While it's no Scarface, Judge Bill Gibron still thinks there's a lot to like about this engrossing independent crime drama.
What would you do with the sexiest drug of all time?
It's the Holy Grail of hard drugs. When taken, it affects the nervous system, expanding the consciousness and amplifying the amount of brain a person uses to a frightening level. Most dealers believe that it doesn't exist. They also acknowledge that, if it were real, the financial windfall would be astronomical. Evan "Pipe" Piper has long felt that Grace was just a myth. But when old friend Jake shows up with the elusive narcotic in tow, Pipe (Christopher Amitrano) starts getting ideas. If he can get the pills, sell them to a high-placed mobster, and keep the profit, he may finally be able to escape his illegal existence. Then maybe he can reclaim the one true love of his life, his ex-girlfriend Ashley (Ashley Yeater).
There are lots of obstacles in his way. First, he must find a way to prove that the drug is real. Best friend and renowned chemical "explorer" Rich Karma (Dean Cameron, Ski School) can help with that. In addition, rumor has it that Pipe is currently the subject of a sting, under constant surveillance and about to be busted. As he tries to make this final score and get out, he must keep one eye on his future, while hoping to avoid the flaws and failings of his past. If he's not careful, he could succumb to both Grace and the Storm brewing all around him.
Grace and the Storm is a movie of amazing individual moments. Writer/director Christopher Baldi fills this, his first feature film, with so many interesting sequences of searing drama that, when it all fails to flow together effortlessly, we are left wondering why. After all, this is a simple story of a drug dealer trying to find that elusive way out through one last major transaction. It isn't loaded with complexities and subplots. As a director, Baldi isn't smitten with complicated flashbacks or eccentric narrative diversions. His is a "point and shoot" kind of composition. But for some reason, Grace and the Storm just doesn't gel. Instead, it limps along from scene to scene, building interest as readily as it drains it.
It could be the fault of the formula. Baldi is working with archetypical characters here, the kind of individuals who we've seen in hundreds of similar cinematic offerings. Our sullen antihero, Evan Piper is carved completely out of the "pusher as professional" model. He has a by-the-book kind of mannerism that brings very little electricity to this otherwise risky business. We don't expect every dealer to be Tony Montana, but a job is only as engaging as the person behind the profession. Unfortunately, Baldi is more interested in channeling Pipe's world through his problems outside the drug trade. Grace and the Storm therefore ends up wrapped in feelings of loneliness, melancholy and social disconnect—perfect for a character study, death for a kind of psychological thriller.
Make no mistake, Christopher Amitrano is perfect as Pipe. He has the right macho magnetism to carry off this calm, controlling enigma. Amitrano is also an inventive actor. He colors Pipe with several silent gestures that make him more than just a well-dressed thug. Still, the inherent violence in Pipe's profession is all but missing here. Unless you count a minor moment where our kingpin bitch-slaps the husband of a girl he's pining for, we never see Pipe actually apply his power. Intimidating looks only go so far. We have to see the reason behind the coercion, to experience the terribleness in the threat, before we, too, feel its presence.
Baldi, unfortunately, stays with the maudlin instead of the muscle. Pipe has long loved Ashley, but the feeling is far from mutual. She left him when she learned of his trade, and since that time, Pipe's torch has only grown larger and more blinding. It takes real writing talent to walk the tightrope between obsession and stalking, unrequited love and misplaced emotion. Baldi, unfortunately, never really finds the proper focus. Certainly the scenes between Amitrano and actress Ashley Yeater are very good. There is a definite chemistry between the two and a sense of history in how tentative they are. Baldi never pushes the proper buttons to get us involved, however. We stay at arm's length throughout most of their subtle scenes.
This is not to say that Grace and the Storm is a complete bust. The parts that sizzle are so sensational that they actually patch over the problem areas. The sequences where Pipe visits "human guinea pig" Rich Karma are great. Dean Cameron makes such a wonderful, lasting impression that you wish there was more of his Zen steadfastness in the film. Equally effective is K.C. Armstrong (the lunkheaded hunk from The Howard Stern Show) as Jake, one of Pipe's oldest friends. And if an ending ever saved an entire film, Grace and the Storm's sendoff would surely fit the bill. The climax, carefully constructed to recall several moments of foreboding laid out previously, offers a wonderful last-minute twist, as well as a strong cinematic tour de force for Baldi and crew.
If all of Grace and the Storm was as effortless and clockwork as the conclusion, this would be a truly great independent film find. As it stands, there are elements that both entertain and exasperate. Some issues are overdeveloped, while others could have used an additional scene or two to flesh them out. Baldi's far-too-deliberate pace, one that mistakes slowness for seriousness, will have you on the edge of your seat—but not out of suspense. Indeed, the only dread you'll feel is from fear that the narrative will never move along. Though it's frustrating and flawed, this is still a wonderfully accomplished first film. You may not enjoy every single aspect of Grace and the Storm, but you will see the potential in Christopher Baldi's vision.
Go Kart Films proves once again that, as a newcomer to the DVD industry, they are more than capable of holding their own with major mainstream manufacturers. Grace and the Storm is augmented with deleted scenes, making-of material, and two very distinct commentary tracks. On the visual side, the transfer is very good. There is some slight grain and minor pixelization, but overall, the print looks professional. Sadly, the cinematic feel of the film is undermined as the image is merely a 1.85:1 "letterboxed" offering seated inside a 1.33:1 full-frame package. The lack of an anamorphic element will definitely annoy those with a 16x9 capacity. Sonically, Grace and the Storm sounds exceptional. The Dolby Digital Stereo shimmers with lots of ambience and mood and the musical underscoring is sensational—very atmospheric and ethereal.
The best part of the presentation though is the extras. Baldi is very self-effacing and introduces the deleted scenes and the making-of footage in a very modest and humble way. The featurettes are fine, giving us real insight into the filmmaking process, as well as why certain scenes ended up on the editing room floor. The audition tapes for stars Christopher Amitrano and Ashley Yeater are also very interesting, as they let us in on the creation of chemistry between two complete strangers. But the best bonus material comes in the commentaries. Baldi handles the first one solo, and he's an encyclopedia of the dos and don'ts of indie production. He uses every scene, every shot, as a way of explaining to the viewer why the performance was captured in such a fashion, and amazingly enough, where the film's true failings are. The second alternate narrative features three friends of Baldi's—Bill, Fitz and Anthony—who spend the entire running time of the film ripping the movie—and its maker—apart. Although some of the "humor" is a tad offensive (everyone is "gay" in these guy's minds), it does have a lot of funny sections.
While it's refreshing to see someone aiming outside the horror genre to get their initial cinematic message across, Christopher Baldi's Grace and the Storm settles for the second favorite—the crime drama—to explore his ideas. Unfortunately, this creates a problem with familiarity. Grace and the Storm tries to offer something distinct, but can't get all its facets to play right. Instead, this is a scattershot showcase; one worth viewing, but definitely not for the ages.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Go Kart Films
• Deleted Scenes Introduced by Writer/Director Christopher Baldi
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