TOP GUN: MAVERICK (2022)

May 22, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Heavy on melodrama. Heavy on cockiness. Heavy on fighter jets. Heavy on nostalgia. Check. Everything that we want and expect in the long-awaited sequel to the 1986 film is present. It’s a movie spectacle featuring one of the few remaining bonafide movie stars front and center, as well as breathtaking action sequences that beg to be experienced on the largest screen possible and with the highest quality audio available. Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr are credited for the characters, while the new screenplay involved collaboration from Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer, Christopher McQuarrie, Peter Craig, and Justin Marks. The original film’s director, Tony Scott, passed away in 2012 at age 68, and Joseph Kosinski (OBLIVION, 2013, also starring Tom Cruise) takes the helm.

Callbacks to the original are plentiful, and we get our first in the opening title card – the same one used in 1986 to explain the “Top Gun” training center. Of course, there is one reason we are here, and that’s Tom Cruise. He was only 24 years old in the original, and now lives and exudes the swagger of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell. When the film opens, Maverick is an extreme test pilot pushing himself and an experimental aircraft to Mach 10, and yes, this goes against the wishes and order of the program’s Rear Admiral in charge played by a curmudgeonly Ed Harris. It’s a shame that Harris only has a couple of brief scenes, but he is the one that informs Maverick of his new orders to return to Top Gun immediately. His new commanding officer is Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (Jon Hamm), who is none too happy about Maverick being back. However, the order came directly from Maverick’s old nemesis/friend, Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (Val Kilmer), now a highly decorated Admiral in failing health.

Maverick is disappointed to learn that he has been brought in, not to fly, but to teach a group of Top Gun graduates how to execute an extraordinarily dangerous mission involving extended high speeds at a low altitude, dropping bombs on the uranium enhancement plant protected by a mountain range, and then immediately elevating to a nearly impossible level to avoid a crash – all while being targeted by the enemies radar and defense system. The enemy goes unnamed so that the movie can remain timeless and avoid any type of political backlash. Plus, this film is about thrills and action, not a political statement.

Being back means Maverick crosses paths with Penny Benjamin (Jennifer Connelly), who was mentioned briefly in the first film as an Admiral’s daughter. She now owns the local bar, has a daughter, races sailboats, and still carries a bit of a torch for Maverick, although she’s quick to bust his chops whenever possible. However, it’s the pilots he’s charged with training that cause the biggest issue for Maverick. One of them is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (Miles Teller). Rooster is the son of “Goose” (played in the original by Anthony Edwards), who flew with Maverick as his Radio Intercept Officer (RIO) and died in an ejection mishap. Rooster holds Maverick responsible and Maverick is still haunted by his friend’s death. Goose is seen in photos and via flashbacks, and Rooster emulates his dad at the bar’s piano. The conflict between Rooster and Maverick adds complications to the mission – and a bit of melodrama to the entire film.

The newbies (and the Navy) consider Maverick a relic of a bygone era, so of course, ‘instructor’ Maverick takes to the sky to strut his pilot stuff. In addition to Rooster, the standouts in the new group include Phoenix (Monica Barbaro), Bob (Lewis Pullman), and Hangman (Glen Powell), the latter of whom, along with Rooster, tries to recreate that symbiotic relationship we originally saw with Iceman vs Maverick. Teller and Powell are both solid, but this aspect never really clicks like the Rooster vs Maverick piece.

We can’t help but notice that the dramatic elements seem to be more of a focus this time around. The biggest impact comes from the scene where Mavericks visits Admiral Kazansky (Iceman) at his home. Despite his well-known physical limitations, Val Kilmer delivers a memorable performance, and the two actors seem to relish this opportunity. The situation is handled with grace, and we are appreciative of Cruise standing firm in his demand for Kilmer to appear in the film. As for the love story between Penny and Maverick, it had to be a bit frustrating for Ms. Connelly to work so hard on an underwritten role, while Jon Hamm’s constant furrowed brow and barking leaves him coming across as little more than jealous of Maverick.

Obviously it’s the fighter jets and aerial sequences that folks will come for, and spectacular and exhilarating are the best words I can find to describe what we see. I was fortunate to see his in IMAX, and if you have one near you, it’s certainly the preferred viewing format. Thanks to the Navy and the training and equipment received by the cast, there is an authentic feel that’s almost throwback in this day and age of CGI. We sense the speed and gravity pulls, even if we are never in peril. The aircraft carrier sequences are mind-boggling, though it’s jets in the air that provide the energy jolt.

