Review: ‘Hard Miles,’ starring Matthew Modine, Cynthia Kaye McWilliams, Jahking Guillory, Jackson Kelly, Damien Diaz, Zach Robbins, Leslie David Baker and Sean Astin

April 19, 2024

by Carla Hay

Matthew Modine, Damien Diaz and Matthew Kelly in “Hard Miles” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Hard Miles”

Directed by R.J. Daniel Hanna

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colorado and Arizona, the dramatic film “Hard Miles” (based on true events) features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American and Latino) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A social worker at a youth penitentiary for teenage boys recruits four of them to be on an informal bicycling team and leads them on a bicycling marathon from Denver to the Grand Canyon in Arizona. 

Culture Audience: “Hard Miles” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the movie’s headliners and well-acted movies about athletic challenges that test physical strength and result in personal growth.

Jahking Guillory, Damien Diaz, Matthew Modine, Jackson Kelly and Zach Robbins in “Hard Miles” (Photo courtesy of Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Hard Miles” is not going to be considered a classic movie about underestimated marathon bicyclists. However, this sentimental drama has good acting performances and an inspiring message that outweigh many of the corniest moments. Because the movie is based on true events, it makes the story much easier to take as an overall life observation, even though there are scenes that were obviously fabricated for the movie.

Directed by R.J. Daniel Hanna, “Hard Miles” was co-written by Hanna and Christian Sander. “Hard Miles” (which is a vague and bland title for this movie) had its world premiere at the 2023 Bentonville Film Festival. The outcome of the movie is entirely predictable, but the journey is watchable, even though it sometimes drags with repetition.

“Hard Miles” begins by showing social worker Greg Townsend (played by Matthew Modine) at a court hearing for one of the inmates at a youth penitentiary in Denver called Ridgeview Academy. (In real life, Greg Townsend worked at a youth penitentiary Ridge View Academy Charter School, in Watkins Colorado.) Greg, who works at Ridgeview Academy, is in this courtroom to advocate for leniency for a 16-year-old inmate named David Alvarez (played by Jesus Venegas), who’s in trouble for getting into a physical fight at Ridgeview.

Greg tells the magistrate (played by Jerry Boyd) that the fight would’ve been worse if David had not intervened to help stop the fight. The magistrate is not moved by Greg’s testimony and orders that David get transferred to another penitentiary, with six months added to his sentence. David is not seen or heard from again in the story.

This opening scene exists to show that Greg firmly believes in rehabilitation and reform with compassion but without coddling. It’s then shown early on in the film that Greg has a passion for marathon bicycling. One of his favorite marathons is the Tour de Grand, which is cycling to the Grand Canyon. (“Hard Miles” was actually filmed in California.)

A penitentiary social worker named Haddie (played by Cynthia Kaye McWilliams), who is one of Greg’s co-worker friends, jokes with Greg: “Only in this job would someone think that a 1,000-mile bike ride is a vacation.” Greg corrects Haddie by saying that the bike route from Denver to the Grand Canyon is actually 762 miles.

Greg does this type of verbal correction a few more times in the story, including to his co-worker friend Skip Bowman (played by Leslie David Baker), who is the manager at Ridgeview. Greg’s nitpickiness is an indication of what type of personality Greg has: He is enthusiastic about what he believes in, but he can also be self-righteous and stubborn. Greg can also get caught up in forcing his views on other people instead of really thinking about how they feel.

Flashbacks in the movie show that Greg had an unhappy childhood, when his father Scott Townsend physically and verbally abused Greg, who feels like he never really got his father’s approval. Greg has a younger brother named Doug. It’s implied that Doug probably got abused too, but Greg got the worse abuse from their father. The mother of Greg and Doug is not seen or mentioned in this story.

In these flashback scenes, Jaxon Goldenberg portrays childhood Greg, Judah Mackey has the role of childhood Doug, and Charles Ambrose depicts Scott as a young man. Ambrose also has the voice role of adult Doug, who is never seen on camera. Doug is incarcerated at a state prison in Sacramento, California, and he is only heard when he calls Greg from the prison.

In the present day of the story, Scott (played by Patrick Anthony Mullen) is now an elderly man with dementia and living in a hospice. Doug calls Greg to ask what Greg wants to do about visiting their father and making the necessary end-of-life arrangements. Greg (who is a bachelor with no children) has mixed feelings about it all. Greg is reluctant to visit his father and avoids returning calls from hospice workers who have already told Greg that his father Scott is very close to dying.

Meanwhile, Greg has something that ends up consuming his attention for most of the story: doing the Tour de Grand with four of the Ridgeview Academy residents. He teaches a machinist class, where he has four students: tough Atencio (played by Damien Diaz), brooding Rice (played by Zach Robbins), nerdy Smink (played by Jackson Kelly) and volatile Woolbright (played by Jahking Guillory), who is the most “antisocial” one in the group. Smink is the most mild-mannered and is unlikely to start a fight.

One day, Greg is inspired to bring four stationary bicycles to the class to share his interest in marathon biking with these students. Greg has a friend named Speedy (played by Sean Astin), who owns a bike shop. Greg convinces Speedy to donate professional bikes for the students to use.

Greg decides that these four students could all be on an informal Ridgeview cycling team that should do the Tour de Grant marathon with him. Greg chooses roles for each student on the team: Smink is the climber, Atencio is the puncher, Rice is the sprinter, while Woolbright (who is the only one reluctant to join the team) is assigned domestique duties, which is another way of saying it’s a rider who isn’t in the competition but is just there for support, such as carrying water bottles. Woolbright quickly changes his mind and joins the team because he doesn’t want to be a lowly “water boy.”

Greg also gets a company called Banda Di Cantene to sponsor the trip. And although Greg gets some skepticism from Heddie, Skip and some high-level bureaucrats in charge, Greg gets permission for this team to go on this trip by saying it’s part of inmate rehabilitation. This part of the story looks very “only in a movie” rushed and too easy for Greg. All of the movie’s performances are good, but Modine and Guillory are the obvious standouts in their roles as two people who seem to be complete opposites and clash with each other but find some common ground that changes each of them for the better.

“Hard Miles” wisely sticks to having just four people for Greg to lead on this marathon, in order for the movie to not be cluttered or confusing with too many characters. (It’s also a low-budget movie that probably couldn’t afford a large cast anyway.) However, very little is told about the young guys on the team, since most of the focus is on Greg being their role model.

Atencio opens up a little and says he was arrested for gang-related activities and that the gang he belongs to expects him to continue gangbanger crimes after Atencio is released from prison. Woolbright, who has a lot of anger issues, is serving his current penitentiary sentence because he was sent back to prison for driving without a license. The criminal records for Smink and Rice get little or no mention.

This team didn’t start out a friends. All of them have some type of conflict with each other before and durng the journey. Near the beginning of the movie, Atencio and Rice get into a physical brawl in a penintiary hallway. Haddie is nearby and accidentally gets injured in this fight. It results in Haddie having a sprained left foot and needing to use a walking boot and crutches. Inexplicably, despite these injuries, she volunteers to be the driver of the backup van that follows this biking team in case of an emergency.

As an example of how tone-deaf Greg can be, when he sees Haddie for the first time wearng her walking boot, he asks her in genuine surprise: “You don’t have to wear that?” She sarcastically replies, “No, it’s a fashion statement.” Although Greg and Haddie like and respect each other, they have very different opinions on many things.

In this very male-dominated movie, Haddie is the only woman who has a significant speaking role. Her character is written in a way that is baffling and sometimes annoying. She is often depicted as a nag who doesn’t add much to the story but getting into arguments with Greg over how he’s handling the marathon.

The movie never gives a believable explanation for why someone with a sprained foot and in need of crutches would want to driving a van for several hours a day, for weeks, for this grueling marathon. For a long stretch of the movie, Haddie does nothing but limp up to Greg and the team to scold Greg for pushing the team members too hard. And then, after being the Debbie Downer skeptic for most of the movie, Haddie suddenly has a cheerleader attitude at a certain point. This abrupt transformation looks very fabricated for a movie.

It’s revealed early on in “Hard Miles” that Smink (who is very skinny) actively has an eating disorder. This is another part of the “Hard Miles” that comes up short in crediblity. Why would Greg put someone with this serious health issue in a very risky health situation, where Greg pushes this team to the point where they vomit from exhaustion? Dehydration and heat stroke also major dangers, since the movie makes a big deal of showing how much desert territory is part of this marathon, which takes place during intense daytime heat.

Haddie likes to remind Greg that she has a college degree in psychology and Greg doesn’t, so Haddie thinks she’s the better person to know how to deal with Smink’s eating disorder. However, there’s no evidence that Greg or Haddie has any real medical training to deal with the risks of someone doing this type of marathon while in the throes of an eating disorder. There are a few scenes in the movie where Smink refuses to eat, which means he isn’t really in recovery. It seems medically irresponsible that Smink was approved to be in this marathon, no matter how much Smirk wanted to do this marathon of his own free will.

It’s perhaps the biggest failing of the movie not to address these health issues that are casually brought up and then sort of ignored when these health issues get in the way of the narrative that Greg is supposed to be the knight in cyclist uniform, determined to “save” these wayward young people. And as soon as Greg clutches his heart during a certain part of the marathon, you know what’s coming. But even that health scare is sort of glossed over in a way that looks very fake.

“Hard Miles” has the expected “push through the pain” pep talks and the predictable bickering among the team members. And it should come as no surprise that the person on the team who appears to be the “hardest” is the first one to have an emotional breakdown during the marathon. Greg also makes a decision about his father in one of the more poignant scenes in the movie. “Hard Miles” is not a movie to watch if you want a realistic and detailed look at the physical and health realities of doing this type of marathon. It’s a movie that works on the level of showcasing the belief in “mind over matter,” overcoming challenges, and surpassing expectations.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Hard Miles” in select U.S. cinemas on April 19, 2024.

Review: ‘The Shift’ (2023), starring Kristoffer Polaha, Neal McDonough, Elizabeth Tabish, Rose Reid, John Billingsley, Paras Patel, Jordan Alexandra and Sean Astin

December 7, 2023

by Carla Hay

Neal McDonough and Kristoffer Polaha in “The Shift” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“The Shift” (2023)

Directed by Brock Heasley

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Shift” (loosely based on the Book of Job) features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A man gets “shifted” to a multiverse, where he desperately tries to find a way back to his wife. 

Culture Audience: “The Shift” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in movies that blend religion and science fiction, but “The Shift” has too much of a muddled plot to be enjoyable for viewers who want a coherent story.

Elizabeth Tabish in “The Shift” (Photo courtesy of Angel Studios)

“The Shift” wants desperately to be a clever mix of sci-fi and faith-based teachings, but the end results are jumbled and messy. This disappointing drama taking place in a multiverse has too many poorly written scenes and characters without much depth. The stiff and awkward acting performances in the movie do nothing to help improve the quality of this dull and incoherent film.

Written and directed by Brock Heasley, “The Shift” is loosely based on the Book of Job, from the Hebrew Bible. In the Book of Job, the story’s namesake Job is a wealthy man with a loving family. Satan tells God that Job will lose his faith in God if Job loses everything that’s meaningful in Job’s life. God allows Satan to test this theory, so Satan takes away Job’s money and family.

In “The Shift” (which takes place in an unnamed part of the United States), the Job figure is Kevin Garner (played by Kristoffer Polaha), who is seemingly affluent and happily married to his wife Molly Garner (played by Elizabeth Tabish). One morning, Kevin and Molly have an argument about bills that Kevin said he was going to pay, but Kevin lied and didn’t pay the bills. Kevin is upset when he gets in his car and has a car accident.

