Review: ‘Moonfall’ (2022), starring Halle Berry, Patrick Wilson, John Bradley, Michael Peña, Charlie Plummer, Wenwen Yu and Donald Sutherland

January 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Halle Berry and Patrick Wilson in “Moonfall” (Photo by Reiner Bajo/Lionsgate)

“Moonfall” (2022)

Directed by Roland Emmerich

Culture Representation: Taking place in Washington, D.C.; New York City; Los Angeles; Colorado and outer space, the sci-fi/action film “Moonfall” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A high-ranking NASA astronaut, a former NASA astronaut and a science conspiracy theorist all team up and sometimes disagree on how to handle an impending apocalypse where the moon is on a path of destruction to Earth.

Culture Audience: “Moonfall” will appeal mainly to people who don’t mind watching silly sci-fi films with ridiculous scenarios and cringeworthy dialogue.

John Bradley in “Moonfall” (Photo by Reiner Bajo/Lionsgate)

How do you make an apocalypse film so idiotic that the movie is its own kind of disaster? “Moonfall” can answer that question. This sloppy sci-fi flick has more holes in its plot than craters on the moon. It’s not even a “so bad it’s good” movie. The filmmaking in “Moonfall” is so lazy, with generic characters and a story that’s absolutely cringeworthy. Slick but not-very-impressive visual effects are thrown into the movie as a weak attempt to distract viewers from a nonsensical story that makes an atrocious mockery of NASA.

“Moonfall” was directed by Roland Emmerich, who’s known for helming a lot of “end of the world” or “monsters attack” disaster movies, but the terrible ones he’s made far outnumber the good ones. “Moonfall” is one of his worst. Emmerich co-wrote the abominable “Moonfall” screenplay with Spenser Cohen and Harald Kloser. Although there are some talented people in the “Moonfall” cast, they’re stuck in a horrendous movie where they have to embarrass themselves.

The movie opens with an ill-fated NASA spaceship mission with three astronauts on board: Jocinda “Jo” Fowler (played by Halle Berry), Brian Harper (played by Patrick Wilson) and Alan Marcus (played by Frank Fiola)—a tight-knit trio of co-workers who respect each other. Something goes terribly wrong in space, as a massive dark force resembling a cosmic storm comes out of nowhere and seems to attack the ship.

Debris flies everywhere, causing the ship to bounce around and almost capsize. Brian is able to steer the ship back in the correct position, but Alan doesn’t make it out alive. Back on Earth, Brian insists that there’s a deadly force out in space that deliberately caused the attack. However, NASA officials say that’s a crazy idea and declare this fatal space trip to be a fluke accident.

The movie then shows Brian’s 8-year-old son Sonny (played by Azriel Dalman) sadly looking at the TV news, which is reporting that Brian, who has been fired from NASA, is suing NASA for wrongful termination. In court testimony, Brian reiterates that there’s something terrible out in space that must be investigated and stopped. NASA has labeled Brian as a mentally unstable former astronaut who has no credibility.

Sonny is unhappy not just because of what happened to his father. He’s also upset because he and his mother Brenda (played by Carolina Bartczak) are moving to New Jersey without Brian. Not only has Brian’s career fallen apart, his marriage to Brenda has also deteriorated, and they eventually divorce. Brian is also bitter because Jo, who still works for NASA, testified in NASA’s defense, and it’s ruined their friendship.

“Moonfall” then cuts to 10 years later. Brian is unemployed with a drinking problem and a bad temper. Sonny (played by Charlie Plummer) is now a troubled rebel who’s a student at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Sonny lives with his mother Brenda and her current husband Tom Lopez (played by Michael Peña), who owns a successful car dealership. Also in the household are Tom’s two daughters from a previous marriage: Nikki Lopez (played by Ava Weiss), who’s about 13 or 14, and Lauren Lopez (played by Hazel Nugent), who’s about 10 or 11. The family also has a vacation home in Aspen, Colorado. (“Moonfall” was actually filmed in Montreal and Los Angeles.)

An unnecessary scene in the movie shows Sonny getting arrested with a friend during a high-speed chase with police that was on live television. Illegal drugs were found in the car, but Sonny swears that the drugs belong to the friend. Sonny’s arrest just leads to another time-wasting scene of Brian showing up for Sonny’s arraignment in court and making a complete ass of himself, by yelling at the judge that Sonny is innocent. It’s Brian’s way of trying to make up for being an absentee father, but Brian’s courtroom outbursts make things worse, and the judge rules for Sonny to be held without bail until Sonny’s next courtroom hearing.

Meanwhile, level-headed Jo has risen through the ranks at NASA, where she reports to NASA director Albert Hutchings (played by Stephen Bogaert), an arrogant boss who is very condescending and dismissive of Jo. Just like Brian, Jo is also a divorced parent. Her ex-husband is General Doug Davidson (played by Eme Ikwuakor), a hard-edged military official who hangs out a lot at NASA headquarters. Jo and Doug have a son named Jimmy (played by Zayn Maloney), who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Jo has hired a college student named Michelle (played by Wenwen Yu) to be a live-in nanny who can help take care of Jimmy.

Someone will eventually cross paths with Jo and Brian and team up with them for the movie’s mind-numbing “we have to save the world” part of the movie. His name is K.C. Houseman (played by John Bradley), and he’s a fast-talking Brit who’s a conspiracy theorist and a wannabe scientist. K.C. works as a janitor at a university, where he makes secret and illegal phone calls and computer log-ins, by impersonating one of the university’s professors when everyone has left the office for the day.

K.C. is a bachelor loner who is obsessed with moon travel and how the moon can affect Earth. How obsessed is he with moon travel? He named his cat Fuzz Aldrin, as a tribute to famed Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon. K.C.’s widowed mother, who uses a wheelchair and lives in a nursing home, has dementia. K.C. visits her, but she sometimes forgets who he is.

When he’s not working as a janitor who impersonates scientist professors and hacks into their computers, K.C. works in the drive-through window at a fast-food restaurant. In his spare time, K.C. has been working on proving a theory that the moon’s orbit is about to radically shift. One evening at the fast-food place, K.C. gets a message on his phone from one of the people he conned into thinking that he’s a scientist. The message has some information that indicates that K.C.’s “moon orbit shift” theory could become a reality. The theory spreads like wildfire on the Internet.

K.C. sees a newspaper report that it’s Astronaut Day at Griffith Park Observatory, where Brian is scheduled to make a speaking appearance in front of some school kids. This movie is so badly written, it doesn’t explain why a disgraced and former NASA astronaut would be invited to make this type of speaking appearance. It’s all a poorly conceived contrivance for K.C. to show up before Brian does, so that K.C. can start giving his own “astronaut” lecture to the children.

When Brian arrives (he’s late because he overslept, probably because of his drinking problem), he’s irritated to see that K.C. has taken over the lecture. Brian doesn’t know who K.C. is, but Brian can easily see that K.C. is some kind of fake scientist, even though K.C. insists that he’s a “doctor.” K.C. tells Brian that he believes Brian about there being a mysterious force that’s in the universe and that it could be why the moon’s orbit will shift. K.C. still doesn’t make a good impression on Brian, who summons security personnel to have K.C. thrown out of the building.

Meanwhile, Jo is at NASA declaring to anyone who’ll listen: “We have to go back to the moon! We have to see what’s going on up there!” Some astronauts are quickly sent back to the moon, as if this type of space trip is as easy as booking a plane flight. But this expedition to the moon ends badly. It’s the first time that NASA officials see the “mysterious force,” which now has octopus-like tentacles that can kill.

It isn’t long before all hell breaks loose. Earth gets hit with tidal waves of floods everywhere. It’s at the same time that K.C. and Brian have met up again in a diner, because at this point, K.C. is the only person who will believe Brian. The flooding destroys the diner, right in the middle of K.C. and Brian’s conversation. It’s one of the unintentionally hilarious parts of the movie.

K.C. thinks that the mysterious force in the universe has caused the moon to veer off course and triggered disastrous weather on Earth. In addition to floods, there are massive earthquakes and storms. People start panicking, and there’s widespread looting. Military officials, including a stereotypical “nuke ’em all” type named General Jenkins (played by Frank Schorpion), argue about whether or not the moon should be attacked with nuclear weapons.

Jo and her boss Albert are at NASA headquarters when she somberly says the obvious to him: “Everything we knew about the universe is out the window. We’re not prepared for this.” There’s so much mass chaos that Albert abruptly quits his job as director of NASA and says that Jo can be in charge and have the job. He gives his NASA badge to her as “clearance.” Yes, the movie really is this stupid.

Guess who’s going into space to save the world? Brian, K.C. and Jo make the trip under a series of jumbled and preposterous circumstances. Meanwhile, there’s a subplot where Sonny, Brenda, Tom, Lauren, Nikki, Jimmy and Michelle all end up together, as they fight for their lives in the snowy mountains of Colorado, in an attempt to get to a safety bunker. Somehow during this life-or-death situation, Sonny and Michelle find time to make goo-goo eyes at each other and act like they want to date each other when this pesky apocalypse is all over.

Why are they in the Colorado mountains? There’s some nonsense in the movie that the higher the elevation where people can be, the less likely they will be killed. Apparently, the “Moonfall” filmmakers want viewers to forget that this “safety precaution” is pointless if you’re trapped on a mountain where you could be buried in a snowy avalanche caused by earthquakes that are happening all over the world.

It gets worse. If you dare to subject yourself to this time-wasting trash movie, it might be hard for you not to laugh at the big “reveal” of why this “mysterious force” exists in the universe. The answer is supposed to make the movie look “deep,” but it’s just a pathetic attempt to rip off “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

At certain parts of the movie, “Moonfall” co-stars Berry and Wilson look like they’re trying their best to convincingly deliver some of the moronic dialogue that they have to spout, but it’s a hopeless effort. Bradley’s K.C. character is relentlessly annoying. Donald Sutherland has a cameo as a scientist named Holdenfield, who does what a Donald Sutherland cameo character usually does in a movie: He briefly shows up to act like he knows more than anyone else in the room.

Peña, who’s usually typecast as a wisecracking character, is given some lackluster and awkwardly placed “jokes” in this movie’s failed comic relief. Worst of all, “Moonfall” takes itself way too seriously to be considered a campy bad movie. You’re more likely to be grimacing than laughing if you end up watching “Moonfall,” a horrible misfire that crashes and burns in more ways than one.

Lionsgate will release “Moonfall” in U.S. cinemas on February 4, 2022.

Review: ‘Alone’ (2020), starring Tyler Posey, Summer Spiro and Donald Sutherland

October 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Tyler Posey in “Alone” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Alone” (2020)

Directed by Johnny Martin

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the horror flick “Alone” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A bachelor who lives alone in an apartment fights to stay alive during a zombie apocalypse.

Culture Audience: “Alone” will appeal primarily to people who like zombie movies that are heavy on suspense but light on character development and a logical plot.

Summer Spiro in “Alone” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

There have been so many movies that take place during a zombie apocalypse that any new movies that come along have to offer something truly unique to stand out from the pack. Despite many suspenseful moments and some fairly good acting, “Alone” (directed by Johnny Martin) falls very short of developing well-rounded characters and has too many implausible elements for it to be considered a superb zombie movie. It’s the type of horror movie where viewers still won’t know much about the main characters by the end of the movie, compared to when the characters were first introduced in the film.

This “Alone” movie should not be confused with director John Hyams’ stalker thriller “Alone,” another horror movie that was also released in 2020. Matt Naylor wrote the “Alone” zombie flick screenplay. And it’s the same screenplay that director Cho Il-hyung adapted into the South Korean movie “#Alive,” which was released in South Korean theaters on June 24, 2020, and debuted on Netflix on September 8, 2020. (Naylor and Cho are credited with writing the “#Alive” screenplay.) This is a case where the American movie version of the same screenplay is far inferior to the South Korean movie version that was released first.

The zombie flick “Alone” immediately starts with the zombie plague spreading throughout the world. The movie takes place in Los Angeles, where a tattooed bachelor in his late 20s named Aidan (played by Tyler Posey) wakes up in his bed next to a woman who’s about his age and who had a sexual encounter with him the night before. This woman is never identified by name, and it’s never explained how he met her or how long he’s known her. But later in the movie, Aidan essentially says that she was never his girlfriend, so viewers have to assume that she was just a fling.

As soon as she leaves, Aidan looks out from the back balcony of his high-rise apartment building and sees a girl on the street getting attacked by zombies. And then, he sees a helicopter crash into a building. From that moment on, all hell breaks loose. You’d think a zombie plague like this would spread a lot more gradually. But no. In this movie, the plague literally spreads everywhere within minutes, and the entire world is caught off-guard.

The next thing you know, zombies are everywhere outside and in the hallways of the apartment building. Aidan frantically turns on the news and sees the newscaster report that people should hide, preferably inside, and stay in that hiding place for as long as possible. Phone service is intermittent and it eventually becomes unavailable. And eventually, electricity, Internet service and running water/indoor plumbing become unavailable too.

Before the phone service no longer becomes an option for Aidan (he eventually gets an “all circuits are busy” message every time he tries to use his phone), he checks his voice mail and finds out that his parents have barricaded themselves in an office building, while Aidan’s younger sister has escaped to try and go to the family cabin. (In “#Alive,” the isolated protagonist is younger than the Aidan character, and he lives with his parents and his sister.)

One of the biggest plot holes in “Alone” is that the zombie plague spread so quickly, and yet there are no signs of the military or law enforcement trying to fight the zombies in an effort to save people’s lives. This lack of government defense in “Alone” is absolutely illogical, because when the military and police are nowhere to be found during a zombie apocalypse, it’s usually after a certain period of time when resources are depleted and the military and law enforcement have given up trying to fight off the zombies. With nowhere to go and no one to turn to for help, Aidan spends the majority of the movie by himself.

Early on when the zombie apocalypse hits, Aidan lets in an agitated neighbor named Brandon (played by Robert Ri’chard), who (not surprisingly) has been bitten by a zombie and quickly turns into a zombie while he’s in Aidan’s apartment. Aidan is able to get Brandon out of the apartment in time, but the hallways are filled with zombies that keep pounding on the door and trying to break into apartments. Aidan barricades his front door with his refrigerator.

These are not slow-walking zombies, like the ones in director George Romero’s 1968 classic “Night of the Living Dead.” The zombies in “Alone” run quickly, they’re all starving for human flesh, and they blurt out and repeat things like “Kill me,” as if they consciously know they’re doomed and want to be put out of their misery.

Another terrifying thing about these zombies is that they will only eat humans who are alive. Dead human flesh means nothing to them. They are also sensitive to sound and will run in the direction of any noise.

“Alone” does a pretty good job of making the zombies in the movie very gruesome-looking. They also have an extra-creepy factor because they can still talk, even after they’ve fully become zombies. In most zombie stories, the zombies lose their ability to talk. However, because so much of the movie is centered on Aidan being alone, it’s disappointing that so little effort is put into showing who Aidan really is as a person, except for being a scared guy who lives by himself.

The movie never mentions what Aidan does for a living, and the only hobby he’s shown to have is surfing, because he has a surfboard in his apartment. It’s implied that he’s plays rock music, because of the electric guitar he has in his apartment, but is it just a hobby or is he a professional musician? The movie never gives an answer to that question, nor does it reveal anything significant about Aidan’s past. There’s a scene where he looks at some family photos and a video of his mother on Hollywood Boulevard, but that’s it.

Early on in the movie, when Aidan knows that he’s going to have to spend a great deal of time by himself, he starts making video blogs, also known as vlogs. In one of the vlogs, he mentions that this is the first time in his life he’s been alone for an extended period of time. And yet, the movie never gives a sense of Aidan having any friends whatsoever.

The movie wants to give the impression that Aidan is an extrovert who’s used to being around people and has an active social life. And yet, you’d never know that he’s an extrovert, because Aidan is never seen mentioning anyone else in his life who’s important to him, besides his family. There are also no pictures of Aidan with anyone besides his parents and sister. It’s one of the many ways that this movie isn’t very well-thought-out and has too many inconsistencies that aren’t explained.

At another point in “Alone,” a female zombie ends up in Aidan’s apartment, and he hits her on the head with a baseball bat and presumably kills her. (Bashing a zombie’s head is the main way that zombies are killed.) Instead of removing the zombie from his apartment (he could’ve easily thrown the body off of the balcony if he didn’t want to open his front door where zombies are roaming the hallways), Aidan instead puts the zombie in a crawl space whose door opens from his bathroom ceiling. He then puts an upright surfboard underneath the crawl space door to keep it shut.

Later in the movie, Aidan becomes really desperate for food, but he doesn’t want to go outside in the building hallways, which have zombies everywhere. He also lives too far above ground to jump from his balcony. And so, he goes in that crawl space to see where it leads, with the hope that it will lead to a safe apartment that has food.

But the zombie corpse that Aidan put in the crawl space is nowhere to be seen. And the crawl space looks very unrealistic: It’s immaculate with stainless steel floors and walls. It doesn’t look like an apartment building’s crawl space, which realistically would be dusty and probably dirty. It looks like a slick, high-tech tunnel. In other words, the movie’s continuity and production design lack realism.

The first third of the movie drags with Aidan repeatedly bemoaning the fact that he’s by himself. If this movie’s screenplay had been written better, this period of isolation could have given viewers more insight into Aidan’s personality and the life he had before the zombie apocalypse. But all viewers get is Aidan rambling to himself about how he hates being alone while he makes another video entry in his vlog.

Aidan keeps track of how many days he’s been in isolation, which number at least 45 days, and in one video entry he says he’s three days away from running out of food. However, Aidan conveniently has plenty of water in bottles. It’s a stash that comes in handy not just for himself but for someone else he meets later in the story, when the movie picks up its pace and gets more interesting.

One of the movie’s major inconsistencies is that although Aidan eventually runs out of food after nearly two months of isolation, he never looks like he’s lost any weight. There’s a scene much later in the movie where Aidan is shirtless after he’s been malnourished for several weeks, and his chiseled, healthy-looking body looks exactly how it was when the zombie apocalypse started. Granted, “Alone” is not an Oscar-caliber film where the actors do Method acting and lose a scary amount of weight in real life, but the filmmakers didn’t put any effort into making Aidan look more gaunt, either through makeup or any visual effects.

Eventually, Aidan becomes so despondent that he hangs a rope on his ceiling and looks like he’s about to commit suicide. This suicide attempt is shown in the movie’s opening scene as a flash-forward of what’s to come, and then shown again when it actually happens. Just as Aidan tightens the noose around his neck, he looks outside his balcony window and sees a pretty blonde woman who’s about his age in the apartment building directly across from his building, and her apartment is slightly below eye level from his.

Aidan is so overjoyed at seeing another living human that he jumps (and nearly strangles himself in the process) and rushes over to communicate with the woman through a serious of hand-written messages and hand gestures. They don’t want to talk out loud to attract the attention of the zombies. Viewers will have to suspend disbelief that it took this long for Aidan to see this neighbor.

The woman in the other building is named Eva (played by Summer Spiro), and she is also single and by herself. In yet another unrealistic aspect of the movie, Eva looks very polished for someone who’s been in a zombie apocalypse for several weeks where there’s no running water or electricity. Except for her hair being slightly uncombed, she doesn’t look as distressed and disheveled as people realistically would be after several weeks of going through this type of ordeal.

Aidan and Eva talk about how much food and water they have left. Eva is almost out of water, so Aidan ties a makeshift rope and throws the other end to Eva so she can tie it to her balcony. He then slides some bottled water down the rope to her. This act of kindness begins a friendship and later a courtship between Aidan and Eva, but for most of the movie, it’s too dangerous for them to meet up and be in the same room.

Will Eva and Aidan get together in person? And if so, how will they get to each other when the area is infested with roaming zombies? Those questions are answered in the movie, which includes a fairly brief appearance by Donald Sutherland, who plays another human survivor named Edward.

As the main character Aidan, Posey does his best in conveying all the different emotions that Aidan goes through in this story. The problem is that it’s not enough when this entire movie lacks character development. Even though Aidan is in every scene of the movie, very little is revealed about him as a person. Viewers never find out what his hopes and dreams were before the zombie apocalypse, or what kind of friend, brother or son Aidan is, other than Aidan showing the expected concerned for his family. Almost nothing is revealed about Eva, except that she likes to draw and she was once engaged to be married.

The zombie chase scenes in the movie are handled in a generic way. “Alone” also has the same cliché as a lot of zombie stories, by having the hero miraculously able to avoid getting a zombie infection, even after being viciously attacked by zombies. The disappointing “Alone” will inevitably be compared to South Korea’s “#Alive,” but it’s a valid comparison because “#Alive” is a much better interpretation of the same story. It’s hard to like a zombie movie that won’t show human survivors as well-rounded people.

Lionsgate released “Alone” on digital and VOD on October 16, 2020. The movie’s release on Blu-ray and DVD is October 20, 2020. UPDATE: “Alone” was released in the United Kingdom on April 12, 2021, under the title “Final Days.”

Review: ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy,’ starring Claes Bang, Elizabeth Debicki, Mick Jagger and Donald Sutherland

March 6, 2020

by Carla Hay

Donald Sutherland, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Debicki and Claes Bang in “The Burnt Orange Heresy” (Photo by Jose Haro/Sony Pictures Classics)

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” 

Directed by Giuseppe Capotondi

Culture Representation: Taking place in Italy and briefly in New York City, the dramatic film “The Burnt Orange Heresy” (which has an all-white cast) tells an intriguing story of secrets and lies in the privileged world of collecting fine art.

Culture Clash: It’s not uncommon for some of the characters to break laws in order to keep up appearances.

Culture Audience: “The Burnt Orange Heresy” will appeal primarily to fans of arthouse cinema who like thrillers about social climbing and people who play guessing games about their true selves.

Claes Bang and Elizabeth Debicki in “The Burnt Orange Heresy” (Photo by Jose Haro/Sony Pictures Classics)

It’s utterly fitting that rare paintings are the fine art that’s the focus of the noir-ish thriller “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” Because just like a blank canvas, many of the characters in the film have personalities and identities that can shift on a whim and can be designed and painted over in a certain way, in order to be appealing to other people. The movie also takes a blistering look at the fickle and highly subjective nature of fine-art collecting, which places more value on brand names and how art pieces are marketed rather than on the art itself.

In the beginning of the story, which takes place mostly in Italy, viewers meet central character James Figueras (played by Claes Bang), a charismatic Brit who’s an art critic and author. He’s single and living alone living in Milan. The movie’s opening alternates between James giving a lecture to a group of about 50 people (mostly elderly tourists) and his cynical rehearsal of his lecture while he’s at home.

During his speaking appearance, James shows an abstract painting and tells a compelling story about the painting’s artist. James says the artist was a young Norwegian man named Nils, who was 16 when the Nazis invaded Norway in 1940. Nils and his twin sister Nora were kept in a concentration camp, and Nils’ portrait paintings for the Nazis were what helped keep the siblings alive. However, Nils was so ashamed that he was forced to do paintings for the Nazis that he vowed never to paint a human or use a paint brush again when he created paintings. (Nora tragically died of consumption in 1955.)

James then says that the painting he has on display during the lecture is the last painting from Nils. He then asks the audience how many of them would want to buy the painting. Nearly all of them raise their hands. James then reveals that he really did the painting, not Nils, and that almost everything he said about the painting and Nils is a lie. James then asks the audience how many of them would still want to buy the painting. Almost no one raises their hand, except for a young woman sitting in the back of the room.

James tells the audience that this deliberate hoax during the lecture was designed to show the audience how someone’s statement about art carries a great deal of weight in how art is valued. He says that it demonstrates the power of the critic and “why you should be careful around someone like me.” It’s a self-serving concept because James is the author of a book called “The Power of the Critic,” which he happily autographs for the tourists who buy the book after his lecture.

The young female tourist at the back of the room who was the only one to raise her hand after the hoax was revealed approaches James after the lecture. They flirt in a way that indicates that they’re sexually attracted to each other. Her name is Berenice Hollis (played by Elizabeth Debicki), and she’s an American visiting in Italy. After some more flirting, it’s no surprise that James and Berenice end up in bed together at James’ place.

The morning after, as Berenice gets ready to leave, she essentially tells James that she had fun, but she sees their encounter as a one-night stand. James offers her an “upper” pill from a stash he keeps in a pill bottle, and she takes the pill. James then tells her that he’s been asked to go to the Lake Como estate of Joseph Campbell (played by Mick Jagger, in his first movie acting role since 2002’s “The Man From Elysian Fields”), a wealthy art collector. James doesn’t really know why he’s been summoned to Joseph’s villa, but he thinks there’s a possible job opportunity in it for him. James impulsively invites Berenice to join him on the trip, even though they barely know each other. Without much hesitation, she says yes.

As James and Berenice take the scenic drive to Lake Como, a voice mail message being left at James’ empty home can be heard in a voiceover. The female caller leaving the message tells James that his check has bounced and to call her back to sort out the issue. All of this happens within the first 15 minutes of “The Burnt Orange Heresy.” Viewers now know three more things about James: He’s got a drug problem, he’s got a money problem, and he’s got a problem with telling the truth. What could possibly go wrong?

When they arrive at Joseph’s grand villa and are waiting for him in the parlor, James comments to Berenice about the paintings hanging on the wall. He smugly comments that Joseph over-paid for one of the paintings, just as Joseph walks in and hears the tail end of the conversation. Despite overhearing James’ insult, Joseph greets them enthusiastically and sizes up his guests immediately.

It’s here that Berenice reveals more about herself than she did when she was alone with James, because Joseph is the one to ask Berenice about her background. Berenice says she’s from Duluth, Minnesota, but she’s vague about what she does for a living. It’s clear that she wants to fit in with her upper-class surroundings, and she might be hiding something about her past.

James and Berenice are invited to dinner with Joseph, who causally says that he married into wealth, and the estate really belongs to his wife, who’s away because she’s traveling with their children. In order to disarm his visitors, who clearly come from a different social class, manipulative Joseph has revealed that he doesn’t come from a rich family, so that his guests will feel more at ease with him. The tactic works. When James and Joseph are alone together, Joseph tells him the real reason why James was invited for a visit.

Joseph has a big secret: A famously reclusive painter has been living in the guest house on the property. Joseph makes James tries to guess who it is before he reveals the painter’s identity. The famous recluse is Jerome Debney, an American who’s somewhat described as the J.D. Salinger of the art world. Jerome had great success when he was young, but he stopped painting and disappeared at the height of his fame in 1968, after his life’s work was destroyed by a fire. Jerome has been such a recluse for years, that many people in the art world believe the rumor that Jerome is no longer alive.

But now, Jerome has been living in close proximity to Joseph, who doesn’t want the recluse to know that Joseph is aware of Jerome’s true identity. How has Jerome been able to make money for all of these years as a recluse? Jerome has been getting his income from grants, according to Joseph.

James has been summoned to the estate because Joseph wants James to try to get an interview with Jerome. And why was James chosen out of all of the art journalists in the world? One of Joseph’s servants had observed Jerome reading one of James’ articles and heard Jerome commenting out loud that James was an art critic whom he admired.

The interview has an ulterior motive: James is supposed to get close enough to Jerome to steal one of the secret paintings that Joseph is sure that Jerome has done while in seclusion. Joseph hasn’t actually seen any such painting, but he’s certain at least one exists. Joseph says that James will be richly rewarded for this theft, which Joseph plans to pass off as a long-lost Debney painting that might be the only one left in the world.

A skeptical James asks Joseph what’s in it for him if he can only get an interview with Debney, but not a painting. Joseph then turns sinister and tells James that he has to get the painting, or else Joseph will reveal information about James that could completely ruin James’ career. (The blackmail details won’t be revealed in this review.) Joseph also tells James that he knows about an embezzlement scandal from James’ past and that James is having financial difficulties because the scandal damaged his career. It’s why a disgraced James has been reduced to barely living in the margins of the art world by giving art lectures to tourists.

The most contrived part of this movie’s story is how James ends up meeting Jerome (played by Donald Sutherland), a man with a refined demeanor, a Southern lilt to his voice and a mysterious past. While James and Berenice are lounging out by the pool, Jerome happens to casually stroll into the pool area and strike up a conversation with these two strangers, as if he’s a neighbor popping over for a visit anytime he pleases. It’s very out-of-character for a man who’s supposedly been hiding from the world for decades, so viewers will have to suspend their disbelief that Jerome just conveniently walked into James’ life in this manner.

However, the movie’s plot isn’t about the search for Jerome, because he’s already been found. When Jerome first meets James and Berenice, Jerome doesn’t know if they’re aware of his true identity as a famous painter. But James can’t hide being star-struck, and he makes it clear that he knows exactly who Jerome is. In turn, when James introduces himself, Jerome recognizes him as the art critic he admires.

James doesn’t waste time in asking Jerome for an interview, but Jerome doesn’t say yes so easily. He makes James do swimming laps in the pool before he’ll give an answer. James is reluctant at first to do the laps, but Jerome tells him that the longer he hesitates, the more laps he’ll have to do to get the interview.

After he’s sufficiently humiliated James, Jerome surprises James and Berenice by inviting them on a boat ride, followed by a meal back at his place. Jerome says that James can interview him during this excursion. The reason for Jerome’s generosity has less to do with James and more to do with Berenice. Jerome is quite taken with Berenice and relishes spending more time with her. And if she’s with another man, so be it. It’s easy to see why Jerome, as a lonely old man who craves female companionship, would agree to do the interview if Berenice is part of the experience.

The interview is the catalyst for some tension-filled twists and turns in the story. More secrets are revealed, and more lies are told. And the resulting actions will make viewers wonder what they would do if they were in the same situation. (The title of the movie is also explained during the story.)

Throughout the movie, director Giuseppe Capotondi skillfully conveys a tone to the movie that accurately reflects how pretentious the main characters are in the film. They appear to be casually blasé about their connections to the power and privilege in the world of highly priced fine art, but underneath, they’re all desperate for something.

James is desperate for a comeback that will make him and rich and famous. Joseph is desperate for a Debney painting that will considerably elevate Joseph’s status in the art world. Berenice is desperate for validation by people who are more sophisticated than she is. Jerome is desperate to find a human connection after years of isolating himself from the world.

All of the actors play their roles very well by convincingly portraying these superficial yet complicated people, who put on airs that they’re wonderful, yet in reality they’re all deeply flawed. Jagger, in particular, seems to take a delicious relish to his role, since he undoubtedly knows many people like Joseph Campbell. Sutherland (who is Canadian in real life) has played the courtly Southern American gentleman before, but his Jerome Debney character is a little more troubled than he first seems to be.

Bang (who is Danish in real life) has perhaps the movie’s most transparent character to viewers, since we see early on that James is prone to corruption, has a drug problem, and is in dire financial straights. However, the way Bang plays him, there are little glimmers of possibility that James isn’t completely selfish and he might actually be falling in love with Berenice. Debicki (who is Australian in real life) adeptly handles the nuances of her Berenice character, who will keep people guessing about her levels of morality and emotional intelligence.

“The Burnt Orange Heresy” screenplay by Scott B. Smith, based on the book of the same name by Charles Willeford, changes the movie’s era and location from 1970s Florida to modern-day Italy. It’s a wise revision because a Lake Como estate is a more glamorous setting befitting a wealthy international art collector. And the art world has changed dramatically since the 1970s, because the stakes are much higher and the brand names of well-known contemporary artists have reached new levels of fame, thanks to the Internet.

At one point in the movie, Jerome talks about the proverbial masks that people put on to hide their true selves and present another version of themselves to the world. He admits to Berenice in a candid conversation how he’s one of those people who’s put on so many layers of masks, he might not know anymore who he really is underneath it all. More than the quest for a rare painting, “The Burnt Orange Heresy” is about the lengths that people will go to keep putting on those masks and the desperation that results if one of those masks threatens to fall off.

Sony Pictures Classics released “The Burnt Orange Heresy” in New York City and Los Angeles on March 6, 2020. The movie’s U.S. release expands to more cities on March 13, 2020.

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