Review: ‘Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme,’ starring Joslyn Jensen, Craig Cole, Robert Henry, John Verrastro, Michael Finnegan, Nancy Dillon and Doug Thompson

June 12, 2024

by Carla Hay

A blended photo of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery, in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme”

Directed by David Darg

Culture Representation: The documentary film “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” features a predominantly white group of people (with one person of South Asian heritage) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: Zach Horwitz, an actor using the stage name Zach Avery, conned people out of an estimated $690 million in a Ponzi scheme where he sought investors for his fraudulent movie licensing company.  

Culture Audience: “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in true crime documentaries about con artists.

Joslyn Jensen in “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is a true crime documentary with details that are so outrageous, they sound like they could be in a scripted Hollywood movie. This compelling documentary doesn’t reveal any new information about the case of convicted fraudster Zachary Horwitz, also known as actor Zach Avery. The film’s surprise ending is gimmicky but proves a point about false perception versus factual reality.

Directed by David Darg, “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is one of those true documentaries takes most of its information from what was already reported in the news media and then turns it into a non-fiction film. The movie has a twist that is clearly intended to make “Bad Actor” stand out from other documentaries. However, the twist will probably be divisive to some viewers. “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” had its world premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Festival.

Horwitz was arrested in 2021 on federal fraud charges that he swindled about $690 million from people through his company 1inMM Productions (pronounced “One in a Million Productions”) through phony licensing deals for movies. He was a Los Angeles-area actor and producer (mostly in obscure independent films that were dramas or action flicks) but lived a lavish lifestyle that ended up leading to his downfall. He was convicted in 2021, after pleading guilty to one count of securities fraud totaling $227 million. In 2022, Horwitz was sentenced to 20 years in federal prison and ordered to pay $230 million in restitution.

The case of Horwitz has gotten a lot of media coverage, so the documentary doesn’t waste time with a “whodunit” format. “Bad Actor” is a retrospective look at how Horwitz was able to fool and defraud so many people. He forged a lot of convincing-looking documents and had meticulous records to keep track of his lies. Horwitz, who frequently dropped the name of on-again/off-again Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, also faked email and text messages from executives at major media companies such as HBO and Netflix.

Joslyn Jensen appears on camera as the interviewer, she does the voiceover narration, and she talks about her choices regarding what will be put in the movie. Viewers will draw their own conclusions about her role in the making of this documentary. “Bad Actor” also feature footage of the audition process for people being cast for the documentary’s re-enactment scenes. Robert Jumper has the role of Horwitz in these re-enactments. The auditioning actors are also asked for their thoughts on this case, and some of those comments are in the movie.

Born in Berkeley, California, on December 5, 1986, Horwitz was raised in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was a popular football player at Caroll High School. Steve Clark, a former Carroll High School classmate of Horwitz, says in the documentary that Horwitz never pursued acting in high school and was known mostly for being an athlete. Even though Horwitz didn’t show a public interest in acting when he was in high school, Clark and fellow Carroll High School alum Robbie McKerr remember that Horwitz was known for exaggerating or outright lying about himself. For example, McKerr says Horwitz lied about playing football for Indiana University Bloomington.

After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington in 2010, Horwitz moved to Chicago with his live-in-girlfriend Mallory Hagedorn, an aspiring wedding planner. Horwitz’s mother inherited “millions” from her deceased second husband Robert Kozlowski (Horwitz’s stepfather), and it’s widely presumed that some of this inheritance was used as the seed money for the juice bar that Horwitz opened in Chicago.

By all accounts, the juice bar was a legitimate business, even though Horwitz would lie to some people by saying that billionaire Howard Schultz (the on-again/off-again CEO of Starbucks) was an investor in the juice bar. Horwitz would later use Schultz’s name for his criminal fraud schemes. Horwitz would falsely claim to various people that Schultz was an investor and mentor.

The juice bar ultimately failed, so Horwitz and Hagedorn moved to Los Angeles, where he began a career as an actor named Zach Avery. Horwitz and Hagedorn were married from 2014 to 2021 and have two children together. It was in Los Angeles that Horwitz began his fraud of being the leader of the start-up company 1inMM Productions, which claimed to license movies overseas for major movie studies and companies such as HBO and Netflix. It’s mentioned in the documentary that Horwitz purposely chose real titles of obscure movies to make everything look legitimate.

The Chicago-based investment firm JJMT was listed as an “advisory firm” for 1inMM Productions. Over time, as widely reported, Horwitz would use the millions of dollars that he stole to fund a lavish lifestyle and “pay for play” schemes, where he would pay money to filmmakers to cast him in their movies and sometimes be listed as an executive producer of these movies. “Bad Actor” doesn’t name any specific movie where Horwitz bought his way into an acting role. However, the documentary pokes fun at all the bad acting he has in these movies with cleverly edited film clips from movies such as 2018’s “Farming,” 2018’s “The White Crow,” 2020’s “Last Moment of Clarity,” 2021’s “The Devil Below” and 2021’s “The Gateway.”

“Bad Actor” has the expected interviews with other people who knew Horwitz as friends or acquaintances who describe him as being very convincing and charming, which was a personality mask for the cold-blooded way he committed his crimes. Horwitz and his family members are not interviewed. However, the documentary includes some archival interview clips that Horwitz did with independent media outlets, as well as some personal videos that were recorded when he was amongst friends and family members.

Some of his fraud victims are also interviewed. Craig Cole (an aspiring actor who said he was Horwitz’s best friend for years) and screenwriter Robert Henry are the two victims in the documentary who get the most screen time with their heart-wrenching stories about losing their life savings to Horwitz. Cole says that Horwitz went as far as targeting Cole’s parents, who also lost their life savings in Horwitz’s elaborate con scheme.

Also interviewed are law enforcement officials (FBI agents Doug Thompson and John Verrastro) and journalists (Michael Finnegan of The Los Angeles Times and Nancy Dillon of Rolling Stone) who were involved with or very familiar with the case. “Bad Actor” interviewees also include Bill Witte (a retired Indiana University Bloomington professor of economics, who explains how Ponzi schemes work) and Doug Lynam, Ph. D., who describes the psychology of a narcissistic, possibly sociopathic con artist.

“Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” at times has a very dark comedic tone aimed at Horwitz, but the movie never glorifies him or exploits his victims. It’s yet another story about how easy it is for some people to be fooled by fake images and false hope if all of it is presented in a way that they think is credible. The ending of “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” is meant to place doubt in the minds of viewers who think they could never be fooled by a scam.

Neon will release “Bad Actor: A Hollywood Ponzi Scheme” in select U.S. cinemas on June 14, 2024.

Review: ‘The Gateway’ (2021), starring Shea Whigham, Olivia Munn, Frank Grillo and Bruce Dern

December 28, 2021

by Carla Hay

Shea Whigham and Olivia Munn in “The Gateway” (Photo by Antony Platt/Lionsgate)

“The Gateway” (2021)

Directed by Michele Civetta

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “The Gateway” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A well-meaning bachelor, who works for a city’s social services department, finds himself caught up in criminal warfare when he tries to protect a mother and her young daughter after the child’s father gets out of prison.

Culture Audience: “The Gateway” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in forgettable and formulaic crime dramas.

Shannon Adawn and Frank Grillo in “The Gateway” (Photo by Antony Platt/Lionsgate)

“The Gateway” is such a generic and unimaginative rehash of many other crime dramas, it’s likely to be soon forgotten after people see it. It’s yet another story about a hero who has an “against all odds” struggle against gangster thugs. In “The Gateway,” the protagonist does battle against drug-dealing goons, in order to save (cliché alert) a damsel in distress and her child. It’s all very hackneyed and boring. There’s absolutely nothing creative about this movie, which lumbers along until its very predictable end.

“The Gateway” was directed by Michele Civetta, who co-wrote the drab screenplay with Alex Felix Bendaña and Andrew Levitas. The movie is Civetta’s second feature film as a director. His feature-film directorial debut was the unremarkable 2020 horror flick “Agony,” which describes what any viewer might have felt if they watched that painfully dull film. And although Civetta says in “The Gateway” production notes that “The Gateway” was inspired by crime thrillers such as John Huston’s “Fat City” (released in 1972) and John Cassavetes’ “The Killing of a Chinese Bookie” (released in 1976), “The Gateway” has none of the intrigue or style of those films.

The name of the U.S. city where “The Gateway” takes place is never shown or mentioned by the characters in the movie, which was actually filmed in Norfolk, Virginia. Wherever “The Gateway” is supposed to take place, it’s a city where gambling is legal, because the “damsel in distress” is a blackjack dealer in a casino. She’s not the movie’s protagonist though. The story’s main character is yet another stereotype of a “regular Joe” who suddenly has to battle gangsters as if he’s an experienced member of law enforcement. Yawn.