A dazed and confused Kevin wakes up on a deserted street and sees a man who calls himself The Benefactor (played by Neal McDonough, in yet another role as a cold and calculating villain), who tells Kevin that there was no car accident. The Benefactor doesn’t bother to explain to Kevin why Kevin has injuries on his face from the accident. It’s one of many confounding inconsistencies in this movie.

Kevin grabs The Benefactor by the lapels and demands, “Where did everybody go?” The Benefactor replies, “They didn’t go anywhere. You did. Are you sure you are where you think you are? Let’s get some dinner.” Kevin willingly follows The Benefactor.

Kevin and The Benefactor go to a diner, where this mysterious stranger seems to be a frequent customer, because the waitress (played by Ginger Cressman) already knows what he likes to order: steak and eggs with a tall glass of milk. Customers in the diner seem to know who The Benefactor is too, because they cower in fear when he’s in the room and are afraid to look at him.

During this uncomfortable conversation in the diner, The Benefactor tells Kevin that he has “shifted” Kevin to another dimension and says he has the ability to do this anyone. The Benefactor also says that several dimensions exist in this multiverse. Kevin doesn’t believe The Benefactor and tells him to prove it.

The Benefactor points out a terrified-looking woman in the diner. He says her name is Tina (played by Rose Reid), and he says he’s going to shift Tina to another dimension where Tina doesn’t exist. And sure enough, The Benefactor does that, much to Kevin’s shock.

Now that Kevin knows that he’s in another dimension where he can’t get back to Molly, he is given an offer by The Benefactor, who knows that Kevin and Molly had an argument that morning: “I can give you a Molly who’ll be exactly who you want,” The Benefactor tells Kevin. In exchange, The Benefactor says that all Kevin has to do is work with The Benefactor as one of The Benefactor’s shifters.

Kevin refuses this offer and starts praying out loud. The Benefactor becomes enraged and then literally vanishes. Even if viewers of The Shift don’t know anything about the Book of Job, it’s easy to see how the rest of this “good versus evil” story is going to go.

For most of “The Shift,” Kevin is a poor and homeless person who desperately tries to find his way back to Molly. Kevin is in an alternate world where The Benefactor’s disappearance from the diner has made the TV news. Kevin has become famous and is now known in the news as The Kevin Who Refused.

This notoriety has made Kevin somewhat of a fugitive. He finds himself scrounging around for food on the streets. And somehow, he ends up working at a rubble-filled construction site, where he meets a man named Gabriel (played by Sean Astin), who gives helpful advice to Kevin. Some mysterious soldier types call lancers, who have metal uniforms, helmets covering their faces and carrying guns. The lancers occasionally show up to try to capture Kevin, but he manages to escape.

There’s a dark and dingy movie theater that has been converted to a place where people can pay to see what’s going on in other dimensions. In “The Shift,” this multiverse dimension-watching is set up to look like a candle-lit room, where someone can wear a virtual reality headset while looking at a giant projection screen. Even though “The Shift” is a low-budget film, there is still absolutely no imagination in this movie’s production design.

It isn’t long before Kevin finds out about this theater and goes there to get clues on where Molly might be. The owner of this theater is named Russo (played by John Billingsley), who gets increasingly annoyed every time Kevin shows up. Kevin also meets a married couple named Rajit Nadir (played by Paras Patel) and Priya Nadir (played by Jordan Alexandra), who generously invite Kevin to stay with them in their family home.

“The Shift” continuously bungles the story by introducing new characters and then not giving them much to do or much purpose. The movie seems intent on having a lot of religious symbolism without meaningful explanation, and so this symbolism ends becoming a lot of clutter to the plot. It’s like giving someone a puzzle to solve with clues that are ultimately useless.

It should come as no surprise (because it’s already shown in the trailers for “The Shift”) that Kevin sees Molly living a very different life in another dimension. Because Kevin has been “shifted,” he no longer exists in the dimension where he used to live. The movie becomes a chaotic mush of Kevin trying to figure out how to get the dimension where Molly is. Viewers of “The Shift” will feel like they’re stuck in a dimension where this terrible and boring movie exists, and they can’t get their time back after watching “The Shift.”

Angel Studios released “The Shift” in U.S. cinemas on December 1, 2023.

Review: ‘iMordecai,’ starring Judd Hirsch, Carol Kane, Sean Astin, Stephanie J. Block and Azia Dinea Hale

March 8, 2023

by Carla Hay

Azia Dinea Hale and Judd Hirsch in “iMordecai” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)


Directed by Marvin Samel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Miami, the comedy/drama film “iMordecai” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latin people) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Against the wishes of his wife, a Holocaust survivor secretly befriends an iPhone salesperson, who teaches him how to use his iPhone, while he has a tension-filled relationship with his son. 

Culture Audience: “iMordecai” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in watching family-oriented comedy/drama movies about real-life Holocaust survivors, even if many of the scenarios in the movie look very fake.

Stephanie J. Block and Sean Astin in “iMordecai” (Photo courtesy of Greenwich Entertainment)

The disjointed comedy/drama “iMordecai” is based on a true story, but this dull movie looks more like fragmented segments of a very phony sitcom. Even with the talents of Judd Hirsch and Carol Kane, “iMordecai” is undone by misguided filmmaking. It’s one of those movies where a family member’s quirks are supposed to look charming and cute to people who watch the movie. But that’s where “iMordecai” has a big disconnect with authenticity, because in the real world, those quirks would be very annoying and bizarre.

Marvin Samel makes his feature-film debut as a director, co-writer and producer of “iMordecai,” a movie that he made about his family. The movie’s title character, Mordecai Samel, is played by Hirsch and is based on Marvin Samel’s real-life father. Marvin Samel co-wrote the maudlin “iMordecai” screenplay with Rudy Gaines and Dahlia Heyman. It’s a film that takes serious subjects, such as the Holocaust and dementia, and downplays them for the sake of creating some trite comedic moments in the film. Other problems experienced by the movie’s characters are resolved in very sitcom-like ways.

There’s really not much depth to the plot of “iMordecai,” which has irritating repetition of this theme: “Look at how quirky this old man is and how he and his son have problems in their relationship.” Mordecai is married to his longtime wife Fela (played by Kane), who is a harmless and passive oddball. Marvin (played by Sean Astin) is married to his devoted wife Netta (played by Stephanie J. Block), and they are the parents of infant twin daughters (played by Yosef Friedman and Ari Friedman). These wives are often sidelined in the story, just to contrive another scenario where Mordecai and Marvin clash with each other. Fela is diagnosed with having a form of dementia, but her dementia is barely addressed in the movie until it is used to set up an emotionally manipulative turning point in the story.

In “iMordecai,” which takes place in Miami, Mordecai is a retired plumber who stubbornly thinks that he can fix any plumbing problems, anywhere, at any time. Near the beginning of the movie, Marvin (who is the only child of Mordecai and Fela) goes to visit his parents at their high-rise apartment building. Marvin sees Mordecai is using a jackhammer to install a walk-in shower for Fela. The apartment looks like it was hit by a bomb, which is an indication that Mordecai doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

Later in the movie, in another sitcom-ish scenario, Marvin goes to visit Mordecai and finds Mordecai on a residential street, digging a hole in the grass on a sidewalk. The sidewalk is mostly likely the property of the city, and Mordecai most likely doesn’t have a permit to do this digging. But that doesn’t matter in this movie, because it’s all a setup to show Mordecai damaging a water main, which sends a gush of water flying into the air. Marvin predictably gets upset, and Mordecai acts like Marvin is just being uptight. And then, they have an argument that looks straight out of a low-quality sitcom.

Throughout the movie (whose pacing often drags and will test the patience of people looking for less flimsy repetition and more substance), scenarios are presented over and over where it’s obvious that the “iMordecai” filmmakers want viewers to think, “Oh, look at wacky Mordecai. There he goes again with his quirky antics. Isn’t he adorable?” But many of his antics are too irresponsible for someone of Mordecai’s age (he was born in 1933), and they aren’t very adorable at all.

Marvin isn’t exactly a responsible adult either. He owns a cigar company that is financially struggling, and he’s been lying to members of his family about it. Marvin has maxed out his credit cards to keep the company afloat. He irresponsibly doesn’t tell Netta until she sees a bill for a maxed-out credit card that she didn’t even know Marvin had. Marvin also can’t get any more bank loans.

Netta is worried because she and Marvin couldn’t pay their house’s mortgage for the previous month, but Marvin assures her that everything will work out for them. He tells Netta that he will take care of everything. Marvin sells his car, but that’s barely enough to pay off his debts, so he eventually decides to sell the cigar company.

Marvin has been hiding his money problems from his parents because he’s already borrowed $50,000 from Mordecai for the cigar company, and Marvin doesn’t want to ask Mordecai to borrow more money or for help in paying off Marvin’s debts. The movie then goes into a tangent that Marvin thinks Mordecai is a financial jinx for Marvin, ever since Mordecai interrupted a poker game that Marvin lost when Marvin was a teenager and playing poker with some of his buddies. The movie has a flashback to this poker game, and it’s not as funny as it was probably intended to be. (Simon Lee has the role of a teenage Marvin.)

Early on in the movie, Marvin brings Mordecai and Fela to a phone store at a local shopping mall to get Mordecai a new iPhone, because the flip phone that Mordecai has been using is worn down, barely functioning and hopelessly outdated. At the store, Mordecai meets a sales representative named Nina (played by Azia Dinea Hale), who is friendly and helpful. Nina has a co-worker named Jared (played by Nick Puga), who is an iPhone specialist. Jared is also an aspiring stand-up comedian, which becomes a weak subplot used as a setup for Mordecai to get on stage and interrupt Jared’s stand-up act when Jared flops in his stand-up routine.

Nina offers to give Mordecai private lessons to learn how to use an iPhone. The problem is that Fela is deeply superstitious about iPhones and other smartphones. Fela calls an iPhone a “brainwashing device” and says it’s “like Stalin.” “iMordecai” then becomes a tedious back-and-forth narrative: Nina and Mordecai have secret meetings where they get to know one another as friends, while Marvin tries to close a business deal for the sale of his cigar company to a potential buyer named Fernando Vazquez (played by Mike Benitez), who has a fateful chance encounter with Mordecai. (You can easily predict how this encounter affects the business deal.)

Eventually, Mordecai and Nina spend time together for platonic companionship that has nothing do with her giving him iPhone lessons. During a trip to the artsy Wynwood area of Miami (which has a lot of public art on display, such as murals), Mordecai tells Nina that he’s a painter artist. You can almost do a countdown to a scene where Nina inspires Mordecai to start painting again.

Mordecai (who was born in Poland) also tells Nina more details about his life, such as how the Holocaust affected his family, some of whom escaped to Russia, while others died in a concentration camp in Poland. The flashbacks to Mordecai’s childhood are shown as animation. Meanwhile, Nina has a secret that she’s afraid to tell Mordecai: Her recently deceased paternal grandfather used to be a Nazi guard at a concentration camp. You don’t have to be a genius to guess which concentration camp it was.

Although it’s possible this strange coincidence could have happened in real life, it looks very contrived and cringeworthy in “iMordecai,” which treats the Holocaust and how it affected Mordecai’s family in a glib way that’s very off-putting. And did we mention that Nina is also a volunteer at a local Jewish community center? She’s also estranged from her parents, for reasons that aren’t really made clear in the movie. However, it’s mentioned that Nina unfairly blames her parents (especially her father) for not telling her about her paternal grandfather’s Nazi past, even though Nina herself says that the grandfather kept it a secret from his American descendants. The secret was discovered only after he died, and his Nazi possessions were found.

The movie also has a weird tangent about Mordecai revealing that he when he was younger and working in Brooklyn, New York, he pretended that he had an identical twin brother named Martin, who was a building painter. Mordecai even had a separate business where he posed as Martin being a professional painter. It’s supposed to be an endearing joke in “iMordecai,” but the movie never gives a good reason for why Mordecai would go to such lengths for such an unnecessary lie. Apparently, Mordecai deceived customers for years with this fraud. It makes him look mentally ill, but the movie brushes it off, as if Mordecai’s elaborate deception is perfectly acceptable and not a sign of serious mental health issues.

There are so many ways that “iMordecai” rambles and wanders in the story, that it all becomes tiresome after a while. The movie has too many instances of people talking and acting very unrealistically, even though Hirsch puts in a commendable effort to make his character believable. The other cast members are serviceable in their roles, while Kane continues to be typecast as an eccentric who lives in her own world. The movie reaches a point where viewers will start to see “iMordecai” for what it is: a vanity project about a family that isn’t nearly as interesting or amusing as the “iMordecai” filmmakers want viewers to think the family is, while some serious issues are made trivial for the sake of trying to get cheap laughs.

Greenwich Entertainment released “iMordecai” in select U.S. cinemas on February 24, 2023. The movie will be released on digital and VOD on April 11, 2023.

Review: ‘Hero Mode,’ starring Chris Carpenter, Mira Sorvino, Sean Astin and Indiana Massara

June 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Chris Carpenter and Philip Solomon in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

“Hero Mode”

Directed by A.J. Tesler

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the comedy film “Hero Mode” features a predominantly white cast of a characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A 16-year-old computer whiz thinks he can save his mother’s video game company from financial ruin by developing a computer video game that he expects to be a hit, but he experiences skepticism and obstacles from some adults.

Culture Audience: “Hero Mode” will appeal primarily to people who like lightweight and predictable family comedies and don’t mind if the jokes and some of the acting are substandard.

Pictured in front row: Sean Astin, Monte Markham, Philip Solomon, Kimia Behpoornia, Mira Sorvino and Mary Lynn Rajskub in “Hero Mode” (Photo by Rachael Thompson/Blue Fox Entertainment)

The family film “Hero Mode” is stuck in one mode: low-quality. This poorly written, predictable movie about a computer gaming whiz has an uneven tone that stumbles back and forth, from cringeworthy comedy to sappy melodrama. Even though some of the cast members seem to be trying very hard to do their best to bring some charisma, it’s not enough to save this amateurish movie. The film’s protagonist is supposed to be wildly imaginative. It’s too bad this movie isn’t.

Directed by A.J. Tesler and written by Jeff Carpenter, “Hero Mode” starts off looking like it’s going to have a madcap pace throughout the entire film. The characters trade fast-talking one-liners. The camera and the editing move quickly from scene to scene, as if “Hero Mode” is a movie for people with a short attention span.

But somewhere in the middle of this movie (which is supposed to be a comedy), the pace slows down considerably so that it resembles a run-of-the-mill, teen-oriented drama. It’s almost as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide on which pace to have for “Hero Mode”: hyper or regular. And the end result is a movie in search of a clear identity and competent direction.

The plot of “Hero Mode” tells viewers from the beginning that this movie requires a lot of suspension of disbelief: A 16-year-old boy, who’s described as having “genius-level” computer skills, is supposed to come up with a computer video game in 30 days that will save his mother’s computer game company from going out of business. And he doesn’t just have to develop the game for beta testing. It has to be ready to market and sell at an upcoming video game convention.

People who’ve seen enough of these formulaic movies know exactly how these movies are going to end. And so, that leaves the writing, acting and directing to deliver something clever to outweigh the tedium of having an unsurprising story. Unfortunately, “Hero Mode” comes up short on almost every level. “Hero Mode” which takes place in an unnamed U.S. city, also has a lot of outdated jokes that might have worked in the 1990s, but not now.

This is one of those movies that exists because two parents—”Hero Mode” screenwriter Jeff Carpenter and his wife Mary Carpenter, one of the “Hero Mode” producers—made this film so that their son could star in it. It literally says so in the “Hero Mode” production notes: “They [Jeff and Mary Carpenter] knew from the beginning that 16-year-old Chris Carpenter (who had been acting in film and theater since he was 10) would play the teenage coding genius, Troy Mayfield.”

Troy Mayfield (played by Chris Carpenter) is an only child who lives with his widowed mother Kate Mayfield (played by Mira Sorvino), who is struggling to keep her independent video game company Playfield Games in business. Kate is the CEO of Playfield Games, a company that she co-founded with her husband/Troy’s father, who died when Troy was a very young child. The cause of death isn’t revealed in the movie, but there are repeated mentions that Troy’s father was a computer genius and that Troy seems to have inherited his father’s extraordinary talent with computer technology.

Troy is a typical male computer nerd in movies like this one: He’s socially awkward around girls and he doesn’t have many friends. His closest pal is Nick Williams (played by Philip Solomon), an outgoing fellow student who sometimes has a mischievous side. Nick (who seems to be an aspiring director) loves to use his phone to make videos and to upload the videos on social media.

In “Hero Mode,” an upcoming annual video game convention called Pixel Con is the most important consumer convention for the video game industry. New products are introduced at Pixel Con that can make or break a company’s profits. In an early scene in the movie, Troy and Nick talk excitedly about going to Pixel Con. Nick wants to go so he can meet girls, while Troy has a different motivation: “Nick, you know it’s not about the girls. It’s about making one great game and showing it off at Pixel Con.”

And the stakes are high for Playfield Games for this year’s Pixel Con, because the company is on the verge of financial ruin. Unbeknownst to most Playfield Games employees and Troy, the company will soon run out of operational cash. However, there’s a possibility that an angel investor can save the company. Kate is throwing an upcoming party for this investor at her house, with the company’s employees in attendance.

In the movie’s early scenes, which take place at Troy and Nick’s high school, there’s a lot of goofy comedy that eventually fades in the middle of the movie, only to pop back up again toward the end. In his 10th grade computer class, Troy is bored and frustrated because the teacher Mr. Diehl (played by Erik Griffin) is way behind the times. The class is coding a video game that looks like a primitive Pong game from the 1980s.

Suddenly, the school vice-principal, whose last name is Goodson (played by Bobby Lee), shows up in the classroom to talk to Mr. Diehl. Vice-Principal Goodson seems stressed-out about something, because he has an angry outburst at the students. Goodson then quietly mutters to Mr. Diehl that his wife has just left him.

Since Troy is a star student in the computer class, Goodson takes Troy aside. “Troy, I can honestly smell the hormones pouring out of you, and it’s nauseating,” Goodson quips. What Goodson really wants to tell Troy is that because Troy was so helpful in tutoring students in computer science, the school’s test scores went up significantly. As a reward, the school district gave the school 15 new computers.

But there’s a problem: The higher scores were too good to be true. Goodson knows it and asks Troy if he manipulated computer records to alter the scores so that they would be higher than they actually were. Troy essentially admits it, so he’s suspended from school.

Troy’s mother Kate is upset by this news, but she’s got a bigger problem to worry about: Getting the angel investor to sign the contract that will get Playfield Games out of the company’s financial hole. The investor is an elderly man named Bruce, who’s actually computer illiterate, but he wants to invest in Playfield Games because he thinks it will make him look cool to be in the video game industry.

At the house party, Playfield Games’ over-confident lead designer Jimmy (played by Sean Astin) gives Bruce a flash drive that has the beta test of a video game that will be Playfield’s next big product launch. The game is called Jack House. It’s a very 1980s-styled, boring game about a Super Mario type of carpenter character called Jack that likes to jackhammer houses. Jimmy is very proud of this game, but he’s very clueless about how badly outdated the game is. Jimmy thinks Jack House is going to be a big hit.

Because Bruce doesn’t even know how to use a flash drive, Bruce asks Troy to show him what’s on the flash drive. And so, Troy and Bruce (with Troy’s sidekick Nick also in the room) use Troy’s computer to look at this test version of Jack House. Bruce doesn’t mention that what Troy will be looking at is the game that Playfield is counting on to bring the company out of its financial dire straits.

Troy finds several mistakes (or “bugs”) in the game, and he says the game is hopelessly dumb and outdated. This negative review completely turns off Bruce from investing in Playfield. Bruce makes a hasty exit from the party without even saying goodbye. And when Kate finds out why Bruce ditched the party and changed his mind about investing in the company, Troy gets in even more trouble with his mother.

Kate goes to a bank and is told by loan manager Larry Lopes (played by Al Madrigal) that they won’t give her any more money. Out of desperation, Kate secretly meets with a corporate executive named Rick (played by Nelson Franklin), who’s the head of a larger rival company called Xodus. Kate knows that Xodous has been interested in buying Playfield Games, and she tells Rick that she’s now willing to consider selling Playfield to Xodus. It still doesn’t solve the problem of how Playfield Games can come up with a better game than Jack House.

But wait. There would be no “Hero Mode” movie if Troy was really punished. Somehow, he convinces his mother that he can come up with an even better game than Jack House, just in time to introduce this new game at Pixel Con, which is happening in 30 days. And since Troy has been suspended from school, he convinces a reluctant Kate to let him work in the Playfield Games office to get this project done by this unrealistic deadline.

Troy had been constantly begging his mother to work at Playfield, but she refused before because she thinks he’s not old enough. Later in the movie, she tells Troy: “You and your dad share the same gift, but he did not have a normal childhood. We both swore to each other that you would.” But desperate times sometimes lead to desperate decisions. And so, Kate agrees to give Troy a chance to prove that he’s the computer genius that he thinks he is.

Jimmy is extremely annoyed that this kid thinks he can outshine Jimmy in a job that Jimmy’s been doing longer than Troy has been alive. Welcome to nepotism, Jimmy. The other Playfield Games employees are also skeptical about working with an underage teenager, but they have no choice because he’s their boss’ child. These other employees aren’t as hostile to Troy as Jimmy is, but they aren’t exactly completely welcoming to Troy either.

The other Playfield staffers who are also on the project of making Troy’s video game a reality are chief financial officer Lyndon (played by Monte Markham), who is the most easygoing and practical of the group; technical lead Laura (played by Mary Lynn Rajskub), who is often uptight and grouchy; and senior story editor Marie (played by Kimia Behpoornia), who is artistically creative but a very nervous type of person. Lyndon is the only person at the company, other than Kate, who knows about Playfield’s financial problems.

Of course, a cliché movie like “Hero Mode” has to have a love interest for the nerdy protagonist, who stereotypically falls for someone he thinks is “out of his league.” The love interest is Lyndon’s granddaughter Paige (played by Indiana Massara), who’s about the same age as Troy. Paige and Troy meet one day at the Playfield Games office because Paige goes there after school to visit her grandfather and to do homework. According to Paige, she’s temporarily living with her grandfather Troy because her parents are having marriage problems and her parents are trying to “work things out.”

It’s attraction at first sight for Troy, who now has an added incentive to come up with the next big video game that can save Playfield Games: He wants to impress Paige. By the way, Paige is an aspiring singer, so viewers can easily predict how that’s written into the movie. The original songs in “Hero Mode” are very mediocre and forgettable.

The idea that Troy comes up with for the would-be blockbuster video game is called Yort, which is is essentially a cheap “Lord of the Rings” ripoff, but Troy has named the video game after himself. (Yort isTroy spelled backwards.) Troy has all these complex world-building ideas that couldn’t reasonably be developed for a video game in less than a month. But Troy thinks he can do it.

And this is where the movie really goes downhill: Troy thinks he can do it all by himself. He orders the people on this team to go home and stay away from the office because he needs the solitude to concentrate. There’s a considerable chunk of the movie with ridiculous scenes of Troy frantically coding and working in an empty office during the day and in his bedroom at night.

Meanwhile, Jimmy becomes Troy’s biggest detractor who wants Troy to fail. But since the movie wants to make Jimmy somewhat sympathetic, it turns out that Jimmy has “daddy issues.” Jimmy’s stern and judgmental father James (played by Jim O’Heir) doesn’t think that what Jimmy does for a living is a “real job,” because Jimmy’s father thinks that Jimmy just gets paid to play video games. Troy has “daddy issues” too, because he wants to prove he’s just as good as his deceased father was.

And where is Troy’s mother Kate, the CEO of this company? Not doing much but letting Troy call the shots to get this video game ready in time for Pixel Con. With this kind of bad decision making from the CEO, it’s no wonder this company is on the verge of going out of business.

Troy’s arrogance backfires, of course. And the movie has to have this teachable moment in order to preach “There’s no ‘i’ in teamwork” in the corniest of ways. Some of the cast members of “Hero Mode” try their hardest to be likeable and funny, particularly Chris Carpenter and Solomon. The movie needed more scenes of the two of them together, because their friendship chemistry seems natural.

However, longtime actors Sorvino and Astin are doing the type of acting that’s often called “phoning it in,” because they don’t look particularly invested in playing these characters. The other cast members also turn in very generic performances. It doesn’t help that “Hero Mode” is plagued by awful screenwriting.

Astin’s Jimmy character is set up to be the villain for most of the movie, but he’s feeling how a lot of longtime employees would feel if they were shoved aside for someone with no work experience. Jimmy’s best line in the movie isn’t even very funny, and it’s a meta reference to Astin’s real-life co-starring role as hobbit character Samwise Gangee in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. In Troy’s video game Yort, which is a substandard imitation of “The Lord of the Rings,” Troy has envisioned himself as a chief wizard, similar to Gandalf in “The Lord of the Rings.” In response, Jimmy sarcastically says about Troy, “The longer we let Gandalf lead us, the greater chance we have to lose everything.” Ho hum.

Sorvino is forced to portray someone who isn’t believable as a video game company CEO. Sorvino’s Kate character is stuck in the 1990s, complete with wearing a Nirvana T-shirt (not a bad thing) and telling stale MC Hammer jokes (a very bad thing), such as saying to Troy that the company is “too legit to quit,” while half-rapping MC Hammer’s 1991 song “2 Legit 2 Quit.” Oh, the cringe of it all.

Kate also happens to have multiple sclerosis (she uses a cane), but a tone-deaf movie like “Hero Mode” wouldn’t have a character with MS without using this disease for a gimmicky part of the story. It borders on crass exploitation, just to add melodrama to the movie. “Hero Mode” isn’t “worst of the worst” bad, but it lazily doesn’t come up with anything new that hasn’t been already been done in similar movies about underdog computer nerds.

Blue Fox Entertainment released “Hero Mode” in select U.S. cinemas on June 4, 2021, and on digital and VOD on June 11, 2021.

Review: ‘Adverse,’ starring Thomas Nicholas, Lou Diamond Phillips, Sean Astin, Penelope Ann Miller and Mickey Rourke

April 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Mickey Rourke and Thomas Nicholas in “Adverse” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)


Directed by Brian A. Metcalf

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the crime drama “Adverse” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: An ex-con, who’s now a rideshare driver, goes on a vendetta rampage after his teenage sister is harmed because of a $20,000 debt she owes to a drug lord.

Culture Audience: “Adverse” will appeal primarily to people who want to see a violent movie and don’t care if it’s tacky and terrible.

Thomas Nicholas in “Adverse” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Adverse” is the type of rage-filled, mindless vendetta movie that’s so bad, it verges on parody. Unfortunately, the movie takes itself way too seriously to be considered something to laugh at, and the action scenes (the main attraction of the movie) are filmed in an amateurish way. There’s absolutely nothing original about this uninspiring movie that is ultimately a giant bore.

Written and directed by Brian A. Metcalf, the title of “Adverse” is a perfect way to describe what this movie is, when it comes to creating a memorable and entertaining movie. People who’ve seen plenty of action movies will immediately see that “Adverse” can’t even meet basic standards of suspense and exciting energy. The killings are done such a robotic way that they didn’t really need live actors for this movie. “Adverse” looks more like a tedious video game.

In “Adverse,” Ethan Locke (played by Thomas Nicholas, who is one of the film’s producers) is an ex-con in his late 30s or early 40s who’s trying to get his life back on track as a rideshare driver. The car that he uses for his job was given to him by his late mother Nicole (played by Penelope Ann Miller, in flashbacks), who was stricken with an unnamed terminal illness. Ethan is the legal guardian of his rebellious 16-year-old half-sister Mia Locke (played by Kelly Arjen), who has been hanging out with a druggie crowd.

Ethan and Mia have different fathers who are not in their lives. Mia’s father died years ago, while Ethan’s father abandoned the family when Ethan was young and hasn’t been in contact ever since. Ethan doesn’t even know if his father is dead or alive.

Ethan spent time in prison for armed robbery, but he turned his life around before his mother died, which is why he was able to get guardianship of Mia instead of her being put in the foster care system. As part of his parole requirements, Ethan meets regularly with Dr. Daniel Cruz (played by Lou Diamond Phillips), a clinical social services professional who tells Ethan that he wants to help him. However, Ethan is aloof in their meetings because he doesn’t seem to trust anyone who’s part of “the system.”

One day, Ethan comes home to his shabby apartment and finds Mia and three other people smoking dope in the living room: Lars (played by Jake T. Austin) is Mia’s drug-dealing boyfriend, and the other two party friends are sisters Chris McMillan (played by Shelley Regner) and Jessica McMillan (played by Ayla Kell). Ethan is on parole and can’t be around drug users, and he’s also concerned about Mia’s welfare, so he angrily orders Mia’s druggie pals to leave the apartment.

Mia isn’t happy about it and she tells Ethan that she’s probably going to drop out of high school. Ethan says that he could lose custody of Mia and she could be put in foster care, but she yells at him that it doesn’t matter because at least she wouldn’t have to answer to him anymore. Their arguing is cliché, and it’s at this point you know that Mia’s rebelliousness will bring trouble to the family.

Ethan also doesn’t approve of Lars because he suspects that Lars has been abusive to Mia. And Ethan is right. There are some flashback memories that Mia has that shows how Lars bullies her and physically roughs her up. But like a lot of people in abusive relationships, Mia is too scared to end the relationship.

And speaking of relationships, Ethan has a mild flirtation going with his next-door neighbor Chloe (played by Kate Katzman), who just happens to look like a bombshell blonde actress. Since this movie takes place in Los Angeles, having a neighbor who looks like Chloe isn’t entirely far-fetched. But since “Adverse” only portrays females in this movie as eye candy and/or damsels in distress, no one should be surprised that the “Adverse” filmmakers make Chloe a very superficial, two-dimensional character.

One night, Ethan gets a rideshare customer named Kaden Stern (played by Mickey Rourke), who says that his job is lending people money. But Kaden is more than a loan shark. He’s also a murderous drug lord who doesn’t hesitate to have people killed if they can’t pay their debts to him.

But Ethan doesn’t know at first that Kaden is really a drug boss. While Ethan drives Kaden to his destination, Kaden asks Ethan if he’s looking for a full-time job. Ethan says no, because he’s a full-time rideshare driver, which is a job that he likes because “I work when I want.” Of course, this won’t be the last that Kaden and Ethan see of each other.

Kaden has various henchmen doing a lot of dirty work for him, including a small-time drug dealer named Dante (played by “Adverse” director Metcalf), who’s also a cocaine addict. Dante is tasked with being a “middle man” who collects the debts that people owe to Kaden. In the movie, Dante is shown only in a back room of a sleazy club called The Velvet Room, as if he has nowhere else to be. or because this low-budget film couldn’t be bothered to do anything creative with its set design.

It should come as no surprise that Mia and Lars are among the people in debt to Kaden. One night, Mia confesses to Kaden that she and Lars owe $20,000 to Dante. According to what Mia says, she and Lars originally borrowed $10,000 to run away together and start their own business. But instead, they used to money to buy drugs. And with interest added to their debt, their total debt is $20,000.

The timing couldn’t be worse for Ethan to hear this news. He’s been suspended from his rideshare job after getting false complaints from two customers—one who accused him of overcharging, and the other who accused him of sexual harassment. Ethan’s boss Frankie (played by Sean Astin) tells him that Ethan won’t get the $10,000 salary owed to him until the outcome of the company investigation into these complaints.

But since this is a silly movie about an ex-con on a rampage, Ethan storms into Frankie’s office and uses physical intimidation get the $10,000. And conveniently, Frankie has all of the $10,000 in cash right at his desk, and he quickly and fearfully hands over the cash to Ethan. And because Mia told Ethan where to find Dante, the next thing you know, Ethan barrels his way into the back of The Velvet Room, and growls at Dante to take the $10,000 and consider Mia’s debt paid in full.

But if things ended there, there would be no “Adverse” movie. Through a series of circumstances, Mia is kidnapped, and Ethan goes in full-on, crazy vigilante mode. Along the way, he encounters three more goons who are in Kaden’s inner circle: Jake (played by Matt Ryan), who’s a ruthless Brit; Jan (played by Andrew Keegan), who’s a typical scuzzy lowlife; and Kyle (played by Luke Edwards), who’s a stuttering, simple-minded thug.

The acting in this movie is all over the place (and not in a good way), ranging from stiffly empty to melodramatic garbage. There’s a heavy-handed musical score from Alex Kharlamov that’s very mismatched and self-important, because it sounds like it’s supposed to be for a major adventure epic instead of what this movie really is: B-movie schlock.

There are fight scenes where you can literally see the fake punches that aren’t really hitting anyone and the cartoonishly overwrought sound effects added in later. And there are continuity and editing problems in the chase scenes. For example, someone is seen being chased by someone else who’s right behind (less than a foot away), but then a split second later in the same scene, the person doing the chasing is several feet away. It’s physically impossible, and this isn’t a sci-fi movie were someone has the ability to teleport. But really, it’s all such sloppy filmmaking.

As the chief villain Kaden, Rourke isn’t doing anything that he hasn’t done before in his other recent movies where he usually plays a villain. In fact, Rourke seems so bored and jaded with the role that you could have propped up a wax dummy and used visual effects to get more life out of the performance. Nicholas’ Ethan character shows glimmers of humanity in the beginning of the movie, but by the end of the film, Ethan is a not-very-believable killing machine who uses only a tire iron to slaughter a bunch of people. And don’t be fooled by the top billing that Phillips, Miller and Astin get for this movie, because the “Adverse” screen time for these three actors is about five minutes each.

“Adverse” might be entertaining to people who have anger issues and like to see dimwitted movies about a vigilante going on a vicious murder spree in a story that ultimately goes nowhere. But “Adverse” doesn’t even try to have any creativity whatsoever in the action scenes. And just like the body count that generically piles up in the movie, “Adverse” will be relegated to the disposable pile of deadweight movies with no soul and nothing to say.

Arcangelo Entertainment released “Adverse” in select U.S. cinemas on February 12, 2021. Lionsgate released “Adverse” on digital, VOD and DVD on March 9, 2021.

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