Review: ‘Pearl’ (2022), starring Mia Goth, David Corenswet, Tandi Wright, Matthew Sunderland and Emma Jenkins-Purro

September 15, 2022

by Carla Hay

Mia Goth in “Pearl” (Photo by Christopher Moss/A24)

“Pearl” (2022)

Directed by Ti West

Some language in German with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in 1918, the horror film “Pearl” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A mentally ill young woman, who’s desperate to become a famous entertainer and move away from her family’s rural farm, will stop at nothing to achieve her goals. 

Culture Audience: “Pearl” (which is a prequel to the 2022 horror movie “X”) will appeal primarily to people who are fans of “X,” filmmaker Ti West, star Mia Goth and slasher movies that are just as effective in showing psychological horror.

Mia Goth and Tandi Wright in “Pearl” (Photo by Christopher Moss/A24)

In this prequel to director Ti West’s 2022 horror flick “X,” Mia Goth shows why she is one of the all-time great actresses in horror movies. Her disturbing performance as the title character in “Pearl” is a master class in horror excellence. Viewers don’t need to see “X” before seeing “Pearl” (both movies were directed by West), but seeing “X” before seeing “Pearl” gives much better context to “Pearl” in foreshadowing what’s to come for this unhinged serial killer.

“Pearl” was filmed immediately after “X” was filmed. The two movies were released six months apart, which is unusual for a prequel movie. The main location for “Pearl” and “X” is an isolated Texas farm in an unnamed rural town. (“Pearl” and “X” were both actually filmed in New Zealand.”) It’s at this farm where a lot of murder and mayhem take place. “X” was written by West, whereas West and Goth co-wrote “Pearl.”

In “X,” the year is 1979, and a group of six people from a big city in Texas have gone to the farm to make a porn movie called “The Farmer’s Daughter.” The movie’s producer rented the farm. The owners of the farm are an elderly couple named Pearl (played by Goth) and Howard (played by Stephen Ure), who is nicknamed Howie. Pearl and Howard don’t know until after the fact that their farm is being used to film a porn movie. And when Pearl and Howard find out, all hell breaks loose.

The actress who plays the title role in “The Farmer’s Daughter” is Maxine Minx (also played by Goth), an ambitious performer in her 20s who thinks that this porn movie will make her a big star. Pearl becomes fixated on Maxine, who reminds Pearl of how Pearl used to be when Pearl was a young woman who dreamed of becoming a famous entertainer, with a specialty in dancing. Pearl ends up being a voyeur who spies on Maxine, and this voyeurism triggers a deadly rage in Pearl.

The movie “Pearl” is this character’s origin story that shows she’s been mentally ill long before she encountered this unlucky group of pornographers. In “Pearl,” the year is 1918. Pearl (who an only child) is in her late teens and living on the same farm with her parents. The name of the property is Powder Keg Farms, which is a nod to something that happens in “X.”

Pearl is married to Howard (played by Alistair Sewell), but he is a military man who’s away because he’s serving in World War I. She appears to be sweet, innocent and a hopeless romantic. She keeps Howard’s love letters to her as if they are her greatest treasures. However, Pearl’s seemingly harmless exterior masks someone who is capable of a great deal of harm.

The infleunza pandemic is plaguing the United States, so people wear face masks in public. (It’s a chilling parallel to the COVID-19 pandemic, during which “Pearl” and “X” were filmed and released.) Pearl’s one goal in life is to become a movie star, especially in musicals. She frequently goes to the local movie theater to watch her beloved films, such as “Palace Follies,” which she has seen multiple times.

Pearl finds her home life very stifling and will do anything to get away from the farm and follow her dreams. There’s a scene where Pearl is alone and prays out loud: “Please, Lord, make me the biggest star the world has ever known, so I can get far away from this place.” Pearl’s strict and religious mother Ruth (played by Tandi Wright), who is a German immigrant, frequently berates and punishes Pearl if Ruth thinks Pearl did anything wrong. Ruth thinks being an entertainer is a sinful lifestyle, and she expects Pearl to live on the farm for the rest of Pearl’s life.

There are some scenes that show how cruel Ruth can be. One of these scenes takes place during a family dinner at the dining table. Pearl admits that she had some candy on the way back from the movie theater. Ruth gets angry and takes away Pearl’s dinner before Pearl can finish and says that Pearl gave up her right to the meal because Pearl spent money on candy. Pearl says she’s “starving” and pleads with Ruth to let her finish the dinner, but Ruth remains unmoved.

Pearl’s father (played by Matthew Sunderland), who does not have a name in the movie, is catatonic for unnamed health reasons. He is usually seen in a wheelchair, as he watches the love/hate turmoil between Pearl and Ruth, with sadness and fear in his eyes. It’s never made clear if his muteness is voluntary or involuntary.

At various times, Pearl and Ruth express resentment over having to take care of him. Ruth shows signs of mental distress too, when later in the movie, she unleashes a rage-filled rant at Pearl about how much Ruth hates being a caretaker for her husband, and Ruth thinks that Pearl is not doing enough to help. Ruth also knows that something is very wrong with Pearl, when she shouts at Pearl during an argument: “You are not well, Pearl! Something is festering inside of you!”

“Pearl” is the type of horror movie that takes its time to build to the actual horror, because the movie is a psychological portrait of Pearl’s mental illness. Pearl is seen talking to the farm animals, who are the only audience she’s had to practice her dance moves and act out her fantasies of being a famous actress. Out in the farm’s field, she dances with a scarecrow. And then, she starts kissing the scarecrow passionately and simulating sex with the scarecrow as her personal sex doll.

The farm is located near a swamp that has an alligator, which Pearl thinks of as a pet. An early scene in the movie shows Pearl killing a goose on the farm and feeding the goose to the alligator. There’s also an alligator in the same swamp in “X,” which does exactly what you think a horror movie does when there’s an alligator in a swamp. At one point in “Pearl,” it looks like Pearl is going to push her father into the swamp, where the father would surely be eaten by the alligator. Will Pearl commit this murder?

Two things change the trajectory of Pearl’s life in a short period of time. First, she meets the local movie theater’s projectionist (played by David Corenswet), who is a bachelor in his late 20s. The movie’s credits only list this character’s name as The Projectionist, but at one point in the movie, Pearl calls him Johnny. Whatever his name is, there is an immediate attraction between him and Pearl when they first meet.

He’s smooth talker who flirts with Pearl when she’s outside of the theater after she’s seen “Palace Follies” once again. He tells Pearl that she’s welcome to see a movie for free anytime when the theater is closed, and he’s there to operate the film projector. One night, after Pearl has another conflict with Ruth, she rides her bike to the theater and takes him up on his offer.

The other turning point in Pearl’s life happens when Howard’s perky younger sister Misty (played by Emma Jenkins-Purro) stops by the farm to visit and tells Pearl that there will be dancer auditions held in the near future at the local church. Misty will be going to the auditions and suggests that Pearl audition too. Pearl sees this opportunity as her chance to get in the big leagues of the entertainment industry. Pearl is determined to go to the auditions, knowing full well that her mother Ruth would disapprove.

“Pearl” has several nods to “X,” such as the audition scene where Pearl goes on the audition stage, and there’s a big “X” to literally mark her spot. When she meets up with her new projectionist acquaintance, he shows her a softcore porn movie and predicts that this type of adult movie will eventually be legal in the United States. He also mentions that he wants to make these types of movies, and that Pearl would be a big star if she did these types of movies too.

He suggests that Pearl move to Europe, because he says entertainers in Europe have more freedom to express their sexuality. All he will say about his background is that he’s a bohemian who lives a nomadic existence. Pearl is intrigued and awestruck by him and takes his advice to heart.

Viewers who are expecting a typical slasher flick, where the first murder happens within the first 15 minutes of the movie, might be disappointed at how slow-paced “Pearl” seems to be in the first third of the movie. The middle of the movie picks up the pace. And by the last third of “Pearl,” there are several tension-filled, gruesome moments that culminate in scene that’s a cinematic knockout.

Goth has two major standout moments in the film that don’t involve show any bloody murders: In one scene, she delivers a long monologue that is a window into her troubled and twisted soul. And the final scene and the closing credits in “Pearl” will be talked about by horror fans for years.

What also makes “Pearl” so notable as a prequel is that it doesn’t try to copy “X” or confuse people who haven’t seen “X.” (And people who see “Pearl” without seeing “X” first will be curious to see “X” after watching Pearl.”) “Pearl” is a true stand-alone film that has an entirely different look and tone from “X”—quite an achievement, considering all most all the crew members were the same for both films.

The cinematography by Eliot Rockett in “X” was dark and gritty, inspired by the bleakness of many 1970s horror movies. Tyler Bates’ musical score also reflected the angst of a freewheeling 1970s American society on the verge of the 1980s, a decade that ushered in a cultural explosion of financial greed and political conservatism. As stated in the production notes for “Pearl,” West and Rockett were inspired by Technicolor films for “Pearl.” Bates’ musical score is sweeping, lush and romantic—all meant to reflect the elaborate fantasies in Pearl’s mind.

Pearl’s fantasies don’t always match up with reality. That is her personal horror, which manifests itself in the rampage that takes place in the movie. People who saw “X” already know what happened to Pearl as an elderly woman. However, Maxine Minx’s story continues in the sequel “Maxxxine,” which is due out sometime in 2023. West and Goth have a great partnership in this movie saga. It’s a partnership that has resulted in horror movies that are instant classics.

A24 will release “Pearl” in U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2022.

Review: ‘Three Headed Beast,’ starring Dani Hurtado, Jacob Schatz and Cody Shook

July 10, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jacob Schatz, Cody Shook and Dani Hurtado in “Three Headed Beast” (Photo by Fernando Andrés)

“Three Headed Beast”

Directed by Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas (mostly in Austin and briefly in Fredericksburg), the dramatic film “Three Headed Beast” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bisexual/queer man and a bisexual/queer woman, who live together and are in an open relationship, have their relationship tested when the man seems to be falling in love with a younger man. 

Culture Audience: “Three Headed Beast” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a boring and pretentious movie that has almost no dialogue.

Dani Hurtado, Jacob Schatz and Cody Shook in “Three Headed Beast” (Photo by Fernando Andrés)

With almost no dialogue except for one pivotal scene, “Three Headed Beast” looks more like a dull, pretentious drama experiment than a meaningful movie. It’s supposed to show how messy polyamory can be, but the movie is a mess of jumbled scenarios. The filmmakers should get some credit for wanting to do something different from how movies are typically structured, but the storytelling is woefully mishandled. “Three Headed Beast” had its world premiere at the 2022 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City.

“Three Headed Beast” (written and directed by Fernando Andrés and Tyler Rugh) goes out of its way to have no dialogue in the majority of the movie. But ironically, the movie’s best scene is the one with the dialogue. Filmed on location in Texas, “Three Headed Beast” makes viewers try to figure out what’s the arrangement between the three people who are at the center of the story and who are in a polyamorous love triangle.

Peter (played by Jacob Schatz) is a landscaper in his early 30s. Peter lives in Austin, Texas, with 26-year-old Nina (played by Dani Hurtado), who works as a personal trainer in a gym. It’s later mentioned in the scene with dialogue that Peter and Nina have been a couple for the past eight years. They met at a party on the college campus where Nina went to school.

In the movie’s opening scene, Peter is helping 23-year-old Alex (played by Cody Shook) move into a rental home in Austin. The move doesn’t take long because Alex doesn’t have many possessions. As soon as the moving is done, Peter and Alex have sex on a mattress, which is the only thing in the bedroom.

