REVIEW: “The Girl on the Mountain” (2022)

Burdened souls retreating to the wilderness in an effort to escape their grief or remorse has become fairly familiar in the world of movies. Yet it’s a trope that I always gravitate to. Aside from the obvious symbolism, there’s just something about the way these movies deal with the human condition that has always moved me (to varying degrees, of course).

The latest film to plant itself in this well-plowed ground is the new thriller “The Girl on the Mountain”. It’s written and directed by Matt Sconce and taken from a story he conceived with Christopher Mejia. It delves into heavier themes of guilt, grief, loneliness, and trauma. Meanwhile gorgeous shots of California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains soak into the background like paint on a Bob Ross canvas. Unfortunately the genre elements end up clashing with the deeper human moments despite Sconce’s efforts to keep our emotions in tune with what matters most.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Daniel O’Reilly plays Jack Ward, a former classical music conductor haunted by a crushing family trauma. Overtaken by sorrow and guilt, Jack has escaped deep into the mountains where he lives out of a pup tent and fights off daily impulses to end his life. As movies like this tend to do, we get flashbacks that fill us in on what drove Jack to such a troubling condition. Sconce means well and the early allusions to Ward’s past are handled well. But the later flashbacks get a little too on-the-nose.

While washing up in a mountain stream Jack is surprised by a young mute girl (Makenzie Sconce) who grabs his backpack and quickly runs away. After a short chase he catches the girl – holes in her clothes, lips chapped, dirt smeared across her face. Conveniently, Jack knows sign language so he learns the girl is on the run from a comically over-the-top antagonist Big Al (D.T. Carney). As you can probably guess, an inevitable bond forms between the tortured Jack and the traumatized young girl. But Big Al and his redneck goons are determined to find the girl, no matter what it takes.

The movie starts off on a pretty strong foot as it emphasizes Jack’s anguish and grounds us in his seclusion. The way Sconce shoots the scenic locations is nothing short of stunning, and the early scenes allow O’Reilly the space to convey his character’s pain and loose grip on life. And the first moments between Jack and the girl are effective in showing their shared fear and trepidation while also touching on our more human instincts of survival and companionship.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Sadly the film can’t stay on course as the script really struggles after the table-setting first act. It’s not just the story that suffers, but the characters too. While sweet on the surface and well intended, Jack’s sudden transformation from downcast and hopeless to chipper and playful is so abrupt that it doesn’t feel natural at all. And the dialogue during these scenes doesn’t exactly help. Their back-and-forths get pretty mushy and (I hate to say it) hokey to the point of cringe. It’s unfortunate.

Even worse, things really fall off once Sconce tries to rev up the action in the final 15 minutes or so. The framing of the shots, the weird use of slow-motion, the jarring way it clashes with the rest of the movie. Nothing about the the “big” ending feels authentic, and it seems copy and pasted from other thrillers. Without question, the budget has something to do with it, and you hate to knock a small indie like this that actually does several things well. But ultimately the movie can’t quite overcome its issues, and it can never get back on track once it loses its footing. “The Girl on the Mountain” is now streaming on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

Sundance Review: “God’s Country” (2022)

Grief is a popular subject in movies and for a number of reasons. It’s a subject that strikes a chord with most every viewer. There are many facets of it that can be explored through cinema. And when done well, it’s depiction in movies can be a cathartic release both for the filmmaker and the audience. Needless to say, there is no shortage of movies that deal with this powerful emotion.

Grief is the central theme for first-time director Julian Higgins in his new film “God’s Country”. This diverting yet overly ambitious thriller hands the too often overlooked Thandiwe Newton a well-deserved and long overdue meaty leading role. She plays a grieving college professor at odds with a couple of backwoods brothers. And while Higgins does a great job building tension between his lead character and two antagonists, it’s often undermined by his attempts to squeeze in every hot-button issue under the sun.

To no surprise Newton is wonderful as Sandra Guidry, a New Orleans transplant now teaching public speaking at a nearby unnamed university. After school, she retreats to her home in a remote snowy canyon outside of town where she sorts through the things of her recently deceased mother. The beautiful rugged isolation is a good place for peace, quiet, and coping with her grief. But she also learns it’s not the safest place to be, especially for a single woman.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

One evening Sandra comes home to a red Ford pickup truck parked on her property. There’s no signs of its owner so she leaves a note asking them not to park on her land. Later that evening she finds the truck gone and the crumpled note thrown on the ground.

The next day while chopping wood she notices the same red pickup coming up her driveway. It parks again and out steps the Cody brothers, the older Nathan (Joris Jarsky) and the loose cannon Samuel (Yellowstone’s Jefferson White). Sandra approaches them and asks them to leave much to their chagrin. When she discovers their truck parked a third time she had enough.

Sandra meets with the acting sheriff Gus Wolf (Jeremy Bobb), the only law enforcement officer in a 300-mile jurisdiction. He’s reluctant to get involved saying most disputes are handled between the parties. He does meet with the brothers and tells them to stay off Sandra’s property. But as you can probably guess, this does little to ease the tensions between the two sides and soon Sandra is forced to take matters into her own hands.

Image Courtesy of Sundance

Again, all of that makes for a good setup, and Higgins utilizes everything from the performances to his setting to build a tense and at times chilling central conflict. There’s also the undercurrent of grief which both Higgins and Newton navigate with true genuine feeling. The problem comes when the movie wanders from those two narrative strengths.

Rather than exploring these angles deeper, Higgins (who penned the script with Shaye Ogbonna) stuffs the story with a bevy of political issues. Patriarchy, policing, race, gender inequality in the workplace, Hurricane Katrina, animal rights – they all find their way into the narrative, yet none are given the time they need to feel necessary. They’re meant to be contributing to Sandra’s growing frustration and deteriorating state of mind. But their superficial treatment leaves them feeling tacked on rather than important to the story.

Several other things bring the movie down. The revelation of Sandra’s past work in New Orleans gives us one of Newton’s very best scenes, but it also provides an amusing convenience that I never fully bought into. Also, there are some out-of-the-blue supporting character pairings in the last act that are both weird and woefully underdeveloped. These knocks are annoying mainly because they drag down an otherwise gripping thriller. And while grief still gets a reflective and thoughtful treatment, even it feels subverted by too many unnecessary detours.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

Retro Review: “The Getaway” (1972)

Sam Peckinpah’s star-powered crime thriller “The Getaway” sees Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw on the run along the U.S./Mexico southern border. McQueen was a huge movie star at the time and had a say in most aspects of the film. He fired director Peter Bogdanovich due to creative differences. He disliked the music by Peckinpah’s long-time composer Jerry Fielding and hired Quincy Jones to completely rescore the movie. And to Peckinpah’s chagrin, McQueen used his final cut privileges to change several of the director’s chosen takes. How’s that for creative control?

For some, “The Getaway” is just as much remembered for what happened behind the scenes. MacGraw was riding high having just starred in the big hit “Love Story”. Though at first intimidated by McQueen’s presence, the two quickly hit it off and began an affair. McQueen was in the process of divorcing his wife of 15 years, Neile Adams. MacGraw was married to Robert Evans, the head of Paramount Pictures who actually suggested she take the role in “The Getaway”. While some feared a possible scandal could hurt the film, it ended up being a box office success.

Written for the screen Walter Hill, the film is an adaptation of a novel by pulp writer Jim Thompson. McQueen plays Carter “Doc” McCoy who we first meet in a Texas prison where he’s serving ten years for armed robbery. Four years into his sentence Doc comes up for parole but is denied. He tells his wife Carol (MacGraw) to contact Jack Beynon (Johnson), a crooked San Antonio businessman. Beynon uses his political influence to get Doc out but with one stipulation – Doc is to knock off a local bank that’s holding $500,000 of an oil company’s money.

Doc wants to pick his own men for the job, but Beynon insists on his goons, Rudy (Al Lettieri) and Frank (Bo Hopkins). Needless to say the robbery goes bad. A security guard is shot and killed, there’s an expected double-cross, and soon Doc and Carol are on the run across south Texas with both the law and Beynon’s hoods on their tails. The wild card in it all is Rudy, who Lettieri plays with equal part slime and menace. He too is after Doc, but his journey is far darker and more sadistic.

Despite having plenty of violent and often bloody action, there’s a strangely uneven pace to “The Getaway”. Peckinpah has a tendency of dragging scenes out and making them longer than they need to be. Normally I like this kind of patience, but here it zaps certain scenes of their energy. Then you have the lead performances. McQueen nails the cold, tough-as-nails part of his character. But he shortchanges the other side of Doc – the softer side needed if we’re to believe in his relationship with Carol. As for a miscast MacGraw, she seems uncomfortable for much of the film. Her performance comes across as dry and often far too mechanical.

Still, the combustible story at the heart of “The Getaway” is pretty gripping. The action is well done, especially the terrifically shot finale which takes place in a border town hotel. The film is also helped by a fine supporting cast that includes Johnson, Lettieri, Sally Struthers, Slim Pickens, and Jack Dodson. There ends up being enough good ingredients to make for a tasty crime thriller. Perhaps not as good as it could have been, but tasty nonetheless.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” (2021)

Though I’m a proud kid from the 1980s, would it surprise you to know that I have no real affection for “Ghostbusters”? No deep love for the characters. No vested interest in their story. No warm and fuzzy feeling at the thought of a new film. I thought the 1984 original was fine and I don’t remember anything about its 1989 sequel. I thoroughly disliked the 2016 reboot and not because I agreed with shallow-minded meatheads who hated the idea of an all female cast (frankly, it just wasn’t very good).

So it should go without saying that “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” wasn’t one I was dying to see. I was more curious than excited and for a number of reasons. First, it’s considered a sequel to the original two films (sorry Paul Feig). Second, it’s directed by Jason Reitman, the son of Ivan Reitman who directed “Ghostbusters” 1 and 2. Third, I was curious to see how well the new film connected with its predecessors considering the 30+ year gap? And fourth, would they bring back that killer Ray Parker Jr. theme song (happily, the answer to that one is YES).

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

Basically, “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is a well-made movie. It’s mostly well written (more on that in a second) and it’s the kind of entertainment that will probably appeal most to the already established fan base. Reitman clearly has an affection for the material and often that affection dictates much of what we get. The list of callbacks is long and some things seem stuck in solely for nostalgia. Again, that should excite the franchise faithful. Personally, “Afterlife” isn’t a movie that will stick with me past the weekend, despite the moderately fun time I had with it.

The way Reitman (who also co-writes with Gil Kenan) connects this film with the previous movies is pretty crafty. We learn that Egon Spengler (previously played by the late Harold Ramis), a founding member of the Ghostbusters, left New York and relocated to the dried-up town of Summerville, Oklahoma. He severed ties with his three parapsychological partners and his family to move out on an isolated dirt farm where he recently died. Why Summerville? What was he doing there? Both are questions the movie answers later with varying degrees of success.

Meanwhile back in the city, Egon’s estranged daughter Callie (Carrie Coon) is a single mother to two kids, the energetic Trevor (Finn Wolfhard) and the nerdy science-loving Phoebe (a show-stealing Mckenna Grace). Callie gets word that her father has died around the same time she gets evicted from her apartment. Out of options, the three move to the farm Egon left her in Summerville. While there, Phoebe and Trevor begin learning the truth about their grandfather and what he was really up to. And as you’ve probably guessed, it has something to do with ghosts.

Image Courtesy of Columbia Pictures

While Reitman eventually gets around to doing some ghostbusting, a big chunk of the movie plays like a mystery. In truth, the movie is at its best when Phoebe, Trevor, and their collection of disposable Summerville friends are following a trail of clues linking Egon to a series of mysterious tremors that has been shaking the town. These scenes give us time to get to know the main characters especially Phoebe. Mckenna Grace is hands-down the star of the movie while Coon gets some good scenes as the embittered mom and daughter. Wolfhard gets stuck with your run-of-the-mill teen boy character while Paul Rudd brings some name recognition to an otherwise throwaway role.

But then the movie gets into the considerably less interesting supernatural stuff – ancient temples, gatekeepers, keymasters, etc. It’s all pretty silly and haphazardly thrown together in a way that gets away from all the things the movie did so well early on. It does end on a predictable yet undeniably warm note and a couple of end credits scenes hint at more Ghostbusters to come. That’s more good news for fans. But I’m not sure “Afterlife” did enough to excite the rest of us for what’s to come. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Good on Paper” (2021)

It’s amazing how well the title “Good on Paper” fits this new Netflix comedy from first time director Kimmy Gatewood. The film is written by and stars stand-up comic Iliza Shlesinger who has the big personality and snappy wit you often look for in good comedies. But “Good on Paper” is exactly that – an idea for a movie that probably sounded great during conception but that falls apart on screen. It’s a shame because it begins with a fair amount of promise.

