Review: ‘Violet’ (2021), starring Olivia Munn, Luke Bracey and the voice of Justin Theroux

March 8, 2022

by Carla Hay

Luke Bracey and Olivia Munn in “Violet” (Photo courtesy of Relativity Media)

“Violet” (2021)

Directed by Justine Bateman

Culture Representation: Taking place in the Los Angeles area, the dramatic film “Violet” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few Asians, African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman who’s the head of production at an independent film production company is wracked with insecurities about herself and is haunted by her troubled past with her estranged mother. 

Culture Audience: “Violet” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in seeing a psychologically driven movie that shows a constant flow of a neurotic person’s conflicting thoughts.

Dennis Boutsikaris in “Violet” (Photo by Mark Williams/Relativity Media)

“Violet” is a multilayered movie that effectively shows three psychological layers of an insecure person: the conscious mind, the subconscious mind, and how the person acts on any conflicts between the conscious and subconscious. Oliva Munn gives a riveting performance as the movie’s title character: a 32-year-old woman who is very uneasy with herself, but who tries to project to the outside world that she’s happy and confident. “Violet” (written and directed by Justine Bateman) is intended to make viewers uncomfortable because of how candidly and realistically it portrays people who seem to be one way in public but are quite another way in their deepest thoughts.

On the surface, Violet Calder (played by Munn) seems to have the kind of life that a lot of people want: She works in the movie industry in the Los Angeles area, where she’s head of production at an independent film production company called Gaines Pictures. But from the movie’s opening scene, viewers see that Violet is in fact discontented with her life because she’s very unhappy with herself. She’s the very definition of someone who has “imposter syndrome”—feeling like a fraud who’s unworthy of accomplishments and praise.

Throughout the movie, viewers see and hear two types of Violet’s inner thoughts. Her true feelings (her conscious mind), which are often vulnerable but optimistic, are shown in hand-written scrawls on screen. Her negative and self-critical side, which lies deep in her subconscious, can be heard in voiceovers by actor Justin Theroux. These warring thoughts often make statements that are in direct contrast to each other. The way that Violet reacts to these thoughts shows her decision making in what she ultimately does for her actions and words that she wants people to see as representing herself.

In the beginning of the movie, Violet is temporarily living at the house of her longtime friend Red (played by Luke Bracey), whom she has known since they were 12 years old. Violet and Red are both single with no children. The movie’s opening scene shows Violet in her car before she heads off to work. A hand-written scrawl appears on screen with these words: “Is there something wrong with me?” The negative voice can then be heard saying, “You’re a pig,” and begins to berate her by saying that people will think she’s a loser for not having her own place.

At her job, Violet has a few subordinates who don’t treat her like a boss they respect. They treat her more like someone to take advantage of by slacking off on their workload. Gaines Pictures’ headquarters has an open-floor plan, where Violet doesn’t have her own office. She has a desk that is right in the middle of the desks of people who have lower rankings at the company. These desks are placed classroom-style, while Gaines Pictures founder Tom Gaines (played by Dennis Boutsikaris), a longtime director/producer, has his own office. This company’s work space is a reflection of the company’s power structure and how Tom runs the company.

There are obvious signs that Violet is underappreciated and disrespected on the job. A subordinate named Bradley (played by Zachary Gordon) calls her “sugar plum” and asks her for production reports that he should already have. Brad and another subordinate named Julie (played by Cassandra Cardenes), who are both in their 20s, waste time by standing near Violet’s desk and distracting her with petty gossip instead of being responsible and doing their work.

The disrespect is even worse from her boss Tom, who is a misogynistic creep. During a conference room meeting with an outside colleague named Darren Brightly (played by Al Madrigal), Tom demeans Violet by making sexual innuendos that imply that she’s in a sexual relationship with Tom, and that she uses sex to get what she wants. Violet looks humiliated, while Darren looks like he’s too much in shock to say anything.

One person at Violet’s job who really seems to respect her is an administrative assistant named Keith (played by Keith Powers), who gripes to Violet about Brad and Julie: “They’re always saying stuff, and you just let them? You’re head of production. They work for you. They’re always over here bothering you. Why don’t you just tell them to fuck off?”