Meanwhile, Nina is seen at the home of a female lover named Angie (played by Sarah J. Bartholomew), as the two women lounge in bed after having an apparent sexual tryst. Nina leaves and goes home, where she affectionately kisses Peter. Now that “Three Headed Beast” has shown that Nina and Peter are both bisexual or queer, the movie keeps viewers guessing about what Nina and Peter’s arrangement is, such as if they’ve agreed to tell each other about their other lovers. At a certain point in the movie, more details emerge about what Peter, Nina and Alex have agreed to in this love triangle.

Too bad the movie takes a tediously long time to get to that point. Instead, “Three Headed Beast” just shows a mishmash of more scenes of Peter and Alex hooking up for some more sexual trysts, usually at Alex’s place; Alex partying with some friends and sometimes bringing home random men for sexual encounters; and Peter and Nina seeming to be bored with each other in a relationship that appears to have hit a rut.

Later, it’s revealed in the movie that Peter and Nina are not married and are not in a rush to get married. Alex, who likes to take photos of Peter when they’re together, is apparently living an aimless existence, since he doesn’t have a job and he isn’t a student. It’s never really explained what Alex wants to do with his life or where he gets money to pay his bills. It’s an example of how a poorly written movie can give a character a lot of screen time and yet give the character so little character development.

Early on in “Three Headed Beast,” it’s shown that Nina is a big fan of a self-help guru named Maria Mendez (voiced by Daniela Vidaurre), who is an author and a podcaster. Maria’s voice can be heard when Nina listens to Maria’s podcast, where Maria gives life advice. Nothing is ever shown in the movie about Nina getting advice from anyone else, since Nina apparently doesn’t have any friends or family members whom she can turn to for advice.

Near the beginning of the movie, Nina is shown excitedly opening a package delivery of Maria’s latest book, which is titled “After Monogamy: Open Relationships in the Modern Age.” It’s supposed to be a novel, but it really looks like a non-fiction self-help book. Nina’s admiration of Maria is seen from a different angle in a revealing scene toward the end of the movie.

Because most of “Three Headed Beast” has no dialogue, communication is mostly done by text messages. But after a while, since no one talks in the movie, everything looks phony. It’s like the filmmakers were trying too hard to be artsy and forgot about making the movie’s characters interesting enough for viewers not to get bored.

“Three Headed Beast” attempts to show realism, but it isn’t long before “Three Headed Beast” starts to look like science fiction. It’s like watching a “Twilight Zone” ripoff where people live in a world where no one verbally talks to each other. And when they do start verbally talking to each other, it’s in a scene in the middle of the movie that’s fairly brief, and then the movie goes back to having no dialogue again.

One of the phoniest-looking sublots in “Three Headed Beast” is how Nina meets and eventually gets involved with a guy in is 20s named Dylan (played by Paul Grant), who seems to be a drug dealer, based on the little information that the movie shows about him. Nina first sees Dylan when she’s visiting an animal shelter, where she is looking at some dogs outside in a field. Dylan is nearby and puffing on a vaping pipe. He and Nina look at each other (without saying a word, of course), and he offers Nina a puff from his vaping pipe. She declines.

The next time Nina goes to the animal shelter, she sees Dylan again, but they don’t say anything to each other, of course. He eventually walks away, and she sees that two marijuana joints have been left on her car windshield. Nina runs to find Dylan (because she seems to automatically know that he put the joints there), and without saying a word, they exchange phone numbers. And you know what that means: Dylan and Nina hook up later for a sexual rendezvous, which turns out to be a one-time fling.

The Nina/Dylan hookup is just more time-wasting filler in “Three Headed Beast.” This filler includes scenes of Nina and Peter played mixed doubles tennis with an unidentified couple, who are never seen again in the movie. And if you think it’s fascinating to watch a monotonous scene of Peter and Alex on a date at Alex’s place, where they binge on home-delivered junk food, dance drunkenly together, and then take a bath together (all without saying a word to each other), then “Three Headed Beast” is your kind of movie.

Through text messages, resentful facial expressions and uncomfortable silences, it becomes clear that Nina has become increasingly unhappy with Peter spending a lot of time with another lover whom she suspects is Alex. She doesn’t want to appear too possessive though, so Nina says nothing in a movie where she’s literally supposed to say nothing for most of the story. Meanwhile, Alex seems to be falling in love with Peter, who appears to be feeling the same way. Alex knows about Peter’s relationship with Nina, but Alex wants to be in Peter’s life more than Alex is now.

It isn’t until the scene where Alex talks that viewers see that he’s not a shallow party boy but someone who’s led an emotionally complicated life. The cast members who talk in the movie do their best acting in this dialogue scene, with Shook as the one who gives the most natural-looking and believable performance. But after this scene, everyone is rendered silent again.

At one point in the movie, Nina and Peter adopt a dog named Rocco from the animal shelter. And so, when Nina and Peter go on a vacation trip to Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg, Texas, they want to find someone who will look after Rocco and their house during this vacation. You can easily predict who will be asked to be the housesitter/dogsitter.

More information is given toward the end of the movie about why Peter and Nina have ended up where they are at this point in their relationship. But by then, it’s too little, too late. That’s because “Three Headed Beast” treats the characters more like props in a wannabe avant-garde movie than as human beings with fully formed personalities.

Review: ‘Frank and Penelope,’ starring Billy Budinich, Caylee Cowan, Kevin Dillon, Lin Shaye, Johnathon Schaech, Donna D’Errico and Brian Maillard

June 13, 2022

by Carla Hay

Kevin Dillon, Caylee Cowan and Billy Budinich in “Frank and Penelope” (Photo courtesy of Redbud Studios)

“Frank and Penelope”

Directed by Sean Patrick Flanery

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas, the dramatic film “Frank and Penelope” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: After a young man finds out his wife has been cheating on him, he runs off with a stripper, and they end up in a remote-area motel that’s run by deranged religious fanatics.

Culture Audience: “Frank and Penelope” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching tacky, bottom-of-the-barrel movies with confused tones and sloppy filmmaking.

Johnathon Schaech in “Frank and Penelope” (Photo courtesy of Redbud Studios)

With a plot about outlaw lovers on the run, and with flashes of quirky comedy, “Frank and Penelope” desperately tries to be like “Wild at Heart,” the 1990 film written and directed by David Lynch and starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern. “Frank and Penelope,” which does everything wrong that “Wild at Heart” gets right, is a time-wasting bore with a nonsensical story and terrible acting. The movie is also a tonal mess, as if the filmmakers couldn’t decide if “Frank and Penelope” was going to be a crime drama, a horror movie or a dark comedy.

Sean Patrick Flanery, an actor who’s starred in his fair share of forgettable B-movies, makes his feature-film debut as a director and screenwriter with “Frank and Penelope.” Unfortunately, Flanery (who has a small role in “Frank and Penelope”) now has the dubious distinction of directing himself in one of the worst movies of his career. It’s not just a B-movie. It’s B-movie trash. How trashy is “Frank and Penelope”? There’s a scene where someone urinates on someone else’s face before shooting that person to death.

“Frank and Penelope,” which was filmed on location in Texas (including the Austin area), had the potential to be fun and interesting. And there are certainly enough talented cast members who could have brought a lot more charisma to the story than they’re allowed to bring in this train wreck. However, “Frank and Penelope” is derailed by too many half-baked ideas and shallow characters that are forced into the already weak and unoriginal plot.

Stop if you’d heard this plot before: A man and a woman, who’ve become lovers, are on the run together because they’ve (1) stolen money or committed another crime; (2) are trying to hide from someone who’s out for revenge; or (3) trying to evade law enforcement. And in some movies, such as “Frank and Penelope,” all of the above apply.

It all starts when Frank (played by Billy Budinich)—whose job is never revealed and who looks like he’s trying to be like a modern-day James Dean—comes home and is shocked to see his wife Becky (played by Cherilyn Wilson) having sex with an man named Chad (played by Mike Bash), whom Frank suspects is Becky’s fitness instructor. Becky and Chad don’t see Frank, who angrily to take off and go to a strip club. At the strip club, Frank is seduced by a dancer named Penelope (played by Caylee Cowan), who’s trying to be like a modern-day Marilyn Monroe, with a breathy baby-doll voice, but with a Texas twang.

Penelope is only turning on the charm with Frank so that she can steal his credit card, which she gives to the strip club’s sleazy, cocaine-snorting manager (played by Flanery), who doesn’t have a name in the movie. The manager ends up physically assaulting Penelope in a back room, but Frank hears the ruckus and comes to Penelope’s rescue. Penelope and Frank steal the manager’s gun and a small pile of cash before making their getaway. Frank and Penelope then have sex somewhere on the open road before they check into a remote-area, dumpy motel called the Quicksilver Motel, where strange things start to happen.

Meanwhile, the movie has a subplot about a traveler in her 20s named Molly Dalton (played by Sydney Scotia), who gets a flat tire on a deserted freeway. Molly doesn’t have a spare tire, so she reluctantly gets help from a creepy and greasy-looking driver named Cleve (played by Brian Maillard), who tows her car to the Quicksilver Motel, where he works at the front desk. On the way to the motel, scumbag Cleve rubs Molly’s leg inappropriately, and it looks like it will turn to sexual assault, but Molly stops him from putting his hand further up her leg.

The rest of “Frank and Penelope” is a back-and-forth slog about what Frank, Penelope and Molly experience at the Quicksilver Motel. The motel’s other employees who are seen in the movie are Cleve’s fanatically religious wife Mabel (played by Donna D’Errico), who is the motel manager and who also goes by the name Mabelline; a slovenly cook and handyman named Cookie (played by Charley Koontz); and Cookie’s downtrodden and mostly mute wife Magda (played by Jade Lorna Sullivan), who is a cashier in the motel’s diner.

Magda looks and acts like an abused and terrified woman with post-traumatic stress disorder. Lin Shaye has a useless cameo as a motel customer named Ophelia, who gets offended by Mabel’s religious preaching and leaves in a huff. The motel has a lounge with a table called the Truth Table, which Mabel uses to get customers to tell her the truth. Yes, this part of the plot is as bad as it sounds.

Kevin Dillon shows up as a stereotypical “out on a deserted freeway looking for trouble” cop named Sheriff Dalton, who crosses paths (at different times) with Frank and Penelope, as well as with Molly. Sheriff Dalton is a completely hollow character with no surprises. And then there’s a platinum-blonde weirdo named Chisos (played by Johnathon Schaech), who thinks he’s a messiah or a prophet. Chisos is seen in the movie’s opening scene and isn’t seen again until the last 30 minutes of the movie.

“Frank and Penelope” just rambles along with no real purpose and nothing that will make viewers really care about any of the characters. The sex scenes are unremarkable. As the “seductress” Penelope character, Cowan tries too hard to be coquettish. It all looks so forced and phony, including the movie’s attempt to make Budinich reminiscent of a 1950s movie star, similar to the aforementioned James Dean.

The fake-looking “romance” in the story isn’t helped when Penelope utters atrocious lines, such as saying she gets turned on when Frank shows “pure rage.” She adds, “If a man don’t fly into a rage, then he’s not in love.” But what Frank and Penelope have isn’t love. It’s just lust from two people who are desperate to run away from the lives that they had before they met each other.

And did we mention that most of this story is a flashback? It’s a flashback that’s being told by an unnamed hospital nurse (played by Sonya Eddy), who has Frank’s journal and is reading it aloud as part of the movie’s voice narration. Someone who was at the Quicksilver Motel is in a coma in this hospital, and this nurse is attending to him while he’s bedridden and while the nurse is reading Frank’s journal. Frank met Penelope four days before. Most of the movie shows what happened in those four days, because Frank kept a journal of what occurred, even though he’s such an airhead, he can barely articulate four sentences in a row.