Wise-cracking and heartstring-tugging moments fill the screen, and you can relax knowing Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” is back, while Berlin is thankfully not. Sand volleyball has been replaced by some semblance of shirtless and sweaty beach football as a team-builder, and yes, we get the patented Tom Cruise sprints – three times: on a treadmill, during beach football, and in a forest. The familiar sounds of Harold Faltermeyer’s original score are back, this time enhanced by Hans Zimmer and an ending song by Lady Gaga. Those from the original who are absent this time are the great Tom Skerritt, James Tolkan, Kelly McGillis, and Meg Ryan (whose character is mentioned as having passed away). Producer Jerry Bruckheimer is back, though his partner on the original, Don Simpson, died in 1996 at age 52. Deserving of kudos are cinematographer Claudio Miranda, film editor Eddie Hamilton, and those involved with sound, visual effects, and music. For those feeling the need for speed, this sequel delivers; just embrace the cliches and familiarity, and predictability.

Only in theaters (as it should be) Friday May 27, 2022

Here is my link to my 2013 article when I revisited the original TOP GUN

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EMERGENCY (2022)

May 20, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. When we discover someone in the midst of a medical emergency, most of us wouldn’t hesitate to call 911 for assistance. In this film, developed from their Sundance award-winning 2018 short film, director Carey Williams and writer K.D. Davila remind us things aren’t always quite so simple. Two best friends and college students, return home to find a white girl passed out in their living room. Since the two young men are black, and their roommate is Latino, their discussion revolves around how the situation will be viewed by paramedics and law enforcement. It’s a terrific premise, and one handled deftly by the filmmakers and cast.

The first act is outstanding as we quickly get a feel for the friendship between Sean (RJ Cyler, “I’m Dying Up Here”) and Kunle (Donald Elise Watkins, “The Underground Railroad”). Sean is the fun-loving one who is constantly vaping for effect, but also paranoid and aware. Kunle is the strait-laced son of two African immigrant doctors. Kunle has been accepted to the PhD program at Princeton, while Sean’s big plan is ensuring he and Kunle become the first black students at Buchannan to attend that evening’s ‘Legendary Tour’ … seven invitation-only frat parties held over the course of one night. Kunle wants to hang with his buddy – just as soon as he finishes with his bacteria specimens (his “babies”) in the campus laboratory.

The early buddy-comedy banter is spot on, and leads us to make assumptions about the type of movie this will be. It’s only after Sean and Kunle stop by the house and discover the girl, that we realize this is a rare buddy-comedy loaded with social commentary. Their gamer-obsessed roommate Carlos (Sebastian Chacon, “Penny Dreadful: City of Angels”) joins the mission on how best to handle the situation. Carlos catches grief for his fanny pack, which is always filled with granola bars. Sean enjoys teasing Kunle, calling him an “Oreo” for being too white inside, and we hear Kunle described as “Black excellence”. As these three men of color debate the next step – how to provide care to the girl (who has since thrown up on their floor), while also protecting themselves from possibly dangerous racist reactions.

What they don’t know is that while they are arguing, the unconscious girl’s big sister (Sabrina Carpenter) has rallied two friends to go searching. Rather than improve the situation, racial profiling plays a part at just about every turn. The tone of the film shifts when Emma (Maddie Nichols) wakes up and freaks out at the situation. It becomes a comedy of errors in the mode of ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987), only with fear and risk involved. Two sequences in particular standout: when they stop at Sean’s brother’s house to borrow a car, and when they do finally encounter the cops. Both scenes present the paranoia and constant uneasiness felt in these situations.

When utilizing comedy to express social commentary, there is a fine line between effective messaging and too-obvious. Both of these occur during the film, but for the most part, Williams and Davila and the cast are superb in making their points without preaching. The commentary on friendship and racism blends well into entertainment, despite the messages never leaving the screen.

In Select Theaters May 20th

Available worldwide on Amazon Prime Video May 27th

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THE INNOCENTS (2022)

May 12, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt wrote the screenplay for last year’s terrific THE WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD, and that’s just one of his collaborations with fellow countryman Joachim Trier. The two seem to enjoy, or at least have a knack, for creating films that take viewers out of their comfort zone. This is Vogt’s second feature as director, and you will likely find yourself questioning your ideals of the complexities of childhood and debating what makes a kid “good” or “bad”.

A family moves to a new apartment so that their eldest daughter Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad) can receive the best possible treatment for her non-verbal autism (seemingly trapped inside her own body). Anna’s younger sister Ida (Rakel Leonora Flottum) spends an inordinate amount of time on her own as their mother (Ellen Dorrit Petersen is also Rakel’s real life mother; THELMA, 2017) focuses on Anna. Immediately we are struck by how cruel Ida is to Anna, obviously envious of the time her parents devote to the child in need. The film moves meticulously as Ida befriends Ben (Sam Ashraf), a young boy from the same apartment building. Ben has an ability to move things with his mind. His telekinesis is in the early stages, and Ida pushes him to develop his powers. One particularly disturbing sequence involves the two kids and a local cat at the top of the building’s stairwell. Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim), another young girl from the building starts hanging out with Ida and Ben. This also draws in Anna, as the sweet Aisha has a connection with her and a way of communicating telepathically. It’s at this point where our brains shift into overdrive as we realize there is something supernatural going on.

As Ben’s ability grows, so does his sadistic nature. He reacts (often violently) to situations where he feels disrespected. At the same time, Anna and Aisha grow closer, and Ida and her parents are thrilled with Anna’s improved demeanor. As viewers, we come to realize that director Vogt has made the apartment building a character itself. Is the building behind the special abilities shown by these kids?  Or is it the ominous nearby forest? Why are the powers strongest when the kids are together? For a film that mostly progresses very slowly, there is much for us to take in – although we do wish more time had been spent on the makeup of all four kids. We are only teased with what other kids in the building are experiencing, but the supernatural aura is clearly in play.

None of the four child actors have any previous feature film experience, yet each is superb in their own way. They perfectly capture the curiosity and confusion that goes with childhood, and there is an insightful “kid” moment when Ida shows her one ‘talent’ to Ben. We are left to wonder if the film’s identical title to the 1961 classic is coincidental or purposeful. It’s not a remake, but it works as an homage. The staircase shot is even similar in the two films. Filmmaker Voigt excels at ensuring we believe something evil is just around the corner, yet he never rushes to the next moment. An eerie, ominous atmosphere is perfectly complemented by these four kids. Vogt’s dark film sticks the ending, and stays with us for a while.

Opening May 13, 2022

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THE NORTHMAN (2022)

April 21, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. After two incredible arthouse films that earned the label “visionary filmmaker” for Robert Eggers, some would not have been surprised to find him cashing in on a huge payday for the next colossal superhero movie. But for those of us who adore and respect him for THE WITCH (2015) and THE LIGHTHOUSE (2019), we knew Mr. Eggers was not the comic book type. Instead, he secured a hefty budget (still less than $100 million) and with his co-writer, Icelandic author Sjon (writer of last year’s mesmerizing LAMB), created the most epic Viking movie to date … while firmly maintaining his artsy stylings.

Every now and then a movie comes along and I must accept that my words will fall short; that I won’t be able to do justice to what I’ve experienced on screen. This is certainly one of those times. Based on the same Scandinavian folk tale that inspired Shakespeare to pen “Hamlet”, this Eggers film is not just meticulously researched, it also pulls us right in so that we slosh through the mud and muck. We shiver from the cold. We feel the wind and the brutality of the violence. We live the harsh elements of Viking life.

The film opens in the year 895 AD as young Prince Amleth welcomes home his battle-weary father, King Aurvandil (Ethan Hawke). Not long after jester Heimer the Fool (Willem Dafoe) jokes about the Queen and the King’s brother, the boy witnesses his uncle Fjolnir (Claes Bang, the excellent “Dracula” TV mini-series, 2020) strike dead the king. Amleth escapes, pledging to avenge his father’s murder and the kidnapping of his mother, Queen Gudrun (Oscar winner Nicole Kidman). Flash forward twenty years and Amleth has become a behemoth of a man played by Alexander Skarsgard (Eric Northman in “True Blood”), who lives, fights, and kills alongside violent 10th century Vikings. Amleth is a hulking beast unmatched in battle, yet one who never unnecessarily harms women or children.

His revenge plan leads him to the farming village where his mother and Uncle Fjolnir now live as wife and husband, an arrangement Amleth is certain she adheres to for her own safety and that of her new son. Bjork, in her first big screen role since DANCER IN THE DARK (2000), appears as the seeress who knows Amleth’s destiny. It’s here where Amleth meets Olga “of the Birch Forest” (Anya Taylor-Joy) and reveals his plan to her. Olga describes her supernatural abilities as breaking men’s minds in contrast to his breaking their bones. The two are quite the match.

Eggers stages a stunning final showdown with a naked sword fight atop a burning volcano to ensure we aren’t subjected to an ending that falls short. The visceral savagery on the screen is somehow both brutal and beautiful. This is epic cinematic brilliance from Eggers and cinematographer Jarin Blaschke, who treat us to numerous long takes in harsh weather and discomforting action. This is 136 minutes featuring some of cinemas best faces, while also proving that visionary is simply not a strong enough word to describe director Robert Eggers.

Opening in theaters on April 22, 2022

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THE UNBEARABLE WEIGHT OF MASSIVE TALENT (2022)

April 21, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Calling all Nicolas Cage fans! Put the bunny back in the box and get ready for the most fun you’ll ever have with Nicolas or Nic or Nick or Nicky. And if one Cage isn’t enough for you, you’re in luck. This film has Nicolas Cage playing the (somewhat) fictional Nick Cage, and Nicolas Kim Coppola (Nicolas Cage’s birth name) playing imaginary alter-ego Nicky, a younger version of Nicolas Cage from the WILD AT HEART era who spends the movie constantly reminding Nick that he’s a movie star.

If you can’t make much sense out of all that, don’t worry, writer-director Tom Gormican and co-writer Kevin Etten have created a film that is sure to strike a chord with Nicolas Cage fans. What we see is a parody going meta in a surreal way. Very few get to star in the tribute to their own legend, but that’s what happens here. Nicolas Cage goes ‘inside baseball’ on the career of Nicolas Cage … only he does so as struggling actor Nick Cage, an actor so desperate for “the role of a lifetime” that he improvs a reading for director David Gordon Green (Cage’s director on JOE) in the parking lot of Chateau Marmont.

Having been kicked out of his rental after falling behind $600,000 in rent, Nick agrees to take a humiliating job pitched by his agent, Fink (Neil Patrick Harris). For one million dollars, he is to fly to Mallorca and hang out at the birthday party of rich super fan, Javi Gutierrez (a terrific Pedro Pascall, “The Mandalorian”). The twist here is that CIA agents played by Tiffany Haddish and Ike Barinholtz suspect Javi of being a notorious gun dealer who has kidnapped the young daughter of the Catalonia President. Spy-type shenanigans ensue as Nick and Javi develop a bromance that finds the two new buddies writing a film script together. And if that’s not quite enough subplots, you should know that Nick is at a breaking point in his relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (Sharon Horgan) and teenage daughter Abby (Lily Sheen, real life daughter of Michael Sheen and Kate Beckinsale).

The zaniness includes nods to more than a dozen Nicolas Cage movies, and much of the fun is derived from recognizing these. Easter eggs are everywhere for fans, and Nic expertly plays Nick (and Nicky) as a loving tribute to the characters we’ve seen in so many iconic films over the years. Additionally, on screen love is provided for the 1920 classic, THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI, as well as the more recent gem, PADDINGTON 2 (2017), making this a tribute to cinema lovers, Nicolas Cage fans, and comedies in general. I will admit to disliking director Gormican’s 2014 movie, THAT AWKWARD MOMENT, so much that I hoped he was done as a filmmaker. It turns out, he’s back (and much improved) … not that he ever went anywhere.

Opens in theaters on April 22, 2022

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ALL THE OLD KNIVES (2022)

April 8, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Ethan Hunt, we’ve grown accustomed to globetrotting action-packed thrillers in the spy genre. But of course, there is the flip side: the quiet and unheralded work done by intelligence agents … those who typically use their brains more often than their fists or guns. Director Janus Metz (the underrated BORG VS MCENROE, 2017) has based his film on the 2015 book by Olen Steinhauer.

It’s 2012 and we are inside the Vienna station of the CIA as the agents meet to strategize their response to a terrorist act – the hijacking of Turkish Alliance Airline Flight 127. The team is unable to prevent tragedy, and it’s clear this is a case that will stick with them. Eight years later, the station chief (Laurence Fishburne) calls Henry Pelham (Chris Pine) back in to let him know that on orders from Langley the case has been re-opened. The terrorist behind that hijacking has been recently captured and disclosed that he had a CIA mole inside the Vienna station. Henry is to re-interview everyone involved to uncover the double-agent.

One of those interviewed is the former supervisor played by Jonathan Pryce. He’s now retired, and Henry forces him to go back through all details, some of which are uncomfortably personal. But that doesn’t compare to how personal the next interview hits. Celia (Thandiwe Newton) was not just Henry’s fellow agent, but also his lover. She has since left the agency and is living a pleasant family life in stunning Carmel-by-the-Sea, perhaps the most picturesque coastal area in the U.S. Chris Pine gets to look really cool driving a convertible over Bixby Bridge.

Director Metz works in numerous flashbacks to the relationship between Henry and Celia, and it’s through these that we come to understand their connection and the type of people they are. But ultimately, it’s their meeting at the fancy restaurant with the breathtaking view that serves as the key to the movie and the story. In fact, because their time sharing a table and wine is so substantial and critical, it could easily transition to a stage play. It’s a high-level game of cat-and-mouse between two beautiful and smart characters. You may know where it’s headed, but it’s unlikely you’ll know how it will get there.

It’s easy to see this being a popular streaming choice as the characters and setting are easy on the eyes. The deeper questions asked here are what to do when a loved one isn’t who you thought they were. Also, can you trust those trained to not trust others? As previously stated, it’s a bit of a different spin on the spy genre – less action/thriller and more character study.

Streaming on Prime Video beginning April 8, 2022

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MORBIUS (2022)

April 1, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Trust the science, they said. Dr. Michael Morbius is a brilliant doctor/scientist who has devoted his life to formulating a cure for the rare and crippling blood disease he and his friend Milo were born with. This is an origin story pulled from the Marvel comic book characters created by Roy Thomas and Gil Kane. The film is directed by Daniel Espinosa (LIFE 2017, SAFE HOUSE 2012) with a script adapted by Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, who previously collaborated on DRACULA UNTOLD (2014) THE LAST WITCH HUNTER (2015) and GODS OF EGYPT (2016). Sometimes past work tells you what you need to know.

An opening sequence features the always cool shots of a helicopter zipping around the water and cliffs of Costa Rica, before landing at the mouth of a cave that houses zillions (I counted) of vampire bats. The brilliant Dr. Morbius (Jared Leto) plans to blend vampire at blood with human blood in his latest try at finding a cure. All of his work is funded by the ultra-rich and equally suffering Milo, both men desperate for relief from their deteriorating bodies. We flashback 25 years to a clinic in Greece where young Michael (Charlie Shotwell, CAPTAIN FANTASTIC, 2016) and Milo (Joseph Esson) first meet as they are being treated with regular blood transfusions by Dr. Nikolis (Jared Harris, “Mad Men”).

Jared Leto stars as Dr. Michael Morbius, who is known in Marvel comics as “The Living Vampire”, so we kinda know where things are headed. It’s a surprisingly subdued performance by an actor renowned for his characterizations that are anything but. His grown-up friend Milo is played by the always entertaining Matt Smith, and Morbius’ love interest and research partner is Dr. Martine Bancroft (an excellent Adria Ariona). You’ve probably guessed that the blood blend works … right up until it turns Morbius into a blood thirsty killing machine. This puts FBI agents played by Tyrese Gibson and (master of wisecracks) Al Madrigal on his trail. And yes, we know this is headed to the high noon (or midnight) showdown between childhood blood buddies and it’s the do-the-right-thing Morbius versus the ‘hey, I like this superhuman power’ Milo.

The first segment of the film does a terrific job of setting the stage, but the story, the characters, and the execution let us down for the final two acts. The fight scenes feature some of the worst special effects I’ve seen in years. Sure, the film’s release has been delayed a couple of years, but that’s no excuse for what we see. On the bright side, some of the effects do work, and Matt Smith is fun to watch in a couple of his scenes. We do wish for more of Martine’s story, and for a better story overall (after the intro). The film is part of the SSU (Sony Spider-man Universe) and perhaps its best comparison is VENOM, sans the chuckles. It’s clear this film’s mission was to set the stage for a sequel, and that becomes even more obvious in the mid-credit scenes. Normally, I wouldn’t mention this, but since the director has already discussed, and an appearance was made in SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME, I believe it’s fair game. The great Michael Keaton pops in as Adrian Toomes (aka Vulture), giving us an indication where the sequel is headed.

Opening in theaters April 1, 2022

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NITRAM (2022)

April 1, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. “What made him do it?” That’s the question we always ask after a mass shooting. Rarely does any answer make much sense. Director Justin Kurzel and his TRUE HISTORY OF THE KELLY GANG (2019) screenwriter Shaun Grant join forces in collaboration again for a story based on the man responsible for the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre in Tasmania. It was the worst lone gunman mass shooting in Australian history with 35 killed and 23 injured. The filmmakers tread lightly here and never mention the shooter’s name, though the film’s title is a backwards hint. Their film is an attempt to answer that question we always ask.

Opening with archival news footage from 1979 in a burn unit, where a young boy has been injured by fireworks happily proclaims he will continue the fun that fireworks bring. We then flash-forward to a young man (presumably the same) setting off fireworks in his parents’ backyard as the neighbor yells at him to stop. His weathered mother (two-time Oscar nominated Judy Davis) puffs on a cigarette while looking on with a feeling of resignation. The young man is Nitram (though his parents never call him by name) and is played by Caleb Landry Jones, in his most off-kilter and disturbing role yet. His mom is fed up with him, though she attempts to get him on track, while his father (Anthony LaPaglia) is more reserved and forgiving of the boy they have raised – one who not only has no direction in life, but has social and likely mental issues.

Nitram’s long, stringy hair constantly provides cover for eyes that rarely look up. His world transforms one day when he asks a local recluse if he can mow her yard. Helen (played by Essie Davis, who is married to director Kurzel, and was fantastic in THE BABADOOK) takes a liking to him, and the two loners form an unconventional relationship where the wealthy woman buys him gifts, and offers him a home and what may be his first ever friend. Of course, this causes much consternation for his parents, as they carry an undefined concern about their son’s stability.

A dramatic event causes yet another shift in the young man’s life, and it allows the further exploration of how the world can become unbearable for such a person. A separate event results in an unwelcome change for dad, and it’s an event that certainly plays a part in putting Nitram on the deadly path. Nitram as a misfit is also on display through his interactions with a local surfer, and it’s at this point where the film shifts into commentary on gun control laws and the ease with which restrictions can be evaded. It’s a strange tonal shift, but for a mass murder movie that doesn’t show murders, we can at least understand the approach.

The four main actors are consummate professionals and always bring realism and interest to their roles. Here, Caleb Landry Jones delivers a performance that is both terrifying and empathetic. He of course appeared in THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI (2017), and I’ve been following his career since I first noticed him as one of the bike-riding boys near the end of NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN (2007). While the film attempts to answer the original question, “What made him to it?”, perhaps many tragic scenarios could be avoided if we could sooner answer, “What’s wrong with you?” Depression, mental illness, gun control, and parental frustration are all prominent here. Filmmaker Kurzel ends the film with some startling details and statistics on Australia’s National Firearms Agreement.

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BARBARIANS (2022)

April 1, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Dinner parties are ripe for generating just about any kind of conflict between characters … loud and rude, or subtle and passive-aggressive. Many filmmakers have used the setting to their advantage, and from that we’ve heard some sharp dialogue and seen some tremendous acting performances. And yes, we’ve suffered through the other end of that spectrum as well. The first feature film from writer-director Charles Dorfman (producer on THE LOST DAUGHTER, 2021) comes from a story by Statten Roeg, and it awkwardly morphs into a blend of dinner party and home invasion.

The morning sun shining through the window causes a couple to slowly awaken. Eva (Catalina Sandino Moreno, MARIA FULL OF GRACE, 2004) and Adam (Iwan Rheon, “Game of Thrones”) are in the stunning home on which they expect to finalize the purchase this same evening when the real estate developer (and friend) and his girlfriend arrive for dinner. Our first exposure to Lucas (Tom Cullen) is an infomercial where he’s ‘selling’ the beauty, serenity, and history of the property. It’s located near the Gaeta (Gateway) Stone, which holds historical (and possibly mystical) relevance. Through the advertisement, we immediately recognize that Lucas is not exceptionally trustworthy, and may even be a bit of a scammer. We soon enough have clarity on Lucas’ carefully constructed online image contrasted with reality.

The dinner party is not just to finalize the purchase of the home, but also to celebrate Adam’s birthday. Eva is a renowned artist who has been crafting a sculpture for the property – it’s a replica of the nearby Gaeta Stone. Adam is a director who struggles not just with his career, but also with the truth. Dinner begins okay as Lucas and his girlfriend, Chloe (Ines Spiridonov) arrive. Wine is consumed and some friendly needling occurs. After a few minutes, we realize these are self-centered and entitled folks who can’t even be honest with each other. When the confessions begin to roll, things get ugly … but then the home invasion hits, and with it, an abrupt tonal shift.

Some similarities exist between Mr. Dorfman’s film and THE FEAST, with a touch of Kubrick’s classic A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but unfortunately, it never reaches the level of either. While we learn the motivation for the home invasion, it comes at a time when we’ve already given up caring about any of the four main characters. It just doesn’t matter other than seeing what might trigger someone to live up to the film’s title – as if they hadn’t already done so. Composer Marc Canham teases us with the score and purposefully overuses dramatic musical booms. For a thriller to work best, the audience must have someone or something to root for – a not so minor detail missing here. But, oh my, what a cool house!

In theaters and On Demand beginning April 1, 2022

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INFINITE STORM (2022)

March 24, 2022

Greetings again from the darkness. Naomi Watts is a gifted actress and always elevates her films, but can someone please cast her in a comedy? The lady deserves a chance to lighten up a bit. Known for her dramatic turns, this may be her most physically demanding role yet. The film is based on a true story and the life of Pam Bales. Director Malgorzata Szumowska and co-writer Joshua Rollins, with input from Ms. Bales, recreate the remarkable events of 2010 on Mount Washington in The White Mountains of New Hampshire.

We first see Pam Bales (Watts) as her alarm goes off early, and she goes about preparing for a six-hour trek up the mountain. This includes layering her backpack and her clothes for the below freezing temperatures. She stops by the café where her friend (Denis O’Hare) pours her some hot cocoa and tries to talk her out of the climb due to the possibility of lousy weather (which is saying something for this area). However it’s clear this date is important to her when she says the climb is “cheaper than therapy”, because “mountains always listen and don’t talk back.” Pam has a special connection to the mountain and to nature.

As she begins her journey, Pam sees a couple of campers finishing up their stay. One of them is Eliot Sumner (offspring of musician Sting), who also wrote and performed a song for the film. The other is played by the film’s writer, Joshua Rollins. Pam also notices another car in the parking lot, which, although she doesn’t know it at the time, does set the stage for her day. Often covered in goggles and snow gear, the hike offers Pam the serenity for reflection, as well as some mind-clearing physical exertion. One misstep sends us the flashback of why this day and climb is so important to Pam; but it’s a trail of sneaker tracks in the snow that change the day every bit as much as the approaching storm that caused her to cut the hike short.

Those sneaker tracks are a recognizable sign of trouble to an experienced climber, nurse, and Search and Rescue Team member. Pam follows them to a near-death man suffering from hypothermia. Since he is initially non-responsive, she calls him “John” (Billy Howle, ON CHESIL BEACH, 2017) and proceeds to coax, drag, and all but carry him as they begin the slow battle down against the mountain and the weather elements. As he regains some semblance of awareness, John makes it clear he doesn’t want to be rescued and was trying to end his life on the mountain. Pam ignores this and sternly informs him that she will not leave him behind.

Cinematographer Michal Englert does a terrific job of capturing both the beauty and danger, although there is one close-up of Pam’s whistle that seems a bit out of place (minor quibble). Filmed in Slovenia (as a stand-in for New Hampshire), the weather and the view are co-stars with Ms. Watts, and the blizzard is blinding and treacherous, making Pam’s actions even more incredible. The film can be taken as the story of one woman’s determination, but it can also show how grief is powerful … and so is a helping hand. One person can certainly have a dramatic impact on the life of another and the way this real-life ordeal played out is quite interesting. Ty Gagne’s was the first to publish Pam’s story in his article, “Footprints in the Snow lead to an Emotional Rescue” in New Hampshire Union Leader. As always, the film earns bonus points for including “Katie Belle Blue” by Townes Van Zandt … and we can relate to Pam’s difficulty in singing along. The likelihood of Naomi Watts taking on a comedy seems remote, as she’s already slated for a remake of the 2014 Australian horror movie, GOODNIGHT MOMMY.

Opens in theaters Friday, March 25, 2022

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