Violet replies, “Listen, it’s just better for me not to say anything. The less opportunity I give them to label me a ‘bitch,’ the better.” Meanwhile, the negative voice inside Violet’s head tells her that she should ignore the disrespect and micro-aggressions from her work colleagues. For example, in reaction to Bradley’s condescending attitude to Violet (even though she’s his boss), the negative voice tells Violet: “Let it go, or he’ll quit. Don’t be bossy.”

Throughout the course of the movie, Violet is shown making compromises that make her uncomfortable because she doesn’t want to be accused of being difficult. Other times, she lets the negative voice in her head get to her, and she acts very mean-spirited and selfish. Viewers often have to guess what Violet will do when the conscious and subconscious thoughts are completely opposite.

In addition to her boss and colleagues, there are other people in Violet’s life who see various sides of her. How much they take the time to know the real Violet is a reflection of how much they care about her. Red is a loyal and supportive friend, who tells Violet that she can talk to him about anything at any time. He seems to know she’s got a lot of inner turmoil that she finds difficult to disclose.

Violet has another close friend named Lila (played by Erica Ash), who thinks that Violet and Red should be a couple. However, Red is a screenwriter, and Violet thinks dating a writer would be a “step down” for her, so Violet tells Lila that she wants to continue to date executives in the entertainment industry. But based on Violet’s unhappy and unfulfilled love life, that decision isn’t working out so well for her.

To show a contrast between Violet’s self-esteem and Lila’s self-esteem, the movie has a scene where the two friends meet at a restaurant/bar for dinner and drinks. Violet says that she has her own “naysayer committee” in her head, and she tells Lila that she has to learn to stop listening to this inner negativity. Lila says she sometimes has self-doubt too, but her parents raised her to believe that she’s great, and anyone who says otherwise is lying. Violet definitely did not have that type of upbringing, so it’s yet another reason for Violet to feel insecure about herself. It also makes Violet envious of Lila’s genuine self-confidence.

Violet has some brief encounters with some other people during her emotional and psychological journey in this movie. In a parking lot, she randomly sees an ex-boyfriend named Martin (played by Simon Quarterman), a music executive who currently lives in New York City, but who’s visiting Los Angeles for work-related reasons. When Violet sees Martin again, it triggers painful memories of why Violet and Mike broke up. Viewers find out why in flashback scenes.

The movie’s flashbacks also include scenes of 8-year-old Violet (played by Liliana Mijangos) riding her bicycle, sometimes alone, sometimes with friends. These childhood flashbacks are often shown on a giant video screen, as if it’s replaying inside Violet’s head, and her inner voice tells her this childhood experience of riding a bike was the last time she truly felt freedom. But in one of those flashback scenes, Violet rides home on her bike, only to get a barrage of shouted insults and criticisms by her mother (who’s never seen on camera, but who is voiced by Erin Cantelo) as soon as Violet arrives at the front door.

You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to see that Violet’s fractured relationship with her abusive mother is the root cause of most of Violet’s self-esteem problems. Through conversations, it’s eventually revealed that Violet, whose closest family members live thousands of miles away in an unnamed U.S. state, has not spoken to her widow mother for the past three years. Violet’s older brother Rick (played by Todd Stashwick) and Violet’s maternal aunt Helen (played by Bonnie Bedelia) express resentment and hostility to Violet because she’s distanced herself from the family. They think Violet is too caught up in her Hollywood movie job and showbiz lifestyle to care about them.

“Violet” will probably have extra appeal to people who like seeing movies that authentically depict behind-the-scenes Hollywood production workers, what their jobs entail and the types of social events they go to outside of work. Getting a job in the movie industry can really come down to who you know and being in the right place at the right time, not having a college degree or lots of experience. For example, at a party, Violet is offered a job on the spot by two movie executives she knows named Dennis (played by Jim O’Heir) and Harry White (played by Jason Dohring), who have co-founded a new independent production company called Phoenix Circle Films. The movie shows whether or not she takes this job offer.

An example of why Violet feels like a failure is how her plans have stalled to make a movie out of a poetry book that she loves called “Fox Run.” The “Fox Run” movie was a pet project of Violet’s, and even had a screenplay, but the project has been stuck in “development hell.” Violet has pretty much given up on the movie ever getting made. Her obnoxious boss Tom comments to her about the “Fox Run” movie in front of her co-workers: “You were always a pussy for art films.”

