REVIEW: “The Innocents” (2022)

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

Fresh off his Best Screenplay Oscar nomination for “The Worst Person in the World”, Norwegian filmmaker Eskil Vogt goes in a much different direction with his new movie “The Innocents”. This subtle yet relentlessly eerie supernatural thriller first premiered at Cannes in 2021. Now it’s set for its release this weekend and I promise you, this one will rattle you in ways you won’t be expecting.

Vogt uses a richly detailed but thoroughly unsettling vision to explore the notion of childhood innocence and burgeoning moral conscience. While he handles the subjects with a great deal of restraint, Vogt also manages to shake us to our core. Part of it is due to his ability to infuse a near unbearable level of dread into certain sequences. He’s also not afraid to shock his audience, using violence in a way reminiscent of Michael Haneke. Not simply for the sake of doing it, but with a precise intention in mind. It gives his movie a real bite.

Pretty much the entire story takes place in and around a large Norwegian apartment complex. Our avatar is nine-year-old Ida who’s played by the incredibly expressive Rakel Lenora Fløttum. Ida has just moved to the apartments with her parents (Ellen Dorrit Pedersen and Morten Svartveit) and her autistic older sister Anna (Alva Brynsmo Ramstad). Vogt builds a compelling family dynamic centered around Ida’s relationship with the mostly nonverbal Anna. Jealous of all the attention her sister requires from their parents, a resentful Ida will often pinch Anna when no one’s looking and sometimes does much worse.

Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight

While Ida’s cruelty is troubling, Vogt doesn’t cast her in a one-dimensional light. There’s more to her character and it really begins to come out once she makes two new friends, a troubled boy named Ben (Sam Ashraf) and the kindhearted Aisha (Mina Yasmin Bremseth Asheim). The two come from significantly different single-parent homes. Aisha’s mother (Kadra Yusuf) loves her dearly but struggles financially to make ends meet. Ben’s mom (Lisa Tønne) is abusive and neglectful, often leaving her young son to fend for himself.

The supernatural element is introduced after Ben reveals his telekinetic powers to Ida. It starts innocently enough with him snapping twigs and flinging pebbles with his mind. Neither seem shocked by his power. Both treat it with the same childlike amusement as they do Ida’s double-jointed elbow trick. They laugh it off the way kids often do with any cool little discovery. But some of their other antics go beyond simple kiddie mischief, and reveal a darker side to Ben that even Ida finds unsettling.

Aisha adds another variable to the story. Along with being sweet and compassionate, she also possesses psychic abilities that allow her to speak with people via their minds. It’s through Aisha that we learn Anna also has untapped supernatural powers of her own. I won’t spoil where things eventually go, but the interactions between the four children fester into something disturbing and deadly. And while the main story turns chilling and occasionally brutal, a powerful subtext examining class and minority status simmers under the film’s surface. It’s something that could’ve been explored deeper, but at the same time it’s there and relevant.

Image Courtesy of IFC Midnight

There are several interesting storytelling choices that are surprisingly effective. For example, we get no lengthy backstory explaining how these children acquired their powers or how widespread the phenomenon may be. It’s sounds like a significant omission, but by keeping us captive in their small confined world, such detail isn’t needed. Also, you may wonder about the adults. They’re present but they mostly exist on the periphery. They nicely serve the young characters, and their influences (both good and bad) can be felt in their children.

I also like how Vogt uses several clever methods to keep us always seeing things from the children’s perspective. One of my favorites is his visual approach. DP Sturla Brandth Grøvlen’s camera often puts an emphasis on the height of the children’s surroundings. Shots of the massive high-rise apartment building, the near bottomless stairwell in their complex, the towering trees in the nearby forest where they play – they all contribute to capturing the world the way these four young people see it. It may sound like a small detail, but it’s an artistic touch that proves impactful.

Led by four outstanding child performances and an unflinching vision from writer-director Eskil Vogt, “The Innocents” uses elements from the horror genre to challenge the traditional way we often depict childhood, both in the movies and in reality. It can be hard to watch (take heed cat lovers), and its patient and unvarnished style may let down those looking for a more conventional genre film. But that’s a key thing I loved about it. Vogt’s clear-eyed treatment allows him to focus on what matters most – his characters. And it’s their stories, as tragic and as uneasy as they may be, that makes this a hard movie to shake. “The Innocents” opens today in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “Infinite Storm” (2022)

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

Inspired by a 2019 article “High Places: Footprints in the Snow Lead to an Emotional Rescue“ by Ty Gagne, the new film “Infinite Storm” sets out to tell the remarkable true story of a harrowing mountain rescue attempt amid unbearable conditions (the article was originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader and its well worth seeking out). Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and written for the screen by Joshua Rollins, “Infinite Storm” takes the truly incredible account and mixes in some dramatic layers of its own. The results are mostly gripping and heartfelt.

Naomi Watts produces and stars in this solid and sometimes terrific blend of genre thrills and remarkably restrained drama. Watts plays Pam Bales a seasoned hiker and nurse with the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team. Pam has grit and drive, but echoes from her past point to a trauma that still haunts her to this day. So she spends much of her time hiking. “It’s cheaper than therapy,” she tells her friend Dave (Denis O’Hare) who runs a local diner, “and the mountains always listen and never talk back.”

The movie opens with Pam crawling out of bed and then meticulously packing for her climb up New Hampshire’s rugged Mount Washington – the highest peak in the Northeastern United States. Sitting prominently in the Presidential Range of the White Mountains, Mount Washington is notorious for its unpredictable and often dangerous weather. And (as you can probably guess) that ends up playing a significant role in the film.

Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

Pam’s plan is thorough – a six-hour loop hike along the popular Jewell Trail, up to Mount Washington’s snowy summit, and then back down before a forecasted storm hits. She’s packed for every contingency, she tells Dave where she’s going, and she leaves her itinerary under the wiper blade of her SUV for searchers to find in case something goes wrong.

The first leg of Pam’s hike goes well as she makes her way through the lower forest trails and up the stony mountain pass. Szumowska and her DP Michal Englert fill these early scenes with breathtaking shots of natural beauty. At the same time, the camera captures the ruggedness of the land which really emphasizes the perilous nature of the journey to come.

After two hours the coming storm still sits in the distance. But after three hours Pam begins to feel its affects. She considers cutting her hike short and heading back down the mountain. But then she spots sneaker tracks in the snow. She follows them to the peak where she finds a man (Billy Howle) alone and unable to speak; underdressed and freezing to death. With the temperatures dropping and the wind whipping the snow and sleet in a violent frenzy, Pam knows neither of them can last in the worsening conditions. So her survival instincts kick in and she goes to work.

Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

The second act primarily focuses on Pam’s race against the clock as she attempts to get a man twice her size (who she names “John”) down the mountain before nightfall. Adding to the challenge is John’s erratic behavior which leads Pam to wonder if he’s on drugs or mentally unstable. Similar to the real-life account, John remains a mystery for most of the film, and the script (penned by first-time screenwriter Josh Rollins) leaves us with a lot of questions. While that may be an unexpected choice, it ends up adding some emotional heft, especially during the third act.

“Infinite Storm” really is a two person show, and while Howle does solid work, it’s Watts who carries the load. The two-time Academy Award nominee is no stranger to deglamorizing in order to get to the core of her characters and their experiences. Here she gives us an authentic portrait of Pam Bales. And even in the couple of instances where the film gets a little carried away heightening the drama, Watts keeps Pam genuine and relatable.

Aside from the couple of instances where Szumowska and Rollins give in to the urge to ramp up the action, “Infinite Storm” remains surprisingly grounded. It proves to be a key reason the film works. We’re also treated to a surprising amount of craft, especially through the camera. Intense closeups, partially obstructed framing, blurred perspective shots – it’s all strategically used to both intensify the drama and root the emotions. And while it not have enough thrills for genre fans and lack the risk-taking style and originality for the arthouse crowd, it absolutely delivers on a human level. And that’s what you need most with a story like this. “Infinite Storm” opens today (March 24th) in theaters.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

REVIEW: “Ida Red” (2021)

The grimy blue-collar crime thriller “Ida Red” opens with a stylishly filmed late night heist. Josh Hartnett and Frank Grillo masquerading as DEA agents pull over an 18-wheeler under the guise of a “routine” traffic stop. But as often happens in movies like this, things gets messy and (especially in this case) the ramifications of the botched job prove serious. It sets off an ugly domino effect that propels this gritty and tightly-made indie.

The story is set in Oklahoma and takes place sometimes in 2010. Hartnett plays Wyatt Walker, a mechanic at an auto dealership by day and an armed robber by night. He’s part of a notorious family of criminals led by his mother, the family matriarch, Ida “Red” Walker (an appropriately scary Melissa Leo). She’s serving 25 years in prison but still calls the shots. She’s also terminally ill. “Don’t let me die in here,” she makes Wyatt pledge.

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

Grillo is delightfully unhinged playing Wyatt’s sociopathic uncle Dallas. He’s the family member who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty when needed, and as one particularly unsettling scene shows us, he seems to enjoy it. Dallas is the brother of Wyatt’s father who was killed during an attempted bank robbery, the same job which put Ida in prison. Now Wyatt and Dallas are left to do the legwork while the sickly Ida tries to keep things running smoothly from behind bars.

The one kink in the Walker outfit is Wyatt’s sister and Ida’s estranged daughter Jeanie (Deborah Ann Wolf). She and her lawman husband Bodie (George Carroll) disapprove of the family’s criminal enterprise which has led to some sizable brother/sister tension. To throw more gas on the already flammable situation, Jeanie’s 15-year-old delinquent daughter Darla (Sofia Hublitz) looks up to Wyatt.

Written and directed by John Swab, “Ida Red” revolves aroun a fairly basic central storyline. It’s pretty simple and it’s nothing we haven’t seen several times before. What separates it is the interest Swab has in his characters. More that just a crime story, Swab is far more intrigued by who these people are and the dynamic between them. By honing in on the many complicated relationships, Swab is able to dig into a number of compelling themes. Bloodlines, generations, and breaking destructive family cycles.

That last one really comes through in Darla’s character. “Why do you do it?” she asks Wyatt concerning his life of crime. “It’s in our blood,” he solemnly replies. In many ways her story is the film’s moral centerpiece. She’s at a crossroads and the two paths she has in front of her lead in dramatically different life-effecting directions. Does she follow her uncles who love and protect her but are on a path full of violence? Or does she set off down her own path – one that gives her a chance at hope and happiness?

Image Courtesy of Saban Films

The heat turns up a notch when Bodie and FBI Agent Lawrence Twilley (William Forsythe) get a sniff that puts them on Wyatt’s trail. It leads to the proverbial “one more job and we’re done” which never quite goes as planned. Along the way Swab works up some pretty good tension and the handful of action scenes (most notably a “Heat” inspired downtown shootout) are plenty fierce. There are a few odd touches as well (I’m still trying make sense of the weird Madonna “Crazy for You” needle drop during a police interrogation room).

“Ida Red” doesn’t always seem sure of itself or of the best way to get to its fairly predictable end. But John Swab does a good job building a family dynamic that’s both interesting and believable. The setting works well and the performances manage the tricky job of conveying both menace and empathy. Overall, the movie might not be anything new or unique, but it does have the kick you look for in crime thrillers of this kind. “Ida Red” releases November 5th in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “I’m Your Man” (2021)

(Click Here to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

A mere surface reading of Maria Schrader’s new film “I’m Your Man” makes it sound like a daft and disposable sci-fi rom-com, bubbling with the kind of flaky superficial schmaltz that can be easy to dismiss and hard to endure. As it turns out, this high-concept romantic fantasy is a smart, thoughtful and affecting genre blend. I went into it more curious than captivated, but within 15 minutes Schrader had me firmly under her spell.

Though science-fiction is inherent to its setup, the story is more of a romantic dramedy set in our current day. The film stars Maren Eggert as Dr. Alma Felser, an archaeologist for Berlin’s Pergamon Museum. The story opens with Alma arriving at a nightclub that seems plucked out of time. Inside a jazz band’s rendition of “Puttin on the Ritz” fills the room as couples romantically dance and dine in the cozily lit cabaret.

Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

The hostess escorts Alma to a table near the dance floor where a handsome gentleman introduces himself as Tom (Dan Stevens). “You’re a very beautiful woman Alma,” he smoothly purrs as he slides his hand over hers. “Your eyes are like two mountain lakes I could sink into.” If that sounds sappy it’s for good reason. You see, Tom is an android and after ordering the perfect wine, perfectly quoting Rilke, and dancing the perfect Rumba, the robot loverboy glitches leading a trio of frantic grey-suited techs to whisk him away for maintenance.

It turns out Alma has been chosen to test-drive a new android prototype and this was their introduction. Once Tom is fixed, Alma is to take him home for a three-week trial period, reporting her findings to an ethics committee afterwards who will then determine whether the models make for good life partners. Should they be allowed to work, marry or get passports? Will they be entitled to human rights or are they just machines?

Once at her flat the movie uncoils into a more sincere version of the “The Odd Couple” with Alma wanting nothing to do with her robotic Romeo and Tom (following his programming) attempting to ingratiate himself. He tidies up the place and fixes extravagant meals much to her chagrin. He even prepares her a bath complete with candles, rose petals and champagne.

Yes, it sounds weird, but the two lead performances pull us in and actually make us believe. Together Eggert and Stevens have a charming chemistry, but it’s what they bring individually that makes their characters work. There’s an understated beauty to Eggert’s performance as she takes Alma from cranky skeptic to aching lost soul. Stevens, with his perfectly combed hair and sparkling blue eyes, is a perfect mix of suave sophistication and dopey innocence. He has the trickier role while hers is the more emotionally demanding. Both are terrific.

Image Courtesy of Bleeker Street

As you can probably guess, over time Alma warms up to Tom and her apathy turns to curiosity and then later to compassion. But Schrader doesn’t wander down the conventional route for very long. There’s a degree of incertitude behind nearly every scene and each scenario seems anchored to a question. Take when Tom tries to convince Alma to share more about herself. The more she shares the more his algorithm will adjust to her desires. He’ll become the proverbial ‘perfect man’ – one fine-tuned (literally) to her specifications. But can she truly love someone who’s really nothing more than a self-programmed extension of herself?

These are the type of heartfelt considerations baked into “I’m Your Man”, a movie that probes the essence of humanity – its meaning, its parameters, its imperfections. A movie that examines human relationships – how we define them, what we expect from them, and where we’d be without them. Yes, the film can be slyly funny and Schrader has a good time hacking away at numerous worn-out romantic comedy tropes. But go into it expecting more. Look beyond the surface. You just might be surprised at what find. I know I was.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Ice Road” (2021)

Most of us have had no problem buying into Liam Neeson as an ex-special forces tough guy with a particular set of bone-cracking and head-shotting skills. So seeing the 69-year-old Irishman as a crusty North Dakota truck driver is easy-peasy. The new Netflix action thriller “The Ice Road” taps into much of what makes Neeson such a fun and engaging action star while also reminding us of that often used formula that makes many of his movies feel like more of the same.

“The Ice Road” thrusts Neeson into the real world of ice road trucking where drivers take 65,000 lb. vehicles over stretches of frozen lakes and rivers where ice is often less than 30 inches thick. Considered by some to be suicide missions, the truck drivers make essential cargo runs across these treacherous routes known as ice roads often with fatal outcomes. Written and directed by Jonathan Hensleigh, “The Ice Road” plugs Neeson into a story that’s set in this real and dangerous environment but full of familiar genre tropes.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

Neeson plays a seasoned trucker named Mike McCann who loses his job after standing up for his challenged PTSD suffering brother Gurty (Marcus Thomas). Needing work, he gets wind of a call for ice road drivers in Winnipeg. A serious methane explosion has caused a mine to collapse and the only hope for the miners trapped inside is if a wellhead can be delivered before they run out of oxygen. He’s hired by Jim Goldenrod (Laurence Fishburne) who scrambles to find capable drivers to accompany him on the “rescue mission” to Northern Manitoba.

Mike, Gurty who happens to be an ace mechanic, Jim, and an unruly local named Tantoo (Amber Midthunder) are joined by the mine company’s smarmy insurance rep Varnay (Benjamin Walker) and set out in a three-truck convoy. They’re employing what’s called “technical redundancy” which in this scenario means three trucks carrying the same cargo leave in hopes that at least one makes it to their destination. Told you this was dangerous business.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

The first half deals with the practical dangers of their journey both mechanically and environmentally. I makes for some pretty fascinating stuff. It’s the second half where things come unglued. A cartoonishly cold company scumbag played by Matt McCoy will go to great lengths to hide his indiscretions including sabotaging the convoy and leaving his miners to suffocate. So we end up with a back-end full of half-baked action that’s only entertaining in its absurdity. Meanwhile none of the characters are given much depth. We get a taste of Mike and Gurty but everyone else is just story filler. Even the always dependable Holt McCallany can’t make his mine supervisor character interesting.

“The Ice Road” is very much a middle-of-the-road thriller in Neeson’s catalog. It starts off teasing an interesting disaster flick but devolves into a sub-par action movie that can’t quite stay on the road. At the same time it can’t steer clear of predictability. You’ll see everything coming a mile away and from its earliest scenes you’ll figure out how it all ends. Still, even a middling Neeson film has its entertainment value and this one is no different. But there are so many ways this could have been better. “The Ice Road” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 2.5 STARS

RETRO REVIEW: “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” (1989)

Revisiting the Indiana Jones trilogy has been like hopping into a time machine and traveling back to my youth. Yes, I know there was an awful fourth movie, but what ardent Indy lover actually embraces that train wreck? But the three original films are so deeply connected to my childhood. They led to me trying my hand at cracking a whip (a toy one, but a whip nonetheless) and desperately wanted a brown fedora. For a brief time they even had me wanting to be an archeologist because everybody knows those movies were accurate depictions of archeology, right?

The third film, “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”, is a near perfect picture of blockbuster moviemaking done right. It’s wildly entertaining from start to finish, plump full of big action and infused with a steady stream of humor. All three Indiana Jones films have their witty and playful moments but this one has the most laughs by far. The gags are so well written and delivered through Harrison Ford and Sean Connery’s seamless chemistry and the impeccable comic timing of supporting players Denholm Elliott and John Rhys-Davies. I had forgotten how funny this movie is.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Written by screenwriter Jeffrey Boam from a story by George Lucas and Menno Meyjes, “The Last Crusade” opens by introducing us to a young Indiana Jones (played by the late River Phoenix). Set in 1912, the fun high-energy prologue plays like a legend’s origin story of sorts. It reveals how Indy developed his fear of snakes; how he got his signature brown fedora, the whip, even Harrison Ford’s real-life scar on his chin. And at a young age he already has that very Indy-like conviction that every archaeological treasure belongs in a museum.

Jump ahead to 1938 and we meet Ford’s Indy, fighting off pirates near the Portuguese Coast and still teaching archaeology to starry-eyed college girls. He’s reunited with his university colleague Marcus (Elliott – hysterical throughout) who connects him with a wealthy collector named Walter Donovan (Julian Glover). Donovan has unearthed part of a sandstone tablet believed to reveal the resting place of the Holy Grail, Christ’s cup from the Last Supper. Authurian legend states that whoever drinks from the Grail is granted eternal life.

Indy agrees to help Donovan find the other half of the tablet only after hearing that his father, Henry Jones, Sr. (Sean Connery) was part of a team that recently went missing while searching for the Grail. His adventure starts in Venice where he meets up with Elsa Schneider (Alison Doody), an associate of his father’s, then it’s off to Austria, Berlin, and Hatay. Soon Nazis are hot on their heels, we meet a secret society of Holy Grail protectors, and fan-favorite Sallah (Rhys-Davies) pops up to help his friends. Toss in some great action including a boat chase, a terrific motorcycle sequence, a daring escape on a German bi-plane, and a thrilling fight in and around a moving German tank. It’s such a blast.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Following some mixed reviews for the second film “The Temple of Doom” (a really good movie but the weaker of the three) Spielberg lightened the tone of this third Indy outing and looked to recapture the spirit of the 1981 original “Raiders of the Lost Ark”. While the third installment has a feel all its own, it definitely rekindles the magic that made the first film such a delight. It’s not as good as “Raiders”, but that’s an incredibly high bar.

While rewatching the Indiana Jones films I was struck by how remarkably well the three movies hold up. There are a couple of moments in “The Last Crusade” where you can see the blemishes in the early digital effects. But overall the movie looks great thanks to the fantastic cinematography, stunt work, and Spielberg’s big-budget touch. And of course it’s led by Harrison Ford whose natural charisma and hero’s charm turned Indy into a household name. And now he’s putting on his fedora for one more Indiana Jones adventure. I pray it leans into what made the original three movies great and gives us a proper send off to one of cinema’s most fun and iconic characters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS