IRRESISTIBLE (2020)

June 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. For the fifteen plus years Jon Stewart hosted “The Daily Show”, he could be depended on to bring his acerbic wit and often scathing political commentary to virtually every show. His most devoted followers leaned left, though he was known to take down extremists on both ends. Stewart’s foray into filmmaking as writer-director was ROSEWATER (2014), a look at the detainment and interrogation of journalist Maziar Bahari in an Iranian prison. This follow-up takes a much lighter approach – one similar to his TV days – while still managing to skewer our election system and campaign financing.

Steve Carell spent a brief time as a reporter/correspondent on “The Daily Show” before heading off to mega-stardom in movies and on TV. Here he plays Gary Zimmer, a political strategist for the Democratic Party. The film opens on the 2016 Presidential campaign between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, and we first see Zimmer in a whirlwind media battle of words against his nemesis, Faith Brewster (played by a funny but underutilized Rose Byrne), a strategist for the Republicans. As you might imagine, Zimmer is a funk after the election, and his career is in shambles.

A ray of hope and inspiration enters Zimmer’s life in the form of a viral YouTube video. Wisconsin farmer and former Marine Jack Hastings (the great Chris Cooper) is recorded tearing into the Deerlaken Mayor and City Council. Zimmer recognizes the Patriotism and a potential Party savior, and seizes on the opportunity to convince Hastings that the Democrats stand for the same things he stands for … those things he rattled off in the video.

Zimmer in Deerlaken is the proverbial fish-out-of-water, and his trip is farmed for laughs. It starts in the local German beer hall and carries forward to Hastings’ farm where Zimmer spots daughter Diana Hastings (Mackenzie Davis) up to her elbow in cow. The other locals we get to know include Will Sasso and Will McLaughlin as Big Mike and Little Mike, CJ Wilson as the accommodating barkeep, Blair Sams as the eager baker, and Brent Sexton as Republican Mayor Braun. When Zimmer’s campaign for Hastings catches the eye of Ms. Brewster, we soon experience an all-out political brawl for the Mayor’s job in this tiny town … one recently made smaller by the closing of the local military base. Director Stewart labels this “Heartland USA.”

Of course, this isn’t a story about the candidates. It’s Stewart’s commentary on how campaigns are conducted today. Social media and the national news media are weapons, and we see that there’s no such thing as dirty politics … only politics. Topher Grace plays a pollster and Natasha Lyonne is in charge of analytics, and the over-dependence on data is made clear. However, the biggest point Stewart makes has to do with campaign finance and money. It’s all about the ‘Benjamins.’ The Super PAC is shoved (conveniently) to the back of the room in what Stewart terms “an election economy.”

There are plenty of Jon Stewart comedic touches on display. We get “Rhinestone Cowboy” used a couple of times, see “swing voters” listed on a first name basis, and get an advertising slogan of “a redder kind of blue.” When Faith Brewster says “I look forward to lying to you in the future”, we recognize this as prime form Stewart. The problem with political statements, political commentary, and political satire, is that people will complain it goes too far, or doesn’t go far enough, or points the finger, or doesn’t point the finger. It won’t cover what they want covered in a way they want it covered. Stewart lets neither party off here. In fact, he lays blame on both. However, given what we see and live through on a daily basis right now, Stewart’s observations come across a bit tame … we wish he had pushed harder.

The opening credits segment is brilliant with a slide show of previous campaigns accompanied by Bob Seger’s “Still the Same”, and the closing credits are worth sticking around for just to hear Trevor Potter, the former Chairman of Federal Election Commission.

Releasing on Digital/VOD on June 26, 2020

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MADAGASIKARA (2020, doc)

June 25, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world at 228,900 square miles. 90 percent of its wildlife is found nowhere else, and it features a unique ecosystem with staggering natural resources. It’s been the subject of National Geographic specials and very successful (and cute) animated kids’ movies. Contrasting to all of those details, is the fact that the vast majority of the citizens live in extreme poverty and suffer from malnutrition, while the government is in near-constant turmoil.

Cam Cowan is a former attorney, and this is his first documentary feature. Rather than bury us in bottom-of-the-world economic data, or frustrate us with details of years of political corruption and upheaval, he allows us to focus on the very personal stories of three women … each woman striving to survive the day and provide for her family.