Bradley and Tom know how much “Fox Run” means to Violet, so these toxic male colleagues both use that information to try to embarrass her in passive-aggressive ways. The “Fox Run” movie is obviously symbolic of how Violet feels about herself and how she’s treated by others: misunderstood, unappreciated and stuck in a rut. The “Fox Trot” movie is such a sore subject for Violet, when Lila asks Violet about the movie, Violet loses her temper and snaps, “Just drop it! It’s none of your fucking business!”

All of the cast members of “Violet” give credible performances, but how people respond to this movie mostly depends on how realistic they think Munn is in embodying this complicated character. It’s not about Violet being “likable.” It’s about her being believable.

“Violet” writer/director Bateman impressively uses techniques to show that Violet’s life sometimes plays like a movie in her head. In addition to the childhood flashbacks shown on a giant projector screen, other flashbacks are revealed as compelling quick-cut edits. Whenever the negative voice thoughts overwhelm Violet, the cinematography turns the screen a crimson red, with an effect simulating people fading out of vision and a monotone electronic noise drowning out the sound.

What “Violet” also does well is show how women in the workplace have to navigate differently than men, because women are more likely to have the threat of sexual harassment or the hassle of sexist people who automatically think the female gender is inferior to the male gender. “Violet” also poignantly shows how an abusive childhood can have long-lasting effects well into adulthood. It’s not always a pleasant film to watch, and the constant “war of words” in Violet’s head might be a turnoff to some viewers, but it’s hard not to be curious about how this psychological drama is going to end.

Relativity Media released “Violet” in select U.S. cinemas on October 29, 2021, with an expansion to more U.S. cinemas on November 5, 2021. The movie was released on digital and VOD on November 9, 2021.

Review: ‘Think Like a Dog,’ starring Gabriel Bateman, Josh Duhamel and Megan Fox

June 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Gabriel Batman in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Think Like a Dog”

Directed by Gil Junger

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city and in Beijing, the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” features a racially diverse cast (mostly white and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A 12-year-old American boy who’s an aspiring inventor and his online gaming friend in China secretly find a way to make a device that gives people the ability to hear what a dog is thinking, but government officials want to get ahold of the device, while the boy is dealing with family drama at home, because his parents are on the verge of divorce.

Culture Audience: “Think Like a Dog” will appeal primarily to families with children younger than the age of 10.

Gabriel Batman and Megan Fox in “Think Like a Dog” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Even though the comedy/drama “Think Like a Dog” is set in the early 21st century, there’s something very 1970s quaint about this “talking dog” movie, which has simplistic and preachy messages that are both endearing and annoying. Adults will know exactly how this formulaic movie is going to end, but very young kids (under the age of 10) could enjoy this ride, since the children in this movie are very relatable.

“Think Like a Dog” (written and directed by Gil Junger) seems like a throwback to the 1970s, when movies about family dogs (such as the “Benji” series and “A Boy and His Dog”) were starting to become very popular. Back in the 1970s, life was less complicated for American children, who didn’t have to deal with school shootings or cyberbullying. It was also a period of time when it was more plausible to have a movie where a boy and his “talking dog” team up for the boy’s plan to keep his parents from divorcing.

The concept of a child being able to save a marriage with the help of a talking dog is a lot for any kid to handle in a movie. But “Think Like a Dog” also throws in another heavy-handed plot of the kid trying to dodge getting in trouble with the government because his invention has interfered with important satellite signals that control the world’s economy. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The child prodigy at the center of the film is 12-year-old Oliver (played by Gabriel Bateman), who lives in an unnamed American city that looks like a pleasantly peaceful suburb. Oliver is a science and computer enthusiast, who keeps pictures on his bedroom wall of Elon Musk and a Mark Zuckerberg-like tech mogul named Ram Mills (played by Kunal Nayyar), also known as Mr. Mills. Oliver is an only child. His parents are Lukas (played by Josh Duhamel) and Ellen (played by Megan Fox), who are going through a rough patch in their marriage.

