Review: ‘The Blazing World’ (2021), starring Carlson Young, Udo Kier, Dermot Mulroney and Vinessa Shaw

October 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Carlson Young in “The Blazing World” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Blazing World” (2021)

Directed by Carlson Young

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Gulf Coast state and an unnamed Northern state in the United States, the horror film “The Blazing World” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A college student, who is haunted by the childhood death of her identical twin sister, experiences nightmarish hallucinations in her attempt to contact her sister from the dead. 

Culture Audience: “The Blazing World” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching horror movies that are more style over substance.

Udo Kier in “The Blazing World” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Blazing World” takes the concept of grief as an ongoing nightmare and jumbles it up in an incoherent horror movie. The cinematography is impressive, but the movie ultimately over-indulges in a lot of nonsense. Texas-born actress Carlson Young makes her feature-film debut as a writer and director in “The Blazing World,” which is based on her short film of the same name. Young also stars in “The Blazing World,” which has a bold and colorful visual style, but the screenplay (which Young co-wrote with Pierce Brown) is problematic because of its vapid emptiness.

In “The Blazing World,” Young portrays Margaret Winter, a college student who is haunted by the death of her identical twin sister Elizabeth, nicknamed Lizzie, who died by drowning in the family’s swimming pool when the twins were 6 years old. This death is shown in the beginning of the movie in a visually striking and eerie scene that might lead viewers to believe that “The Blazing World” might have potential of being a memorable horror movie.

In this flashback, 6-year-old Margaret (played by Josie Fink) and Elizabeth (played Lillie Fink) are dressed in identical pink dresses and catching fireflies outside in their backyard of their parents’ plantation-styled mansion that’s in an unnamed Gulf Coast state in America. (“The Blazing World” was actually filmed in Texas.) Margaret and Elizabeth’s parents Tom Winter (played by Dermot Mulroney) and Alice Winter (played by Vinessa Shaw) have a troubled marriage. Tom is an alcoholic, and he’s abusive to Alice.

Tom and Alice begin arguing inside the house, while Margaret and Elizabeth are outside. Margaret goes to a nearby window to look in on this argument. She hasn’t left Elizabeth’s side for very long when she makes a horrifying discovery: Elizabeth somehow ended up in the swimming pool, and she drowned.

Margaret also witnessed another frightening thing that she’s never talked about to other people: While Elizabeth was lying face down in the pool, Margaret saw a sinister-looking elderly man (played by Udo Kier) standing next to a black hole portal that’s suspended in the air in the backyard. The man made a beckoning hand gesture, indicating that he wanted Margaret to come over to him. Margaret was too scared to move, but throughout the story and into her adulthood, she keeps seeing this man, who eventually reveals to her that his name is Lained.

Of course, the Winter family is devastated by Elizabeth’s tragic death. There are some brief flashbacks to when Elizabeth was still alive. But, for the most part, “The Blazing World” takes place about 15 years after the drowning. Margaret grows up to be a mostly sad woman who struggles with mental health issues.

The movie then flash-forwards to when Margaret is living on campus at an unnamed university in a Northern state. There’s no indication of what she’s studying as a college student. But what is very clear is that Margaret is obsessed with the idea of different worldly dimensions. She’s a devoted fan of a TV personality named Dr. Cruz (played by Liz Mikel), who spouts theories on her TV show about alternate realities existing and that the human brain is able to access astral and spiritual portals.

There’s a somewehat unnecessary scene where Margaret, who lives near Dr. Cruz, happens to see Dr. Cruz walking to her car. Margaret approaches Dr. Cruz and gushes like a star-struck fan when she meets her. Dr. Cruz cynically tells Margaret that she fits the demographic of Dr. Cruz’s typical audience member: “Middle-class, 20s, white female: our key demographic. You keep us alive, whether I feel good about it or not. I’m not going to complain about a captive audience.”

When Margaret asks Dr. Cruz if someone can be trapped in an astral portal and brought back, Dr. Cruz vaguely answers: “Sometimes, if we don’t like the answers the world gives us, we just keep looking.” Margaret insists that she’s not crazy. It’s an assertion that she has to keep telling herself and other people when she starts seeing things that are very weird.

One day, Margaret gets a call from her mother Alice, who tells Margaret that Alice and Tom have sold their family home and that they are moving out soon. The fact that this is news to Margaret indicates how long it’s been since she and Alice have spoken to each other. Alice invites Margaret to go back to the family home to pick out any items that she wants to keep.

If Alice sounds medicated when she calls, that’s because she probably is. She mentions to Margaret that if Margaret has some Ambien pills, the Margaret should bring the Ambien with her when she comes to visit. Viewers can infer that Alice has become a pill-popping addict.

Alice is eager to see Margaret, but Margaret is reluctant to go back to the family home because it brings back bad memories for her. However, Margaret does back to the family home, where her parents’ marriage is just as miserable as ever, and her father’s alcoholism has gotten worse. Margaret’s visit triggers events that set her down a path of hallucinations where she sees more of Lained lurking around and sometimes near the black hole portal.

In many of these visions, Lained tries to kill her, such as by strangling her while she’s in a bathtub. Expect to see numerous scenes of Margaret having these visions and then suddenly waking up, as if she had a nightmare. It becomes repetitive to the point of inducing viewer boredom. It should come as no surprise that Margaret becomes convinced that Elizabeth is trapped in a portal somewhere, which leads to the part of the movie where Margaret tries to find Elizabeth so she can reunite with her twin.

“Blazing World” also has a time-wasting subplot of Margaret having a reunion in real life with an ex-boyfriend named Blake (played by John Karna), who takes her on a date to a nightclub named The Woods, which has a forest-themed decor and is eerily deserted. Blake recently completed rehab for drug addiction and is happy to see Margaret back in town again. He also makes it obvious that he wouldn’t mind getting back together with her, but Margaret doesn’t see Blake as more than a possible hookup. When Margaret tries to confide in him about her hallucinations, he assumes that her hallucinations are drug-related.

Three other friends whom Margaret knew from high school show up at The Woods, because this trio is a band that’s performing at the club. They are lead singer Margot (played by Soko), bass player Rob (played by Breckyn Hager) and drummer Sean (played by Ace Anderson). Margot does a tarot card reading for Margaret and states the obvious: “You’ve had a huge emotional loss. And everything that comes after that is a chain reaction to that early trauma. Be careful. If you spend too much time in the spiritual realm, you might not be able to come back.”

“Blazing World” seems to have the right intentions, but more thought should have been put into developing characters in the movie that viewers can care about, in order for the terror to be more effective. The hallucinations in the story can be described as candy-coated psychedelia. There are lots of hues in hot pink, bright red and neon blue. However, this eye-catching imagery can’t make up for the weak story arc that’s clumsily structured.

None of “The Blazing World” actors does anything remarkable. Kier’s Lained character is the most memorable, but Kier has played so many creepy characters in movies, this performance is just another version of those characters. “The Blazing World” could have been a tour-de-force showcase for Young as an actor/writer/director for this movie. Unfortunately, the result is a movie that looks like a poorly conceived student film that had the budget to afford cinematography and visual effects that are better than the average student film.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Blazing World” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 15, 2021.

Review: ‘Swan Song’ (2021), starring Udo Kier

September 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Udo Kier in “Swan Song” (Photo by Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures)

“Swan Song” (2021)

Directed by Todd Stephens

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

Culture Clash: An openly gay and retired hair stylist, who has financial problems and health issues, reluctantly agrees to do the funeral hair of a deceased estranged female client (it was her dying wish), and he encounters various obstacles when he decides to walk several miles to the funeral home. 

Culture Audience: “Swan Song” will appeal primarily to people who are Udo Kier fans and anyone interested in tragicomedies that have themes of aging, LGBTQ people, and reconciling with the past.

Jennifer Coolidge and Udo Kier in “Swan Song” (Photo by Chris Stephens/Magnolia Pictures)

“Swan Song” (written and directed by Todd Stephens) skillfully mixes tragedy and comedy and serves it up in the delightfully sassy performance of Udo Kier. In the movie, he memorably portrays a retired hair stylist who is full of verve and defiance, despite possibly being near the end of his own life. Kier’s Pat Pitsenbarger character in the movie has serious health problems, he’s broke, and he’s all alone in the world. Pat (who was born in 1943) can be cranky and difficult, but it’s almost impossible not to be charmed by him in some way because he’s just so honest and unapologetic about who he is.

Pat (just like Kier in real life) is a German immigrant living in the United States. Pat currently lives in a nursing home in Sandusky, Ohio. It’s not stated in the movie how long Pat has been in America, but it’s at least been since the 1970s or 1980s, since he shares several memories of being part of the gay nightclub scene in America back then. Pat is still haunted by the death of his longtime love David James, a florist/landscaper who passed away of AIDS in 1995, at the age of 52. (Eric Eisenbrey portrays David in the movie’s flashbacks.)

Pat is living in a nursing home because even though he and David shared a house together, the house was in David’s name. And when David died, Pat found out that David did not have a will, and Pat had no legal right to the house as David’s domestic partner. Instead, all of David’s possessions went to David’s next of kin: a nephew who sold the house and everything in it. (The laws have since changed in several U.S. states to give rights to same-sex domestic partners when someone in the relationship is ill or deceased.)

