collection. And let’s not get started on the Meowscular Chef, the humanoid cat character that looks very fake and out of place with the humans.

The script problems, the tacky visual effects and the mediocre acting in “Monster Hunter” might be more tolerable if the action in the movie was truly innovative and suspenseful. But most of the action is very uninspired and at times can be considered quite dull, especially for viewers who’ve seen a lot of action movies. And the movie has an over-used action gimmick of making it look like someone is dead but the person was actually unconscious.

The fight scenes in “Monster Hunter” take a very lazy approach of gunfire, explosions, rinse, repeat. The movie also has a few laughable moments where Artemis believes a hunter-sized knife will be enough to kill these monsters. In one scene, she slices a monster’s skin with the knife, but the result is what would be the equivalent of a paper cut on a human. It’s unfortunate that “Monster Hunter” was made as if the filmmakers think the audience is as stupid as this movie.

Screen Gems released “Monster Hunter” in U.S. cinemas on December 18, 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.

Review: ‘Run With the Hunted,’ starring Michael Carmen Pitt, Ron Perlman, Dree Hemingway, Mitchell Paulsen, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Sam Quartin and Kylie Rogers

June 29, 2020

by Carla Hay

Michael Carmen Pitt and Dree Hemingway in “Run With the Hunted” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Run With the Hunted”

Directed by John Swab

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed U.S. cities, the crime drama “Run With the Hunted” has a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) portraying the middle-class, working-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A 13-year-old boy runs away from home after killing a man, and he grows up to lead his own group of runaway lawbreakers.

Culture Audience: “Run With the Hunted” will appeal primarily to people who like emotionally dark movies about people haunted by their past, but the film fails to deliver a well-written, well-paced story.

Kylie Rogers and Mitchell Paulsen in “Run With the Hunted” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

Much like the hoodlums in the crime drama “Run With the Hunted,” the movie wastes a lot of potential to have a better purpose in existing and instead wallows in self-indulgence and excessive violence. Written and directed by John Swab, “Run With the Hunted” benefits from solid acting from most of the cast. However, the movie ruins a compelling story idea with nonsensical scenes and uneven pacing.

“Run With the Hunted” (which takes place in unnamed U.S. cities) has an intriguing but dark concept of a boy who runs away from home after murdering a man and who grows up to become an adult leader of a gang of lawbreaking children. The first two-thirds of the film are told from the perspective of a 13-year-old boy named Oscar Grey (played by Mitchell Paulsen), who lives in a very rural area with his mother Josephine (played by Mykle McCoslin), his father Augustus (played by William Forsythe) and his sister Lollie (played by Tatum Stiles).

Josephine, nicknamed Jo, is a nurturing and loving person, while Augustus is stern and judgmental. In the beginning of the movie, Augustus is seen asking Oscar if he listened to the sermon that day while they are both standing by a small pond. Even although Augustus and his family are apparently churchgoing people, apparently Augustus doesn’t believe in being charitable to neighbors, because he scolds Josephine for wanting to give their dinner leftovers to a neighbor family who’s financially struggling.

When Josephine asks Oscar to take the dinner plate over to the neighbors’ place, Augustus warns Oscar: “I don’t want you to catch whatever virus lingers in that house.” The neighbors are the Robbins family, consisting of a drunk and mean-spirited father named Persey (played by Brad Carter) and his kids Amos (played by Evan Assante) and Loux (played by Madilyn Kellam), who are around the same age as Oscar. The children’s mother isn’t in the home, and it’s implied that she’s dead.

It’s clear from the first few minutes of Oscar being in the house that Persey is violent and abusive. Not even Oscar escapes from Persey’s physical aggression and shouting. Persey rudely refuses Oscar’s dinner and orders him to leave the Robbins’ run-down and messy house. Persey growls to Oscar: “I want you to tell that daddy of yours that I don’t need your mother’s backhanded charity. Take it back. Get the fuck out of my house!”

