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Riddle of Fire

RIDDLE OF FIRE is a distinct and very funny movie about three hellraising dirt bike rider kids named Alice (Phoebe Ferro), Hazel (Charlie Stover) and Jodie (Skyler Peters). Their day long quest to get a blueberry pie for Hazel and Jodie’s sick mother (Danielle Hoetmer, bit part in one episode of every TV show) so they can play video games strands them deep in the woods with a family/cult of witchcraft-practicing poachers called the Enchanted Blade Gang. This takes place in rural Ribbon, Wyoming, but it’s filmed in Park City, Utah by rookie feature director Weston Razooli, who grew up there.

The kids are introduced hiding behind ski masks, but with their names written on the racing plates of their bikes. There’s a montage of loading and assembling their paint guns, the attention to the metal clinks and air canister pffts as fetishistic as any actual-gun preparation sequence you’ve ever seen. Now armed, they break into a warehouse and pull some ninja shit to steal an Otomo Angel video game system. When they’re caught by a worker, Hazel distracts him with a handful of gummi worms.

They’re nice kids, but not innocent. I don’t think most parents would want their young kids to watch this because there’s cursing and shoplifting and the Emerald Blade Gang are pitched much more serious and threatening than, say, the Wet Bandits in HOME ALONE. The kids will be all right, but it feels like they might not be. The gang, especially Lio Tipton (THE GREEN HORNET, MISSISSIPPI GRIND) as spell-casting taxidermist Anna-Freya Hollyhock and Charles Halford (LOGAN LUCKY, KIMI) as burly ex-con loose cannon John Redrye, play it real. There are funny adult characters too, like Austin Archer (THE NIGHT CLERK) as an underground nightclub bigshot calling himself Dana Troubadour, who the kids recognize as Chip from the gas station. But even his scenes give off an ominous feeling that the kids took a wrong turn into a much more dangerous movie.

Anyway, shit man. So what if it’s a little scary and glorifies stealing from the grocery store and calling the Hollyhocks “those woodsy bastards”? I think our nation’s youth could benefit from seeing this. It’s one of the only movies I know of that would appeal to kids in the same way as 3 NINJAS but also premiere during the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival.

Alice, Hazel and Jodie also befriend Anna-Freya’s daughter Petal, who identifies as a fire faerie, can mind control her older sisters, and channels the bubbly spirit of Bebe from KILL BILL. The actress, Lorelei Olivia Mote, has a few years of experience on TV shows, and her more normal child star precociousness is really funny twirling around between the trio of raw, natural newcomers. These kids are so funny playing characters who can handle anything. It’s fair to compare this to THE GOONIES, but they don’t whine and jibber jabber like Goonies and they have more of an air of cool to them, trying to carry themselves more like the badasses they see themselves as than the little goofs they actually are. Alice is like a baby Kim Gordon. Jodie is the funniest because his enunciation and line deliveries are kinda rough, so they subtitle all his dialogue, which never stopped amusing me.

The music (with pieces credited to groups including Hole Dweller, Fogweaver, Borg, Riki, El Chango, Lost Cascades, Lord Lovidicus and Fog Crag Records) is also very good, flipping between synth riffs and ren-faire jams. A particularly moving part sounded familiar to me, and it turns out it’s Riz Ortolani’s main theme to CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST. I turned that movie off pretty quick but man it’s a good theme song.

RIDDLE OF FIRE is a simple movie, but it’s immediately transporting. Shot largely in nature, with a beautiful 16mm haze (the opening credits plug Kodak), Razooli cites ‘70s live action Disney movies as an influence. Fairy tales, D&D and video games clearly play a role as well, and then it bumps into witchcraft and crime movies. Things it reminded me of include THE BAD NEWS BEARS, The Little Rascals, The Peanuts, GUMMO, The Legend of Zelda and BOTTLE ROCKET. And I do think there’s an overlap with Wes Anderson’s deadpan humor, but to compare them might be misleading. The style is looser and more raucous, the tone is neither as whimsical or as wistful.

Since it’s made in Utah I also thought of NAPOLEON DYNAMITE. It shares with that film a silly dance performance during the final act, but instead of representing a nerd’s lack of self awareness, it’s about joyous childish abandon.

So there are some ingredients I recognize, but it comes out of the oven so unlike anything anybody else is cooking up that it’s hard to make a direct comparison. I don’t know what other movie it’s like. It’s like RIDDLE OF FIRE.

This review is short by my standards. That’s not from a lack of excitement, but a recognition that you’ll just have to see it for yourself to understand. RIDDLE OF FIRE is the funniest and most unusual movie I’ve seen lately. Lo-fi stylish, lowbrow silly, and above making a lesson out of the irony that the kids go on an actual magical adventure only as a prerequisite to playing video games. So it’s highly recommended. You can rent it wherever VODs are stored or buy the blu-ray from Vinegar Syndrome.

Look at this publicity photo of the cast and director. They know they made a classic.

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This entry was posted on Thursday, June 20th, 2024 at 12:11 pm and is filed under Reviews, Comedy/Laffs. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

12 Responses to “Riddle of Fire”

  1. Hey Vern. Glad you reviewed this. I went to college with Danielle Hoetmer and to high school with her husband. Their daughter Lorelei IS great in this. She also played the young Riley Keough in Daisy Jones and the Six. Good luck to her and her future.

  2. I never even attempted to watch CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, but a friend of mine is often playing the theme in her DJ sets as either opener or closer and yup, that’s one of the great pieces of film music.

  3. Whenever the poster or any other publicity image for this movie shows up in my feed, I see the title font and I think hey wait, that’s the font from Ralph Bakshi’s animated LORD OF THE RINGS. I can’t be the only person to think that.

  4. I guess I never expected to see a dungeon synth soundtrack to a movie but that’s enough reason to check this out

  5. Oh yeah, good call, Curt. I clocked it as a fantasy font but didn’t place that it was specifically from that.

  6. Anybody else getting blocked by the search function? I try to do a search and it gives me this message:

    *** Forbidden. Sender blacklisted. Anti-Spam by CleanTalk. ***

  7. Yeah, happened to me a few days ago, but then I got distracted and never mentioned it here.

  8. I have had this one my watchlist for sometime. It sounds like I need to make it a priority.

  9. Vern, I can’t say for sure whether it’s the *exact* same font, now that I compare it to the actual opening credits of Bakshi’s film…

    https://youtu.be/AT18OJEPU9Q?si=s-OMBw2k5WYjsDLX

    …. But at the very least it does look quite similar. Similar enough that I spotted the resemblance immediately.

  10. This looks amazing. Showed the trailer to the family and it became an insta-buy.

  11. So I took a big risk and made this my purchase at the Vinegar Syndrome Archive last week, because I figure if my favorite boutique label/video store is producing movies now, I should support them. And I’m glad I did because this is a modestly delightful film. It made me laugh several times, usually when the subtitled kid used a word he clearly didn’t know the meaning of, and the whole look and sound and were lo-fun and textural and dense. The stilted and oddly verbose dialogue coupled with charmingly mangled line deliveries embraced both naturalism and artifice in an intriguing way. I liked the magical realist vibe that made it seem supernatural without anything actually supernatural happening. (SPOILER: To me, it was clear that the magic words only worked on the head witch’s brother and sisters because they’d been brainwashed since birth to follow orders. She never tries the words on anybody else because that would prove that her magic was fake.) I like that the villains are the same as the kids: Daydreamers who give their gang a cool name and pretend they’re on a mythical quest, when really all they’re doing is going shopping or hunting elk. There’s an enjoyable collision between the mundane and the epic, which feels true to a kid’s eye view of the world.

    I could quibble. The stately pace helps with the comedy, but I think it could have been picked up a bit in spots without losing anything. But it doesn’t overstay its welcome and sticks the landing, so it’s not a problem.

    That’s two out of four 2024 releases that I’ve seen so far that I didn’t hate. We’re batting .500, baby!

  12. Watched this based on your review. LOVED it. One of the highlights of 2024 for me. Thanks Vern!

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