REVIEW: “Fall” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

When talking about movies, there are countless examples of utterly absurd ideas that somehow found funding and made their ways to the screen. At the same time, when put in the hands of smart filmmakers, the silliest concepts can sometimes be turned into something unexpected and memorable. This is especially true when said filmmaker remembers a central component of good cinema – the human element.

To its credit, the new thriller “Fall” from director Scott Mann makes an effort to weave in some of that humanity mentioned above. Themes like grief, loss, fear, betrayal, and renewal all find their way into the story. But the emotional underpinning is so weak and flimsy that none of the themes resonate. And the ginned up drama that’s meant to add character depth is so poorly conceived that it’s hard to take any of it seriously. So that leaves us with nothing but the incredibly silly concept which only gets sillier as the movie progresses.

Grace Caroline Currey plays Becky, a young woman still reeling from the death of her husband Dan (Mason Gooding) during a mountain climbing accident. That was nearly a year ago, and Becky hasn’t climbed since. Overcome by her grief, she spends her time locked up in her apartment, soaked in booze and calling Dan’s phone just to hear his voicemail. Jeffrey Dean Morgan pops up as her well-meaning but insensitive father who’s genuinely worried about his daughter but can’t quite veil his long-held dislike for Dan. Despite his good intentions, he only drives Becky deeper into her hole.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

Just as Becky has about had all she can take, she’s surprised by a visit from Hunter (Virginia Gardner), her best friend who she hasn’t seen in months. Hunter was there on the rock face with Becky and Dan the day he died. Determined to get her friend out of the apartment, Hunter plans an outing. But not to have coffee, to see a movie, to take a hike, or do some shopping. No, instead Hunter recommends they climb to the top of a remote 2,000-foot television tower.

In fairness to the screenwriters, there is a thematic throughline about getting back on your feet and conquering your fears that’s meant to give purpose to the lead duos’ dangerous climb. But as the absurdities rack up and the flimsiness of the characters becomes evident, the entire premise (brittle as it already is) falls apart.

The pair arrive, park their truck next to the locked gate with the big “No Trespassing” sign (hardly a deterrent to these two), and then make the two-mile walk to the base of the tower. Now for most people, one simple look at the rusty and rickety tower would be enough for common sense to kick in. It would make us think “You know, maybe this isn’t a good idea.” But not these two. Instead they begin to ascend what Hunter proclaims is the fourth tallest structure in the United States (forgive me if I didn’t bother to fact-check that). To her credit, Becky does show a little hesitation. But Hunter, a thrill-seeking YouTuber, sees it as a chance to impress her 60,000 followers.

Image Courtesy of Lionsgate

If you’ve seen the trailer or even the poster you know that Becky and Hunter make it to the top. There they pose for pictures, let out some primal screams, and do a few other things that make us question their sanity before deciding to descend. But when the ladder breaks and crashes to the ground below, the two friends are left stranded 2,000 feet above land with no way down. From there it becomes a fight against fear, the elements, and one pesky vulture. A laughable survival element is introduced, we get a hokey Hallmark-esque reveal, and there’s one particular far-fetched twist that isn’t nearly as clever as it wants to be.

In one sense you could say the movie does its job. My wife (who has an intense fear of heights) told me her hands were sweaty throughout, and she was constantly having to look away from the screen. That’s because Mann uses some impressive CGI and a number of cool dizzying camera tricks to amplify the sense of height-induced dread. In that way “Fall” is effective, and I can see it terrifying those with anything close to acrophobia, especially on the big screen.

Sadly the frights only go so far, and they aren’t enough to cover the silly and sometimes nonsensical directions this thing goes. Yes, there were moments when I felt the anxiety of being stranded and exposed high above the earth. But more than that I felt bewilderment as I tried to grasp the inanity of the story turns and the borderline bizarre character choices. I wish this were a case of just turning off your brain and enjoying the movie for what it is. Unfortunately, “Fall” never gives you a reason to have your brain on in the first place. “Fall” opens tomorrow (August 12th) in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “The Forgiven” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Ralph Fiennes and Jessica Chastain make for a captivating duo in John Michael McDonagh’s new drama “The Forgiven”. McDonagh, the man behind 2014’s exceptional “Calvary”, has a knack for digging deep into individual human complexity and examining the dark side of human nature. In “Calvary” is was through a troubled Catholic priest. Here, it’s a married couple whose relationship has soured beyond repair. McDonagh uses their toxicity and disillusionment as a means to explore a range of themes. Unfortunately the movie never quite gels, and McDonagh’s good intentions often feel more patronizing than insightful.

“The Forgiven” uncoils over a weekend near the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. It follows the consequences of one lone incident and its ripple effect on the lives of several people from dramatically different walks of life. The premise is promising especially when you have actors the caliber Fiennes and Chastain. But this sordid morality play never rises above its promise, and it skirts around the edges of its themes rather than deal with them in a meaningful way.

Fiennes and Chastain play David and Jo Henninger. He’s a physician fresh off a malpractice suit. She’s a children’s author who hasn’t written a new book in eight years. They’re a privileged couple who spend more time sniping at each other than showing any signs of actual affection. Their conversations are littered with condescending put-downs such as him calling her a “harpy” and “shrill“ or her mocking him as “highly functioning alcoholic”. They are a picture of misery, wrapped up in fake smiles and elegant clothes.

After arriving in Morocco, David and Jo head out on a road-trip to a garish desert villa belonging to their wealthy friend Richard (Matt Smith) and his neurotic partner, Dally (Caleb Landry Jones). Once there the Henningers, along with a few more of Richard’s European and American hedonistic chums, are to enjoy a weekend-long bacchanalia of rich people excess.

But on the way, a drunk and distracted David barrels down a dark desert road, not noticing a local teen named Driss (Omar Ghazaoui) who steps out into his path. He runs over the boy, killing him instantly. While it’s ultimately an accident, the couple’s response speaks volumes. Rather than feel remorse, David and Jo are more annoyed by the inconvenience. They throw the boy’s body in the backseat of their car and drive to Richard and Dally’s estate. Richard pays off the local police and they start the party as if nothing had happened.

Image Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

But the next morning they’re surprised when a jeep carrying three Moroccan Berbers come to retrieve the body, one being the boy’s father, Abdellah (Ismael Kanater). The father’s lone request is that David accompany him to his village deep in the desert for the boy’s burial. It’s their custom, or so we’re told. Seeing no other way out, a worn-down David reluctantly agrees. He loads up with the three men and is driven off into the night to whatever fate awaits him. It’s one of the film’s better moments and it injects the story with some much-needed suspense.

Jo stays behind as Richard nonchalantly cranks his party back up. Rather than worry about her husband, the guilt-free Jo lets her hair down. She guzzles alcohol, snorts coke, and openly flirts with one of the other guests, a slyly off-putting financial analyst named Tom (Christopher Abbott). While Tom is far from fleshed out, there’s a little more to him than the rest of the insufferable party-goers. McDonagh wants us to despise them (and we do). But it’s hard to see anything other than boozy, coked-up Westerners. They’re paper-thin caricatures whose inflammatory blabber comes across as manufactured more so than authentic.

The scenes with David and the Berber locals have a little more to offer. But while McDonagh is clearly sympathetic towards the indigenous people, it always seems like he’s viewing them through a first-world lens. The film paints their plight with such broad strokes and often speaks to their circumstances in crude generalities. It’s unfortunate because the movie obviously wants to say something. But it does so at the expense of the victims whose individual stories would have been far more interesting than watching the benders of some hedonistic elitists.

Aside from some good scenes at Abdellah’s village, the film is helped by Fiennes and Chastain. Fiennes is so convincingly vile that we can’t help but view any tiny emergence of a conscience with skepticism. Chastain doesn’t get as much to work with, but makes her scenes count. But the two can only do so much with a film this unsure of itself. Its messages are clear, but the shaky conveying of those messages leaves “The Forgiven” less of a sharp-edged critique and more of a well-meaning misfire. “The Forgiven” is now playing in select theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Facing Nolan” (2022)

(CHECK OUT my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Growing up as a kid and a baseball lover in the 1980s, it was hard not to know the name Nolan Ryan. That’s especially true for a young fan of the Texas Rangers, the team where the first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher spent his final five years. It was during those later years (1989 to 1993) that I really came to appreciate what an incredible (and in many ways unprecedented) 27-year career he had. The new documentary “Facing Nolan” brought many of those memories flooding back.

