Review: ‘Infinite Storm,’ starring Naomi Watts and Billy Howle

March 28, 2022

by Carla Hay

Naomi Watts in “Infinite Storm” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“Infinite Storm”

Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Hampshire, the dramatic film “Infinite Storm” features a nearly all-white cast of characters (with one African American) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A nurse, who is also a search-and-rescue worker, fights for survival with an anonymous man while stranded on a mountain during a blizzard, and she has to come to terms with a tragedy from her past. 

Culture Audience: “Infinite Storm” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Naomi Watts, but this movie has little to offer that looks authentic.

Naomi Watts in “Infinite Storm” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

Even though “Infinite Storm” is inspired by a true story, almost everything in this disaster movie looks phony. The dialogue is awkward. Physical injuries look fake. Actions are hard to believe. Adding to this move’s turgid clumsiness, the subject matter could easily have been a short film, based on the movie’s lack of character development and very simplistic dialogue. Expect to see a lot of repetitive scenes with nothing but people trudging through the snow and huffing and puffing, as the actors pretend that they’re in danger and running out of breath.

Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and written by Joshua Rollins, “Infinite Storm” is a movie where the first two-thirds are tedious scenes about a rescue mission on New Hampshire’s Mount Washington. The last third of the movie is a badly bungled depiction of grief. Even though “Infinite Storm” is supposed to take place in New Hampshire, the movie was actually filmed in the Alps near the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana.

The movie’s protagonist is divorcée Pam Bales (played by Naomi Watts), a nurse who is also a trained search-and-rescue worker. Keep in mind that she’s supposed to be a trained rescuer when you see all the mistakes that she makes in this movie. That’s not to say that the real Pam Bales is incompetent and lacking in common sense. The movie makes her look that way.

For starters, Pam decides to go hiking by herself on Mount Washington (part of the White Mountains region) without checking the weather forecasts. If she checked the weather forecasts, then she would’ve known that a blizzard was coming. When she gets to the parking lot to start her hike, she sees two hikers (a man and a woman) leaving together. Pam asks these two strangers if they saw anyone else hiking, and they say no.

And it’s at this point you know that if Pam decides to go up that mountain, the chances are next to nothing that anyone will be there to help her if she gets injured. Pam seems oblivious to this possibility, even though she’s a trained search-and-rescue person who knows these circumstances are exactly why hikers in the wilderness can go missing and can die alone.

In the parking lot, there’s a third car with no one in it. Pam asks the two other hikers who are about to leave if they know whose car it is. They answer is no to that question too. It’s at this point in the movie that you know Pam will eventually find out who drove that car there.

Pam also hasn’t told anyone any specifics of where she’s going to hike on this large mountain. It’s a huge mistake for anyone who’s supposed to be experienced in hiking in remote areas. All she says to the two strangers in the parking lot about her hiking plans is this: “If it gets icy, I’ll just bail down the west side to Crawford.” Well, it gets more than “icy.” It’s a full-on blizzard.

And you can easily predict there’s going to be a part of this movie where Pam will fall down and hurt herself. Viewers won’t feel sorry for her when that happens (she falls down a hole that she didn’t see) because no one told her that she had to go hiking in these dangerous conditions all by herself with no real way to call for help if something wrong happened. Meanwhile, Pam keeps blowing an emergency whistle that no one else can hear because no one else is within hearing distance.

However, someone else is actually on the mountain several miles away. When Pam figures out that a blizzard is coming, she decides to leave. She begins to head down the mountain and finds a man (played by Billy Howle) wearing nothing but a T-shirt, shorts and shoes unsuitable for hiking in the snow. He’s sitting down and almost in a frozen trance. He refuses to tell her his name, and he’s incoherent (just like much of this movie), so Pam decides to call him John.

John babbles much of his dialogue. When Pam asks him if he’s under the influence of drugs, he won’t answer those questions. As inarticulate as John is, Pam’s attempts to talk with him aren’t much better. Here’s a sample of one of their nonsensical conversations: Pam asks John if he has anyone waiting for him at home. John replies, “Cat.”

Pam then says, “What’s your cat’s name?” John repeats. “Cat.” Pam’s response: “That’s not very original, John.” John then says, “I’m more of a dog person.” Pam says, “Thank God. Me too. I hate cats.”

Pam does a few things right in trying to keep John warm and preventing him from getting dehydrated. But those sensible things are diluted when she gets him to take off his shoes, she sees that he has severe frostbite on one of his feet, and then she says to him: “You okay?” Of course, he’s not okay. What kind of question is that from someone who’s supposed to be a nurse and sees frostbite right in front of her?

The rest of the movie is about this rescue mission in a lot of tediously staged scenes (John gets injured too), followed by Pam coming to terms with a tragedy where more of her backstory is revealed. Viewers find out that Pam is the mother of two daughters, who are shown with her in flashbacks when the daughters (played by Anya Petrig and Lina Kolenko) were 5 years old and 6 years old. The movie is so skimpy on character development, the daughters don’t even have names in the movie.

“Infinite Storm” is Watts’ second awful movie of 2022 (after “The Desperate Hour”) where she is one of the producers and has the starring role as a heroic mother who’s on some kind of rescue mission to save someone’s life. It’s best to avoid watching “The Desperate Hour” (formerly titled “Lakewood”), unless you want to see an offensively unrealistic portrayal of what happens when a mother tries to get her teenage son out of his school during a gun shooting. At least “The Desperate Hour” had characters who had some realistic-sounding dialogue. “Infinite Storm” does not, no matter how much Watts wants to look convincing.

None of the acting in “Infinite Storm” is special, and some of it is downright cringeworthy. Denis O’Hare, a well-known character actor, has a useless role in the movie that’s a waste of his talent. He portrays a diner owner named Dave, who has a friendly acquaintance with Pam. O’Hare’s total screen time in the movie is about three or four minutes. It’s probably good for O’Hare that his role is so small in this dud of a movie. It’s less embarrassment for him.

Even though people in “Infinite Storm” suffer serious injuries during the rescue (such as a sprained ankle and frostbite), those injuries seem to disappear in “only in a movie” moments where people suddenly run and move around as if those injuries never existed. The movie never shows anyone getting treated for injuries at a hospital. Getting stuck outside on a mountain during a blizzard is no joke, but it’s at least more real than anything presented in the substandard “Infinite Storm.”

Bleecker Street released “Infinite Storm” in U.S. cinemas on March 25, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on April 12, 2022.

Review: ‘Never Gonna Snow Again,’ starring Alec Utgoff, Maja Ostaszewska, Agata Kulesza, Weronika Rosati, Katarzyna Figura, Andrzej Chyra and Łukasz Simlat

August 17, 2021

by Carla Hay

Alec Utgoff and Agata Kulesza in “Never Gonna Snow Again” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Never Gonna Snow Again”

Directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Engler

Polish, Russian, French and Vietnamese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed city in Poland, the dramatic film “Never Gonna Snow Again” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class and upper-middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Ukrainian immigrant works as a masseur for well-to-do people in a Polish neighborhood, and he has the power to hypnotize them to try to help them solve their emotional problems.

Culture Audience: “Never Gonna Snow Again” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in artsy European films that leave much of the movie open to interpretation.

Alec Utgoff in “Never Gonna Snow Again” (Photo courtesy of Kino Lorber)

“Never Gonna Snow Again” is sure to inspire thoughts and discussions about who the mystery man is at the center of this artsy and often-eccentric drama. Is he a supernatural being? Is he a psychic? Is he someone or something else? Don’t expect the movie to reveal this information because it’s a question that is deliberately left so open-ended, there is no right or wrong answer. The movie is an intriguing but sometimes slow-paced portrait that quietly observes issues related to social classes and the environment, as well as the ripple effects of compassion.

Written and directed by Małgorzata Szumowska and Michał Engler, “Never Gonna Snow Again” offers subtle and not-so-subtle commentaries on the class divides between servants and the well-to-do people who employ them. It’s the age-old debate about money versus happiness, and how these two universal human pursuits could be intertwined or not related at all. The people who employ an enigmatic masseur in “Never Gonna Snow Again” at various times have to come to terms with how they reconcile their money with their happiness.

In the beginning of “Never Gonna Snow Again,” masseur Zhenia (played by Alec Utgoff) is in an office meeting with an unnamed older gentleman, who has the power to approve where Zhenia will live next. The movie never really describes what type of official is presiding over this meeting, but viewers might assume it’s some type of immigration officer. Zhenia, who is originally from the Ukraine, points to a map of Poland and tells him, “I want to live here.” (“Never Gonna Snow Again” was actually filmed in Ireland, but the filmmakers Szumowska and Engler are Polish.)

The official makes a reference to Russia’s 1986 Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster, by saying to Zhenia: “You were born seven years before the disaster, on the very same day. Perhaps you are radioactive. I feel very strange around you. Please help me.” Zhenia then gets up, stands behind the man, and holds the man’s head in both of his hands and begins massaging. Zhenia calmly tells the man that Zhenia is taking away the man’s misery and sickness.

It’s here that viewers first see that Zhenia has the power to hypnotize. The man relaxes and then seems to lose consciousness or appears to be in a deep trance with his eyes closed. Zhenia takes advantage of the moment to forge the man’s signature on some documents and use the official stamp on the desk to legitimize the documents. Zhenia then takes the documents and leaves with the large black case that he always carries with him. What’s in the case? His fold-out massage table.

Zhenia is next seen in an upscale neighborhood in Poland, where he begins work as a masseur to men and women. It’s a gated community where neighbors either know each other or seem to know each other’s business. As time goes on, Zhenia gets more clients through word of mouth.

Because of the intimate nature of his massage work, Zhenia’s clients end up confiding in him about things that bother them. Sometimes they make confessions while awake, while other times they say personal things out loud while under hypnosis. Zhenia doesn’t take advantage of any of his clients when they’re under hypnosis.

His main motivation for the hypnosis seems to be to ease their troubles. However, he doesn’t always get their permission to hypnotize his clients. The movie doesn’t seem to make a judgment one way or the other about how ethical or unethical Zhenia is with his hypnosis techniques. However, he does get more emotionally attached to some clients compared to others.

The people who end up becoming Zhenia’s massage clients are all middle-aged and all live in the same neighborhood:

  • Maria (played by Maja Ostaszewska), a married mother of three underage kids—two daughters and one son—who don’t seem to like her very much. Maria is a heavy drinker (she guzzles wine and liquor at all hours of the day and night), and she might be an alcoholic. Her unnamed husband (played by Krzysztof Czeczot) is aware of Maria’s drinking problem, but he only points it out to her when she does or says something embarrassing in public.
  • Ewa (played by Agata Kulesza), an eccentric widow, who at one point squawks like a pheasant in the movie. She doesn’t approve of the close friendship that her teenage son Jan (played by Maciej Drosio) has with another teenage boy (played by Olaf Marchwicki), who lives across the street and whom Ewa calls “disturbed.” It’s implied that Jan (who’s very quiet and introverted) might be gay and closeted and might be more than friends with his constant companion.
  • An unnamed male cancer patient (played by Lukasz Simlat), who has been in and out of remission. He and his wife Ewa (played by Weronika Rosati) have a son together who’s about 8 or 9 years old. Ewa and Zhenia seem to have a mutual attraction to each other, based on the way they exchange glances when Zhenia comes over to visit.
  • An unnamed single woman (played by Katarzyna Figura), who lives with her three male French bulldogs, whom she treats as her children. The dogs’ names are Hugo, Borys and Filip.
  • An unnamed retired army soldier (played by Andrzej Chyra), who has the reputation of being the crankiest person in the neighborhood.

“Never Gonna Snow Again” makes multiple references to Chernobyl, because it’s revealed that Zhenia is from the northern Ukraine city of Pripyat, which is near Chernobyl. The nuclear explosion at Chernobyl caused snow-like dust and debris. And it’s hinted at that Zhenia’s family was destroyed over the Chernobyl disaster. Therefore, anything that looks like snow might cause bad memories for Zhenia.

Zhenia has brief flashbacks to his childhood, which give more clues of how the Chernobyl tragedy affected him and his loved ones. The title of this movie is open to interpretation, but more than once it’s mentioned that people don’t want something like the Chernobyl disaster to happen again. Snow is often used in the movie as a symbol of the environment’s way of healing (during climate change as Earth’s temperature gets dangerously hotter) and as a way of hurting.

“Never Gonna Snow Again” is not the type of movie that will appeal to people who expect the type of movie about neighborhood scandals being revealed or a big mystery being solved by a newcomer to the neighborhood. That would be a very Hollywood treatment of this story. Instead, the movie is more of a “slice of life” look at what happens when people who are so accustomed to putting up certain outward appearances to their neighbors sometimes lose touch with who they really are and their true inner feelings.

Zhenia at times seems to be magical or supernatural figure who helps his clients get in touch with his feelings. But the movie doesn’t come right out who and what his, but rather shows his purpose in the story. He’s saintly, but he’s no angel, since the movie shows that he has very human carnal desires.

Utgoff’s absorbing performance as Zhenia carries the movie in a way that will make viewers curious to know more about Zhenia. But even though Zhenia is skilled at getting people to open up to him emotionally, Zhenia as a character often remains a blank slate, with very little revealed about his past and what he wants out of life. (For example, when one of his clients asks Zhenia about his love life, he avoids answering the questions by saying he’s too busy to date anyone.)

In that sense, “Never Gonna Snow Again” is very much like coloring book that deliberately hasn’t been filled in yet. Viewers have to decide for themselves what contextual shades they want for this story so that the story can mean something to them. And for people who don’t want to do that, it might be better to leave this movie alone because there might be too much ambiguity for the movie to be enjoyable.

Kino Lorber released “Never Gonna Snow Again” in select U.S. cinemas and on Kino Now on July 30, 2021. The movie’s Blu-ray and DVD release date in on September 28, 2021. “Never Gonna Snow Again” was released in Poland on June 4, 2021.

Review: ‘The Other Lamb,’ starring Raffey Cassidy, Michiel Huisman and Denise Gough

April 3, 2020

by Carla Hay

A scene from “The Other Lamb” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

“The Other Lamb”

Directed by Malgorzata Szumowska 

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed, mountainous rural area in the United States, the dark drama “The Other Lamb” has a predominantly white, mostly female cast of characters (with a few African Americans) in a polygamous religious cult, with a few brief appearances by police officers.

Culture Clash: The cult, which has isolated itself in a remote area, considers the outside world to be the enemy, and the wives sometimes have conflicts and power struggles with each other.

Culture Audience: “The Other Lamb” will appeal mostly to people who want to see an arthouse film depiction of a cult and the damaging effects of a toxic leader.

Raffey Cassidy and Michiel Huisman in “The Other Lamb” (Photo courtesy of IFC Films)

Most movies about polygamous religious cults usually focus on the leader (who’s almost always a man) or one of the spouses. But the disturbing drama “The Other Lamb” is told from the perspective of a teenage daughter of the cult leader. There’s a growing sense of gloom and doom that director Malgorzata Szumowska effectively infuses throughout the film. “The Other Lamb” isn’t a crime drama as much as it is a psychological, atmospheric portrait of someone struggling with her identity and having her individuality stifled by a group mentality that she has known her whole life.

Selah (played by Raffey Cassidy) is a teenager who’s the favorite child of the cult leader who calls himself Shepherd (played by Michiel Huisman), who definitely has a Messiah complex, even down to looking like he wants to be a modern-day Jesus. The cult is small—Shepherd has 18 female followers, some of whom are underage children—but the members of the group are extremely tight-knit, because they have isolated themselves in a remote, mountainous area that’s secluded in the woods. Why is Shepherd the only male in this cult? It’s explained in the movie, but astute viewers can figure out pretty easily why Shepherd is the only male, based on how he sees himself as the cult leader.

Although the movie doesn’t say exactly where the cult lives, they’re somewhere in the United States, because everyone has an American accent, and the cops who show up the movie are also American. (In reality, “The Other Lamb” was filmed in Ireland.) Shepherd dresses any way that he wants, but his female followers all have to follow a certain dress code that makes them look like they’re stuck in the Victorian era. They wear long, flowing robes—red for the adults, blue for the children, except during their religious ceremonies when the followers wear white. And their hair must be kept in a braided updo, except at night when they’re allowed to un-braid their hair, if Shepherd tells them to do it.

In the beginning of the film, things seem pretty blissful for Selah and the person she’s closest to in the group: Tamar (played by Ailbher Cowley), who is also also her half-sister. Selah and Tamar are shown frolicking in the woods and having fun near a majestic waterfall. And they also help take care of the group’s sheep, which are a constant presence in the movie. But, of course, all is not what it seems to be at first glance.

Selah’s mother has been dead since Selah was a baby. Selah has been told that her mother died during the childbirthing process, so Selah feels slightly jealous and insecure about the other children in the group whose mothers are still alive. That insecurity is demonstrated when Selah gets into a petty argument with Tamar, and Tamar immediately goes to her mother to take her side against Selah.

The movie also shows the inevitable jealousies and power struggles that are part of any group where people are competing to the the “favorite” of the leader. This cult is no exception, as there are simmering tensions between some of the wives and children. During the course of the movie, it becomes more apparent that the older wives feel more vulnerable to falling out of favor with Shepherd. And the inappropriate way that he looks at Selah, strokes her hair when they’re alone, and tells her how she’s special could mean that his interest in her is starting to become very sinister.

As is the case with many dangerous cult leaders, Shepherd has a very charming side, but he can also be extremely abusive and ruthless to anyone he thinks is disloyal to him. One of the ways that he has kept his followers in line is by making one of the wives an outcast because she dared to stand up to him and questioned some of the things that he was doing. It’s also mentioned that she was also punished for her “vanity.”

The “outcast wife,” whom the other members of the group call “impure” and “cursed” is Sarah (played by Denise Gough), who was one of the original cult members who joined the group at the same time that Selah’s mother did. Sarah is kept in a shack away from the rest of the group. It’s implied, based on Sarah’s bloody scars, that she’s been beaten as punishment. But something about Sarah intrigues Selah, and the teenager spends more time with the outspoken Sarah, who begins to have an influence on the way Selah thinks.

Meanwhile, one night, Selah notices that a police car is parked in front of their living quarters. She overhears a cop telling Shepherd that he has to leave, and Shepherd replies that if he doesn’t leave he’ll probably get arrested. The next day, Shepherd tells his flock that they had to leave. If they don’t leave, he says, “The outside world will destroy us and take you all away from me.”

So off they all go, trekking through the rugged terrain to find another place to live in the area, with their sheep in tow . Even though one of the women is pregnant and due to give birth very soon, Shepherd keeps them on a rigorous foot journey, with Sarah relegated to being  the last person in the procession. And woe to anyone who can’t keep up. Shepherd beats and berates the pregnant woman when she collapses from exhaustion, and he orders her to keep walking.

During this grueling trek, Selah manages to steal some time away to be alone with Sarah. Selah finds out more about her mother and some secrets that change her attitude toward the only family she’s ever known. But there’s also something that happens in the movie that only viewers see (but Selah doesn’t) that shows there’s a big secret that she doesn’t know about. Sarah tries to warn Selah about Shepherd, by telling her: “His attention is like the sun—bright and glorious at first, but then it burns.” And later in the story, when Shepherd is alone with Selah, she finds out how depraved he really is.

“The Other Lamb” is not an easy film to watch if you don’t like to see vulnerable people being brainwashed, oppressed and abused. The movie can also be quite bloody, since the sheep are slaughtered for meat. And there are also scenes where Selah’s face or hands are covered in blood. She gets her menstrual period, apparently for the first time, and it terrifies her because it’s obvious that no one told her what a menstrual period is.

Because there’s an obvious villain in the story, it fuels the overarching question when watching this movie: How bad will things get and will anyone be able to break away from this cult leader’s reign of terror? There are many artsy and stunning wilderness scenes in “The Other Lamb,” which has cinematography by Michał Englert. All of the actors are convincing in their roles, with Cassidy as Selah being the obvious standout because of the emotional roller coaster ride that her character goes through in the story.

The screenplay, written by Catherine S. McMullen, also has a level of authenticity in presenting a  group of people who’ve been cut off from the outside world for years. The children, who were all born into the cult, have no formal education and don’t know any better. What remains a mystery is the backstory of how these women got into the cult in the first place. However, one could can only surmise that this background was left purposely vague because the story is told from Selah’s perspective.

At times, “The Other Lamb” might be a little slow-paced for some people. And the constant presence of the sheep is a little too on-the-nose as a metaphor, since obviously the people in Shepherd’s flock act like human sheep. However, as disturbing as it sounds, “The Other Lamb” is a coming-of-age cult story that shows how a teenager comes to terms with the tightly controlled life that was chosen for her and how much control she might have over her own destiny in the future.

IFC Films/IFC Midnight released “The Other Lamb” on digital and VOD on April 3, 2020.

 

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