Shlesinger plays Andrea Singer, a fairly successful stand-up comic trying to break into acting but getting nothing but rejection from her countless auditions. On a flight back to Los Angeles she meets Dennis (a hunky Ryan Hansen sporting nerdy glasses and a bad comb-over in an effort to make him look homely). He comes packaged with some pretty attractive qualities. He’s a Yale graduate, has a high-paying job as a hedge fund manager, and owns a big house in Beverly Hills. The two instantly hit it off and begin spending a lot of time together in LA.

Image Courtesy of NETFLIX

It doesn’t take long for us to notice that Dennis is clearly smitten, but to Andrea their relationship is purely platonic. Of course the more they’re together the closer they become and the awkward yet inevitable romance blossoms. But to the film’s credit this isn’t a prototypical romantic comedy. And as the two friends slowly morph into a couple, Andrea begins noticing cracks in Dennis’ story. Is he really who he says he is? Did he really go to Yale? Does his mother have cancer? Did he ever really have a supermodel girlfriend?

Then the movie starts to fall apart. Andrea’s state of oblivion is mind-boggling which does no favors to the character. We can certainly see enough to figure things out. Even the suspicions of her best friend Margot, a brash stock character of a sidekick played by Margaret Cho, falls on deaf ears. By the time it all finally comes to a head the story has completely unraveled into a weirdly out-of-tune mess that doesn’t seem sure of what it wants to be. And the final act is painful to sit through, taking several wacky turns, throwing out some jarringly unnatural dialogue, and giving us some cringe-soaked scenes that resemble really bad sketch routines.

By the end it’s really hard to buy into anything “Good on Paper” is selling. Outside of the first 30 minutes, nothing about the film feels remotely authentic from its flaky characters to the unconvincing relationships. And while it tries, the movie has nothing especially meaningful to say about single life or dating. I ended up unsure of what the movie was other than a showcase for Shlesinger who certainly has the comedic chops. She just may want someone else to write the material next time around. “Good on Paper” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 1.5 STARS

REVIEW: “The Guilty” (2021)

New on Netflix this weekend is Antoine Fuqua’s “The Guilty”, an American remake of a terrific 2018 Danish film from director Gustav Möller. “The Guilty” is an interesting choice for Fuqua and dramatically different than the more action-oriented movies the filmmaker is known for. To his credit, Fuqua captures much of the taut tension of the original film and he manages the single-setting challenges well enough.

The entire film takes place in a 911 dispatch center where Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) works as an operator. I won’t say too much about him considering a healthy chunk of the movie is spent unwrapping his troubled character over the course of one eventful night. Suffice it to say, he’s been taken off the streets pending an upcoming trial for [REDACTED]. The stress from his looming court date along with his recent split with his wife has Joe on edge.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Joe’s evening takes a dramatic turn when he receives a call from a little girl named Abby (voiced by Christiana Montoya) who tells him her mother Emily (Riley Keough) has been kidnapped. Joe makes a promise to Abby that she will see her mother again. He then spends the rest of the night trying to keep his promise. Meanwhile Joe’s personal story gets messier as his own problems begin to fester. He’s in a mess as evident by the pesky Los Angeles Times reporter (Edi Patterson) who keeps calling. “I just want you to be able to tell your side of the story,” she claims.

The vast majority of the running time plays out over telephones and police radios. Fuqua does a sufficient job building suspenseful but has a hard time keeping the tension ratcheted up throughout the tight 90 minutes. The story (from screenwriter Nic Pizzolatto) unfolds at a pretty good pace, and we get some good voice work from Keough, Ethan Hawke, Paul Dano, Peter Saarsgard, and Eli Goree.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Unfortunately the last 20 minutes sees the film’s central conceit begin to fizzle. It’s not helped by Gyllenhaal’s character who is relentlessly volatile, unlikable, and ever stressed to the point of almost snapping. The performance is solid, but Gyllenhaal is asked to portray Joe with such aggression that it’s almost impossible to connect with him.

Fuqua does add some interesting touches, such as setting his movie to the backdrop of the California wildfires. But no matter how hard the film tries, it’s never able to muster the same intensity or humanity as its Danish inspiration. Perhaps seeing the 2018 film set my expectations at a certain level. Fuqua’s version, though entertaining to a point, simply doesn’t have the same spark and ends up being a pretty pale comparison. “The Guilty” premieres Friday (September 24th) on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS