SUNDANCE REVIEW: “Fair Play” (2023)

The most talked about early acquisition at this year’s Sundance International Film Festival has been Netflix dropping $20 million for Chloe Domont’s semi-erotic workplace thriller “Fair Play”. It was quite a move for the streaming leader who gains the distribution rights for a film that has gotten a ton of buzz since premiering in Park City, Utah.

Written and directed by Domont, “Fair Play” is a gripping examination of gender dynamics, unbridled career ambition, male insecurity, and the pitfalls of intimate workplace romances. It explores them all through one increasingly toxic relationship. Domont’s shrewdly written script keeps us glued to the screen, and her keen direction shows an incredible ability to steadily ratchet up the tension. It’s only in the final act that the film stumbles and gets carried away in bringing everything to a close.

“Fair Play” is anchored by two captivating performances by Phoebe Dynevor and Alden Ehrenreich. They play Emily and Luke, a newly engaged couple who work as financial analysts for the same New York City hedge fund firm. It’s a competitive and cutthroat business; one that’s hardly conducive to romantic relationships. But Emily and Luke seem so in love when we first meet them. So much so that they’re willing to risk their jobs and break company policy that strictly prohibits workplace hanky-panky.

Domont does a great job immersing us into the financial realm without overwhelming us with office patter, investment gab, etc. She gives just enough for us to grasp its merciless high-stakes nature. She also emphasizes the bro-centric, male dominated office space culture which Emily comes up against. But this is no ordinary story of workplace misogyny, nor is Emily your run-of-the-mill movie victim. More on that later.

When Emily overhears whispers that the position of portfolio manager is opening up and Luke is in line for the promotion, she’s genuinely excited for him. But then Emily gets a late night call from their boss, Campbell (an outstanding Eddie Marsan) who informs her that she’s the one getting the “PM” promotion. Conflicted, she returns to their apartment to share the news with Luke. He takes the news well, mostly concealing his disappointment behind a shaky smile. In these moments there’s a subtlety to Ehrenreich’s performance that blew me away – an ability to convey everything we need to know through such well-measured touches.

But slowly over time their relationship begins to unravel as Luke struggles with his failures and Emily’s sudden success. Working directly under her offers its own set of challenges for their away-from-work relationship. But ultimately it’s Luke’s sense of entitlement and wobbly male ego that pushes him over the edge. But hats off to Domont for avoiding the trap of making this a predictable one-note treatise. While Luke’s fragile masculinity is the root of most of their problems, Emily is hardly exonerated from all wrongdoing. Some of her choices are more than suspect, as is her appetite for power within the ruthless and icky world of hedge-fund management.

Domont’s mix of riveting storytelling and smart direction ensures we’re always in her grip. She steers us through a crumbling relationship, ravaged by jealousy and ambition. And as the tension moves from a simmer to a boil, you can’t help but be absorbed in every self-serving choice and passive aggressive dig. But it does stumble in a final 15 minutes that’s a little too clever for its own good. Read one way, the ending is wickedly revealing. Read another way, it’s a somewhat over-the-top finish that leaves you with some rather obvious questions.

There are some things that feel tacked on and that needed more attention or to be cut altogether. Take Luke’s sudden preoccupation with some online self-help guru or Emily’s intrusive and overbearing mother. Yet Domont finds ways to make even filler interesting. It’s a testament to her instincts as a filmmaker and storyteller, even at such an early stage in her career. Chloe Domont proves to not only be an exciting new voice, but someone with a good grasp of her craft. I can’t wait to see what she does next.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Four Samosas” (2022)

Part heist movie and part romantic comedy, “Four Samosas” is a low-budget screwball romp in the spirit of early Wes Anderson but with a sneakily infectious personality all its own. It all flows from writer-director Ravi Kapoor who infuses this whimsically toned indie with all sorts of narrative and visual quirks. Better yet, the often hysterically precise writing serves up some really big laughs. And its hard not to love the playful energy that flows out of every pore of this meager yet oh so clever little gem.

While the Anderson influence can be seen everywhere (the storytelling, the endearing collection of goofball characters, the distinct camera choices, the saturated color palette, even some red tracksuits ala “The Royal Tenenbaums”), “Four Samosas” still manages to feel like its own movie. Kapoor gives us an unashamedly farcical culture comedy with a unique, hard to resist energy that makes it easy to look past its limitations. Sure, it’s undeniably frothy and the budget constraints are impossible to miss. But Kapoor shows himself to be a crafty filmmaker, playing around with genre while diving into and having fun with his Indian heritage and traditions.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

Set in Artesia, California in a part of town known as “Little India”, the film opens with the camera locked onto Juneja’s Supermarket. Suddenly four robbers sporting disguises too absurd to describe burst out that front doors and tear off across the parking lot. It’s a heist, but had they pulled it off or had it gone bad? Well, the title screen gives us our answer. The words “Four Samosas” is literally followed by “and the ill advised grocery store heist”. ‘Nuff said.

From there we bounce back a few days where we’re introduced to Vinny (Venk Potula), an underachieving yet infinitely likable aspiring rapper who sells garments at a saree shop. Vinny is still having a hard time getting over being dumped by his ex-girlfriend Rina (Summer Bishil) some three years ago. “Pains got its own clock,” he waxes not-so-philosophically. Now he gets wind that Rina’s engaged to marry Sanjay (Karan Soni), an air-headed entrepreneur set to make his fortune in the field of goat poop (yep, you read that right).

In an effort to ruin the wedding, a heartbroken and revenge-fueled Vinny hatches a plan – an utterly ridiculous and doomed-to-fail plan, but a plan nonetheless. He’s going to break into the grocery store owned by Rina’s father (Tony Mirrcandani) and steal a pickle jar full of “dirty” diamonds. To pull it off he recruits three equally oblivious cohorts: his best friend and Bollywood dreamer Zak (Nirvan Patnaik), the chatterbox Anjali (Sharmita Bhattacharya) who publishes her own neighborhood newspaper, and Paru (Sonal Shah), a neurotic malcontent who may or may not have safe-cracking skills.

Image Courtesy of IFC Films

From there the story steadily gains momentum, only slowing down for brief chapter breaks. And the humor just gets funnier and funnier with Kapoor pulling as many laughs from his camera as from his script. It’s shot on location and full of local Indian flavor which makes the setting bubble with life. And it’s full of cultural references and inside jokes that’s sure to resonate and amuse some more than others. Me, as someone who loves these neighborhoods slice of life movies, I ate it all up.

While the film’s tight 80-minute runtime ensures it doesn’t overstay its welcome, it also leaves a few things undercooked. For example, the supporting characters aren’t given much in terms of depth, and there’s the barely scratched relationship between Vinny and his (kinda) estranged father (played by Kapoor). But if you’re okay with the film’s openly mindless free-wheeling spirit (I was), you’ll find a lot to like in this charming and consistently funny jaunt. “Four Samosas” is now available on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Fabelmans” (2022)

Steven Spielberg takes us back to his childhood with “The Fabelmans”, a semi-autobiographical odyssey that sees the acclaimed filmmaker at his most personal. I went in fully expecting to see an epic ‘love letter’ to moviemaking, and it certainly has some of that. But in reality, “The Fabelmans” is more of a testament to why movies are made. It explores what inspires and drives artists to tell the stories they tell. And to no surprise (with Spielberg at the helm), it’s also a testament to the transforming power of the cinematic language, especially in the hands of a gifted visionary and craftsman.

The film features Spielberg exploring key events in his life, making stops along his own personal timeline that impacted his family and shaped his decision to be a filmmaker. Many of the stops highlight specific moments when he began to see his parents, not just as his mom and dad, but as real people. Others show how it was filmmaking that not only helped him to understand the world around him, but also communicate his feelings to others. It doesn’t always come together as seamlessly as you would want, but when absorbed and then considered as a whole, it’s hard not to be impressed (and at times swept away) by what we’re given.

Spielberg’s stand-in is Sammy Fabelman (played as an eight-year-old by Mateo Zoryon Francis-DeFord and later as a 16-year-old by Gabriel LaBelle). We first meet young Sammy in 1952 as he nervously stands in line at his neighborhood cinema. His parents explain what’s about to happen once they go inside for Sammy’s first moviegoing experience. “Mommy and daddy will be right next to you,” his father assures him. “The lights will go down. There may be some organ music as the curtains open. Don’t be scared.” They then follow the line inside as the glowing marquee welcomes them to see “The Greatest Show on Earth”.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

Needless to say, the film has an immeasurable impact on Sammy. Before long he’s attempting to recreate DeMille’s famous train crash scene with his own electric train set and a camera. It’s the first leg of his (and Spielberg’s) journey towards becoming a filmmaker. The starry-eyed Francis-DeFord is wonderful at capturing younger Sammy’s awe and wonder. Through him you can see the gears turning as the inquisitive young boy tries to grasp the creative forces behind what he has seen on screen.

While his growing love for cinema certainly has its place in the film, it’s Sammy’s family life, especially his relationship with his parents, that form the crux of the story. The Fabelmans were the only Jewish family in their middle-class New Jersey neighborhood. Sammy’s father Burt (Paul Dano) is a computer engineer and technician for RCA. His mother Mitzi (Michelle Williams) is a skilled pianist. As a couple, they have a compelling ‘man of science’ vs. ‘woman of the arts’ dynamic.

When Burt gets hired by General Electric, Sammy, his parents, his three sisters, and their goofball family friend Bennie (Seth Rogen) move to Phoenix. We then bolt ahead several years where Sammy (now a teenager) is ready to make his first bonafide movie. Inspired by “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence”, he and a few pals from his Boy Scout troop shoot a Western short he calls “Gunsmog”.

Image Courtesy of Universal Pictures

From there Sammy’s passion for moviemaking only grows, but Burt routinely dismisses it as nothing more than a “a hobby”. He means well and he’s a good father. But his linear thinking and blind optimism constantly hinders him from seeing the obvious. Meanwhile his mother’s frustrations and insecurities lead to impulsiveness and eventually a growing emotional detachment. Cracks are forming and only widen after another move. This time to California, where Sammy’s rollercoaster high school years see him experience bullying and antisemitism, but also his first love and (of course) chances to make more movies.

But what’s most fun and revealing is watching Sammy learn the world through his camera. Not only does it allow him to tell stories, but also to truly see people. He finds that not only can the camera reveal the truth, but it gives the person looking through the lens control of that truth. They can conceal it or expose it; twist it or erase it altogether. He also discovers the camera’s ability to sway opinions, earn respect, and win hearts. And Sammy uses it to his advantage (an interesting bit of self-critique from Spielberg perhaps).

As we’re ushered through the family drama, Spielberg’s patchwork approach can feel a little messy. And while I loved most of the performances (Paul Dano is terrific and Judd Hirsch brings a jolt in his brief ten minutes), I sometimes struggled with Williams’ Mitzi – an emotional maelstrom who is rarely given a quiet moment. Yet in the end they all help bring life to Spielberg’s memories. They’re still a little blurry in spots, and some of the pieces are missing. But this inward looking feature achieves what it sets out to do. It sees one of cinema’s all-time greats not just showing how he became a filmmaker, but also what it means to be a filmmaker. Once that aim came into focus for me, my expectations suddenly didn’t matter, and Spielberg had me, just as he always has.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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