It was around the time of David’s death that Pat’s career began to fall apart. He owned a beauty salon in Sandusky that was very successful, because the salon’s clients included all the high-society ladies in the Sandusky area. However, an employee of his named Dee Dee Dale (played by Jennifer Coolidge) betrayed Pat by opening up her own beauty salon across the street, and she lured away many of his top clients. Pat’s salon eventually went out of business, and he is still extremely bitter about it.

All of this background information isn’t revealed right away in the movie, but it explains why Pat is a curmudgeonly loner at the nursing home. His nursing home expenses are paid for by his government benefits. The only person at the nursing home whom he seem to enjoy being around is a mute, wheelchair-using resident named Gertie (played by Annie Kitral), whose long hair he loves to style on a regular basis. Pat recently had a stroke, but that doesn’t stop him from smoking cigarettes. His favorite cigarette brand is More, which is a throwback to when the brand was popular in the 1970s.

One day, Pat gets a visit from an attorney named Mr. Shanrock (played by Tom Bloom), who represents someone from Pat’s past: an actress named Rita Parker Sloan (played by Linda Evans), who was around Pat’s age and who used to be Pat’s client. However, Pat and Rita stopped speaking to each other years ago when Rita became Dee Dee’s client. Mr. Shanrock has arrived at the nursing home to tell Pat that Rita has died and she had a specific request in her will: Rita wanted Pat to be the one to do her hair and makeup for her funeral.

Rita wasn’t a superstar actress, but she was well-known enough to be considered one of Sandusky’s most famous residents. The local media outlets have reported her death as big news. And so, this funeral will be a fairly high-profile event. Pat is very surprised to hear that Rita’s dying wish was for him to do her funeral hair and makeup.

Mr. Shanrock shows Pat an obituary photo of Rita in her heyday that’s in the local newspaper and asks, “Perhaps you can recreate the same hairstyle?” Pat deadpans, “Split ends and all?” Pat immediately says no to the request, even after Mr. Shanrock offers a fee of $25,000.

Mr. Shanrock then tries to appeal to any sentimentality that Pat might have, by saying: “Let bygones be bygones, Patrick. It’s not healthy to hold a grudge. You would deny a great woman her dying wish?” Pat is unmoved and says flatly, “Bury her with bad hair.”

After Mr. Shanrock leaves in disappointment, Pat takes out a hat box that is filled with his personal mementos. He looks through photos of David and other items from Pat’s past. This trip down memory lane seems to have softened his attitude toward his falling out with Rita, because he changes his mind and decides that he’s going to do Rita’s funeral hair and makeup after all.

The problem is that Pat (who doesn’t have a car) is so broke, he can’t even afford to take a taxi or rideshare to the funeral home. He’s too proud to ask anyone he knows for a free ride. And he doesn’t have the money to get the specific high-end beauty salon products that he wants. So, what’s a financially strapped but determined retired hair stylist to do in these circumstances? If you’re Pat Pitsenbarger, you decide to walk to the funeral home by yourself—even though it’s several miles away and it’s very hot outside.

Before he leaves for the funeral home, a nursing home assistant named Shaundell (played by Roshon Thomas) confiscates his box of cigarettes and scolds Pat by saying: “Sometimes, I think you want to have another stroke.” However, Pat has another box of More cigarettes secretly stashed away. He puts several loose cigarettes in the fanny pack that he wears during the trip. Pat is seen frequently puffing on his smokes throughout the movie.

The rest of “Swan Song” chronicles Pat’s journey to the funeral home, including some of the people he meets along the way. He tries to pull off some hilarious schemes in an attempt to get some cash to buy beauty products or to get a free ride from a stranger. At one point, Pat stands at the side of a road and holds up a sign that says “Free Beauty Tips.”

During his journey, which is mostly on foot, Pat has flashbacks of happier times. And sometimes, he has fantasies about being the star of a drag queen show. Fans of campy 1970s fashion will have a feast for their eyes, since Pat is seen in various flamboyant outfits, including one where he’s wearing a chandelier on his head.

One of the people whom Pat meets is Rita’s nephew Dustin (played by Michael Urie), who gives Pat a very different perspective of what Rita thought of Pat during their estrangement. Pat also sees Mr. Shanrock again, and there’s some haggling over how Pat is going to be paid for his services. And, of course, Pat inevitably sees Dee Dee again when it seems like her salon is the only one in town to have the products that Pat wants.

“Swan Song” doesn’t have over-the-top slapstick comedy. The movie is grounded in realism and has a bittersweet poignancy as viewers see Pat experiencing some of the joys and pains of his life. He was someone who made a living making his clients feel good about themselves. It’s a joy that he gave and which he comes to realize has been missing from his life for too long. There’s a standout scene toward the end of the movie where Pat is on the receiving end of this joy.