In a later conversation that Oscar and Loux have by themselves while outside in a field, Loux tells Oscar that she wants to escape from her home, but she can’t. It’s implied, but not shown in detail, that Persey has been sexually abusing her, since there’s a creepy scene where Percey makes Loux sit on his lap, strokes her hair and tells her that Loux that reminds him of her mother.

One night, while Percey is passed out drunk on his living room couch, Oscar sneaks into the house, takes a fire poker from a lit fireplace, and stabs Percey to death. The gory details are shown later in the movie as a flashback. The next thing you know, Oscar is about 100 miles away in a city that’s big enough for him to hide for a while but not so big where the city has a large police department. (“Run With the Hunted” was actually filmed in Tulsa, Oklahoma.)

While he’s homeless and alone in the city, Oscar is picked up for violating curfew. Since he has no identification and presumably won’t tell the authorities who he is, Oscar spends the night locked up by himself in an adult jail cell. While Oscar is sitting in jail, a police officer on duty at the station named Jim Flannery (played by Slaine) gets a faxed alert that Oscar Grey is wanted for murder.

Even though the alert has a clear photo of Oscar, Flannery stupidly assumes that the kid locked up in the jail cell couldn’t be the same boy, because he thinks a boy who lives in that rural area wouldn’t have the means or intelligence to travel 100 miles away by himself. He also comments to a desk-clerk colleague named Keryn (played by Renée Willett) that the boy who’s in the jail cell doesn’t look like a murderer. Keryn cynically agrees that all these delinquent kids start to look alike. Therefore, Oscar is let back out onto the streets.

This is a badly written part of the movie, because even if Flannery wanted to assume that Oscar wasn’t the same boy who was wanted for murder, an obvious underage runaway like Oscar would not be let back out on the streets so quickly by police, since child-protective services would be called. And people watching the movie won’t get over the fact that the photo of Oscar in the alert looks exactly like him.

The only purpose of this gaping plot hole is to establish that Flannery (who’s in the latter third of the story too) is a dumb, corrupt cop. This plot hole is also a set-up so that Oscar is free to be on the streets when he has a fateful meeting with another street kid named Peaches (played by Kylie Rogers), who takes a liking to Oscar. She shows him the abandoned, remote warehouse where she and other kids around their age hang out and get training to become thieving criminals. Their leader is a scruffy middle-aged loser named Sway (played by Mark Boone Junior), whose real name is Neville.

Sway is excited to have a new recruit join their ranks. He tells his boss Birdie (played by Ron Perlman) while Birdie is at beauty salon getting a pedicure. It looks as ridiculous as it sounds. This slightly comical scene is also supposed to establish that Birdie is well-connected to corrupt politicians, since he’s meeting with a congressman (played by Darryl Cox) at the salon.

Peaches and Oscar start to have a teen romance (she’s his first kiss), and he confesses to her that he’s a fugitive for murder, but that he killed an abusive man to save his kids from the abuse. Oscar doesn’t go into details by telling Peaches the last name of the family involved, but Peaches understands.

Peaches tells Oscar: “Someday, Loux will find you. For now, you have me. I believe fate brought us together.” Peaches makes it clear that she wants Oscar all to herself, and she tells him to promise that he will never leave her.

And there’s something else about Peaches: Her father is Birdie. In one scene, he has a father-daughter talk with her in his car while she’s eating an ice cream cone. Birdie gives this advice to Peaches: “You’ve got to grab what you want, because no one is going to give it to you.”

Meanwhile, Sway is having second thoughts about having Oscar in his gang of juvenile delinquents and he wants to kick Oscar out of the group. The word gets back to Birdie, who wants to keep Oscar in the group, especially since Oscar and Peaches have started dating each other. How far will Sway go in defying Birdie’s orders? That question is answered in the movie.

When the movie flashes forward 15 years later, it’s shown that Oscar (played by Michael Carmen Pitt) and Peaches (played by Dree Hemingway) are still together. Peaches works as a stripper, and she and Oscar have a very co-dependent relationship where she’s still very needy.

However, Birdie and Peaches have kind of a sleazy father-daughter dynamic that looks borderline incestuous. There’s a scene where Peaches sits on Birdie’s lap and she sort of acts like she’s his girlfriend by the way she hugs and kisses him. (Peaches’ mother, just like Loux’s mother, is nowhere in sight.)

The dumbest scene in “Run With the Hunted” is one that has absolutely no bearing on the overall story. It’s 15 years after Oscar has committed the murder, and he’s now tutoring a gang of four teenage hoodlums to commit armed robbery. They rob a grocery store and hold everyone hostage. And not surprisingly, one of the customers gets shot. (This isn’t spoiler information. It’s in the movie’s trailer.)

What’s incredibly moronic about the scene is that Oscar and his gang do nothing to disguise themselves when they commit the robbery. Even if there’s the unlikely possibility that the store doesn’t have surveillance cameras, there were several hostages as eyewitnesses. And a grocery store, compared to a bank or jewelry store, isn’t exactly the best place to get a large haul of money to steal. Most grocery stores keep a limited amount of cash in their registers, so it’s no surprise that Oscar and his gang don’t end up with a lot of money from the robbery.

What’s also laughable about this badly written part of the movie is that Oscar and his four teenage followers (two who are white, two who are black) all live together in the same house, which is not a remote house but a place on a suburban-looking neighborhood street. Therefore, it’s obvious that this motley group would stick out in any neighborhood and would be easy to identify after the robbery.

Oscar is supposed to be 28 in this part of the story, but Pitt (the actor playing the adult Oscar) looks like he’s closer to 38. Any respectable neighbor would think, “Why is a man that age living with underage teenage boys who aren’t related to him? Who and where are these kids’ parents?” That unusual living arrangement would be enough to attract attention to Oscar, who’s supposed to be an “underground” criminal.

Wherever this city is that Oscar ran away to and now lives, the city must have the dumbest law enforcement not to catch on to the fact that there’s a coordinated gang of young criminals who are committing a lot of the thefts (including pickpocketing) right out in the open on the streets and in stores where there should be surveillance cameras. The city is obviously not isolated enough for these kids to be able to stay in hiding for long.

And just as Peaches predicted years before, an adult Loux (played by Sam Quartin) does come looking for Oscar. (Again, this is not a spoiler, since the movie’s trailer already revealed this part of the story.) Loux ends up in the same city and gets a job working for a private investigator named Lester Rineau (played by Isiah Whitlock Jr.), a widower who might or might not be helpful to Loux’s stealthy investigation into Oscar’s childhood disappearance.

As a crime thriller, “Run With the Hunted” is a lot duller than it should have been, with much of the pacing dragged down by the relationship problems of the adult Oscar and Peaches, who have grown up to be very miserable human beings. And after Loux comes to town, the plot basically goes down the toilet, in terms of how people in the story react to her investigation.

One of the best things about “Run With the Hunted” is the talented performance by Paulsen as the young Oscar. He gives a completely credible and effective depiction of a kid who’s caught up in circumstances that are way over his head. The casting of Paulsen in this movie was definitely a very good choice.

Pitt and Perlman have been typecast (Pitt often plays troubled souls, Perlman often plays villains), so there’s not much of an acting stretch for them in this movie. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles. The few women in this movie aren’t given much to do except react to whatever the men are doing.

“Run With the Hunted” has the expected violence and foul language, but sensitive viewers should be warned that the film has violence that usually isn’t seen in crime dramas—scenes of underage kids killing other people. It’s a disturbing aspect of “Run With the Hunted” that comes across as exploitative for the sake of appearing provocative and “edgy.” It’s also an example of how “Run With the Hunted” is more concerned with having violent scenes instead of having a coherent and plausible story.

Vertical Entertainment released “Run With the Hunted” on digital and VOD on June 26, 2020.

Review: ‘Clover,’ starring Mark Webber, Jon Abrahams, Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Chazz Palminteri, Tichina Arnold, Erika Christensen and Julia Jones

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

Nicole Elizabeth Berger, Jon Abrahams and Mark Webber in “Clover” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“Clover”

Directed by Jon Abrahams

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed big city in the U.S., the campy crime drama “Clover” has a predominantly white (with some African American and Native American representation) cast of characters involved in the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: Two Irish American brothers who owe $50,000 to an Italian American crime boss go on the run when they get blamed for the death of the crime boss’ only son, and a teenage girl gets involved in their shenanigans.

Culture Audience: “Clover” will appeal mostly to people looking for a very lowbrow crime caper for escapist entertainment.

Chazz Palminteri in “Clover” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

The title of the campy crime drama “Clover” is kind of misleading, because the title character—a teenage girl named Clover—isn’t the main character of the story, and she doesn’t show up until 23 minutes into this 101-minute movie. “Clover” is really about the bickering Irish American fraternal twin brothers who are at the center of the movie and whose actions propel almost everything that happens in the story.

Mickey (played by Jon Abrahams, who directed “Clover) and Jackie (played by Mark Webber) are the owners of a seedy bar, which they inherited from their late father. Their mother has also passed away. From the get go, viewers see that the brothers are complete opposites and they don’t get along with each other. Mickey is the responsible brother who has more common sense, while Jackie is the screw-up brother who makes a lot of dumb decisions.

One of these dumb decisions is Jackie losing $50,000 in a blackjack game, when the money was supposed to go to repaying a debt that the brothers owe to local crime boss Tony Davallo (played by Chazz Palminteri, in yet another gangster role). When Mickey finds out, he and Jackie into a knock-down, drag-out fight before heading to Tony’s lair (a bar located in the basement of a bowling alley) to tell him that they don’t have the money and hope that they don’t get assaulted or worse by Tony’s goons.

Tony is every bit the stereotypical crime boss that’s been portrayed in dozens of movies and TV shows. He’s angry that the brothers don’t have his money, but he makes them a deal: He’ll erase the debt if Mickey and Jackie accompany Tony’s only son Joey (played by Michael Godere) to collect a debt from another deadbeat, who owes $80,000 to Tony.

Of course, it’s not as simple as just collecting a debt. Mickey knows it, and senses that they’re about to get involved in a violent crime, even though Joey (a cocaine-snorting thug) not very convincingly denies it. Mickey tries to talk his way out of going, but he and Jackie don’t have much of a choice, so they go with Joey and break into the man’s home.

The guy who owes Tony the $80,000 debt is named Barry (played by Sky Paley), and he’s surprised by this late-night break-in. In short order, Barry is brought down to a basement, tied up, and beaten by Joey, who then shoots and kills Barry, as horrified Mickey and Jackie look on. A fight ensues because the brothers don’t want to be involved in a murder. Joey loses his grip on his gun, and the next thing you know, Joey is shot dead by a girl wearing a hoodie, who says she’s Barry’s 13-year-old daughter Clover.

Mickey and Jackie know that Tony will blame them for Joey’s death. Meanwhile, Clover (played by Nicole Elizabeth Berger) thinks that Mickey and Jackie killed Barry, even though they tell her that Joey really committed the murder. Clover doesn’t seem to know what’s the truth. So, in order for her not to go to the police, Mickey and Jackie force Clover to go on the run with them, which takes up nearly the rest of the movie. And where is Clover’s mother? She tells Jackie and Mickey that her mother is dead, but that might or might not be true.

“Clover” is the type of silly “mobsters are after us” movie that has a lot of gun shootouts where people corner each other with guns, but then stand around talking and insulting each other before anyone actually starts shooting. Mickey, Jackie and Clover’s panicky race to outrun and hide from Tony and his henchmen take them to different places during the course of the movie.

The first place they run to is a bar owned by a tough-as-nails family friend named Pat (played by Tichina Arnold), where they barely escape when Tony’s thugs catch up to them there. Somehow, Mickey (who’s supposed to be the smart brother) is shocked that the thugs would think of tracking them down at the bar, even though it’s owned by a known family friend of the brothers. Yes, it’s not a good idea to try and hide at the most obvious places.

Another hideout that the brothers try is the apartment of Jackie’s ex-girlfriend Angie (played by Jessica Szohr). She’s reluctant to help them at first, but she takes pity on Clover. Angie also still has feelings for dimwitted Jackie (of course she does), so that’s why Angie ends up driving with all of them in her car to go where they need to go. They also stop along the way at the home of their childhood friend Stevie (played by Johnny Messner), a cop whose father co-founded the bar with the father of Mickey and Jackie.

For people who are trying to lay low and hide, they sure are hopping all over town. Mickey, Jackie, Clover and Angie then end up in an abandoned train station (where the pace of the movie starts to drag for a while), which is the scene of another unrealistic shootout. And then there’s another stop, this time at an abandoned warehouse occupied by Mickey and Jackie’s loopy cousin Terry (played by Jake Weber), who has escaped from a psychiatric institution. The scenes with Terry have the best comedy in the movie, which isn’t saying much because “Clover” isn’t exactly a treasure trove of clever and funny dialogue.

Also in the mix are female assassins Gertie (played by Erika Christensen) and Virginia (played by Julia Jones), a lesbian couple who argue over things like whether or not coal fire or wood fire is better for making pizza or burning bones. Gertie and Virginia are hired by Tony to find Mickey and Jackie. They are ruthless, cold and calculating—making them possibly more dangerous than Tony’s bumbling thugs.

And there’s another character, who’s seen only in the beginning and end of the film: a mysterious wealthy guy named Mister Wiley (played by Ron Perlman, who clearly had fun hamming it up with this over-the-top character) whose connection to the story is made clear at the very end. The only thing that viewers really see of Mister Wiley in the beginning is that he’s a mean-spirited control freak who yells at a house employee for entering a meeting room he’s in when the door was closed. He also says things like, “The pecking order must not be disrupted or else we will have chaos.”

To its credit, “Clover” doesn’t take itself too seriously, but the screenplay by Michael Testone is still so awful (including the story’s big plot twists) that viewers might find themselves laughing at scenes that weren’t really intended to be funny. “Clover” takes place in the present day, but it also tries to have a 1970s vibe. The soundtrack tunes from little-known artists such as Charles Bradley and El Michels Affair try to evoke the same aura as gritty crime movies that Al Pacino or Pam Grier would’ve starred in the mid-1970s. However, the ’70s-styled retro music choices would work better for a movie that’s more authentic than “Clover” is, because “Clover” is about as realistic as a “Ren & Stimpy” cartoon.

With “Clover,” Abrahams shows that he can capably direct himself in a movie—he’s the best actor out of the characters who are on the run from crime boss Tony—and the action scenes are adequate, but they’re often ruined by the terrible and corny dialogue. The well-known veteran actors in the cast don’t really add much substance, because they’re playing character types they’ve played many times before—”angry crime boss” for Palminteri; “menacing villain” for Perlman; and “tough-talking woman” for Arnold.

As bad as “Clover” is, it isn’t the worst movie someone can see all year—and that’s mostly because the film’s main actors are at least compatible with their roles. The movie’s appeal certainly isn’t in its poorly written, clunky screenplay that tries to throw in a few curveballs to make it look a lot smarter than it really is. “Clover” is the kind of movie that people can watch if they’re extremely bored and want to see a movie where intelligence is not required.

Freestyle Digital Media released “Clover” on digital and VOD on April 3, 2020.

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