Nolan Ryan was an intimidating presence on the mound, with a 100 mph+ heater that he amazingly maintained for his entire baseball career (his last fastball, thrown at age 46 and with a torn ligament in his elbow, was recorded at 98 mph). Armed with heat and a knee-buckling 12-6 curveball, Nolan set a total of 51 Major League live-ball era records including some that will never be broken, such as his seven no-hitters and his 5,714 career strikeouts.

He was also known to be “conveniently wild”. That occasional wildness led him to be the all-time leader in walks (by a pretty large margin). It also struck fear into opposing batters and Ryan used that to his advantage. Slugger Dale Murphy said of Nolan “he’s the only pitcher you start thinking about two days before you face him.” Reggie Jackson said Nolan “was the only guy that could put fear in me. Not because he could get me out, but because he could kill me. You just hoped to mix in a walk so you could have a good night and go 0-3.”

Statistically you could say Nolan Ryan’s heyday was his amazing run with the then California Angels from 1972 till 1979. During that span he pitched well over 200 innings every year but once (over 300 innings twice). Five of those years he pitched over 20 complete games (a nearly forgotten statistic these days). He struck out over 300 batters five times including 383 in 1973. He went on to spend nine extremely productive years with the Houston Astros and his final five years in Arlington with the Texas Rangers.

“Facing Nolan” hits on all of those career highlights while also stressing the family man he was (and still is) beyond the stardom. And as the title suggests, the film includes interviews with several former players, many of whom played against him – Pete Rose, George Brett, Cal Ripken Jr., Dave Winfield, and Randy Johnson. We also hear from teammates like Rod Carew, Craig Biggio, Art Howe, Kevin Bass, Pudge Rodriguez, and Bobby Witt, who share what it was like to play with “Big Tex”.

Written and directed by Bradley Jackson, “Facing Nolan” uses the down-home coffee shop narration of Mike MacRae to escort us through this improbable life starting in Alvin, Texas. It’s there that a tall slender kid with a big country drawl and an even bigger arm first picked up a baseball. He would eventually attract the attention of a scout for the New York Mets and they soon signed him to a $7,000 a year contract. Nolan’s plan was to try and play at least four years in baseball, just enough to receive a pension. After that he would come back home to be a veterinarian. But those plans changed dramatically.

During his time with the Mets, Nolan married his high school sweetheart, Ruth Holdorff. The movie puts a big emphasis on their relationship, stressing how crucial Ruth’s support was to Nolan’s career. As she describes it, “People say when you marry a baseball player you really marry baseball.” While listening to the players is great (especially for baseball diehards like me), some of the film’s best bits come from Jackson’s interviews with Nolan and Ruth. And watching the couple with their children and grandchildren offer a fresh perspective on one of the game’s most intense pitchers.

But of course it’s the old baseball stories that will excite fans most. Stories about his time in New York and the eventual trade that sent him to the west coast to play for the Angels. Stories about his time in Houston where he became the first sports athlete to make $1 million per season. And stories of his time with the Texas Rangers in what normally would have been the waning years of a career. Instead Nolan’s legend only grew. There he earned his 5,000th strikeout, his 300th win, and pitched his sixth and seventh no-hitter. Oh, and there was that whole Robin Ventura incident on August 4th, 1993.

“Facing Nolan” does a great job blending the personal with the professional to give us a well-rounded portrait of one of baseball’s greatest and often undervalued pitchers. The film should be catnip for fans of the game, especially those (like me) who enjoy sitting back and listening to former big leaguers share old stories. It highlights key moments in Nolan’s career, debunks a few myths along the way, and shines a light on the husband, father, and grandfather beyond the mound.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Firestarter” (2022)

One of the first “grownup” novels I recall reading was Stephen King’s “Firestarter”. It first published in September 1980, but my exposure to it came a few years later. I’m guessing it was around the time of the 1984 movie adaptation starring Drew Barrymore. I was just a kid and remember finding a tattered paperback copy of King’s book based on the movie featuring “that girl from E.T.”. I immediately dove in, and while it took my younger self a while to finish, I was pretty proud when I turned that final page.