Thanks to writer/director Stephens’ witty screenplay and well-paced direction, “Swan Song” is as emotionally authentic as it is entertaining. However, Kier’s droll and touching performance makes this movie a fascinating jaunt for movie fans who adore unique and compelling protagonists. “Swan Song” is also a love letter to the LGBTQ community and loved ones left behind in the AIDS crisis. “Swan Song” isn’t just about what Pat discovers on his journey. Viewers will find out that this protagonist might appear to have a hardened heart, but underneath he has a very tender and loving soul.

Magnolia Pictures released “Swan Song” in select U.S. cinemas on August 6, 2021, and on digital and VOD on August 13, 2021.

Review: ‘Haymaker’ (2021), starring Nick Sasso, Nomi Ruiz, John Ventimiglia, Veronica Falcón, Udo Kier, Zoë Bell and D.B. Sweeney

March 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Nomi Ruiz and Nick Sasso in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

“Haymaker” (2021)

Directed by Nick Sasso

Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, Los Angeles, Greece, Thailand and Mexico City, the dramatic film “Haymaker” features a predominantly white cast (with some Latinos, African, Americans and Asians) representing people in the entertainment industry and the world of Muay Thai fighting.

Culture Clash: A Muay Thai fighter becomes the bodyguard of an up-and-coming singer and gets more than he bargained for when he starts to have romantic feelings about her.

Culture Audience: “Haymaker” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching a movie that’s a series of tedious scenes that don’t add up to much of a plot.

Nomi Ruiz in “Haymaker” (Photo courtesy of Kamikaze Dogfight/Gravitas Ventures)

The dramatic film “Haymaker” is a globe-trotting film that had the potential to be a compelling adventure/love story. However, the movie’s incoherent storyline, badly written dialogue and dull acting make it very forgettable. “Haymaker” is the feature-film directorial debut of Nick Sasso, who is also the star of the film as the story’s protagonist. But his Nicky “Mitts” Malloy character is so lacking in charisma that he is easily outshined by co-star Nomi Ruiz, who plays the seductive singer (also named Nomi) who steals Nicky’s heart.

In “Haymaker,” Nicky is a retired championship Muay Thai fighter who is now working as a bouncer/security staffer at a New York City nightclub. It’s the type of nightclub where young people like to party but some shady criminal types hang out there too. In the beginning of the movie, Nicky sees Nomi being sexually assaulted in the dressing room by a thug named Bluto (played by Olan Montgomery) before she goes on stage.

Nicky comes to Nomi’s rescue by beating up her attacker, who leaves the club. There’s no mention in the movie of calling the police to report this sexual assault because it’s implied that this is the type of nightclub that doesn’t want the cops anywhere near the place. Nomi, who is a dance/pop artist, thanks Nicky, manages to compose herself, and she performs on stage like a pro.

Nicky is transfixed and awed, as he watches Nomi perform while he stands near the bar. He looks at her in a way that it’s pretty obvious that these two are going to be headed toward a romance at some point in the story. Ruiz is a pretty good singer/performer, but the songs she does in “Haymaker” are very generic.

After the nightclub closes for the night, Nomi says to Nicky while they’re seated at the bar: “You know, I owe you a drink.” Nicky replies, “No, you don’t.” Nomi then says, “I could use one.” This is an example of the simplistic and boring dialogue that drags down the film. The actors also sometimes recite their lines awkwardly, with pauses that are little too long and pacing that doesn’t sound like an authentic conversation.

Because Nomi was impressed with how Nicky fought to protect her, she offers him a job as her bodyguard. Nomi says she needs protection from “her fans,” but her half-joking tone of voice when she says it will make people wonder if she’s serious or not. Nicky is going to need this bodyguard job, because shortly after he and Nomi have the conversation, he gets fired by his boss Javier (played by John Ventimiglia) at the nightclub.

Javier tells Nicky that the firing is nothing personal against Nicky, but it’s because Bluto is “a friend of the club,” and the boss can’t risk alienating this thug. The implication is that Bluto is some kind of gangster or shady person who’s given this nightclub boss a reason to choose Bluto over Nicky. Now that he’s been laid off from the nightclub, Nicky can spend more time being Nomi’s full-time bodyguard. How convenient.

Nicky and Nomi have a conversation outside of the nightclub where they both talk a little bit about their backgrounds. They’re both New York City natives. He’s from The Bronx, while she’s from Bay Ridge in Brooklyn.

Nomi tells Nicky that he’s also going to be her driver because she doesn’t have a car. Nicky doesn’t even bother to charge her extra money for this added responsibility. It’s pretty obvious that he’s infatuated with her and he thinks getting paid to be around Nomi is just a bonus. Nicky and Nomi exchange phone numbers and then part ways for the night.

The first time that Nicky goes to work for Nomi, she wants him to drive her to a recording studio. He picks her up at her modest apartment, where Nomi lives with her bed-ridden grandmother, whom she calls Mama (played by Kathryn Kates). While at the apartment, Nicky and Nomi talk some more about their lives. They both find out that they have something in common: They were both expelled from high school.

Nicky is the “strong, silent type,” so even though viewers can see that he’s probably falling for Nomi, he doesn’t really outwardly express it. In terms of personality, Nicky and Nomi are opposites (he’s an introvert, she’s an extrovert) and have very different lifestyles. Nomi is a bit of a wild child who likes to party (she does cocaine and Ecstasy in a few scenes), while Nicky seems to be leading a fairly straight-laced lifestyle.

Nomi is unpredictable and sometimes irrational, as Nicky finds out when he takes her to the recording studio. She orders Nicky to wait for her in the reception area until she completes her recording session. But then, a rapper named Logan (played by Ty Hickson) in the recording studio picks a fight with Nomi, so the recording session is cut short.

Nicky has no way of knowing about this argument because he’s in another part of the building and couldn’t hear what was going on. But that doesn’t stop Nomi from storming out of the studio and berating Nicky for not coming to her rescue. Nicky tells Nomi that she’s being unreasonable, but she makes it clear that she gets to decide what Nicky should be doing because she’s paying him. Nomi seems to be treating Nicky like a chump, so this movie will have a hard time convincing viewers that this would-be romance is built on mutual respect.

One of the biggest flaws in “Haymaker” is that it constantly hints of an intriguing backstory for Nomi, but then just leaves those hints hanging with no elaboration. For example, one night, Nicky goes back to the nightclub where he used to work. He happens to see Nomi at the club. She’s sitting at a table with a mobster type named Fürst (played by Udo Kier, who has a brief cameo) and two couples who appear to be part of Fürst’s entourage.

Nicky joins them at the table, but he looks and feels uncomfortable. Fürst talks about how Nomi burned down his Malibu house, but it was an accident. Fürst then tells Nomi in a slightly menacing voice, “You owe me.” After Nomi snorts some cocaine, Nicky escorts her out of the nightclub. Fürst is never seen or heard from again. It’s never revealed in the movie how Nomi and Fürst know each other, what she was doing in Malibu, and what she “owes” him.

And the movie hints at but never explores the fact that Nomi is a transgender woman, as is Ruiz in real life. There’s a scene that’s in the “Haymaker” trailer where she reveals to Nicky that she’s transgender, but that scene was cut from the movie. In the scene, Nicky and Nomi are in someone’s home while he looks at several framed family photos displayed on a table. He picks up a photo of a little boy and asks who the boy is. Nomi replies, “Me.”

Nomi says a few things in the movie that give hints about her transgender identity, by telling Nicky that she can’t really reveal all of herself to him and that she’s not who she appears to be. However, since the filmmakers cut out the scene of Nomi telling Nicky that she lived as a boy when she was a child, the movie doesn’t have a big reveal about Nomi being transgender.

Because Nicky is never told in the final cut of the movie that Nomi is transgender, this omission can be considered careless at best or deliberately dishonest at worst. Maybe the filmmakers didn’t want Nomi’s transgender identity to be a distraction to the story. Or maybe they feared that it would alienate transphobic viewers. Whatever the reason, muting or possibly trying to erase Nomi’s transgender identity was a missed opportunity to make this very tedious movie more interesting.

There’s another part of the movie where Nicky briefly meets Nomi’s mother Marisol (Veronica Falcón), and it’s hinted that Nomi and Marisol were estranged at some point. It’s also implied that Nomi spent a great deal of her childhood being raised by her grandmother. But the movie never goes into details over why Nomi was closer to her grandmother than she was to her mother.

Not much is told about Nicky’s background either. He has an older brother named Mack (played by D.B. Sweeney), who has been his trainer. And during a conversation between Nicky and Nomi, Nicky mentions that he had a fiancée, who was his co-worker, but the fiancée broke up with Nicky after he lost a fight. Nicky describes the breakup this way to Nomi: “She was cool. I hurt her feelings. The end.”

Even though it’s never said out loud in the film, and it’s not spoiler information, viewers can easily figure out the ex-fiancée is a woman named Rosie (played by Zoë Bell), who works at a gym where Nicky did a lot of training. Rosie’s brief interactions with Nicky give the impression that they used to be romantically involved and they’re now trying to keep things professional, but Rosie still cares about him as a friend. Nicky seems to have some hard feelings about the breakup though, because he’s a little bit standoffish toward Rosie.

A lot of “Haymaker” is a mishmash of scenes of Nicky going on tour with Nomi in various places, such as Los Angeles, Greece and Mexico City. She’s well-known enough to headline at large nightclubs that hold about 1,000 people, but she’s definitely not very famous. People watching this movie should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Nicky literally standing around while he watches Nomi perform on stage, or else he’s lingering in the background while she parties in hotel rooms or nightclubs and he barely talks to anyone.

