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

REVIEW: “The First Wave” (2021)

A wave of COVID-19 related documentaries were all but inevitable. It’s understandable. There wasn’t a country left unscathed by the global pandemic that’s presence is still being felt. And you can bet there are powerful, heartbreaking, and even inspiring stories from all across the planet waiting to be told.

In the United States, New York City would quickly become the epicenter for COVID-19. The city’s first wave began in March 2020 and lasted through June of that year. The fittingly titled “The First Wave” chronicles those four devastating months, mostly from the perspectives of front-line healthcare workers, but also from family members who had loved ones in hospitals, stricken by the virus and fighting for their lives.

This at times crushing documentary is directed by Matthew Heineman who was given astonishing on-the-scene access to hospital emergency rooms and makeshift COVID wards as they rapidly filled every bed with infected patients. We see doctors and nurses overwhelmed by the stress yet steadfast in their determination to save as many lives as possible. We see people struggle to breathe and we see people die. We see families speaking to their loved ones over FaceTime because they can’t be with them in the hospital. We also see doctors calling families, delivering the terrible news that their loved ones have died. This is heavy stuff.

A big chunk of the film was shot at Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Queens. We spend time with the medical workers like Dr. Nathalie Dougé, an internist at Northwell Health, and Kellie Wunsch, an ICU nurse who share the stress of not knowing what they’re dealing with while also showing their resolve when it comes to helping their patients. Watching them sprint down hallways as another person codes is nothing short of harrowing.

Just as powerful are the patients we’re introduced to – people infected and literally fighting for their lives. We meet a man named George, surrounded by doctors as he struggles to breathe. A nurse holds up his cell phone wrapped inside a ziplock bag. On the screen is his family expressing their love and encouraging him to “be strong”. George tells them he loves them too. It’s the last time they will speak. Minutes later we watch him die, an early victim of a virus that has claimed the lives of nearly 60,000 New Yorkers.

We also meet 35-year-old Ahmed Ellis, a School Safety Officer with the NYPD. He’s married and a father of two beautiful children. Due to highly contagious nature of the virus, Ahmed’s wife Alexis can’t be with her husband. So she waits at home for the next call from the hospital, hoping there will be good news on the other end of the line.

While most of the film maintains its focus, Heineman does wander off the trail a bit in the second half. He steps away from the patients to show the massive protests that followed the senseless killing of George Floyd. To be fair, Heineman tries to make a deeper connection between the protests and the pandemic. But this segment still feels yanked from a different film. To his credit, Heineman doesn’t stay away from the hospitals for very long.

Looking back, “The First Wave” doesn’t have the benefit of hindsight as we do now. So while Governor Andrew Cuomo is seen several times in the movie, nothing is said about his ill-advised nursing home decision (that was actually issued during the time this documentary covers). And of course it doesn’t mention his attempts to cover up the true death toll that resulted (something that fully came to light after the documentary was completed).

But honestly, that’s a good thing. It allows Heineman to concentrate, not on the politicians and talking heads, but on those essential workers who valiantly stood in the trenches against an undefinable threat. It lets us focus on the people and the families who suffered so much in those devastating early days. It all makes for a piercing experience. One that I can see impacting generations with its clear-eyed perspective on that terrible first wave.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Finch” (2021)

When Apple announced their new streaming service there was already a pretty crowded field duking it out for subscribers. Needing a push, the tech giant dropped $70 million to acquire distribution rights to “Greyhound”, a terrific Tom Hanks led World War II action-thriller. The movie was a success for the platform, but it still wasn’t growing by leaps and bounds. Then along came a little show called “Ted Lasso”. You may have heard of it.

Since then Apple has continued to invest in quality feature films (“Coda” from earlier this year, Joel Coen’s “The Tragedy of Macbeth” still to come). Among those investments is their latest Tom Hanks adventure “Finch”. Originally titled “BIOS” and set for a theater release by Universal Pictures, the film was snatched up by Apple, renamed, and set for an exclusive release on Apple TV+. It turns out to be yet another good move.

Directed by Miguel Sapochnik and co-written by Craig Luck and Ivor Powell, “Finch” is a delightfully intimate slice of post-apocalyptic science fiction. It sees Tom Hanks using his well known everyman charms to tell a story of a man, his dog, and a robot. But that’s just the dressing. At its core, “Finch” is a tender and heartwarming meditation on what it means to be human. I have to admit, it didn’t take me long to fall under its spell.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

Hanks plays an ailing robotics engineer and inventor who goes by the name Finch. We first meet him clad in a protective suit to shield him from the lethal heat and UV rays, humming Don McLean’s “American Pie” as he scavenges for supplies in the shell of what was once St. Louis. Like most of the planet, the city is a sandy ghost town with no signs of life other than Finch and his dog Goodyear. We learn that a solar flare combined with mankind’s negligence led to an ecological disaster. With the ozone destroyed, the planet became one big desert plagued by skin-sizzling heat, deadly radiation, and violent storms.

Finch lives in an old tech facility where he still clocks in and out just to maintain some semblance of normalcy. In his abundance of spare time, he uses what remains of the facility’s equipment to build a fully functioning android (voiced by Caleb Landry Jones), a nice upgrade from his little scavenger bot that he affectionately calls Dewey. But before Finch can put the finishing touches on his creation, a massive superstorm gathers in the distance forcing them to evacuate. Finch plots a course west, over the Rocky Mountains to San Francisco. Soon he and his motley crew are in his modified RV and heading out on a road trip across the Midwest wasteland.

While the improbable journey is full of the kind of peril you would expect in a movie like this, the story is far more interested in Finch and his relationship with the android who later becomes known as Jeff. Over time we learn more about Finch: his past, his profession, his family. We learn he’s a man with regrets. “I wish I had done more with the time I had,” he laments. We also learn he’s unwell as evident by his frequent coughing fits and nose bleeds.

Over time something akin to a father-son relationship develops between the two as Finch teaches the ever inquisitive Jeff how to talk, how to walk, how to drive, how to take initiative. And with Jeff, there’s a starry-eyed admiration for Finch. A childlike trust and a sincere desire to please his new father figure. As Jeff’s programming adapts, his voice smoothens out and he shows what resembles maturity. And the more he experiences on the journey the more he begins to understand the complexity of human emotions.

Image Courtesy of Apple TV+

One of the film’s more surprising and effective touches is in how it views things from Jeff’s fresh unclouded perspective. It may sound like a small thing, but seeing things through Jeff’s eyes really emphasizes the layers of humanity in Luck and Powell’s script. And Caleb Landry Jones’ voice work shrewdly reveals the evolution of his character while offering up some well-calibrated humor.

Sapochnik and his DP Jo Willems visualize a spectacular yet forbidding world. A desolate wasteland where grassy fields have become sand dunes and once bustling cities are nothing but scorched hulls. It’s a convincing setting that comes with its own unique set of dangers. It’s a spectacular

And of course Hanks is terrific as always, doing all of his acting next to an android and a dog. Yet he brings the same down-to-earth authenticity that’s essential to all of his performances. There’s an effortless connectability Hanks has with his audiences and he make us feel a part of any story he’s helping to tell. In this case it’s a story of the human experience. It’s a beautiful fable about what makes us human – our blemishes, our contradictions, our resiliency, our spirit. And who better than Tom Hanks, a robot, and a cute little pup to help us see ourselves clearer.

VERDICT4 STARS