I wouldn’t see the movie adaptation for another couple of years or so, and I haven’t revisited it since. Pretty much all I remember is the wind blowing Barrymore’s hair whenever she would use her power and Heather Locklear (I was an 80s kid, what can I say). A better critic probably would have done his homework and rewatched “Firestarter” 1984 before reviewing the new Blumhouse produced reboot. But don’t worry, no knowledge of the original is needed for this pointless and lifeless update. It stands and stinks on its own.

“Firestarter” is directed by Keith Thomas whose last feature was the excellent supernatural horror film “The Vigil”. It’s written by Scott Teems who wrote and directed 2009’s terrific “That Evening Sun” and 2020’s underseen “The Quarry”. But he also penned last year’s “Halloween Kills”, a mediocre horror film that’s biggest issues lied with the script. There was enough filmmaking history between both for optimism. But when the studio announced they were holding press screeners until the day of the movie’s release, well that’s generally a bad sign.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

As it turns out, “Firestarter” does little to justify a reboot. It’s a flat, unoriginal, and surprisingly fright-free film that doesn’t showcase the filmakers’ past successes in any way. It’s a shame because the premise from King’s book is loaded with potential as a horror movie, an action thriller, and even a family drama. But while it dabbles in all of those things, this 2022 reimagining doesn’t do any of them well. And we’re left with a story that flatlines early and is never able to recover.

The story revolves around 11-year-old Charlie (Ryan Kiera Armstrong) who has possessed pyrokinetic powers since birth. The “bad thing”, as her parents Andy (Zac Efron) and Vicky (Sydney Lemmon) call it, has mostly laid dormant. But lately it has been flaring back up, especially at school where Charlie is frequently bullied. Vicky wants to train their daughter to control her powers. Andy wants Charlie to keep it buried out of fear of what the film’s bad guys might do if they get a hold of her.

We learn that both Andy and Vicky have special powers of their own. Vicky has a form of telekinesis which she has kept suppressed for years. Andy is a $100-a-session cash-only life coach who uses his mind-powers to help people kick their cigarette habits. Both have built the closest thing to a normal life for Charlie while staying off the government’s radar. But after an incident at school reveals Charlie’s fiery powers, the film’s baddies set out to apprehend her.

That may sound interesting, but don’t expect much depth, especially when it comes to the movie’s villain(s), a secret government outfit called The Shop. They operate under the cover of some company called DSI and are ran by the recently promoted Captain Hollister (Gloria Reuben). She’s supposed to be devious and cold-hearted, but she’s a bland and toothless chief antagonist whose motives are paper-thin. Hollister claims she wants to capture Charlie in order to help her. In reality her intentions are far more sinister. Unfortunately the movie never feels the urge to let us in on those intentions. Basically she wants to use Charlie’s powers for the government and that’s supposed to be enough for us.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Lack of information turns out to be a reoccurring problem. The movie never tells us much of anything. In fact, we get more pertinent information in the opening credits than we do for the rest of the movie. There are a couple of exposition drops, one featuring Hollister visiting Dr. Joseph Wanless (Kurtwood Smith), one of the original scientists with The Shop and the inventor of a serum that imbued subjects with special powers. Hollister wants the good doctor to come back now that they’ve located Charlie. But he realizes Charlie’s power is in its infancy and that her capabilities will only intensify. He knows he made a mistake with the serum, but how he came to that realization, who knows.

The lone interesting character in the film is a mysterious mercenary named John Rainbird (a chilling Michael Greyeyes). He’s reluctantly reactivated by Hollister to hunt down Charlie for The Shop. The movie teases a compelling backstory for Rainbird, but (like so much else) it’s mostly left off screen. It’s an omission that really hurts the film’s ending which desperately tries to interest us in a sequel (something Thomas has expressed interest in).

Aside from Greyeyes, the only other noteworthy thing is the cool retro synth-heavy score from John Carpenter, Cody Carpenter, and Daniel Davies. Otherwise “Firestarter” stays dull and flavorless, dryly moving from one point to the next, checking off boxes in the story and offering nothing is terms of frights, surprises, or suspense. So we spend most of the time waiting for the movie to kick into gear, which unfortunately it never does. “Firestarter” is now showing in theaters and streaming on Peacock.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

Sundance Review: “Fresh” (2022)

(CLICK HERE for my review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette).

Mimi Cave holds nothing back in her gnarly directorial debut “Fresh”, an upcoming thriller written by Lauryn Kahn and produced by Adam McKay. The film just had its premiere at Sundance and has already been snatched up by Searchlight Pictures who plan on streaming the film via Hulu starting March 4th. So you don’t have long to wait.

“Fresh” isn’t the easiest movie to review. It’s a movie that demands you go into it knowing as little as possible. It’s a movie guaranteed to completely upend any expectations you may have. It’s a movie that ends in a very different place than it begins. And it’s a movie that goes places that words like “dark”, “twisted”, and “grotesque” can’t adequately describe.

This scathing critique of modern dating culture comes packaged with bites of “Promising Young Woman”, “American Psycho”, and “Get Out”. Yet Cave delivers a full course meal with a taste all her own. Her film is brimming with relevant themes, cutting satire, and even some B-movie flavor particularly in the last act where things come dangerously close to unraveling. But Cave holds it all together, ending with a fitting and satisfying knock-out punch.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

The film gets off on the right note with its casting. A fabulous Daisy Edgar-Jones (Hulu’s “Normal People”) plays Noa and to say she hates dating is an understatement. She hates the ritual. She hates the awkwardness. She hates the questions and answers. She hates the projections of perfection. She hates the humiliation and the disappointment. She’s starting to wonder if it’s even worth the effort. “I’ve been alone so long,” she says at one point, “I’m actually pretty good at it.“

Yet deep down she’s still a romantic, and her appetite for companionship is what keeps her browsing a dating app called Puzzle Piece. That’s where she meets and sets up a date with Chad (Brett Dier), a goof with a deep affection for scarves. The two sit down for dinner at a cheap cash-only Chinese restaurant where Chad rambles on about his acid reflux and about how the older generation of women cared more about their appearance (it’s a direct shot at Noa’s baggy jeans and frumpy sweater). It’s no wonder Noa hates dating.

Just as she’s about to hangup the whole dating thing, she meets a sweet good-looking plastic surgeon named Steve (Sebastian Stan) in of all places the supermarket produce section. The hunky Texas transplant has all the ingredients for the perfect guy – humble, undeniably charming, a glowing smile. At first Noa is hesitant, but after such a sweet old-fashioned meet-cute she decides to go for it and the two begin dating.

Not long after, Steve surprises Noa and asks her to go away with him for the weekend. His plan is for them to stay at his place for the night and then get an early start the next morning to a surprise destination. Noa surprises herself and agrees, much to the concern of her brutally honest best friend Mollie (Jojo T. Gibbs) who’s worried things are moving too fast. Steve picks up Noa and drives her to his house, cozily nestled in the woods well outside of the city. And of course there’s no cell phone service. Talk about a recipe for something bad.

All of above plays like its own 38-minute romantic comedy. AND THEN we get the actual title screen. That’s when the meaning of Cave’s grisly parable comes boiling to the surface. I won’t dare spoil the big twist (too many have done that over social media), but Cave cleverly lays out numerous hints, many of which won’t come into focus until after you see the movie. But suffice it to say, “Fresh” takes its audience to some appalling depths, sprinkling in pinches of pitch-black humor with horror that can range from eerily suggestive to shockingly explicit.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

Daisy Edgar-Jones is astonishingly good in a role that pulls her in several different directions. Certain points of the film need her to be witty and charming. Other times illusive and cunning. Some scenes demand vulnerability and terror while others require strength and resilience. Edgar-Jones not only fully commits, but delivers on every layer. But her biggest challenge may be acting next to Sebastian Stan. Together the two have an effortless chemistry. But while Edgar-Jones’ job is more complex, Stan is a propulsive force, quickly shedding his character’s ‘good guy’ facade to reveal a sinister maniacal side. Stan gets to go BIG, even getting an utterly outrageous dance number to Animotion’s 1984 synth-pop song “Obsession”. It’s an incredible scene that people will forever link to his career.

