Friday, April 19, 2024

“RIDDLE OF FIRE”

THE STORY – Three mischievous children embark on a woodland odyssey when their mother sends them on an errand.

THE CAST – Lio Tipton, Charles Halford, Weston Razooli, Phoebe Ferro, Charlie Stover, Danielle Hoetmer, Rachel Browne & Skyler Peters

THE TEAM – Weston Razooli (Director/Writer)

THE RUNNING TIME – 115 Minutes


“Riddle of Fire” premiered at last year’s Cannes International Film Festival to solid reviews and marks the feature directorial debut from Weston Razooli. The film has been hailed for its inventive, fairytale-like setting and unique atmosphere. However, despite a strong, entertaining opening, Razooli’s film – which he also wrote – is much more of a mixed bag. While its imaginative nature is admirable, it’s nowhere near as well-executed as an ’80s childhood adventure flick like “The Goonies,” and the world-building pales in comparison to similarly fantastical-based films. And yet, there are enough amusing moments and bits of dialogue throughout to keep the viewer from getting bored.

The film begins with a poem told in voiceover – and in hyper-stylized font – by a girl who we later meet, and is immediately followed by an entertaining sequence featuring three children: brothers Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters) and their friend Alice (Phoebe Ferro). They sneak into a warehouse to steal a video game, and it’s unclear what is real and what is not. You see, “Riddle of Fire” is primarily told from the children’s perspective, and the ensuing events continually blur the line between fantasy and reality. The central plot is instigated when the boys’ mother (Danielle Hoetmer), who’s in bed with a bad cold, asks them to bring her favorite blueberry pie – and they agree to do it, seemingly only so they can play video games. What follows is a fantastical adventure where they encounter a fairy, huntsman, poachers, a witch, and more, all while trying to get what they need and bonding as friends.

“Riddle of Fire” has a sort of “Bridge to Terabithia” feel to it in that much of the narrative (and, as a result, the visuals) is clearly in the children’s imagination. However, Razooli’s film fails to be as consistently engaging as the film mentioned above. Whereas there’s a clear difference between the fantastical and real elements in “Terabithia,” in “Riddle,” these elements are more challenging to separate. In addition, while we’re initially led to believe that the story is told from the main children’s perspective, the shift to the perspective of another group (led by Tipton’s Anna-Freya) is a bit jarring. “Riddle of Fire” was evidently inspired by many other films and franchises, and it’s easy to see elements of “Peter Pan” and the Tolkien-created Middle Earth throughout. However, Razooli’s film lacks the definitive world-building of franchises like those mentioned. It also makes very little logistical sense, even if the narrative is meant to strain credulity. Most viewers are aware that much of what transpires is not real, so things such as the children knowing survival skills can be forgiven. It’s also unfortunate that the movie’s most engaging and entertaining sequence is the beginning, which contains very little dialogue yet does a solid job of keeping the audience invested.

Razooli, who previously had only directed short films, makes some interesting choices throughout, and some shots and sequences are too stylized for this kind of filmmaking. Razooli’s screenplay contains as much cliched dialogue as it does unique and memorable dialogue. For example, the way many adults talk appears to be rote and unoriginal, but because these events are meant to be from a youthful perspective, this could be how the children view their elders. There’s also plenty of dialogue – mainly from the children – that’s witty, funny, and charming. The three principal children navigate their often tricky lines fairly well, even when it’s doubtful that the youngest, Jodie, would know such advanced words and diction. They speak as most children do at times, but then they’ll switch to an elevated, witty manner of speaking. This aligns with the film’s reality vs. fantasy theme. Peters’ delivery of lines like “I’m not cute, I’m hot” makes these moments stand out. However, it’s somewhat distracting to have Jodie’s dialogue constantly subtitled despite being in English and easy to understand. It would’ve been better to hear his lines before reading them on screen. Also, while there are funny and/or amusing moments throughout, the script doesn’t nearly have as many laugh-out-loud moments as Razooli may have intended. Some bits meant to be hilarious just don’t land and may come across as trying too hard.

It’s unclear what the audience of “Riddle of Fire” is meant to be, as it is rated PG-13. The kids swear and even drink – at one point, Hazel gets drunk and vomits – but they do child-like things such as beg their mother to let them play video games. And, while there are violent moments, the only thing the kids use to shoot is a sort of paintball gun (we do see adult characters use guns). On the other hand, animal skins, dead fish, etc., feature prominently in the woodsy scenes and could be upsetting to younger viewers.

Despite being billed as the lead, Tipton plays a much smaller role than marketing would have you believe. The non-binary actor best known for films like “Two-Night Stand” and “Crazy Stupid Love” has perhaps the most impressive acting in the film, at least as far as the adults are concerned. Tipton is commanding and somewhat terrifying. Some of the other adult actors seem to be over-acting, which may have been Razooli’s intention, although Halford, in particular, seems to be trying too hard. As mentioned, the child actors are quite strong, and the lead trio has an easy, breezy chemistry that makes their relationships believable.

The music is fantasy-like and ethereal, even when nothing interesting happens on screen. Also, the fact that the film was shot on Kodak 16mm gives the film a neat nostalgic touch, although none of the cinematography is revelatory. Interestingly, we don’t know when the film is taking place until the plot is well in motion. And when one of the kids whips out a cell phone, it’s a bit of a surprise. It’s also unclear whether or not this was necessary, as this is the kind of story that could be considered timeless.

Ultimately, “Riddle of Fire” may be too quirky for its own good. It’s the kind of film that requires you to vibe with it by the time the story gets going, and if you don’t, you’re probably not on its wavelength. The storytelling is messy and lacks cohesion, and it’s hard to become emotionally attached to any characters. It stretches its story too thin at nearly two hours long and could have been trimmed quite a bit. It may have been better as a short film, which would have allowed for a deeper focus on the characters. There’s just not enough substance to justify that runtime, and the world-building is seriously lacking. However, despite all that, there’s something to admire about the film’s focus on childhood innocence, friendships, and coming-of-age. Seeing events through the eyes of the children gives the film a unique perspective that is often missing in these types of movies.

THE RECAP

THE GOOD - Writer-director Razooli's script is imaginative and fantastical, with an exciting look at the blurred nature of reality and fantasy. The opening sequence is entertaining, with amusing and/or funny bits throughout. Child actors are solid and have great chemistry.

THE BAD - It pales in comparison to films like "Bridge to Terabithia" and "The Goonies." Razooli's script and direction are underwhelming. There is a lack of world-building. The storytelling is messy and lacks cohesion. The film is too long and may have been better as a short.

THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - None

THE FINAL SCORE - 5/10

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Alyssa Christian
Alyssa Christian
Longtime cinephile and self-described movie snob who’s probably too obsessed with awards season. Also an actor, writer, flutist, and vegan.

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<b>THE GOOD - </b>Writer-director Razooli's script is imaginative and fantastical, with an exciting look at the blurred nature of reality and fantasy. The opening sequence is entertaining, with amusing and/or funny bits throughout. Child actors are solid and have great chemistry.<br><br> <b>THE BAD - </b>It pales in comparison to films like "Bridge to Terabithia" and "The Goonies." Razooli's script and direction are underwhelming. There is a lack of world-building. The storytelling is messy and lacks cohesion. The film is too long and may have been better as a short.<br><br> <b>THE OSCAR PROSPECTS - </b>None<br><br> <b>THE FINAL SCORE - </b>5/10<br><br>"RIDDLE OF FIRE"