Lukas (who’s a soccer coach at a local high school) and Ellen (who works in a beauty salon) have grown emotionally distant from each other. Ellen and Lukas have been thinking about separating, but they haven’t told Oliver yet. But, of course, Oliver finds out, when he discovers that Lukas has been offered a coaching job at a college named Springfield University, which is a three-hour drive away from where they live, and Ellen isn’t exactly trying to stop Lukas from taking the job. If Lukas takes the job, it’s a way for him and Ellen to separate, and they plan to “figure it out” from there.

Oliver’s best friend is his mixed Border Collie dog Henry (voiced by Todd Stashwick), who has voiceover narration throughout the entire movie. Most of the “jokes” that Henry tells are the type of jokes that have been heard before in other “talking dog” movies that make the dogs sound like low-rent (but family-friendly) stand-up comedians. Henry shares his platitudes about life by saying that most humans don’t know the secret that dogs know: How to be happy.

Henry’s philosophy is that humans are always looking for ways to improve their lives instead of being content with who they are right now. (That’s easy to say, coming from a pampered house dog whose needs are catered to by humans.) What’s kind of contradictory about this movie’s message is that inventions are usually about improving lives, so Henry’s overly simplistic philosophy doesn’t really work when you consider that Oliver is an aspiring inventor.

Oliver spends a lot of time at home playing online virtual-reality games with a teenager in Beijing named Xiao (played by Neo Hooo, also known as Minghao Hou), who is equally passionate about science and computers as Oliver is. (By the way, this movie has a lot of positive references to China since Chinese-funded M-Star International is one of the production companies behind “Think Like a Dog.”)

Oliver and Xiao have never met in person, but they consider each other to be close online buddies. Oliver has been working on an invention that can read people’s thoughts. And lo and behold, Xiao calls Oliver to tell Oliver that he’s found a massive breakthrough in Oliver’s invention, which can be activated by using a massive processor. And to their delight, they find out that the invention works.

At school, Oliver is a typical nerdy type who is shy around a fellow classmate who is his big crush. Her name is Sophie (played by Madison Horcher), who is the typical nice but slightly aloof girl who seems to be almost perfect in every way. And since this movie is extremely predictable, there’s the school bully Nicholas (played by Billy 4 Johnson), who picks on Oliver; the bully’s spineless follower Brayden (played by Dillon Ahlf); and wisecracking student Li (played by Izaac Wang), who’s too precocious for his own good.

The movie has several contrived situations to make Oliver embarrassed in front of Sophie, who seems to be in pretty much all of the same classes as Oliver. The school is doing the play “Romeo and Juliet,” and in rehearsals, Oliver is embarrassed when he says a monologue and, as a Freudian slip, accidentally substitutes the name Sophie for Juliet.

Oliver is also embarrassed when he sees Sophie and her adorable female dog (a poodle mix) at a dog park, and he gets tongue-tied when trying to start a conversation with Sophie. The school bully Nicholas naturally has a big alpha male dog (a greyhound), which the movie portrays as being so popular with the opposite sex that the dog has female dog groupies. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

But Oliver’s biggest humiliation happens when Mr. Mills comes to town to give a guest lecture at the Young Inventors Expo. At the event, Oliver gives a demonstration of his invention that has the telepathic powers. Someone wears a tech headband that reads the brain, and that person’s thoughts show up on a computer that has a wireless connection to the headband. Oliver asks for a volunteer from the audience, and he foolishly chooses Brayden, who’s a known friend of school bully Nicholas.

Oliver asks Brayden to think of a color, and that color will be named by the computer. The computer results show that Brayden was thinking of the color blue, but Brayden says he was thinking of the color green. Nicholas then stands up in the audience, as people do in movies like this, to make a taunting remark and lead a chorus of laughter at how Oliver’s invention is stupid and doesn’t work. All of this happens in front of Oliver’s idol Mr. Mills.

A crushed Oliver goes home, and his life gets worse when he finds out that his parents are headed toward a separation. What’s a boy whose life is falling apart to do? He goes in his room and finds comfort with his best friend/dog, while viewers of this movie have to watch Henry in voiceover acting like a know-it-all therapist.

