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, Nick 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.

Nick 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.