The protagonist of “The Gateway” is Parker (played by Shea Whigham), a lonely middle-aged bachelor whose life revolves around his job working as an investigator for the city’s social services department. In the movie’s opening scene, viewers see that Parker is compassionate when he responds to a complaint about child endangerment in a house that’s basically a drug den. Parker finds a boy at the house who’s about 7 years old, and he comforts the boy when it’s discovered that the boy’s mother has overdosed. Two men in the house are then arrested.

For an unspecified period of time, Parker has been looking out for another child named Ashley (played by Taegen Burns), who’s about 12 years old. His interest in Ashley extends beyond his social worker job. He has become somewhat of a father figure to Ashley, whose father has been in prison for an untold number of years. Ashley’s mother Dahlia (played by Olivia Munn) has been raising Ashley while Dahlia holds down a job as a blackjack dealer.

Viewers never see any flashbacks of how Parker became close to this family, so the relationship that he has with Dahlia and Ashley feels too rushed and contrived in this movie. As an example of how Parker goes beyond his social worker duties for Ashley, Parker volunteers to take Ashley to school when he’s needed. It’s hinted that maybe Parker is attracted to Dahlia, but he doesn’t cross the line into making any inappropriate and unprofessional moves on her.

Dahlia might have a substance abuse problem, because the reason why Parker takes Ashley to school in an early scene in the movie is because she seems to be drunk or high, and Parker doesn’t want Dahlia to drive under the influence. The dynamics between Parker, Dahlia and Ashley change when Ashley’s father Mike (played by Zach Avery) gets out of prison and makes it clear to Parker that Mike wants to be the only father figure in Ashley’s life.

Soon after Mike get out of prison, he goes right back into a criminal lifestyle. At a bar frequented by shady people, Mike meets up with a local drug kingpin named Duke (played by Frank Grillo, in yet another one of his “tough guy” roles) to set up a heroin deal. Mike tells Duke and Duke’s associate Louis (played by Alexander Wraith) that Mike knows about two bricks of heroin that were stolen from a Mexican drug cartel.

Mike offers to deliver this heroin to Duke. In exchange, Duke says that he will set Mike and Louis up with enough money for Mike and Louis to open their own bar. Duke also offers to lend out the services of his henchman Hector (played by Mounir Quazzani) to help Mike and Louis for protection in retrieving this heroin, which is hidden in a place that could be guarded.

“The Gateway,” which already has a very simple-minded plot that would barely be enough for a short film, stretches everything out to tedious levels with repetitious scenes of Mike and his cronies committing crimes; Mike and Dahlia having tensions in their already shaky relationship; and Mike threatening Parker to stay away from Ashley. Parker was assigned to check on the welfare of Ashley, so he tells Mike that it would be up to the city to decide when Parker will no longer have to check up on her.

This movie is so poorly written that it does little to show who Parker is as a person. The only thing about his personal life that’s shown is that he has a rocky relationship with his father Marcus (played by Bruce Dern), because (as shown in flashbacks) Marcus was a verbally abusive alcoholic to Parker when Parker was a child. In fact, all of the characters in the movie don’t have much depth or personality. They’re just hollow vessels to act out the movie’s unimpressive action scenes. Two police detectives named Detective Vaughn (played by Shannon Adawn) and Detective Bachman (played by Nick Daly) are essentially useless, since this movie is about making Parker the biggest hero.

Needless to say in a predictable movie like “The Gateway,” Parker, Dahlia and Ashley unwittingly get caught up in Mike’s big heroin deal when the heroin stash goes missing. Expect the usual chase scenes and shootouts that clog up substandard thrillers such as “The Gateway.” The cast members and the filmmakers don’t put much effort into bringing any creative spark to this tired story. With all the better-quality movies that have already been made about drug deals gone bad, viewers don’t have to waste their time on “The Gateway.”

Lionsgate released “The Gateway” in select U.S. cinemas and on digital and VOD on September 3, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on September 7, 2021.

Review: ‘The Devil Below,’ starring Alicia Sanz, Adan Canto, Chinaza Uche, Zach Avery, Jonathan Sadowski and Will Patton

April 6, 2021

by Carla Hay

Adan Canto, Chinaza Uche, Zach Avery and Alicia Sanz in “The Devil Below” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Devil Below

Directed by Bradley Parker

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional rural town of Bluefield, Kentucky, the horror flick “The Devil Below” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: Four geologists and their tour guide try to solve the mystery of an abandoned mine that trapped 195 people decades earlier, and the explorers uncover sinister forces during their excursion. 

Culture Audience: “The Devil Below” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching formulaic and mindless horror movies.

Will Patton and Alicia Sanz in “The Devil Below” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

There’s absolutely nothing creative or original about the dreadfully predictable horror flick “The Devil Below.” It’s about a group of people who go somewhere remote and “forbidden” to try to find out why numerous people have mysteriously died or vanished in this death trap. The group of explorers think nothing will happen to them. And you know what happens next. Even though this concept has been recycled countless times in horror movies, there are ways to bring some freshness to this concept, but the “The Devil Below” fails miserably.

Directed by Bradley Parker and written by Eric Scherbarth and Stefan Jaworski, “The Devil Below” (formerly titled “Shookum Hills”) checks every horror cliché box in this lazy and unimaginative story. The acting is mediocre and the dialogue is forgettable. The movie starts off explaining that the death trap is a now-abandoned coal mine that was owned by the Shookum Hills Mining Company in the fictional rural town of Bluefield, Kentucky. In 1970, 33 people died and 162 went missing in an unexplained mining accident.

The opening scene shows another death in the present day: A miner named Schuttmann (played by Will Patton) is with his son Eric (played by Duncan Novak) near the mine, when a strange force seems to grab Eric and pull him down into the mine shaft. Meanwhile, someone or something stabs Schuttman in the neck. It won’t be the last that viewers will see of Schuttman though.

Sometime later (the movie doesn’t saw how much later), a feisty tour guide named Arianne (played by Alicia Sanz) is getting ready to lead a group of four geologists, who want Arianne to take them to the Shookum Hills mine, which is no longer on any current maps. Arianne doesn’t want to tell these geologists that she has no idea how to find the place. She needs the money that they’re paying her, so she decides to just “wing it” and hope they won’t figure out that she doesn’t really know how to get to the abandoned mine.

The four geologists are:

  • Darren Atkins (played by Adan Canto), the group’s ambitious and aggressive leader who has a checkered past that is eventually revealed in the story,
  • Terry Ellis (played by Jonathan Sadowski), a structural geologist, who is the jokester of the group.
  • Shawn Harrison (played Chinaza Uche), a field geologist/comparative mythologist, who is the skeptical worrier in the group.
  • Jaime Cowan (played by Zach Avery), the laid-back and easygoing member of the group.

The town of Shookum Hills in Kentucky burned down years ago and also isn’t on any current maps. On the way to the abandoned mine that Arianne doesn’t really know how to find (Arianne and the four geologists are in Arianne’s Jeep), she decides to stop at a nearby convenience store. The store is predictably dark and dingy, and the scruffy store clerk looks at this obvious out-of-towner with some suspicion.

When Arianne shows the clerk an old map of the Shookum Hills mine and asks how to get there, he immediately becomes hostile and says he doesn’t know. When Arianne leaves, the clerk gets on the phone and tells the person on the other line, “Dave, we have a problem.” The next thing you know, Arianne and the geologist crew are being chased through the woods by some of the local residents in a truck.

Arianne figures out that the people chasing them will go straight to the mine if they lose track of Arianne’s Jeep. And sure enough, that’s what happens. Arianne sees the direction where the truck is headed. And that’s how Arianne and the geologists find the mine. Or is it a sinkhole from hell? It’s easy to predict what will happen from there.

Shawn explains why he’s skittish about being there: “The prevailing theory is there was never actually a coal mine but America’s response to the well to hell … The Russians drilled about eight miles in Siberia until the drill broke, and they lowered a heat-resistant microphone into the well and heard this sound. Some say it’s the screams of the damned.” He then plays a scratchy audio recording of people wailing in agony. And with that, Shawn has already telegraphed what’s going to happen in this story.

As the body count piles up, “The Devil Below” uses the annoying horror movie trickery of making it look like someone has died but that person is really still alive. The first two-thirds of the movie are quite dull, but the last third is just absolutely moronic. Let’s put it this way: People who should have no logical reason to realistically move about or be alive, due to severe bodily injuries, end up acting as if they only have some pesky bruises. What’s lurking inside the mine is also very stereotypical.

The cinematography of “The Devil Below” is an ugly brownish hue for most of the film, except in the underground mine scenes, which at times has a bright red glow. This underground death trap is supposed to be hellish, so of course the filmmakers chose the most predictable color to represent hell. There’s a certain hell that viewers will experience if they watch “The Devil Below” to the very end. And that’s the hell of knowing that they wasted time watching this idiotic and boring movie.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Devil Below” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on March 5, 2021.

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