Don’t expect the movie to explain why this nurse would have Frank’s journal. It’s an example of how ridiculous and pointless everything is in this garbage movie. There’s also some idiotic violence that does nothing substantial for the story. The end of “Frank and Penelope” makes it obvious that Flanery had a sequel in mind, but this movie is such an abomination to filmmaking, no one in their right mind will want a sequel.

Redbud Studios released “Frank and Penelope” in select U.S. cinemas on June 3, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on July 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Red Rocket,’ starring Simon Rex, Bree Elrod and Suzanna Son

December 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Simon Rex and Suzanna Son in “Red Rocket” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Red Rocket” 

Directed by Sean Baker

Culture Representation: Taking place in 2016 in Texas City, Texas, the comedy/drama film “Red Rocket” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and one Asian) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A washed-up and financially broke porn actor goes back to his Texas hometown, where he tries to hustle up enough money to leave town and go back to California, with the hope of making a comeback in the adult entertainment industry.

Culture Audience: “Red Rocket” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of filmmaker Sean Baker and tragicomic stories about people with unsavory lifestyles.

Simon Rex and Bree Elrod in “Red Rocket” (Photo courtesy of A24)

“Red Rocket” continues writer/director/producer Sean Baker’s pattern of doing raw and restless films about people who live on the fringes of American society. Baker’s movies aren’t appealing to everyone, but his biggest strengths as a filmmaker are in creating very memorable characters and making smart casting decisions. Simon Rex (an actor/rapper who’s also a former MTV VJ) is an inspired choice to play a destitute and desperate former porn actor who goes back to his Texas hometown, with the intent to get enough money to go back to California, so he can jumpstart his career in adult entertainment. Rex has his own real-life history with doing porn, since it’s not a secret that he did solo/masturbation porn videos before he became famous on MTV in the mid-1990s.

In “Red Rocket” (which Baker co-wrote with Chris Bergoch), Rex gives a “go for broke” performance, even though many viewers might grow to dislike or get irritated by his self-centered and disreputable Mikey Saber character, a drifter in his mid-40s, who always seems to be on the hustle for something that benefits himself. Baker doesn’t make movies where audiences are supposed to expect that the protagonist will go through some kind of redemption. Instead, his movies are about how the main character gets stuck in a rut and often makes things worse through a series of misguided shenanigans.

That’s exactly what goes on with Mikey, who has suddenly moved back to his working-class hometown of Texas City, Texas, after years of living in California and working as a porn actor for the past 17 years. It would be overstating Mikey’s status in the adult entertainment industry by describing him as a “porn star,” even though he would like to think that he’s a “porn star.” Mikey might be somewhat well-known to porn aficionados, but he’s not famous enough to get automatic invitations every year to the Adult Video News (AVN) Awards, which are the Oscars of porn movies.

Whatever money he made as a porn actor is long gone, because by the time Mikey moves back to Texas City (the movie takes place in 2016), he’s broke and looking to make some quick cash, even if it’s through illegal means. The first clue that Mikey gets himself into violent trouble is that he has bruises on his face, as if he recently got into a fight. Mikey has some unfinished business that he left behind in Texas City when he moved to California, but now he has to face some realities that he’s been trying to avoid. Just like a true hustler, he tries to turn things around to his advantage.

The biggest unfinished business that Mikey has in Texas City is that he’s still legally married to his estranged wife Lexi (played by Bree Elrod), who wants to get back together with him. Even if Mikey could afford to go through with the divorce, Lexi doesn’t really want to get divorced. Mikey and Lexi used to do porn together, but Lexi is no longer in the adult entertainment industry, and she doesn’t want to go back to it.

When homeless Mikey shows up unannounced at Lexi’s house, she’s initially irritated with him, but she’s generous enough to give him a place to stay. Not much is said about Mikey’s biological family members, but it’s implied that he’s an only child. It’s briefly mentioned that his single mother is in a nursing home.

Lexi lives with her mother Lily, nicknamed Lil (played by Brenda Deiss), and it’s later revealed that they both smoke heroin or another opioid on a regular basis. Mikey doesn’t really approve of this drug use, but he’s not in a position to be preachy about illegal drug activities. He smokes weed, and he ends up doing some small-time drug dealing (mostly marijuana) for a local gang involved in drug trafficking.

Mikey has done this work before in Texas City, so he asks for his old job back from the dealer in charge: a gang maven named Leondria (played by Judy Hill), who leads a group of mostly young men, but she has her young adult daughter June (played by Brittney Rodriguez) working as the gang lookout and enforcer. It’s quite problematic that Baker chose to make the only African Americans in “Red Rocket” into gangsters and drug dealers, which are unimaginative and negative stereotypes. And for a movie that takes place in Texas, which has a large Hispanic/Latino population, it’s also appalling how there’s no Hispanic/Latino representation (in terms of speaking roles) in “Red Rocket.”

When Mikey first shows up at Lexi’s place, he begs to take a shower. “I just need a place to crash,” Mikey pleads. Soon enough, he tells Lexi that he doesn’t just need a place to crash for a few days. He needs to stay for at least 180 days (or six months), which is the legal minimum requirement to establish residency in Texas.

Why does Mikey want to establish residency in Texas? He wants to collect unemployment benefits and other government benefits from the state of Texas. Until that happens, Mikey turns to drug dealing for money.

Mikey and Lexi start having sex again. For Mikey, it’s convenient sex to keep Lexi happy and for his own physical pleasure. For Lexi, it’s reunion sex, which she thinks is Mikey’s way of showing that he still loves her and wants to get back together with her. For any adult who’s watching this movie, it’s sex that will obviously not end well for someone in this movie, because someone will get emotionally hurt in the end.

And sure enough, Mikey starts to lose interest in Lexi once he meets a nubile 17-year-old named Strawberry (played by Suzanna Son), who works behind the counter of a donut shop. It’s lust at first sight for Mikey, who sees Strawberry (yes, that’s her real name) as his meal ticket out of Texas City because he wants her to do porn with him and move with him to California when he has enough money. In Texas, the minimum legal age of consent to have sex is 17, but Strawberry will soon turn 18, the minimum legal age to do porn. Slowly but surely, Mikey charms and seduces his way into Strawberry’s life. And he finds out that Strawberry, who has a kind and open heart, is not as innocent as she looks.

Lexi has another reason why she wants Mikey back in her life. She has an underage son named Eric from a previous relationship. Lexi lost custody of Eric (it’s easy to see why), and she wants to convince Child Protective Services that she’s now living a stable life as a happily married woman. Lexi puts pressure on Mikey to give their marriage another chance, but he won’t fully commit to it.

At the same time, Mikey doesn’t want to alienate Lexi too much because she’s the only person who’s giving him a place to live in Texas City. Therefore, when Mikey and Strawberry start dating and having sex, Mikey thinks it’s best to hide this information from Lexi, because he knows that she’ll get jealous and possibly kick him out of the house. Lexi has a mean-spirited temper: It’s not unusual for her to throw things during an argument at the person who’s making her angry.

“Red Rocket” has a rambling tone that reflects Mikey’s haphazard life. Unfortunately, even though the cast members’ performances are believable, the movie tends to be repetitive in showing any of these three things: arguments between Mikey and Lexi; Mikey’s tensions with the gang members/drug dealers he’s doing business with while Mikey is tempted to steal some of their money; and Mikey’s manipulation of Strawberry, who is still in high school. Strawberry lives with her single mother (who’s not seen in the movie) and seems to have a fairly stable home life, but she’s bored with her dead-end job and can’t wait to get out of Texas City.

A problematic part of “Red Rocket” is how it has a tendency to present Mikey as a loveable bad boy, when he’s just a low-life sleaze (and not a very smart one), through and through. There’s really no good excuse for why a middle-aged person would want to persuade a barely legal teenager to start doing porn. Mikey doesn’t have much to lose by doing porn, but a teenager who hasn’t really found an identity yet and might be too emotionally immature to make this decision has a lot to lose by doing porn.

Mikey doesn’t care about the consequences for Strawberry though. He’s only thinking about how much money he can make if they do porn together. If anything, “Red Rocket” has some realism in showing how young women are easily manipulated by sexual predators to do this kind of sex work. Mikey effusively compliments Strawberry by telling her how beautiful and sexy she is. He also sells her on the idea that they can live a glamorous life in California, by getting paid for having sex on camera.

It’s obvious that Strawberry still has a lot to learn about life, because she falls for Mikey’s big talk, but she’s blind to the big picture. She seems to have some awareness of how doing porn will affect her, when she says, “I’m about to have a very awkward senior year. I’m not about to have a very awkward life.” But it’s almost like she’s in denial about how doing porn could really affect the rest of her life, in terms of job opportunities, what kinds of lovers might or might not accept her porn activities, and how her involvement with porn could affect any children she might have in the future.

More experienced or more emotionally mature people would be able to see right through Mikey’s scammer ways. After all, Mikey is pretending to be a big shot porn star, when in reality, he’s essentially homeless and trying to use an inexperienced teenager to peddle her flesh for his own financial gain. How much of a loser do you have to be to think this scummy exploitation is cool?

“Red Rocket” doesn’t really condone or condemn Mikey’s sleaziness, but Baker expects audiences to show a certain type of fascination with Mikey, by making an entire movie about this type of sexual predator. The movie puts an almost comical spin on the sordid antics of Mikey, by giving the movie a lightweight pop tune as its theme song: *NSYNC’s 2000 hit “Bye Bye Bye.” Audiences are supposed to see the irony in contrasting a song from a polished boy band with the very dirty and chaotic life of Mikey.

“Bye Bye Bye” is the first song heard blaring on the movie’s soundtrack when Mikey is shown on a bus on his way back to Texas City. The song is also heard in various forms in other parts of the movie, such as when Strawberry does a compelling, stripped-down version of the song while playing piano. Making “Bye Bye Bye” the theme song to “Red Rocket” is essentially a nod to the early 2000s, at the beginning of Mikey’s porn career, so the song probably reminds him of his youth. (Rex was no longer a VJ on MTV by the time *NYSNC hit it big.)

Physically, Mikey is still in great shape, compared to other men in his age group. But the rest of his life is a mess. (Viewers will see all of Mikey’s physique in a full-frontal nude scene that Rex does toward the end of the movie.) Baker invites audiences to laugh at Mikey, as this fast-talking hustler digs himself further into a self-destructive hole. But it’s not the kind of laughter that should make people feel good because it’s about laughing at pathetic people who are caught in a cesspool of degradation, often of their own doing.

What makes “Red Rocket” worth watching is to see how Strawberry navigates her relationship with Mikey. As Strawberry, Son gives an interesting performance that’s open to interpretation. Strawberry is grounded, open-minded and independent, yet she’s also unsophisticated, insecure about her place in the world, and susceptible to Mikey’s manipulations. Therefore, viewers might see her as a teenager who’s capable of growing up fast and handling herself well, or as teenager who could get easily mixed up in situations that she might end up regretting.

Truth be told, “Red Rocket” would have been a more compelling movie to a lot of people if it had been told from Strawberry’s perspective. She’s the only character in the movie who doesn’t veer into caricature territory. Lexi becomes a screaming shrew. The gangsters/drug dealers are depicted in a very predictable way. Other characters, such as Mikey’s hometown friend Lonnie (played by Ethan Darbone), aren’t in the movie long enough to have much of a personality or an impact on the story. Lonnie is essentially a sounding board for Mikey’s bragging about his sexual exploits.

There are so many movies already about egotistical jerks who are at the center of the story. “Red Rocket” just happens to have better acting than most of these movies. Baker seems enamored with doing films about people who exist on the seedy side of life. Let’s hope his future movies are centered on a more unique protoganist than the type of overrated toxic male who doesn’t earn filmmakers’ efforts to make viewers think that he’s just “misunderstood.”

A24 released “Red Rocket” in select U.S. cinemas on December 10, 2021.