It’s just around this time that some satellite gobbledygook happens in the universe, which suddenly allows Oliver to hear Henry’s thoughts through the invention. (Henry ends up wearing a magical telepathic collar, so Oliver can hear Henry’s thoughts through this portable, wireless collar device.) Oliver is elated that he can now hear his best friend talk, but he also knows that if he tells people about it, they’ll think he’s crazy.

Henry is able to communicate these thoughts with Oliver telepathically: “When humans grow up, they start to focus on other things and forget about what matters. What are the two most important things in life? Love and family. We [dogs] don’t complicate things like humans.”

And so, Henry and Oliver hatch a plan to fix Lukas and Ellen’s shaky marriage: “We need to teach Mom and Dad to think like a dog,” Henry says, as if he’s Marriage Counselor of the Year. The “plan” is to remind Lukas and Ellen of their wedding day, by getting them to hear their first wedding dance song at Oliver’s school dance. The idea is that the song will trigger memories of happier times, and then Lukas and Ellen can fall in love again, and everyone can live happily ever after.

Of course, there has to a big dramatic scheme to get Ellen and Lukas in the same room to hear this song. And somehow, Oliver’s school dance is the only place that Ellen and Lukas can hear this song, as opposed to anywhere else where Oliver could easily play the song to his parents. And somehow, Henry is the only living being who can get Lukas and Ellen in the same room at Oliver’s school dance. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

Meanwhile, Oliver’s invention has messed with the outer-space satellite coordinates that control the world’s banks. And this satellite interference could cause total chaos in the world’s economy. Oliver’s telepathic invention literally ends up on the U.S. government’s radar at a place called the Global Cyber Protection Agency, which can pick up the dog Henry’s thoughts, which are misinterpreted as terrorist thoughts.

Why? Because when Henry thinks about urinating on the lawn of a white house in the neighborhood, the agency thinks it’s the U.S. president’s White House. Therefore, the agency thinks a terrorist is behind the mysterious interference in satellite coordinates. And so, two agents—Agent Munoz (played by Julia Jones) and Agent Callen (played by Bryan Callen)—are dispatched to find this dangerous terrorist, or else the world’s safety could be at stake.

Meanwhile, Oliver gets a big surprise when he’s visited at school by Mr. Mills’ efficient assistant Bridget (played by Janet Montgomery), who meets Oliver outside the school to show him a hologram message from Mr. Mills. In the message, Mr. Mills says he was so impressed with the idea of Oliver’s invention that he has invited Oliver to be his guest at the Tech Summit in China. Oliver says he can’t go to the summit, but he tells Mr. Mills about his friend Xiao, whom Oliver credits with being a big help with the invention.

And so, Xiao becomes Mr. Mills’ guest at the summit, which takes place in Beijing. The event is so over-the-top in treating Mr. Mills like a “god” that a giant projection of his face appears on the steps of the convention center where the event is held. Of course, there’s a plot twist with Mr. Mills, which is revealed in the movie’s trailer, but it won’t be discussed in this review, since we all know how this movie is going to end anyway.

Will Oliver win Sophie’s heart? Will Henry help save the day? Will Lukas and Ellen fall back in love again? Do people need a dog’s brain to know the answers to these questions?

“Think Like a Dog” would have been a better movie if it weren’t so unimaginative and if it weren’t so preachy. The jokes in the movie just aren’t very funny. (There’s an over-reliance on jokes about farting, dog poop and the canine habit of dogs smelling each other’s rear ends.) There’s a lot of the movie that’s been seen and done before in other films about talking dogs or nerdy boys who are social misfits at school.

Some of the cast members stand out as being better actors than others in this movie. Bateman (as Oliver) carries the film with winning charm. Fox (as Oliver’s mother Ellen) is also quite good, and she does her best to act believable in a bland movie. Wang (as the smart-alecky Li) is a scene-stealer, just as he was in the much-raunchier 2019 comedy film “Good Boys.”

But ultimately, these slightly-above-average performances are not enough to save “Think Like a Dog” from too-corny mediocrity. The ways that problems are resolved in “Think Like a Dog” are such moldy concepts from a bygone era, that it’s the equivalent of a dog with mange that needs a good scrub-down bath of today’s reality.

Lionsgate released “Think Like a Dog” on DVD, Blu-ray, digital and VOD on June 9, 2020.

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