It also helps that the movie looks incredible. Cave develops a rich unsettling visual style that makes for an exhilarating (and at times horrifying) sensory experience. The strategic uses of colors, closeups, and angles; the gruesome imagery shot with a stomach-churning elegance. It makes sense considering the cinematographer is Pawel Pogorzelski whose credits include “Hereditary” and “Midsommar”. But it’s also Jennifer Morden’s exceptional production design which really shines in the final hour.

Hopefully I’ve danced around the details enough to leave you intrigued yet still in the dark. Without question that’s the best way to approach this wickedly unsettling horror thriller. Be warned: “Fresh” is not for the squeamish and it earns every morsel of its R-rating. But if you can endure its disturbing macabre elements, you’ll find a sickly satisfying chiller with more on its mind that you might think. It doesn’t always make sense, and there are moments where it veers a little too close to all-out absurdity. But Cave covers most her bases and delivers a dish that’s as savory as it is vile.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Free Fall” (2022)

While the highest profile horror movie of the year so far (“Scream”) was another all-too-familiar ‘been there, done that’ experience, there have been some smaller films from the genre that have really hit their mark. First there was the crafty period chiller “The Wasteland” that’s out on Netflix (see my review HERE). And now you can add “The Free Fall” to that list, a sharp and savvy slice of psychological horror that keeps you guessing all the way up to its wallop of an ending.

A brief but really well done prologue begins with Sara (Andrea Londo) talking on the phone to her sister Julie (Elizabeth Cappuccino) about an upcoming party for their parents who are planning to renew their wedding vows. Julie drops the news that she’s too busy to make it, but sends some flowers in her stead. Her folks must be proud.

Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

That evening Sara arrives at her parents’ home and finds the place empty. The front door is unlocked, the lights are on, and the table is immaculately set for dinner. Her calls for her parents go on answered so she eases upstairs where she makes a grisly discovery. In the bedroom she finds her mother draped in a blood-soaked wedding gown, repeatedly thrusting a knife into the chest of her dead father who lies on their bed. Her mother then walks towards her saying “Don’t be scared. Everything‘s going to be different now.” She then cuts her own throat in front of her traumatized daughter.

One scene later Sara wakes up in a strange bed in a strange house with a strange man. His name is Nick (a turtleneck clad Shawn Ashmore) and he reveals that he’s her husband. He hesitantly tells her the reason for her memory loss. It turns out Sara attempted suicide by slitting her wrists shortly after her parents died. She and Nick now live in her parents’ old home where he works on his new book while she rests and recovers. And while Nick pecks away on an old typewriter all day, their housekeeper Rose (an appropriately creepy Jane Badler) helps “looks after things”.

All of that sets the table for this slyly layered horror story. Adam Stilwell directs from a script by Kent Harper and the two make the most of their film’s lean 82 minute running time. They way they create atmosphere, their tone management, their use of Joseph Bishara’s haunting score – it all creates a level of immersion that’s essential to a story like this. And they do a good job of never tipping their hand. We question everything we see from Nick’s doting compassion to Sara’s reliability as a narrator. That level of mystery ensures the ending packs the punch it’s going for.

Image Courtesy of Gravitas Ventures

Perhaps the film’s biggest strength is Stilwell’s use of perspective. His keen ability to convey the confusion and fear in Sara’s head infuses his film with an ever-present sense of unease. The haunting chimes of a grandfather clock she hears that aren’t really there. Her terrifying dreams which are more like cryptic memories hiding fragments of truth. The conflicting voices that fill her mind and slowly intensify. The further we get into the movie, the more frightening (and at times downright macabre) these things get. Yet Stilwell always keeps us in Sara’s head.

“The Free Fall” remains engaging from its shocking opening right through to its big surprise finish which really highlights the movie’s cleverness. Hitchcock vibes run all through this crafty and at times deliciously bizarre feature while themes of trust, trauma, and mental health all simmer underneath the movie’s harrowing surface. I never knew where the story was going which (for me) was simply icing on the cake. “The Free Fall” is now available of VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS