In Praise of Unsung Actors


I don't usually review movies like Riddle of Fire. It's billed as a neo-fairytale featuring mischievous kids. I'm not the audience for that.

But I put it on anyway. The film opens with pipe and lute music and an invocation in a faux Celtic font: "O come away with me to faery castle mountain…" Well, okay. But then we find out we're in Ribbon, Wyoming (?).

Four kids on dirt bikes load up pistols with hydraulic cartridges. They storm into a warehouse and steal a game console. They chatter on about this great new video game, implying that they will somehow enter it and that will be the plot of Riddle of Fire.

But the flatscreen they play on needs a passcode and only Mom has it. Bummer. Mom's upstairs in bed with a bad cold. The tykes pester her anyway. Can they have four hours with the game? No. Three? No. Two, pleeease? Mom makes a deal: they can have two hours if they get her her favorite comfort food, blueberry pie.

You still with me?

The bakery is sold out, so they go to a grocery store to steal the stuff to make it. They need an egg, but a rough-looking cowboy type has the last dozen and won't give up any. So they stowaway in the back of the cowboy's truck, and end up in the clutches of the (adult) Enchanted Blade Gang, a pack of mean desperados.

That's what the movie's about—not entering a magical kingdom or the wonder of childhood imagination, but the quest for a pie.

Is Riddle of Fire for kids? Children are threatened, guns are fired, kids say "shit" and "fuck." Is it for adults? No, the scenario is implausible, and the kids are annoying. Riddle of Fire (there's no riddle, and no fire) claims to be for everybody, but while watching, I ask myself if I'd turn this on and leave my kids alone with it. Kids act out what they see. When I was a kid, I got grounded for playing Moe to my brother's Curley, whapping him upside the head with a hard object. This goes beyond.

In terms of filmmaking, Riddle of Fire is haphazardly staged and either improvised or clunkily written. The dialogue doesn't exactly flow. The grownup gang members seem to come from a different, more brutal movie. The kids are asked to display emotions beyond their age.

I have to say, though, the movie looks good. The cinematography by Jake L. Mitchell has a '70s Kodachrome sheen, all saturated blues and yellows. In interviews, director Weston Rizooli claims to have shot the entire movie on film, not digitally. In fact, Kodak film gets its own screen credit.

The kid actors are all first-timers. They are, in alphabetical order: Phoebe Ferro, Lorelei Olivia Mote, Skyler Peters, and Charlie Stover. They do what the director tells them to do (though a dance sequence set to Baby, Come Back by Player is just plain silly). I have to wonder why, since they're all supposed to be from the same family, one speaks with an accent so thick it requires subtitles.

I should also cite the performances of Charles Halford, Weston Rizooli (he gave himself a part), Austin Archer, and twins Andrea and Rachel Browne as members of the gang. Danielle Hoetmer plays Mom.

Writer/director Weston Rizooli has shorts and music videos to his credit, and hes to be admired for taking on kid actors, as Sean Baker did in The Florida Project. For regional cinema, he aims high.

Back to the plot: Once the kids get to the lair of the Enchanted Blade Gang and our young protagonists handle firearms (Okay, kids, time for bed…), someone catches my eye. I think… who's that? I freeze the frame. The gang's leader, a woman, looks familiar. I scour the credits, no names leap out. Then it hits me. The actor playing her looks like… is it… Analeigh… Tipton…?

Not exactly. The ringleader is played by Lio Tipton, previously known as Analeigh. In her previous life, she was a figure skater, a finalist on America's Top Model, had a movie career including not-bad romcoms like Crazy, Stupid Love, and Two Night Stand, stints on TV shows like The Big Bang Theory, and more recently a role in B.J. Novak's Vengeance. Analeigh was known for an ethereal beauty that, sadly, didn't lend itself to conventional leading roles. To my mind Analeigh now Lio never really found her niche.

I love character actors. Their presence supports stars and let them shine. For me, their familiar faces provide a through-line from the movie at hand to a whole era of cinema. I am a fan. I spot them on the streets of New York (when my wife says, "Who?" I tell her, "You know, that guy," but she never recognizes them). I glimpsed William Sadler in a café in Union Square. I'd see Aida Turturro often when she was in The Sopranos. My head almost blew up when, in an ice cream parlor in the Village, Dan Hedaya sat down at the table next to us.

And now, here's Lio Tipton. Based on her performance in Riddle of Fire, I presume Lio Tipton has joined the ranks of character actors. Her former doe-like ethos is played down. Here she's sans makeup, channeling Patti Smith: a burst of hair, surly attitude, and menacing eyes.

Ms. Tipton has reinvented herself and it's great seeing her investing in her career (she's also listed as a producer of the Riddle of Fire). I'll look forward to seeing more of her.

Lio Tipton. No longer Analeigh but newly formidable.

She's the reason I'm writing this review.


Riddle of Fire. Directed by Weston Rizooli. From Yellow Veil Pictures and Vinegar Syndrome. 2023. In theaters. 113 minutes.

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