Review: ‘The Harder They Fall’ (2021), starring Jonathan Majors, Idris Elba, Zazie Beetz, Regina King, LaKeith Stanfield, RJ Cyler and Danielle Deadwyler

December 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Danielle Deadwyler, Jonathan Majors and Zazie Beetz in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo by David Lee/Netflix)

“The Harder They Fall” (2021)

Directed by Jeymes Samuel

Culture Representation: Taking place in Texas in the mid-1880s, the Western action drama “The Harder They Fall” has a predominantly black cast of characters (with some white people, Latinos and Native Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: When cowboy Nat Love finds out that his arch-enemy Rufus Buck has escaped from prison, Nat assembles a posse that battles against Rufus’ gang.

Culture Audience: “The Harder They Fall” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in well-acted, action-oriented Western dramas about the underrepresented African American cowboy culture of the 1880s, but viewers of the movie should have a high tolerance for over-the-top violence.

Regina King, Idris Elba and LaKeith Stanfield in “The Harder They Fall” (Photo courtesy of Netflix)

With grisly violence that is almost cartoonish, “The Harder They Fall” puts a well-acted spotlight on real-life African American cowboys of the 1880s. The movie’s excessive violence might be a turnoff to some viewers. But for viewers who can tolerate all the blood and gore, “The Harder They Fall” is a bumpy and thrilling ride with a top-notch cast.

“The Harder They Fall” is the second feature film of director Jeymes Samuel, who co-wrote “The Harder They Fall” screenplay with Boaz Yakin. Samuel, also composed the movie’s score, has said in interviews that the title of the movie was inspired by the 1972 movie “The Harder They Come,” starring reggae singer Jimmy Cliffnot the 1956 Humphrey Bogart/Rod Steiger movie “The Harder They Fall.” Samuel is a British filmmaker (he’s the younger brother of pop star Seal) who grew up adoring Western movies. However, Samuel eventually found out that these Westerns often gave inaccurate demographic depictions of what post-Civil War life was like the Old West of the 19th century.

In reality, people of color and women had much more agency and independence in Old West culture than what’s shown in most old-time Western movies, which usually portray only white men as leaders of cowboy posses. “The Harder They Fall” aims to course-correct these historical exclusions by doing a fictional portrayal of real-life African American posse members from the 19th century. In case it wasn’t clear enough, a caption in the movie’s introduction states in big and bold letters: “While the events are fictional, the people are real.” (At least the movie’s main characters are based on real people.)

“The Harder They Fall” also doesn’t sugarcoat the reality that there were good and bad cowboy posses. Black people are no exception. The African Americans in the movie are not portrayed as subservient stereotypes, but they aren’t exactly saintly either. Most are just trying to get by and live good lives, while there are some hardened criminals who create chaos for people who have the misfortune of crossing their paths. “The Harder They Fall” takes place in various parts of Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.

“The Harder They Fall” opens with a 10-year-old boy named Nat Love (played by Chase Dillon) witnessing the brutal murder of his parents—Reverend Love (played by Michael Beach) and wife Eleanor Love (played by DeWanda Wise)—during a home invasion. The gangsters shoot Nat’s parents, but they spare Nat’s life. The leader of this gang uses a knife to carve a cross on Nat’s forehead.

About 20 years later, Nat (played by Jonathan Majors) still has the scar on his forehead. And he’s had a lifelong obsession with getting revenge on the gangsters who killed his parents. Nat knows that Rufus Buck (played by Idris Elba) is the gang leader who is the main culprit for the murders. Rufus has recently been in prison for armed robbery and murder.

However, Nat finds out that Rufus has made a prison escape. Two of Rufus’ loyal cronies—ruthless Trudy Smith (played by Regina King) and smooth-talking Cherokee Bill (played by LaKeith Stanfield)—have hijacked the train where prisoner Rufus was being transported, and they broke Rufus out of the cell where he was being kept.

After Nat discovers that Rufus is now a free man (but still wanted by law enforcement), Nat assembles his own posse to get revenge. The other members of the Nat Love Gang are Mary Fields (played by Zazie Beetz), who is Nat’s feisty love interest; Bill Pickett (played by Edi Gathegi), who is a loyal and logical; Jim Beckwourth (played by RJ Cyler), who is a cocky young cowboy; and Cuffee (played by Danielle Deadwyler), who lives as a transgender man.

Nat makes a living by finding “wanted dead or alive” criminals for reward money. Nat has no qualms about killing these criminals if he thinks they deserve it. That’s what happens in an early scene in the movie when Nat shoots and kills a wanted criminal who shows up at a Catholic church with the intention of robbing the church. Nat’s reward is $5,000.

It turns out that Nat and his gang are outlaws too, because they make money by stealing from robbers. Therefore, one of their least-favorite people is Bass Reeves (played by Delroy Lindo), a U.S. marshal who’s determined to put a stop to all this criminal activity. In addition to seeking revenge on Rufus, the Nat Love Gang also wants to avoid capture by Reeves and his law enforcement team. The posse members on both sides are also mistrustful of Wiley Esco (played by Deon Cole), the Redwood City mayor whose allegiances can be murky.

It should be noted that in real life, Bass Reeves is the inspiration for the Lone Ranger character, which has been played by white actors in movies and television. Reeves was considered a pioneer for African Americans in law enforcement, because he did a lot to change American viewpoints that white people aren’t the only race who can become U.S. marshals. In real life, Reeves worked closely with Native American leaders. It’s an alliance that’s depicted in the movie too.

In many ways, “The Harder They Fall” follows a lot of the traditions of typical Westerns, with gun shootouts and chases on horseback. There’s also some romance, as Mary and Nat have an on-again, off-again relationship. Mary, who works as a saloon singer, has a hard time trusting Nat because he’s cheated on her in the past. Nat is an emotionally wounded rebel who’s trying to win back Mary’s heart, but first he has to learn how to heal his own broken heart.

And there’s inevitable fighting among posse members. Most of the friction in Nat’s gang comes from Jim and Bill having personality clashes with each other. Bill thinks Jim is arrogant and reckless, while Jim thinks that Bill is uptight and too cautious. It’s the classic older cowboy/younger cowboy conflict that’s often seen in Westerns.

There are also some gender issues with Cuffee, who wants to live life as a man, but some people think that Cuffee is a woman just doing a drag act. There are parts of the movie where people aren’t sure whether to call Cuffee a “he” or a “she,” since the word “transgender” did not exist at the time. And when Cuffee has to wear a dress (for reasons what won’t be revealed in this review), it makes Cuffee very uncomfortable. After seeing Cuffee in a dress, Jim blurts out that he now knows why was kind of attracted to Cuffee.

Damon Wayans Jr. has a small role in the movie as Monroe Grimes, someone who is captured by Nat’s posse members to get information about Rufus. As for Rufus, he’s a cold-blooded killer who has enough of a twinkle in his eye and swagger in his walk to indicate why his posse subordinates find him so magnetic. Mary can give Rufus a run for his money, in terms of being fearless in battle. Cherokee Bill is violent too, but he’s more likely to use psychology to try to outwit an opponent.

“The Harder They Fall” isn’t particularly innovative in the story structure and dialogue, but there are some impressive camera shots from cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., and the movie delivers when it comes to adrenaline-filled action scenes. A standout camera shot is in a scene where the camera zooms in with a bullet-like trajectory at a group of posse members to then reveal that there are others standing behind them. Also adding to the striking visuals of “The Harder They Fall” is the first-rate costume design by Antoinette Messam, who brought a practical yet fashionable look to many of these Old West characters.

All of the actors perform well in their roles, with the best scene-stealing moments coming from Majors, King, Elba, Beetz, Stanfield and Deadwyler. Where the movie falters a bit is in how it abandons its mostly gritty realism for some stunts that are so heavily choreographed, it takes you out of the realism and just becomes a reminder that this movie’s fight scenes can sometimes look like ultra-violent parodies of fight scenes in Westerns.

What doesn’t come across as a parody is how credibly the cast members portray their characters. These engaging characters bring real heart and soul to “The Harder They Fall.” (There’s also a poignant plot twist/reveal at the end of the movie that might or might not be surprising to some viewers.) Even though not everyone makes it out alive by the end of the movie, it’s clear by the movie’s last shot that there’s room for a sequel for a spinoff.

Netflix released “The Harder They Fall” in select U.S. cinemas on October 22, 2021. The movie’s Netflix premiere was on November 3, 2021.

Review: ‘Hard Luck Love Song,’ starring Michael Dorman, Sophia Bush, Dermot Mulroney, RZA, Brian Sacca, Melora Walters and Eric Roberts

October 26, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sophia Bush and Michael Dorman in “Hard Luck Love Song” (Photo by Andrea Giacomini/Roadside Attractions)

“Hard Luck Love Song”

Directed by Justin Corsbie

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Texas city, the dramatic film “Hard Luck Love Song” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos, one African American and one person of Indian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An aspiring singer/songwriter, who is also a drug-addicted drifter, hustles for money by playing pool and has a volatile reunion with an ex-girlfriend. 

Culture Audience: “Hard Luck Love Song” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Sophia Bush (even though she isn’t in most of the movie) and to viewers who don’t mind watching unremarkable movies about self-destructive drifters with broken dreams.

Dermot Mulroney in “Hard Luck Love Song” (Photo by Jas Shelton/Roadside Attractions)

“Hard Luck Love Song” wants viewers to believe it’s a gritty and realistic portrait of an American drifter, but the movie falls apart in the last 30 minutes, with one unrealistic scenario after another. Sophia Bush, who shares top billing in the movie, doesn’t even appear on screen in “Hard Luck Love Song” until 44 minutes into this 104-minute film. Expect to see a lot of pointless footage of aimless main character Jesse Richardson (played by Michael Dorman), as he lives out of a motel and tries to figures out a way to get easy cash.

This is a movie that would’ve been better as a short film. Maybe that’s because “Hard Luck Love Song” (the feature-film directorial debut of Justin Corsbie) was inspired by a song: 2006’s “Just Like Old Times” by Americana singer/songwriter Todd Snider. It’s an interesting but somewhat gimmicky story for how this movie was conceived. Unfortunately, the “Hard Luck Love Song” screenplay (written by Corsbie and Craig Ugoretz) doesn’t live up to the potential of being a compelling tale of people who don’t have much hope in their lives while living on the fringes of society.

Jesse (who is in his late 30s) is one of those people who seems to be down on their luck, but the movie slowly reveals that his “bad luck” is actually the culmination of his bad decisions in life. A native of Texas, Jesse has been struggling with addictions to drugs and alcohol for years. Jesse has also been trying for years to make it in the music business as a singer/songwriter (he performs country-ish Americana music), but he remains unknown and broke. And now, Jesse is homeless and trying to find ways to make enough cash to get through any given week.

The movie (which takes place in an unnamed Texas city) opens with Jesse driving in his car and heading to wherever he can find a cheap place to stay and a job that doesn’t care about doing background checks. (Jesse has a prison record.) Jesse checks into a motel and peruses the want ads in a newspaper. He ends up driving to a bunch of seedy-looking bars in the area and applies for jobs where they’re looking to hire people.

In the meantime, Jesse needs cash fast. Luckily for him, he has other skills besides playing the guitar and writing songs, since he can’t find work as a musician. Jesse is also a very talented pool player. And so, the first hour of the movie is about Jesse winning money in pool games at one dive bar after another. (He wins more than he loses.)

During one of these pool games, Jesse finds out about an informal pool tournament that happens every first Saturday of the month at a bar called Broadway Social. At this tournament, Jesse excels and wins $3,000 as the grand prize. However, one of the people he defeated in the tournament takes the loss very hard and decides he’s going to get his money back from Jesse any way that he can.

This sore loser is a thug named Rollo (played by Dermot Mulroney), who has two sidekick goons: a short, weaselly character named Pete (played by Zac Badasci) and a hulking brute named Bump (played by Randal Reedner), who no doubt got his nickname because he likes to snort “bumps” of cocaine. Rollo, Pete and Bump surround Jesse and pressure him to play another game of pool with Rollo, with the obvious intention of getting the prize money from Jesse.

Jesse has enough street smarts to know that this forced pool game will not end well for him. And so, there’s a somewhat suspenseful sequence showing how Jesse deals with this situation. One of the movie’s flaws is that it seems like it wants to be two different stories about the same character. One story is about Jesse’s struggles to get money. That story then gets abandoned and segues to the other story, which is about Jesse’s drama-filled reunion with an ex-girlfriend.

The first 60% of the movie is about Jesse and his search for ways to make some easy cash. He’s never seen working at an actual job. It seems to be a longtime pattern for him that he’s incapable of keeping steady employment. This part of the movie is just scene after scene of chain-smoking Jesse wandering from bar to bar and playing pool.

When he’s in his motel alone, Jesse plays his guitar and chain smokes some more. Dorman does his own singing in the movie, including an original song (“I’ll Be Your Honky Tonk”) that the wrote. He’s a good singer, but not great.

After winning the $3,000 in the pool tournament, Jesse’s first action indicates that he’d rather spend the money on some indulgences instead of saving the money or spending it on necessary expenses. One of the first things he does is look in a local rag newspaper’s back pages, where escorts are advertising their services. (Jesse is so broke, he doesn’t seem to have a smartphone, which explans why he relies on printed newspapers to read ads.)

Jesse calls one of the women who’s in these escort ads. Her alias is Cottontail, but her real name is Carla (played by Bush). When Jesse calls her, she seems to be surprised to hear from him. He invites Carla over for drinks. At first she’s reluctant, but then she agrees. While he talks to her on the phone, tears roll down his face. And that’s the first big clue that Jesse and Carla have some unfinished business.

At a nearby convenience store, Jesse has made the acquaintance of a store clerk named Benny (played by Taylor Gray), who notices that Jesse seems to be in a very good mood when Jesse comes up to the cash register to buy liquor. Benny can tell that Jesse likes to party, so Benny asks Jesse if he wants to be hooked up with something stronger than alcohol. Jesse says yes. And after Jesse assures Benny that he wasn’t a cop wearing any surveillance equipment (Jesse lifts up his shirt as proof), Benny sells Jesse some cocaine.

Jesse’s plan is to party with Carla by drinking and doing cocaine with her. And when she shows up at the motel, it’s obvious that this type of partying is familiar activity for both of them, even though they haven’t seen each other in years. Carla is initially reluctant to do cocaine with Jesse, but eventually she does.

What’s the story with Carla? She is Jesse’s ex-girlfriend from high school. They’ve known each other since before they were in high school. And they’ve had a dysfunctional, on-again/off-again relationship for years. Lately, because of Jesse’s drug problems and prison time, the relationship has been most definitely “off.”

However, Carla showed up for this rendezvous for a reason. Does she want to get back together with Jesse, or is she just paying him a visit out of curiosity? And is she a prostitute? Jesse wants answers to those questions and he gets them, even though he isn’t completely honest with Carla at first.

Jess lies to Carla by saying he’s an in-demand songwriter. He flashes her some of the cash he won and tells her it’s some of the payment he’s gotten for songwriting. Carla is no fool though, because she can see that the dumpy motel where Jesse is staying is an obvious sign that he’s struggling financially. At first Carla and Jesse’s reunion is filled with awkward tension, but they loosen up a lot when they get drunk and high together.

During this night of partying, Carla takes Jesse to a bar where she says that she works. It’s here that Jesse meets Carla’s bar boss Skip (played by Eric Roberts), who tells Jesse that he’s very protective of Carla because she’s a good person. Carla’s best friend at the bar is named Gypsy Sally (played by Melora Walters), who knows about Carla’s turbulent history with Jesse and warns her to be careful about getting involved with him again.

The main problem with “Hard Luck Love Song” is that at several points in the movie, viewers will ask themselves, “Where is this story going?” There’s a rambling style to the film that’s filled with a lot of generic dialogue. Dorman and Bush are perfectly adequate in their roles (Jesse and Carla are both emotionally damaged in their own ways), but these actors’ performances aren’t enough to make this plodding story more compelling.

“Hard Luck Love Song” goes from mediocre to bad with the mishandling of two particular characters. One is a cop named Officer Zach (played by Brian Sacca), who shows up at Jesse’s motel room when Carla is there. (Carla and Jesse predictably scramble to hide the cocaine.) Officer Zach is there in response to noise complaints because apparently Jesse and Carla were being too loud in playing music and laughing during their coke-and-alcohol-fueled party.

The first clue that Officer Zach is unrealistically written is that he shows up with no cop partner for backup. It might be excused if this is a small town with a small police force, but it’s still unrealistic. And then, Officer Zach tells Jesse that he wouldn’t mind partying with Jesse if he could, but he can’t because he’s on duty. What kind of cop on duty says that to a stranger he just met in response to a noise complaint? It’s possible but still far-fetched.

It gets worse with the other badly written character. When Carla arrived at the motel, Jesse looked out the window and saw a man lurking and watching Carla as she went to Jesse’s room. Jesse eventually finds out that this stranger’s name is Louis (played by RZA), and Jesse’s first impression of Louis is that Louis is Carla’s pimp. Without giving away any spoiler information, it’s enough to say that Louis does know Carla. The nature of their relationship is revealed in the last 15 minutes of the movie.

One of the worst things about “Hard Luck Love Song” is that it has some negative racial stereotyping that could be considered offensive to African Americans. The reason why is because there’s only one black person with a noticeable speaking role in this movie, and it’s a role that is problematic and filled with terrible clichés. There’s a racially tinged conflict in the story which has someone showing up out of the blue in an “only in a movie” moment that will have viewers rolling their eyes or cringing at how stupid this scene is.

After having a “slice of life” tone for most of the movie, the tone abruptly shifts to melodrama and moronically staged violence toward the end of the movie. It’s a very clumsy transition, even though this violence is foreshadowed with a brief flash in the beginning of the film. The aftermath of some gun violence in the movie is handled in a completely ludicrous way. And the movie’s last scene is jarringly out-of-touch and phony, compared to the rest of the film. How everything ends feels tacked-on and completely dilutes the edginess that the movie intended to convey throughout most of the story.

“Hard Luck Love Song” is not a movie with much purpose, except to show the main characters trying to forget about all their bad decisions while they make more bad decisions. Just because Jesse sheds tears of regret doesn’t mean that viewers will have a lot of sympathy for him. Because the pivotal character of Carla arrives so late in the film, “Hard Luck Love Song” is mostly a tedious slog showing a loner whose life is on a wasted repeat loop. This movie’s lack of substance isn’t too surprising because it’s a 104-minute film based on a four-minute song. And the song is better than this movie.

Roadside Attractions released “Hard Luck Love Song” in U.S. cinemas on October 15, 2021. The movie’s premium video on demand (PVOD) release date is November 9, 2021. Lionsgate Home Entertainment will release “Hard Luck Love Song” on digital and VOD on December 21, 2021.

Review: ‘Cry Macho,’ starring Clint Eastwood

October 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Clint Eastwood and Eduardo Minett in “Cry Macho” (Photo by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures)

“Cry Macho”

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1979 in Mexico and briefly in Texas, the dramatic film “Cry Macho” has a cast of white and Latino characters representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: At the request of his former boss, a has-been horse breeder travels from Texas to Mexico to retrieve the boss’ 13-year-old son to live with the boss in Texas, even though the son doesn’t know his father.

Culture Audience: “Cry Macho” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dull and old-fashioned Western dramas with some hokey dialogue and corny scenarios.

Clint Eastwood and Dwight Yoakam in “Cry Macho” (Photo by Claire Folger/Warner Bros. Pictures)

The Western drama “Cry Macho” is set in 1979, but that doesn’t excuse why this monotonous and outdated movie seems like it was written for a moldy TV Western from 1979. It’s got corny scenarios galore and a story filled with banal clichés. Clint Eastwood is the director and star of “Cry Macho,” where he seems to be going through the motions, giving the impression that he’s gotten tired of trying to do something uniquely creative with his talent. This lethargic type of filmmaking might put people to sleep if they try to watch “Cry Macho.”

The “Cry Macho” screenplay is written by N. Richard Nash and Nick Schenk, who both adapted the screenplay from Nash’s novel of the same name. In the production notes for “Cry Macho,” the filmmakers seem to be very proud that “Cry Macho” is Eastwood’s first movie since his 1991 Oscar-winning Western drama “Unforgiven” where he’s seen riding a horse. But just because Eastwood is riding a horse in a movie doesn’t automatically make it a good movie.

In “Cry Macho,” Eastwood depicts Mike Milo, yet another in Eastwood’s long list of grouchy loner characters that he’s been doing in his most recent films. Mike is a widower who used to be a rodeo star until a rodeo injury decades ago left him with a broken back that led to addictions to painkiller pills and alcohol. Mike has been spending the past several years working as a horse breeder/trainer on a ranch in an unnamed city in Texas. However, he’s way past his prime, and his addictions have negatively affected his ability to do his work well. He’s also past the age when most people have retired.

The movie opens with Mike getting fired from his job. His now-former boss Howard Polk (played by Dwight Yoakam) tells Mike that there used to be a time when Howard was afraid of losing Mike to another employer. Howard bluntly tells Mike when firing him: “I’m not afraid of losing you to anybody now. You’re a loss to no one. It’s time for new blood.”

Mike has some choice words for his ex-boss as Mike leaves the ranch: “I’ve always thought of you as a small, weak and gutless man. But you know what? There’s no reason to be rude.” This is the kind of dialogue that litters “Cry Macho.” It’s like something out of the TV soap opera “Dallas,” which was a popular show around the time that this story takes place. Unfortunately, there’s no one in “Cry Macho” who’s as compelling to watch as “Dallas” villain J.R. Ewing. Even the most secondary characters in “Dallas” had more charisma than anyone in “Cry Macho.”

A few days after Mike gets fired, Howard shows up unannounced in Mike’s home. Howard tells Mike that he wants Mike to do a big favor for him. Howard explains that he has a 13-year-old son named Rafael, nicknamed Rafo, whom he doesn’t know and who lives in Mexico. Rafo’s mother Leta, who is Howard’s ex-wife, has custody of Rafo, but Howard describes Rafo’s living situation as “abusive.” Howard and Leta split up when Rafo was too young to remember Howard, who has not been involved in raising Rafo.

Howard says that Leta is a “nutcase” and a “mess” who used to be fun to party with, and he wants Mike to go to Mexico to take Rafo to come live with Howard in Texas. Howard calls it a “rescue,” but it’s really a kidnapping. Howard says that he can’t do it himself because he has “legal issues” that prevent him from going back to Mexico.

As a way to convince Mike to take on this heavy task, Howard tries to appeal to Mike’s ego. Howard tells Mike that when Mike sees Rafo, “He’ll listen to you. You’re a real cowboy … Tell him he’ll have his own horse. It’s every boy’s dream.”

Mike immediately says no to this request to take Rafo to Texas, but Howard puts Mike on a guilt trip, by reminding him that he could’ve fired Mike years ago when people advised Howard to get rid of Mike. Howard says that he kept Mike employed and therefore helped him out financially for a lot longer than most bosses would. Howard essentially tells Mike that Mike owes it to Howard to do this favor, so Mike reluctantly agrees. Howard gives two things to Mike to help in this mission: Leta’s address and a photo of a 6-year-old Rafo, which is the most recent photo that Howard has of his son.

And the next thing you know, Mike has driven his truck to Mexico and shows up at Leta’s mansion, where she’s having a big party. Based on Howard’s description of his legal problems, his party-fueled past relationship with Leta (played by Fernanda Urrejola), and the dysfunctional living situation that Rafo is in, it should come as no surprise when Mike quickly figures out that Leta is involved in drug trafficking. She also has bodyguard goons to do what she tells them to do.

Mike finds Leta at the party and is up front in telling her that he’s there to take Rafo back to Texas to live with Howard. She says she’s not surprised because it’s not the first time that Howard has tried to get Rafo to live with Howard. Leta has this to say to Mike about Rafo: “My son is wild—an animal who lives in the gutter—gambling, fighting, cock fighting. Take him if you can find him. He’s a monster … He’s like his father. He runs away. He hates his father. He hates me.”

After that cheery little family pep talk, it doesn’t take long for Mike to find Rafo. The teenager is at a cock fight, where Rafo is handling his cock-fighting rooster named Macho. Before things get vicious in the cock fight, Mike pulls Rafo aside and tells Rafo why he’s there. Rafo is immediately suspicious, but Mike is able to prove that he knows Howard. Mike also assures Rafo that Howard is ready and willing to be an attentive father to Rafo.

Rafo is also intrigued by Mike’s promise that Rafo will get to live on a big Texas ranch with his own horse. Rafo’s biggest fear, which frequently comes up in the movie, is that his father Howard will change his mind about wanting Rafo to live with him. Rafo obviously doesn’t like living with his mother Leta, so it doesn’t take long for Rafo to go with Mike to see if he can have a better life with his father Howard. And so, Rafo and his rooster Macho go on a road trip with Mike back to Texas. (“Cry Macho” was actually filmed in New Mexico.)

Rafo actually isn’t the “monster” that his mother described him as. He’s a troubled kid with abandonment issues, and he has a hard time trusting people. However, once someone gains Rafo’s trust, he opens up and shows a friendly side to himself. Part of the movie is predictably about Mike being a temporary father figure to Rafo during this road trip. The movie’s obvious theme is what it means to have a masculine identity.

But since this is a movie, things can’t be as simple as a “teaching this boy to be a man” type of story. After Leta and Mike met for the first time at the party and he left, Leta told one of her henchman named Aurelio (played by Horacio Garcia Rojas) to follow Mike. And you know what that means: Leta doesn’t want to let Rafo go as easily as she says she does.

Because it’s already been established that Howard is a shady character, it’s also not surprising that he has an ulterior motive for wanting Rafo to live with him. That secret (which Howard eventually reveals to Mike) becomes another source of conflict. And the biggest cliché in a road trip movie happens in “Cry Macho”: The car breaks down in a small town, so they’re stuck in an unfamiliar place while waiting to get the car repaired. It’s all just a way to stretch and pad out the already thin plot.

One good thing that “Cry Macho” has going for it is that the story is uncomplicated and easy to understand. The problem is that the movie is almost like a children’s elementary reading book in how it doesn’t go beyond the most basic of plots. The characters are predictable and quite two-dimensional.

A road trip like this one should be filled with more insight and self-discovery. But in this movie, there’s a tedious stretch of the movie where Mike teaches Rafo how to ride horses. Among the movie’s many other Western movie clichés, there’s a bumbling police deputy named Diaz (played by Jorge-Luis Pallo), who likes to pretend that he’s the sheriff of the town.

The word gets out that Mike is good with animals. And suddenly, the townspeople go to him with their sick animals, as if Mike is the friendly neighborhood veterinarian. Mike even quips that they must think he’s Dr. Dolittle. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

And what do you know, here comes another Western movie cliché: What’s a lonely cowboy to do when he’s stuck in a small town? He meets a woman who runs the local eating/drinking establishment, which in “Cry Macho’s” case is not a saloon but a diner. Mike’s love interest is a widowed grandmother named Marta (played by Natalia Traven), who is very hospitable and generous to Mike and Rafo, but she is ultimately a generic character.

“Cry Macho” isn’t an atrocious movie, but it’s very disappointing in how little it does with what could have been an intriguing story and instead churns out a hack movie that has very little imagination. Eastwood does absolutely nothing new or interesting with the Mike Milo character. He can do this type of character in his sleep. And it shows, because at times it looks like you’re watching someone who’s sleepwalking through a performance.

And although it’s great that Eastwood cast a relative newcomer in the role of Rafo (“Cry Macho” is Minett’s second feature film), this casting decision could’ve been better because Minett unfortunately does not have the acting skills that his more experienced co-stars have. There are moments when he’s too stiff, and other moments when he’s too melodramatic. “Cry Macho” is like an old show horse that plods along when it’s put out to pasture because it’s lost its vibrancy and just doesn’t seem to care anymore.

Warner Bros. Pictures released “Cry Macho” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on September 17, 2021.

Review: ‘Death in Texas,’ starring Ronnie Gene Blevins, Bruce Dern, Lara Flynn Boyle and Stephen Lang

July 4, 2021

by Carla Hay

Ronnie Gene Blevins in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas”

Directed by Scott Windhauser

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in El Paso, Texas, the dramatic film “Death in Texas” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A recently released ex-con finds himself returning to a life of crime so that he can get enough money to pay for his mother’s life-or-death liver transplant. 

Culture Audience: “Death in Texas” will appeal primarily to people who like watching violent crime movies with badly written, unrealistic scenes.

Bruce Dern in “Death in Texas” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Death in Texas” has too many far-fetched scenarios to be taken seriously. Unfortunately, this dreadful crime drama takes itself way too seriously. There’s a lot of corny acting from experienced actors who embarrass themselves by being in this movie. And anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of organ transplants and hospitals will be cringing at the preposterous plot development in the last third of the movie.

Written and directed by Scott Windhauser, “Death in Texas” is also exceedingly tedious with its nonsensical murders that are nothing but excuses to fill this movie with violent and often-unrealistic fight scenes. The first clue that “Death in Texas” is a constant failure at realism is in the opening scene when 37-year-old prisoner Billy Walker (played by Ronnie Gene Blevins) is in a parole hearing and gets paroled in a very phony “only in a movie” moment. (“Death in Texas” takes place primarily in El Paso, Texas, but the movie was actually filmed in New Mexico.)

During the parole hearing, which has a parole board of only two people—one named Charles (played by Clark Harris) and one named Antonio (played by Daniel Steven Gonzalez)—Billy is being questioned about his rehabiltation while in prison. Billy is asked, “Do you take responsibility for your crime?” Billy replies, “As much as I can.” It’s not exactly a sign of remorse, which is a requirement to get paroled.

Billy says that he wants to be paroled so that he can take care of his mother. Charles and Antonio are not convinced that Billy has been fully rehabilitated and is ready for release. Just as they’re about to deny parole to Billy, a woman who is later revealed as parole officer Sarah Jensen (played by Veronica Burgess) suddenly appears and shows Charles and Antonio something in a file of papers. And just like that, Charles and Antonio change their minds and sign off on Billy getting parole.

Through flashbacks, the movie shows that Billy was in prison for manslaughter, and he served seven years in prison for this crime before being paroled. When his mother Grace Edwards (played by Lara Flynn Boyle) was a waitress at a diner, Billy witnessed a customer (played by Morgan Redmond) physically harassing Grace. And so, an enraged Billy beat up this man so badly that he died. The deadly assault took place in full view of other people at the diner, so there was no mystery over who committed the crime.

It’s shown many times throughout “Death in Texas” that Billy is so devoted to his mother that he will do anything for her. And yet, after Billy gets paroled, he’s shown walking by himself on a deserted highway, like a pitiful ex-con with no one who cares about him, and then showing up at Grace’s house unannounced. She seems elated and surprised to see him.

This homecoming scene doesn’t ring true, because Billy is such a mama’s boy that he would be the type to tell his mother that he was paroled, so she would be ready for him when he got released. After all, Billy has nowhere else to go but to live with his mother after getting out of prison. Considering all the extreme trouble that Billy goes through for his mother in this story, you’d think he’d tell her that he was paroled and that he needed a place to stay instead of just showing up without telling her in advance.

It’s one of many inconsistent and sloppily written scenes in the movie, which awkwardly tries to be gritty when it comes to all the criminal activities, but then attempts to be mawkishly sentimental when it comes to anything to do with Grace. Her backstory is revealed in bits and pieces of conversations in the movie. Grace gave birth to Billy when she was 15 years old, and her marriage to Billy’s father’s ended in divorce. She also got divorced from her second husband.

Soon after Billy is released from prison, Grace (who is currently a receptionist for a law firm) is having a small house party attended by her current boyfriend Todd (played by Craig Nigh), who brags to Billy about the four days that he spent incarcerated. It should come as no surprise that Billy and Todd clash immediately, and they end up having a fist fight. Grace admits to Billy that Todd is a jerk and that she has horrible taste in men. Todd is never seen again for the rest of the movie.

Grace has a much bigger problem than a tendency to get involved with losers. She needs a liver transplant, but she has rare type AB blood and can’t find a donor match. Her liver is failing not because she abused alcohol or drugs but because it might be a congenital conditon. If Grace doesn’t get the transplant, she’ll die. And what Billy does to try to solve this problem is more eye-rolling nonsense.

First, Billy goes to see Grace’s physician Dr. Perkins (played by Sam Daly) to find out what he can do to help Grace find a donor. Dr. Perkins says that he can’t reveal certain information about Grace’s condition because of doctor-patient confidentiality. And then, Dr. Perkins proceeds to violate that confidentiality and all sorts of other medical ethics by telling Billy everything private about Grace’s medical situation that Billy wants to know.

Dr. Perkins tells Billy that Grace has six months to one year to live. The doctor keeps changing this life-expectancy number to a shorter period of time the more this idiotic movie goes on, until Grace supposedly only has a few days left to live. Dr. Perkins also mentions that because Grace is so far down on a waiting list to find a donor, it’s impossible for her to get a liver in time, unless she can get a liver on the black market.

Dr. Perkins says that he knows someone in Guadalajara, Mexico, who can sell a liver for $160,000. And as a warning to Billy not to report any medical violations, the doctor tells Billy, “I’ll obviously deny that we had this conversation.” The $160,000 price tag is way beyond what Billy can afford, so it makes him desperate. Even if Billy had ever heard of legal ways to raise money for a health crisis, such as starting a crowdsourcing campaign on GoFundMe, there would be no “Death in Texas” movie if he did things legally to solve this problem.

Billy makes several attempts to find a legitimate job, but he’s rejected by every place he goes to find work because he’s an ex-con on parole. A friend of his named Kevin (played by Rocko Reyes) is a manager at a car dealership that’s owned by Kevin’s father. In a job interview, Kevin tells Billy that he would hire Billy, but Kevin’s father is the one who doesn’t want any felons working for the company.

And so, with time running out to get the money for the liver, it becomes inevitable that Billy turns to a life of crime. He decides he’ll get the money he wants by robbing other criminals. First, he targets a drug dealer named Tyler Griggs (played by Mike Foy), a former acquaintance of Billy’s, who looks and acts like a bad parody of a rapper, complete with gold teeth and a laughably horrible attempt to sound like he’s a white guy who grew up in a black ghetto.

An even bigger robbery target is a drug rehab guru named Richard Reynolds (played by Bruce Dern), a rich entrepreneur with a shady past. He currently owns a well-known drug rehab center called Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch. Billy sees a TV news report that Reynolds Rehabilitation Ranch has received a large of amount of funding from a recent deal with El Paso General Hospital.

Through an Internet search, Billy finds out that several years ago, Reynolds was acquitted on marijuana drug smuggling charges. Billy also discovers that Reynolds has ties to a major drug cartel. And in a silly movie like “Death in Texas,” Billy decides that Reynolds will be a perfect person to rob. Never mind that Reynolds has a small squad of violent thugs who are his bodyguards and enforcers.

Meanwhile, Grace has ended up at El Paso General Hospital because her liver condition has gotten worse. One day, while she’s in her hospital room, she’s feeling so sick that she vomits on the floor. A hospital orderly comes into her room to check on her and clean up the mess. And that’s how she meets hospital orderly John Scofield (played by Stephen Lang)—their “meet cute” moment happens when he has to clean up her vomit.

Grace jokes to John that it’s “love at first sight.” He continues the flirtation, and there are romantic sparks between them. You know where this is going, of course. Just when Grace is dying, she meets someone who could be the love of her life. It’s not stated if John is divorced or widowed, but he’s definitely an available bachelor. Billy eventually meets John, and it leads to a very tacky soap opera moment that’s part of a big, heavy-handed plot twist in the movie.

Amid all the bloody carnage in the story, Billy meets a possible love interest too. Her name is Jennifer (played by Cheryl “Cher” Cosenza), who’s a street-smart bartender with a heart of gold. Tyler is also interested in her, but Jennifer thinks Tyler is a disgusting creep. Billy doesn’t have enough money to buy a liver on the black market, but he has enough money to become a regular customer at the bar where Jennifer works.

One of the worst things about “Death in Texas” is the movie’s pathetic depiction of law enforcement. Billy’s parole officer is Sarah Jensen, the same person who barged in his parole hearing to show a mystery file to the parole board. The information in that file is eventually revealed in the movie, but it’s definitely not surprising, considering what happens later in the story. The information in the file wouldn’t be enough in real life for a parole board to suddenly switch its decision to not parole someone.

Sarah’s first meeting with Billy after his release happens when she shows up at Grace’s house unannounced to interview Billy. Billy is outside, hosing down his car, because it has blood on it from a murder that he committed the night before. But this dimwitted parole officer doesn’t even notice the blood on the car when she’s talking to Billy. And throughout the story, she keeps showing up unannounced at the house, as if parole officers never make office appointments.

Even more incompetent is a homicide detective named John Wayne Asher (played by John Ashton), who is the lead investigator in the murders that Billy commits during his crime spree. Billy makes no attempt to cover his tracks, because he easily leaves his DNA and fingerprints all over his crime scenes. As a convicted felon, Billy would have his fingerprints on record and his DNA would be in the Combined DNA Index System (CODIS), which is a nationwide DNA database for convicted offenders. And yet, the dumb cops in this movie have a hard time finding out that Billy committed these crimes.

In addition to all of this idiotic portrayal of how law enforcement works, “Death in Texas” also bungles depictions of how hospitals work and what certain hospital employees would be able to do while on duty. There’s a big plot development revolving around the liver transplant part of the story that will make people groan or laugh at the stupidity of how this plot twist is handled. There’s almost nothing realistic about “Death in Texas,” except for a few conversations in the blossoming romance between Grace and John.

All of the acting in this movie veers between hokey and robotic. It’s as if no one was giving the cast members any consistent direction. And if they were given any competent direction, they certainly weren’t paying attention. Not that better acting would’ve saved this terrible movie, because “Death in Texas” was dead on arrival with its horrendously awful screenplay.

Vertical Entertainment released “Death in Texas” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on June 4, 2021.

Review: ’12 Mighty Orphans,’ starring Luke Wilson, Vinessa Shaw, Wayne Knight, Jake Austin Walker, Robert Duvall and Martin Sheen

June 18, 2021

by Carla Hay

“12 Mighty Orphans” Pictured in back row, from left to right: Preston Porter, Woodrow Luttrell, Sampley Barinaga and Jacob Lofland. Pictured in middle row, from left to right: Levi Dylan, Luke Wilson, Martin Sheen, Manuel Tapia, Austin Shook and Michael Gohlke. Pictured in front tow, from left to right: Slade Monroe, Jake Austin Walker, Bailey Roberts and Tyler Silva. (Photo by Laura Wilson/Sony Pictures Classics)

“12 Mighty Orphans”

Directed by Ty Roberts

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1938, mainly in Fort Worth, Texas, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” (based on a true story) features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A high school football coach begins working at an orphanage, where he assembles a ragtag team of teenage football players, who must fight for respect and overcome several obstacles in football and in life.

Culture Audience: “12 Mighty Orphans” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in traditionally made “against all odds” sports movies.

Luke Wilson and Jake Austin Walker in “12 Mighty Orphans” (Photo by David McFarland/Sony Pictures Classics)

Unapologetically sentimental and earnest, the dramatic film “12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie that embraces its hokey tropes and ends up being a charming story. Most of the movie is utterly predictable, because there are so many underdog sports movies that have covered the same territory in a similar way. Somehow, it all works well for “12 Mighty Orphans,” which tells the true story of the Mighty Mites, a Texas orphanage football team that defied low expectations to go all the way to the Texas state championships.

People who already know this story probably won’t learn anything new, but this dramatic depiction is still compelling, thanks to commendable performances from the cast members. Directed by Ty Roberts (who co-wrote the “12 Mighty Orphans” screenplay with Lane Garrison and Kevin Meyer), “12 Mighty Orphans” is based on Jim Dent’s 2008 non-fiction book “Twelve Mighty Orphans: The Inspiring True Story of the Mighty Mites Who Ruled Texas Football.” The movie (which had its world premiere at the 2021 Tribeca Film Festival in New York City) hits a lot of the same beats as other inspirational sports movies about underdogs.

There’s the coach who ignores the naysayers, motivates his team, and turns them into winners. There’s the talented but hotheaded team member who lets his temper get in the way of his sportsmanship. There’s the sneering coach from another team who can’t believe these ragamuffins could possibly be better than his team.

The movie, which takes place in 1938 during the Great Depression, begins with the introduction of Harvey Nual “Rusty” Russell (played by Luke Wilson), who has left a comfortable teaching position at a high school to take a teaching/coaching job at the Masonic Home, an orphanage in Fort Worth, Texas, that has about 150 children in residence. Rusty has moved with his loyal wife Juanita Russell (played by Vinessa Shaw) and their two children: Betty Russell (played by Josie Fink and Lillie Fink), who’s about 4 or 5 years old, and another unnamed daughter, who’s about 6 or 7 years old.

Juanita, who will be teaching English at the orphanage, isn’t happy about this move because Rusty took this job without even discussing it with her. Rusty will be teaching math at the orphanage, but his true passion is coaching football. The orphanage’s doctor A.P. “Doc” Hall (played by Martin Sheen) recommended Rusty for the job, but Doc and Rusty don’t meet in person until Rusty and his family arrive on the premises. Doc is also a football enthusiast, and he becomes Rusty’s biggest ally at the orphanage. Doc also serves as the movie’s voiceover narrator.

To his shock and dismay, Rusty finds out that not only does the orphanage not have a formal football team but the orphanage also don’t have football uniforms. Doc also says that when the orphans do play footbal, they play during two seasons: One season where they can wear shoes, and they other where they don’t wear shoes. The orphanage is so financially strapped that there aren’t enough athletic shoes to last an entire year. Despite these obstacles, Rusty is determined to put a football team together and have the team compete with high school football teams in the league.

Rusty gets resistence from the orphanage’s corrupt chief administrator Frank Wynn (played by Wayne Knight), who physically and verbally abuses the male orphans. (Frank has a large paddle named Bertha, and he doesn’t hesitate to use it.) Frank also forces the male teenagers to work in an orphanage sweatshop to make garments and shoes that he sells for his own personal profit. Needless to say, the sweatshop work violates all types of child labor laws.

Frank thinks that the male teens in the orphanage shouldn’t be playing competitive football because he thinks the time spent on practice and games should be used for his grueling sweatshop work. However, Frank is overruled by his boss, who tells Rusty that Rusty can put together a football team, under one condition: “It’s very important that it does not interfere with the day-to-day [activities] of the home.”

Through a process of elimination (some of the boys don’t qualify for the team because of low grades), 12 teens (whose average age is 16 to 17) join the football team. They call themselves the Mighty Mites. The 12 members of the team are:

  • Hardy Brown (played by Jake Austin Walker), an angry young man who becomes the team’s star linebacker
  • Wheatie “C.D.” Sealey (played by Slade Monroe), who comes out of his bashful shell to become the team quarterback
  • Douglass “Fairbank” Lord (played by Levi Dylan), the pretty boy of the team
  • Leonard “Snoggs” Roach (played by Jacob Lofland), a foul-mouthed jokester
  • Leon Pickett (played by Woodrow Luttrell), an introvert
  • Miller Moseley (played by Bailey Roberts), the smallest player on the team
  • Cecil “Crazy” Moseley (played by Michael Gohlke), Miller’s brother who happens to be mute
  • Amarante Pete “A.P.” Torres (played by Tler Silva), who doesn’t say much in the movie
  • Gonzolo “Carlos” Torres (played by Manuel Tapia), who is A.P.’s brother
  • DeWitt “Tex” Coulter (played by Preston Porter), the tallest person on the team
  • Ray Coulter (played by Austin Shook), Tex’s brother
  • Clyde “Chicken” Roberts (played by Sampley Barinaga), a redhead who overcomes his fears to become a solid team player

Abusive orphanage administrator Wayne is the story’s biggest villain, but the movie also has other antagonists. Luther (played by Lane Garrison) is a cigar-chewing, arrogant businessman who has invested in a rival football team. He’s dead-set against letting the Mighty Mites play in the high school football league because he thinks the orphanage isn’t a legitimate school. “Orphan football,” Luther sasy to himself disgust. “That’s as dumb as letting women vote.”

During a football league hearing to decide whether or not the Mighty Mites can compete against other high school football teams, Luther objects because of the rule that a competing school must have at least 500 students. However, Rusty has found a clause in the rulebook that can make an exception for a team if the coaches of the other high schools give a majority vote to allow the team. Rodney Kidd (played by Scott Haze), who happens to be Luther’s brother-in-law, is presiding over the hearing.

Luther thinks that his family connection will give him an easy advantage in this battle. But to Luther’s anger and disappointment, the coaches of the other high schools vote by a majority to let the Mighty Mites compete in the league. It can be presumed that these other coaches probably thought that these orphans would be easy to defeat in football games, so that’s why they readily allowed the Mighty Mites into the league.

But as what happens in underdog stories like this one, the Mighty Mites were severely underestimated. They start winning games and become folk heroes. The team attracts the attention of businessman Mason Hawk (played by Robert Duvall, in a small role), who invests in the Mighty Mites. (“Apocalypse Now” co-stars Sheen and Duvall have a scene together in “12 Mighty Orphans.”) Later in the story, President Franklin Roosevelt (played by Larry Pine) becomes a Mighty Mites fan. Treat Williams has a small role as Amon Carter, founder/publisher of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

And every underdog story seems to have emotional baggage and trauma. Hardy is a very talented football player, but he has an explosive temper that can get him into trouble. Why is he so angry? Before he came to the orphanage, he was found lying next to his dead father (who was murdered), and Hardy’s mother didn’t want to take care of Hardy, so she sent him to live in the orphanage.

C.D. also has a mother who abandoned him at the orphanage, when he was 7 years old, after C.D.’s father left the family. C.D. hasn’t seen his mother in the 10 years since then. When C.D. mother’s Wanda (played by Lucy Faust) unexpectedly shows up at the orphanage with her current husband, it leads to an emotionally raw confrontation that’s very melodramatic, but it fits well in this often-melodramatic movie.

Doc, who is a widower, has his own personal demons: He’s an alcoholic. And he confides in Rusty that his wife died during childbirth. Based on his tone of voice, Doc is still haunted by his wife’s tragic death. As for Rusty, he tells his football team during an emotional moment that he can relate to them because he’s an orphan too.

“12 Mighty Orphans” is the type of movie where Doc says in a voiceover about Rusty: “He knew that football would inevitably bring self-respect to the boys.” And there are plenty of “pep talk” scenes that are exactly what you would expect. As formulaic as this movie is, there’s still a level of suspense in the movie’s best game scene: the Texas state championship. Viewers who already know the game’s outcome can still be drawn in by the thrilling way that this game is filmed for the movie.

Rusty is portrayed by Wilson as an almost saintly mentor who never loses his temper, even when some of the boys on his team rudely insult him and each other. By contrast, Knight’s depiction of the loathsome Frank is almost a caricature of a villain. Out of all Mighty Mites, Walker (as Hardy), Monroe (as C.D.) and Lofland (as Snoggs) get the most screen time to showcase the characters’ personalities. All of the acting is believable, but sometimes hampered by corny dialogue.

“12 Mighty Orphans” was filmed on location in Texas, in the cities of Fort Worth, Weatherford and Cleburne. That authenticity goes a long way in this movie’s appeal, since so much of the film comes across as a made-for-TV movie. Is this movie going to be nominated for any awards? No, but it’s not a bad way to be entertained. And people don’t even have to be fans of American football to enjoy “12 Mighty Orphans.”

Sony Pictures Classics released “12 Mighty Orphans” in select U.S. cinemas on June 11, 2021, with an expansion to more cinemas on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘News of the World,’ starring Tom Hanks

December 23, 2020

Tom Hanks and Helena Zengel in “News of the World” (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“News of the World”

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1870 in Texas, the dramatic film “News of the World” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Native Americans and African Americans) representing the working-class and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A widower Civil War veteran who makes a living as a news reader is unexpectedly tasked with the responsibility of transporting an orphaned girl to her closest living relatives.

Culture Audience: “News of the World” will appeal primarily to people interested in dramatic stories about American life in the South during the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era.

Tom Hanks in “News of the World” (Photo by Bruce W. Talamon/Universal Pictures)

“News of the World” solidly offers the tried-and-true concept of an adult who’s inexperienced with taking care of children but who’s suddenly forced to be responsible for the well-being and safety of a child for a considerable period of time. It’s usually the stuff of comedies, but “News of the World” is a serious-minded drama that once again has Tom Hanks playing a heroic figure. In “News of the World,” he’s a traveling Civil War veteran in Texas who’s never been a father, but he’s been given the responsibility of bringing an orphaned girl who doesn’t speak English to her closest living relatives whom she’s never met. You know exactly how this movie is supposed to end.

Directed by Paul Greengrass, “News of the World” is a well-made but not a particularly innovative film because so much of this story has been done before in other movies that are essentially “road trip” films. “News of the World” will satisfy people who like shoot ’em up Westerns (since there are several shootout scenes), and the film will also please people who like somewhat melancholy dramas about human perseverance under harsh conditions. The movie is nearly two hours long but sometimes feels like it’s longer because there are considerable stretches when it meanders at a slow pace.

“News of the World” is based on Paulette Jiles’ 2016 novel of the same name. Greengrass wrote the adapted screenplay with Luke Davies. It’s a good screenplay (but not outstanding) that all the actors handle with skill, even if at times the supporting characters come across as a little too generic because of the transient nature of the plot. The cinematic version of this story mostly does justice to the book because of the top-notch cinematography, costume design and production design. Greengrass and Hanks previously worked together in 2013’s “Captain Phillips,” which is based on a true story and is an overall better film than “News of the World.”

If you think Hanks is playing a stoic good guy who finds out that he’s a lot better at taking care of a child than he originally thought, then you would be absolutely correct. Hanks portrays Capt. Jefferson “Jeffrey” Kyle Kidd, a veteran of three wars and a widower with no children. He’s based in Texas and goes from town to town, making a living as a news reader: someone who reads news reports in newspapers for a gathering of townspeople and reads the reports with an engaging, storytelling style.

It’s 1870, five years after the U.S. Civil War has ended. It’s revealed later in the story that Jefferson’s wife died in 1865, at the age of 33. The Reconstruction Era is under way, but there’s a still a lot of resentment from Southerners toward the federal government and against the Union soldiers who defeated the Confederate soldiers during the war. The slaves have been freed under the Emancipation Proclamation, but white supremacy is still the law, and therefore people of color don’t have the same rights as white people.

Racism is addressed in this movie in a predictable way that might or might not be satisfactory enough, depending on your perspective. The movie begins in Wichita Falls in North Texas, where Jefferson has just had a very well-received reading session with the local white people. He seems to think it’s a friendly town, but then he gets a chilling reminder about the brutality of racism.

While riding his horse in a forest area, Jefferson sees some bloody drag marks on the ground. The marks look like a human body was being dragged. And sure enough, Jefferson finds out that the bloody drag marks lead to the body of a lynched African American man. (The man’s face is not shown in the movie, because it might have been too explicit.) Attached to the man’s body is a sign that reads: “Texas Says No! This is a white man’s country.”

Jefferson is very disturbed by this crime scene, but as someone who’s just passing through town, there’s nothing he can do about it. Suddenly, he sees a blonde girl (played by Helena Zengel), who’s about 9 or 10 years old. She’s wearing a deerskin dress, and she runs away in the woods when she sees Jefferson. He chases after her because she looks like an unaccompanied child who could be in danger. She’s a feisty child because she bites Jefferson’s hand when he catches up to her.

Jefferson sees that the girl has run back to the wreckage of a carriage accident that has resulted in the the death of the male driver. Jefferson finds some paperwork in the car wreck that reveals the girl’s birth name is Johannna Leonberger. She is an orphan whose parents were killed by an invasion of Kiowa Indians six years before.

And apparently, she was raised by the Kiowa Indians because she only speaks Kiowa. The girl’s Kiowan name is Cicada. Johanna’s Kiowa Indian family was massacred, so she is now an orphan again.

The paperwork found at the carriage accident indicates that Johanna was being driven to her closest living relatives: an aunt named Anna Leonberger and Anna’s husband Wilhelm Leonberger, who are German immigrants living in Castroville, Texas. Jefferson thinks he can just drop the child off at the Reconstruction Era version of Child Protective Services. But he finds out that the agent who’s supposed to handle this type of child welfare case is out of town and won’t be back for three months. Jefferson tells the office that he will handle the responsibility of taking Johanna to her aunt and uncle in Castroville.

Jefferson has enough compassion not to abandon Johanna, but he doesn’t want to change his plans to travel to the next town to do a news-reading session that was already scheduled. And so, he reluctantly brings Johanna with him, with the intention of devoting the rest of the journey to bringing Johanna to her aunt and uncle. Jefferson knows that he will be losing a lot of income by taking this unexpected trip, because he won’t be able to stop and do as many news readings as he’d like to do.

Jefferson asks a married couple he knows—Simon Boudlin (played by Ray McKinnon) and Doris Boudlin (played by Mare Winningham)—to look after Johanna while Jefferson is busy with the news reading session that he has scheduled for that evening. But in a story like this, you know that something will go wrong. And it does.

Jefferson comes back from the news reading session to find out that Johanna has run away, just as a rainstorm hits the area. It leads to Jefferson, Simon and Doris frantically looking for Johanna in the dark and rainy night. Across an embankment, Johanna sees a tribe of Indians traveling by horse and tries to get their attention because she thinks she belongs with them. But the tribe is too far away, and Jefferson soon catches up to her.

Johanna realizes that she needs Jefferson in order to survive because no one else is looking out for her. Before Jefferson leaves town with Johanna in an apothecary wagon given to them by the Boudlins, Simon gives Jefferson a loaded revolver. And you just know that gun is going to come in handy later on, because a trip like this won’t go smoothly.

The rest of the story is what you might expect from a tale about an adult and a child—both complete strangers and out of their comfort zones—who have been forced to travel together and slowly learn to trust each other. And because there’s the language barrier, it prevents these two travelers in “News of the World” from having the snap’n’crackle dialogue that makes the “True Grit” movies (another 1870s Western saga about a man and a girl on a road trip) so much fun to watch. “News of the World” is a mostly solemn and sometimes suspenseful story about what Jefferson and Johanna encounter in their travels.

Although they have plenty of dangerous experiences on this journey, Jefferson and Johanna also have some friendly encounters, demonstrating how generous people are capable of being to strangers. At a boarding house in Dallas, they meet the woman in charge who plays a key role in breaking through the language barrier between Jefferson and Johanna. This kind stranger is named Mrs. Gannett (played by Elizabeth Marvel), and she knows how to speak Kiowa, so she acts as a translator.

One of the most memorable parts of the story is an extended shootout sequence that happens between Jefferson and a creepy criminal named J.G. Almay (played by Michael Angelo Covino), who brings two cronies along for the shootout. The trouble with Almay begins one evening when Jefferson and Johanna are getting ready to leave Dallas at night.

Almay notices Johanna and offers to buy her from Jefferson, who immediately refuses. It’s implied that Almay has lecherous intentions, and Jefferson is well-aware that this scumbag probably wants to abuse Johanna. Almay doesn’t want to take no for an answer, so Jefferson and Almay get into a brief scuffle over it.

Two federal officers happen to notice the fight and break it up. Jefferson explains what happened and shows the paperwork to prove that he has the authority to bring Johanna to her relatives. Almay is then arrested, but before he’s carted off to jail, he yells at Jefferson: “I’ll be seeing you, captain! You hear me? I’m coming for you!”

Almay gets out on bail and soon has two other cowboy thugs (played by Clay James and Cash Lilley) accompanying him (each on a separate horse) to follow Jefferson and Johanna’s carriage. It’s now daylight, and somehow these three stalkers have found out where Jefferson and Johanna are and have already caught up to them. The chase scene leads to a clifftop shootout that’s the most action-packed part of the movie. It’s also a pivotal scene in the movie because it’s during this ordeal that Johanna shows that she’s willing and able to be of great help to Jefferson.

Another nemesis in the story is a town leader named Mr. Farley (played by Thomas Francis Murphy), who owns a lot of property and rules the town almost like a dictator. He has some sons whom he uses as his personal group of enforcers. And when Jefferson comes to town, Mr. Farley wants to tell Jefferson what kind of news he should read to the citizens: only news that will make Mr. Farley look good.

Jefferson doesn’t like being told what to do, so he lets the townspeople decide what stories they want Jefferson to read. It’s a power move that results in more conflict and another shootout. And someone with wavering loyalties ends up taking Jefferson’s side.

Not all of the adversaries on this trip are human. The weather plays a role in causing some frightening moments. A scene that’s a particular standout is when Joanna and Jefferson are caught in a dust storm and get separated from each other. The work of cinematographer Dariusz Wolski is put to excellent use in this tension-filled scene.

Because “News of the World” is centered on the evolving relationship between Jefferson and Johanna, viewers should not expect a lot of character development from any other people in the movie. And the only supporting characters who speak on camera are white people, perhaps as a way for the filmmakers to portray the deep-seated racial segregation in 1870 Texas. People of color in the movie (Native Americans and a few African Americans) are not given any significant dialogue, even in a scene where Johanna approaches some Kiowa Indians and talks to them. (What she says to them is not shown on camera.) Texas has always been a state with a significant Latino population, but inexplicably, there are no Latinos with speaking lines in this movie.

Hanks delivers a quality performance, as one might expect. But his co-star Zengel is especially impressive because she has to express a lot different emotions with very little dialogue. “News of the World” hits a lot of familiar tropes and has the type of sweeping musical score from James Newton Howard that is very much in the vein of traditional Westerns from Hollywood movie studios. The movie is the equivalent of American comfort food: People know what to expect, and there’s no real departure from the filmmaking recipe of a Western drama about an American hero.

Universal Pictures will release “News of the World” in U.S. cinemas on December 25, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is January 15, 2021.

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