A major problem with “Haymaker” is that the filmmakers seemed more concerned with filming the actors in exotic settings than making this story interesting. Nomi actually doesn’t have anyone in her life who’s a real threat to her, so the supposed “protection” she needs is a very misleading part of this movie. Don’t expect “Haymaker” to be like an indie film version of the 1992 Whitney Houston/Kevin Costner blockbuster “The Bodyguard.” There are no chase scenes, stalkers or assassination attempts in “Haymaker.”

As for the romance in “Haymaker,” it might have been intended as a “slow burn,” but it’s more like a “big snooze.” Because the dialogue is so dumbed-down, Nicky and Nomi don’t have any meaningful conversations that would make it believable that they’re connecting on a level that goes beyond physical attraction. The movie also doesn’t adequately address how Nomi takes advantage of the power imbalance that she has as Nicky’s employer.

Some very cliché jealousy issues happen between Nicky and Nomi. At one point in “Haymaker,” Nicky comes out of Muy Thai retirement, trains in Thailand, and does a Muy Thai fight with Brett “The Threat” Hlavacek, who portrays himself in the movie. But even the fight scenes and the outcome of the fight are formulaic and extremely predictable.

For a low-budget independent movie, “Haymaker” makes an admirable attempt to look stylish, since many of Nomi’s performance scenes and the outdoor vistas benefit from cinematography that tries to make the movie look more glamorous than it really is. “Haymaker” also has a few light touches of comedy, such as a scene where Nomi wants to spend time at a beach, but Nicky doesn’t have a swimsuit. They go into a public restroom and she makes him wear the type of swimsuit he doesn’t like: a Speedo.

Ultimately though, “Haymaker” is too disjointed with its poorly conceived screenwriting, amateurish directing and choppy editing. No one is expecting the Nicky character to be a talkative intellectual (look at “Rocky” movie hero Rocky Balboa, for instance), but viewers expect a leading man to at least have something magnetic about his personality. Unfortunately, between Nicky’s dullness and Nomi not doing much except pouting, singing and acting sexy, “Haymaker” is just a disappointing dud. The movie might have been filmed in various locations around the world, but “Haymaker” ends up going nowhere if people are looking for a quality story that’s entertaining.

Kamikaze Dogfight and Gravitas Ventures released “Haymaker” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 29, 2021.

Review: ‘Skin Walker,’ starring Amber Anderson, Udo Kier and Jefferson Hall

August 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Amber Anderson in “Skin Walker” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

“Skin Walker” 

Directed by Christian Neuman

Culture Representation: Taking place in Europe, the horror film “Skin Walker” features an all-white cast representing the wealthy and the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman goes back to her family home to confront dark secrets in her family’s past.

Culture Audience: “Skin Walker” will appeal primarily to people who like convoluted but stylish-looking horror films.

Udo Kier in “Skin Walker” (Photo courtesy of Cleopatra Entertainment)

The horror film “Skin Walker” (written and directed by Christian Neuman) is best enjoyed if people know up front that it’s the type of movie where a scene that looks like reality could be a delusion of one of the characters. The truth is revealed at the end of the movie, but “Skin Walker” deliberately confuses and plays guessing games with viewers as part of the overall psychological horror that the film intends to convey.

The story, which takes place in an unnamed European country, is told from the perspective of Regine Kirk (played Amber Anderson), who’s in her late 20s and living in a big city. Regine is a semi-Goth-looking woman whose somber aura indicates that she’s not very happy with her life. The beginning of the movie shows her at a nightclub with other young people wearing a lot of black and dancing to industrial music. She spends the night with the guy that she was dancing with at the club, and he drops her off at home the next day. Is he her boyfriend or is he just a fling?

The next day, Regine goes to work in a factory, wearing the same drab uniform as her other co-workers. One day, when she goes home, the guy from the nightclub is there, which gives viewers the impression that he and Regine live together. His name is Jacob (played by Nicolas Godart), and he informs Regine that someone is there to visit her.

The unexpected visitor is a mysterious bearded man, who looks like he’s in his late 30s or early 40s His name is later revealed as Robert (played by Jefferson Hall), and he’s there to tell Regine some unsettling news: Her younger brother Isaac, who was believed to be dead, is really alive.

Regine emphatically tells Isaac that her brother is dead, while Robert tells Regine, “You look just like your mother.” Regine angrily asks Robert, “How do you know my mum? I’ve never seen you before in my life.” As proof that he knows Regine, he shows her a photo from the summer of 1998, when she was about 6 or 7 years old, that shows Regine, her mother and Robert together outside having a picnic on the grass.

Robert then drops another bombshell: He tells Regine that Isaac is his son. “He killed your grandmother,” Robert tells Regine. “They lied to you. He’ll start looking for you. You need to come home.” At this point, Regine is so upset that she wants Robert to leave, so Jacob throws Robert out of the apartment.

What Robert has told Regine has disturbed her so much that she decides to go back to her large family estate in the countryside to find out what really happened to Isaac, who was born when Regine was about 7 or 8 years old. Before she makes the trip, Regine visits her mother Rose (played by Sophie Mousel), who is living in a psychiatric institution, and tells her mother that she’s going home. Regine’s parents divorced years ago, when Rose left her husband for another man.

Regine goes home to the type of isolated mansion that is often seen in horror movies. It looks “normal” on the outside, but the inside is cold, dark and foreboding. Her father Claus (played by Udo Kier) is mourning the death of his mother (played by Marja-Leena Junker), who does not have a name in the movie. Robert has said that Regine’s grandmother was murdered by Isaac, but Claus denies it when Regine confronts him with this information.

It’s shown in the movie’s many flashbacks that Claus had a love/hate relationship with his domineering mother. Regine was an only child until Isaac was born. (Juliette Gillis plays Regine as a child in these flashbacks.) And there are lingering resentments over Rose’s infidelity, which essentially broke up the family.

Claus isn’t very happy to see his estranged daughter Regine, whose other reason for coming back home is to attend her grandmother’s funeral. Claus coldly tells Regine, “I’d never imagine that you’d set foot here again. I want you to leave after the funeral. You shouldn’t be here.”

Meanwhile, Robert is seen at a local bar getting drunk and babbling about his “lost son” Isaac and how he has to find him. Robert believes that Regine’s family secretly sent Isaac to live in an orphanage and that Isaac is now out to get revenge on the family. Robert is also seen showing up unannounced at the family home and asking Claus if anyone knows about their arrangement. Claus says no.

What exactly is this secret arrangement? And what was it about Isaac that caused the family to possibly reject him? It’s shown in flashbacks that Isaac was born with a severe deformity. When Robert sees Regine has come back to the area, they have another confrontation where she tells him, “Isaac died a few days after birth. I saw him. He was deformed and incapable of living.”

But is Isaac alive? And if he’s dead, what really happened to him? Those questions are answered by the end of the movie, which also has a strange character named Dr. Mantell (played by Luc Feit), who’s supposed to be Rose’s psychiatrist, but somehow he’s followed Regine to the countryside. Dr. Mantell begins stalking Regine, and he starts inflicting some terror on her.

“Skin Walker” is the feature-film debut of writer/director Neuman, who has a lot of talent in creating the right imagery for this Gothic-inspired horror film. There are many scenes that are very stylishly filmed by cinematographer Amandine Klee in ways that seem to be inspired by classic Dario Argento movies that have a rich color palette but dark overtones to never let viewers forget that they’ve stepped into an atmosphere of menace and treachery. And although many of the scenes take place outdoors or in the spacious mansion, the movie conveys a type of emotional claustrophobia that adds to the horror.

As Regine’s creepy father Claus, Kier is effective in his role, but he’s played these types of enigmatic and weird characters before, so there isn’t really too much of a surprise in his acting. The movie is really about Regine. Anderson gives a very chilling performance as a troubled woman whose inner turmoil unfolds like layers in the story, which takes viewers down a proverbial rabbit hole with her.

Because the movie plays tricks on viewers about what is real and what isn’t real in the story, “Skin Walker” might frustrate people who are expecting a more straightforward narrative in this horror film. It’s the type of movie that will grow on people if they think back to scenes where there were clues that something was off-kilter. Remembering the story in hindsight might compel people to watch the movie again to see how those clues were hiding in plain sight and how the confusing messiness of the narrative is actually just like a tangled web that makes more sense if you see how the points connect with each other.

Cleopatra Entertainment released “Skin Walker” on VOD on August 4, 2020.

Review: ‘Bacurau,’ starring Sônia Braga, Udo Kier and Bárbara Colen

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Sonia Braga in "Bacurau"
Sônia Braga (center) in “Bacurau” (Photo by Victor Jucá)

“Bacurau”

Directed by Kleber Mendon​ç​a Filho and Juliano Dornelles

Portuguese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional, rural town of Bacurau, Brazil, this drama/thriller has a diverse cast of characters representing Brazilians, Europeans and Americans from several social classes.

Culture Clash: The citizens of Bacurau face various threats to their existence.

Culture Audience: “Bacurau” will appeal primarily to people who like arthouse cinema about rural South American life that has brutal social commentary underneath some of its violent scenes.

Udo Kier and Sônia Braga in “Bacurau” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Bacurau” is a slow burn of a film that leads up to an intense and violent confrontation that is part Western pulp, part fierce social commentary on the evils of racist colonialism. The movie begins with the arrival of Teresa (played by Bárbara Colen) at her family hometown of Bacurau, a rural village that is so small that it sometimes can’t even be found on a map. She’s wearing a white medical overcoat, not because she’s a medical professional, but because she says it’s for her “protection.” It’s the first sign in the movie that there’s possible danger in Bacurau.

The village is mourning the death of Teresa’s 94-year-old grandmother Carmelita, who was Bacurau’s unofficial matriarch. During the funeral procession held outside, a middle-aged woman named Domingas (played by Sônia Braga) gets upset and curses Carmelita by calling her a “prick,” before she is led away. Why is Domingas so angry at this beloved dead woman who can’t defend herself?

For starters, Domingas is drunk at the funeral. She was a close friend of Carmelita’s, and they had some kind of falling out before she died. And one of the things that Domingas shouts during her funeral outburst is that she hopes that when she dies, she’ll get the kind of grand funeral that Carmelita is getting. Jealous much? Later, Domingas makes a public apology to the townspeople for her tantrum. Now that Carmelita is dead, Domingas has become the top-ranking woman on the town’s social ladder.

As Teresa settles back into the house of her father Plinio (played by Wilson Rabelo), who is Carmelita’s son, she gets reacquainted with a thuggish man named Pacote, also known as Acacio (played by Thomas Aquino), who’s part of a local group of gun-toting outlaws. Their leader is a guy named Lunga (played by Silvero Pereira), who’s gone into hiding because unnamed people are after him. Pacote is one of the few people who knows where Lunga is. And the news gets out to the village that the main highway in Brazil has been shut down and only motorcycles can pass through.

Meanwhile, as the feeling of impending doom slowly takes over the village, the movie takes a closer look at some of the main characters of the story. Teresa and Pacote become lovers, and she basically pledges to be a loyal ally to him and the gang if their lives are threatened. Lunga (who’s become sort of a folk hero in Bacurau) eventually shows up, and he doesn’t look like a typical gang leader who has a reputation for being a vicious killer. He’s a baby-faced guy with a mullet and he isn’t very tall, but what he lacks in a menacing physique, he makes up for with his fearless attitude.

Domingas is a lesbian madam of the town’s prostitutes, who make their money from the locals and some of the men who pass through the town. One of those men is Tony Junior (played by Thardelly Lima), a smarmy politician who has the nerve to show up for a “surprise” visit in a cavalcade of automobiles decorated with campaign slogans and with megaphones asking the villagers to vote for him. He’s brought supplies and books that he plans to distribute to the Bacurau residents, and he tells the camera crew that’s accompanied him to get ready to film this staged charity donation.

The villagers have been tipped off in advance that Tony is going to barrel through their town, so by the time he gets there, the streets are empty and the townspeople have barricaded themselves in their homes. Why are they so angry with him?

As Tony uses the megaphone in the middle of the street, they begin to curse at him and tell him to release the water that the village desperately needs. Tony’s response is to give politician-speak excuses that their requests will take time to go through the correct channels. Before he leaves Bacurau, Tony hires one of Domingas’ prostitutes (a young woman named Sandra, played by Thardelly Lima) to travel back with him. Domingas tells Tony that if anything happens to Sandra, Domingas will “feed his cock to the hens.”

Meanwhile, a drone is flying over parts of Bacurau, and it’s being controlled by a group of white Europeans and Americans, who are using the drone to spy on the locals and track their movements. The group of mostly tourists is led by a German named Michael (played by Udo Kier), who is very familiar with Bacurau.

Around this time, strange things start happening in Bacurau. A parked truck with a water tank ends up being shot with mysterious bullet holes, which have caused the tank to leak out much-needed water. Then, two motorcyclists—a man from São Paulo (played by Antonio Saboia) and a woman from Rio de Janeiro (played by Karine Teles)—arrive in the town wearing garish motorcycle outfits that make it obvious that they’re city dwellers who are showing off. The strangers say that they’re just passing through, but the residents of Bacurau are suspicious. It’s not long before it’s clear why the people of Bacurau don’t trust outsiders.

Although “Bacurau” won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival (in a tie with the French police-brutality drama “Les Misérables”), “Bacurau” is not a movie for everyone. There are many disturbing scenes in the film, which has a level of bloody violence that might be repulsive to some viewers. The murderous mayhem in the movie almost has a video-game quality to it, which is precisely one of the points that the film is trying to make with its underlying social messages. Even though modern technology is used by the movie’s villains, the lust for violence has been around as long as people have sought to conquer other human beings.

Kino Lorber released “Bacurau” in New York City on March 6, 2020. The movie’s theatrical release in the U.S. and Canada will expand to more cities in the subsequent weeks. “Bacurau” was originally released in Brazil in 2019.