Lin offers laundry services for the community. The first day we see her, she makes 28 cents, which just about covers the cost of 2 cups of white rice. One of Lin’s babies died a few months after birth, and she buried the young girl at the front door stoop, so that she never forgets. Deborah began as a sex worker at age 12. She recounts how some physically abuse her and don’t pay. Her dream was to be a lawyer, but now hopes her kids can get the education she was denied. Tina busts rocks in local quarry. She spends hours each day under the sun without even the luxury of gloves to protect her hands.

In 2009, Malagasy citizens took to the streets to protest corruption in government. The international community responded by cutting off support. That support accounted for 60% of social services, including food, healthcare, and education. A sinking country sunk even lower. We learn that Madagascar is the only country untouched by war where the populace is now poorer than they were in 1960. In fact, the majority of citizens earn less than $2.00 per day, and 80-90% fall below the poverty line.

As a mother plucks fleas and larvae from her kids’ feet, she admonishes them with, “From now on, tell me when you have fleas in your feet.” We may think parenting is difficult, but the guess is, you’ve never warned your kids about fleas nesting under their skin. The film touches on some of the issues with government structure, but there really isn’t enough time for a deep dive. We also learn about humanitarian Father Pedro, who helps educate and feed children. He’s the subject of Mr. Cowan’s next documentary, OPEKA, which is being released as a follow up to this one.

The island’s natural resources are not really discussed here, as the focus is on the people and the daily hardships they endure. There is an undeniable spirit amongst these people, even though it’s a struggle to find hope. Some of the international support has returned, but it’s clear real change won’t happen until the government is structured to support the citizenry and trust is restored. This is tough to watch, but we must.

Opens on Amazon Prime June 26, 2020

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THE GHOST OF PETER SELLERS (2020, doc)

June 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Watching someone go through therapy – exorcising the demons of their life – is a bit uncomfortable. So while we understand Peter Medak’s ‘need’ to revisit the project (from almost 50 years ago) that nearly derailed his promising career, there are plenty of moments here where we feel like we are intruding. As a filmmaker, Mr. Medak’s most natural form of expression is with a camera, so re-tracing a dark time as a documentary makes some sense; we just wonder why he had to drag us along to share his misery.

A “67 day nightmare” is how Peter Medak describes the experience of filming GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, a film that was never officially released. It was 1973 and Medak was a hot young director, fresh off THE RULING CLASS with Peter O’Toole. When Peter Sellers, one of the most sought-after international film stars, agreed to sign on, the 17th century Pirate movie based on the novel by Albert Sydney Fleischman, was thought to be a sure-thing box office smash. In reality, it was the beginning of Medak’s nightmare that still haunts him today.

While re-visiting the original Cyprus sets, and meeting with seemingly anyone who was involved with production and is still alive, Medak recollects specific instances of things that went sideways. The vast majority of it leads right back to the behavior of Peter Sellers, who seemed to be sabotaging the film from very early on. Was it arrogant “star” behavior? Was Sellers depressed over his breakup with Liza Minnelli? Was he bi-polar? We get interviews with co-writer (and Sellers’ buddy) Spike Milligan’s agent Norma Farnes, as well as the film’s Costume Director Ruth Myers, and Sellers’ stuntman Joe Dunne. None of these folks seem to have any pleasant memories of making the movie, and when you add in commentary from other filmmakers like director Piers Haggard (THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR FU MANCHU, Sellers’ final film, 1980) and director Joseph McGrath (CASINO ROYALE, THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN), it appears the common denominator in creating anguish was Peter Sellers.

Among the tales we hear are in regards to Sellers firing a producer, his clashes with Medak and co-star Tony Franciosa, his push to keep Spike Milligan involved as writer and director of some scenes, and most shocking of all, Sellers’ faking a heart attack on set, and the admission of collaboration in fraud from Dr. Greenburgh. We expect artists to have unusual personalities and quirks, but it’s unfortunate when one person can affect the livelihood of so many others.

‘Why go through the pain of re-visiting this?’ Medak is asked the question a couple of times, and it certainly runs through our head while watching. Clips from the film are dropped in throughout the documentary, and it comes across as a pirate farce that appears to have been disjointed at best. I recently watched a “lost” Sellers film entitled MR TOPAZE (aka I LIKE MONEY) from 1961. It was the only feature film where he was credited as director, and if the stories from behind-the-scenes are true, it was yet another case was Sellers was guilty of sabotage.

Medak’s mission with this documentary seems to be one of catharsis. Or maybe it’s his chance to prove he wasn’t to blame for the tragedy of this project. When he talks to producer John Heyman, it seems clear that Heyman, despite losing millions on the film, was able to move on – to get over the setback … something Medak still hasn’t done. While no cast or crew members attended the wrap party, we do wonder if anyone will have an interest in this mess that occurred nearly five decades ago. The only value may be from the perspective of cinematic history or lore, at least other than, hopefully, Peter Medak’s mental well-being and soul cleansing.

Available on VOD June 22, 2020

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THE APARTMENT (1960) revisited

June 20, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the latest addition to my “revisited” series where I re-watch and then write about (not a review) a genuine classic movie. It’s been 60 years on this one, so please expect spoilers with no spoiler alerts. Appearing on most every legitimate list of greatest cinematic comedies, director Billy Wilder’s film actually defies categorization and is a terrific blend of comedy-romance-drama and commentary on societal gender roles of that era. Mr. Wilder co-wrote the razor-sharp script with I.A.L. “Iz” Diamond. The two were collaborators off and on for 15 years, including what many consider to be the best comedy of all-time, as well as one of Marilyn Monroe’s finest films, SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959).

Jack Lemmon stars as CC “Bud” Baxter, a clerk at Consolidated Life, a New York insurance company with 31,259 employees. Baxter is but a minor cog in the conglomerate wheel, save for one thing: he allows upper management to use his apartment for their extramarital affairs. He doesn’t much like the arrangement, but lacks the backbone to stand up to them – especially since they dangle the carrot of promotion. Although the neighbors think he is a womanizing Lothario, Baxter’s life is void of companionship. He’s on the outside (of his own apartment) while others are living it up. Elevator Operator Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine) has caught Baxter’s eye, yet while she is courteous and friendly, she politely deflects his flirtations.

When that promotion finally comes through, Baxter finds himself with yet another executive requiring use of the apartment. Jeff Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) is the Human Resources Manager, and his demands lead to a most disheartening discovery. Baxter is crushed when a broken compact mirror and the office Christmas party allow him to figure out that Mr. Sheldrake is having an affair with Ms. Kubelik, and he himself has been providing the place.

 There are so many terrific scenes and performances, it’s not practical to go through each and every one. The early interactions between Baxter and Kubelik are quite fun – he’s so eager, and she’s so careful not to wound his pride. Kubelik and Sheldrake in the booth at the Chinese Restaurant is quite remarkable, and Baxter’s neighbors (Jack Kruschen and Naomi Stevens) are especially effective as the doctor and his quick-to-judge wife. Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen (Edie Adams), is a standout in her Christmas Party scene with Ms. Kubelik, and watching Baxter and Mrs. MacDougall (Hope Holiday) drunkenly dance the holiday hours away is comedic genius, although nothing can top Baxter deftly wielding a tennis racquet (wooden frame, of course) to strain pasta.

The film earned 10 Oscar nominations, and won in 5 categories: Best Picture, Best Director (Wilder), Best Screenplay (Wilder and Diamond), Best Art/Set Direction (Alexandre Trauner, Edward G Boyle), and Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell, who also won Oscars for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES, 1946, and THE PRIDE OF THE YANKEES, 1942, and who also started in showbiz as an acrobat for The Flying Mandells in Ringling Brothers Circus). The film’s other nominees were Best Actor (Lemmon, a 2-time Oscar winner for MISTER ROBERTS, 1955, and SAVE THE TIGER, 1973), Best Actress (MacLaine, Oscar winner for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT, 1983), Best Supporting Actor (Kruschen), Best Cinematographer (Joseph LaShelle, and Oscar winner for LAURA, 1944), and Best Sound (Gordon Sawyer). Somehow Adolph Deutsch’s film score got nominated for a Grammy, but not for an Oscar. He did win 3 other Oscars for ANNIE GET YOUR GUN (1950), SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS (1954), and OKLAHOMA! (1955).

Writer-director Billy Wilder is truly one of cinema’s giants. In his career, he was nominated for 21 Oscars, winning 6 (THE LOST WEEKEND 1945, SUNSET BLVD 1951). This film was released one year after SOME LIKE IT HOT (1959), a film that often tops the list of best all-time comedies. That film and this one, are also in the battle for best final line: “Nobody’s perfect” vs “Shut up and deal”. Wilder admitted that his idea for THE APARTMENT came from one scene in BRIEF ENCOUNTER, the excellent 1945 film from director David Lean, adapted from Noel Coward’s play.

Jack Lemmon’s “Bud” Baxter is just one of many memorable characters throughout his stellar career that featured 8 Oscar nominations, 2 Oscars, and roles in comedy and drama. He was a close friend of comedian Ernie Kovacs who was married to Edie Adams (Miss Olsen in this movie), and had a remarkable comedy partnership (10 movies) with Walter Matthau, the best known of which is THE ODD COUPLE (1968).  Lemmon appeared in 7 Billy Wilder movies, and was the first actor to win Oscars for both Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor.

Shirley MacLaine was only 25 years old when she starred as Fran Kubelik. Like Mr. Lemmon, her (6) Oscar nominations were spread across four decades (50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80’s), finally winning for TERMS OF ENDEARMENT (1983). In real life she is Warren Beatty’s big sister, although they’ve never appeared in the same film. Ms. MacLaine is renowned as a film actress, stage performer, dancer, author (multiple books), and of course, New Age guru. She’s now 86 years old and still working.

Fred MacMurray plays the scoundrel Jeff Sheldrake. Mr. MacMurray is best known for his 12 seasons and 380 episodes as the most patient father on “My Three Sons”. His career spanned fifty years (1929-1978), and he made his mark as a serious actor in such films as the ultimate film noir classic DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) and THE CAINE MUTINY (1954). He sprinkled in some westerns, before shifting to comedy in the first Disney live action film THE SHAGGY DOG (1959), and then family fare like THE ABSENT MINDED PROFESSOR (1961) and SON OF FLUBBER (1963). He was certainly an underrated, though never out-of-work actor. On an interesting side note, when he was age 22, he played saxophone in a band that featured Bing Crosby as the lead singer.

 Edie Adams plays Miss Olsen, secretary to MacMurray’s Sheldrake. Her screen time here is limited, but her role is crucial to the story and well-crafted by Ms. Adams. She was the wife of early TV comedy legend Ernie Kovacs, who died in a car accident in 1962 at age 42. Ms. Adams put together a multi-faceted career including time as a nightclub singer, and actress on TV, stage, and film. She is still remembered for her iconic cigar commercials:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y7EbLIdE88Q

Baxter’s neighbors are played by Jack Kruschen as the understanding Dr. Dreyfuss and Naomi Stevens as the more direct Mrs. Dreyfuss. Mr. Kruschen’s 48 year career covered more than 220 credits in TV and film. Ms. Stevens is remembered for her role in VALLEY OF THE DOLLS (1967) and a recurring role on “The Doris Day Show”. She passed away (age 92) just a couple of months before her 70th wedding anniversary.

Joyce Jameson plays “the blond” Marilyn Monroe lookalike. She is best known for her roles in Roger Corman horror films, and for a recurring role as bombshell Skippy on “The Andy Griffith Show.” Another link to that classic TV series comes from Hal Smith, who dons the Santa Claus costume in the bar. You might recall Mr. Smith as Otis, the town drunk in Mayberry. He was also the voice of Owl in numerous “Winnie the Pooh” cartoons and movies. Hope Holiday plays Mrs. MacDougall, Baxter’s dance partner on Christmas Eve. Ms. Holiday was known as “the voice”, and made frequent appearances in Billy Wilder films.

In addition to MacMurray’s Sheldrake, the other four managers to take advantage of Baxter and his apartment were played by David Lewis (a recurring role as the Warden on “Batman” TV series), Willard Waterman (well-known character actor in radio, TV, film), David White (Larry Tate on “Bewitched”), and Ray Walston. Mr. Walston had many memorable roles including teacher Joe Dobisch in FAST TIMES AT RIDGEMONT HIGH (1982), JJ Singleton in THE STING (1973), co-starring with Bill Bixby in “My Favorite Martian”, and as Judge Henry Bone in “Picket Fences.” He’s yet another in the cast whose career lasted nearly 50 years.

The film’s lasting impact comes courtesy of the fun and energy and comedy on the surface, supported by a sadness lurking underneath. It offers a brilliant balance between lightness and serious social issues, and provides quite a statement of the times. A glance at the era shows us what a typical office environment was like. Women were subjected to endless harassment and unsolicited offers from the men in charge. They either had to find a way to deal with it, or quit and find another job – one where they’d likely face the same culture. Still, despite the sadness, the film does offer a bit of hope … plus some truly classic lines (including that last one). Girl with the “wrong guy” is common theme in movies and literature (and life), but “that’s the way it crumbles, cookie-wise.” And the next time you are debating with friends over a list of Christmas movies, don’t forget Billy Wilder’s THE APARTMENT. Hey, if DIE HARD qualifies, this one surely must!

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7500 (2020)

June 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. The first airplane hijacking movie I remember seeing was AIRPORT (1970, with Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin). Since then, it’s been a recurring, relatively common cinematic topic blending our natural fears (flying and terrorism) with our love and admiration of heroic people, as seen in such films as EXECUTIVE DECISION (1996) and AIR FORCE ONE (1997).  Writer-Director Patrick Vollrath (first feature length film, Oscar nominated for his excellent 2015 Live Action Short EVERYTHING WILL BE OK/ Alles Wird Gut) and co-w Sanad Halibasic use some of the familiar tropes we’ve come to expect, but do so with a unique twist … the camera never leaves the cockpit (at least until the very end).

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tobias Ellis, the co-pilot to Captain Michael Lutzman (Carlo Kitzlinger) on this scheduled short flight from Berlin to Paris. Tobias is an American based in Berlin, living with his Turkish girlfriend Gokce (Aylin Tezel) and their young son. Gokce is also a flight attendant on the flight, and the two have attempted to keep their relationship a secret from their co-workers and employer.

The film opens with a quote usually attributed to Gandhi, “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” We then get a couple minutes of Berlin Airport security footage as passengers and their carry-ons proceed through security lines. We hear no dialogue or sound. The first actual scene puts us inside the cockpit as the flight crew arrives.

Not long after a smooth takeoff, the terrorists rush the cockpit when the flight attendant is delivering water to the pilots. A fight ensues resulting in injuries, including to both pilots. The crisis quickly escalates as Tobias has to take over flying the plane, while dealing with the pressure of a life-altering dilemma: does he follow protocol and keep the door shut, or does he hopefully save passenger lives by opening the door? The tension mounts as Tobias (and us) views the actions of the terrorist through the small cockpit monitor.

The film’s title is derived from the pilot’s Squawk code of 7500, which notifies the Air Traffic Controller of a hijacking-in-progress. As we learn, these aren’t the usual hijackers. These are extremists who are “avenging the deaths of Muslims.” These terrorists prove they aren’t afraid to kill, and proclaim they are “not afraid to die.” Well, all except one of them. Nineteen year old Vedat (Omid Memar) is the terrorists’ translator, and he’s left frantically trying to make the best of a bad situation, despite no real plan. His clouded-thinking exacerbates the situation as he tries to deal with the police negotiator.

What gives the film appeal is the ‘camera in the cockpit’ trick and the tension of the moment. The space is cramped and claustrophobic. Showing the crew going through the pre-flight checks allows us to get our bearings in an unfamiliar setting. To this non-pilot, the sequence delivers a very authentic look and feel. Spending the entire time in a confined space recalls such films as BURIED (2010), LOCKE (2013), and Hitchcock’s LIFEBOAT (1944). Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries most of the film with his performance, as he’s rarely off camera. His temperament during chaos is fun to watch, but the final act is just a bit overwrought, and some of the good from the first two acts unravels a bit. Still, the close-quarters of a cockpit makes a unique viewing experience, and one that has us asking how we would react in this situation.

Available on Prime Video June 18, 2020

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BABYTEETH (2020)

June 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. There is no logical explanation for how an Australian indie film, the first feature from director Shannon Murphy, can contain so many elements: a terminally ill teenager, first love, addiction, music lessons, questionable parenting, comedy, a small time drug dealer, a defensive smoking pregnant neighbor, a clueless classmate, a school formal, multiple wigs, a music teacher, a smorgasbord of prescription and illegal drugs, a doctor and dog both named Henry, a bad haircut, and a broken 4th wall … all kicked off by a bloody nose during the ‘meet cute’ at the train stop.

The best explanation for how this crazy jigsaw fits together is the extraordinary work from director Murphy, the tremendous performances from the talented cast, and the exceptional script (her first screenplay) from Rita Kalnejais, which she adapted from her own play. That cast is made up of screen veterans Ben Mendelsohn (always great) and Essie Davis (the mother in THE BABADOOK, 2014), as well as rising star Eliza Scanlen (so memorable in “Sharp Objects”), and relative unknown (but probably not for long) Toby Wallace. Support work is provided by Emily Barclay, as the neighbor mentioned above, and Eugene Gilfedder as the music teacher.

Sixteen year old Milla (Ms. Scanlen) has terminal cancer. Her resigned demeanor turns to excitement when she meets Moses (Mr. Wallace), a gangly hyper-active ball of energy who looks her in the eye through his own blood-shot peepers. She falls quickly and hard. When Milla invites Moses to dinner, her parents Henry (Mr. Mendolsohn) and Anna (Ms. Davis) are as shocked and confounded as any parent would be – and least of all at her haircut. They forbid Milla to see Moses, and we all know how well that approach works for parents.

Henry is a psychiatrist who walks to work, which sometimes leads to an exchange with his new neighbor Toby – the one who has a dog named Henry, and whose defense of her smoking while pregnant stuns us and Henry (the man, not the dog). Milla’s mother Anna was a musician, and now suffers from bouts of depression. She’s heavily medicated thanks to her husband who can legally prescribe drugs for her. Moses has been cast out by his own mother in an effort to protect her younger son, and Milla views Moses as a way to live life before dying.

Director Murphy uses segment/chapter titles to distinguish the bouts of dysfunction, and to allow time to skip ahead. Initially we find ourselves asking the same question Henry and Anna ask, why would Milla go ‘slumming’ for a guy like Moses? We all slowly come around to accept what’s happening. It’s all about feeling as much as possible and experiencing what she can before it’s all over. Time remaining is her motivation.

There are some terrific moments throughout – some easier to watch than others. Milla’s clueless classmate’s selfie is excruciating for us and Milla, and when Anna tells Henry, “This is the worst possible parenting I can imagine”, every parent can relate. The actors are in fine form here, each making their character relatable without being showy – even Milla’s breaking the 4th wall is understated. The film teeters between pain and underlying humor, and balances on the edge of melodrama without tipping. The closest film I can recall in tone and style is Mike Mills’ underrated THUMBSUCKER (2005). With characters that come across as sincere and organic, director Murphy offers up a heartbreaking celebration of living while you are able. Chaos is inevitable, so we might as well accept it.

IFC Films presents this On Demand and in some theatres June 19, 2020

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TAINTED (2020)

June 18, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Filmed in Canada with a mostly Canadian cast by a Canadian director, we are reminded how challenging it is to make a low budget action-thriller. Writer-director Brent Cote delivers a masterclass in genre clichés, yet there’s enough here to keep anyone initially interested around for 90 minutes.

Alan Van Sprang (SAW III) stars as Lance, the rare Neo-Nazi with ties to both the Aryan Brotherhood and Russian mafia who is also the good guy in the story. Lance has recently been released after serving 15 years in prison, and he’s just trying to live out a quiet life by surrounding himself with pictures of beautiful scenery as he dreams of escaping the world he’s known. He clocks in and out at work, and mostly avoids chit-chatting with others, except for his friendly neighbor Anna (Sara Waisglas), who happens to sing at the local lounge where Lance periodically buys a bottle.

Of course, it’s only a matter of time (maybe 10 minutes) before Lance’s old world catches up with his new one. Gregor (John Ralston, READY OR NOT, 2019), his old Russian handler, needs him to kill a few guys that have been infringing on the meth business. So, are you keeping score on clichés? We have an ex-con trying to start over. We have ‘one last job’. We have a girl caught in the middle … there’s always a girl! We have the Aryan Brotherhood versus the Russian mob. Plus, we have the underling trying to earn his stripes. In this case, it’s Gregor’s nephew Malik (Aaron Poole). There’s even an imposing Russian mobster named Vladimir (John Rhys-Davies from two huge franchises – Lord of the Rings and Indiana Jones).

The film begins with a Pope Francis quote about evil and violence, but ironically, the film’s best segments involve neither evil nor violence. Despite his past, Lance is a brooding type who listens to blues music, and serves up inspiring words to Anna. The film offers a new and very quick (though surely indescribably painful) method for removing swastika tattoos from one’s chest, although you should know the violent scenes are few in number and brief in runtime. Gregor’s philosophy towards Lance is that “a fighter needs to fight”, but we actually enjoy Lance’s time with Anna more than the gangster bits. Filmmaker Cote may follow the checklist for this genre, however, we do hand it to him for a twist at the end.

watch the trailer:


EXIT PLAN (2020)

June 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Euthanasia, ‘Dignity in Death’ or assisted suicide. Whatever you prefer to call it, those against the idea have likely never been in the situation where medical treatment provides no hope. Max Isaksen (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, “Game of Thrones”) is an Insurance Investigator. After his most recent scan, the doctor informs him that his brain tumor is growing and surgery is not an option. His bodily functions will slowly and mercilessly dissolve until death takes him.

Max is a non-descript kind of guy. The usually dashing Coster-Waldau is hidden behind old style wire-rimmed glasses and a mustache. He’s happily married, but can’t bring himself to tell his lovely wife Laerke (Tuva Novotny, ANNIHILATION, 2018) about the tumor or his inner thoughts. He’s frustrated that the special diet and app monitor didn’t ‘save’ him, so now he’s suffering with speech issues, headaches, and other ailments that serve as a reminder of the ultimate outcome.

While working with one of his clients, Max learns about the choice her husband made – Hotel Aurora, which promises “a beautiful ending.” It’s an enterprise that excels in secrecy and efficiency. Their sales pitch is an end to life that fulfills your fantasy. Just know that once you execute the agreement, there is no changing your mind. Instead, you are immediately given a sedative and put on a private plane where you are whisked away to the Danish-modern hotel in a remote, stunning setting. Support work is provided by Kate Ashfield (SHAUN OF THE DEAD, 2004) as the fake mother, and Jan Bijovet as Frank, the director of Aurora.

Denmark-born director Jonas Alexander Arnby and writer Rasmus Birch worked together on WHEN ANIMALS DREAM (2014) and here they explore an existential question about life and death, and whose choice it is. There is also the question of saying goodbye to loved ones and choosing the terms at the end. It’s a somber story that twists reality and dreams, and we can’t help but find some similarities to Yorgos Lanthimos’ THE LOBSTER (2015), although that one was infinitely more bizarre. There are a couple of moments of levity – such as asking for tips on tying a noose, and we do learn that Poppy Tea tastes best with lemon. Speaking of beverages, I lost count at the number of scenes featuring wine, juice, water or some other ingestible liquid. Sometimes it’s a bonding experiencing with a toast, while other times, it’s a biological need. Whatever the reason, taking a sip is somehow tied into the circle of life. As The Eagles sang in “Hotel California”, ‘you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” Welcome to the Aurora, where we never have to ask, ‘how was your stay?’

Available on VOD June 12, 2020

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SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER (2020)

June 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. “That’s not a word.” “It’s a word.” Anyone who has ever played Scrabble has both shrieked the phrases and been the target of those same screeches from opponents. Word play is in full effect during the feature film debut of director Carl Hunter (a former British pop star). The script comes from the short story “Triple Word Score” by writer Frank Cotrell Boyce, who also wrote the screenplay for the excellent and underrated MILLIONS (2004).

The basic premise has a father searching for his long-missing oldest son. The son stormed out during a hotly contested family game of Scrabble, so dad thinks he can track him down by playing the game online many hours each day. Bill Nighy plays Alan, the owner of Mellor’s Tailor Shop (though he rarely seems to work) and the aforementioned father-on-a-quest. Somewhat annoyed by his father’s pursuit, though still supportive as much as possible, is Alan’s youngest son Peter (Sam Riley, Mr. Darcy in PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016). Peter refers to himself as “not the Prodigal Son”, which is the underlying theme of the story and the father-son relationship.

“Very Quadrophenia” Alan says as he walks by a group of scooter-riding folks. It’s just one of the whip-smart lines Bill Nighy sneaks in. Mr. Nighy has always had a unique on screen energy – one that keeps us off-balance yet eager to see where he leads. He’s perfectly cast for a film that delicately balances deadpan and offbeat humor with awkward relationships and dark moments. Alan is the type of guy who will Scrabble-hustle (and maybe even cheat) a grieving dad for 200 quid, and then turn around and take his gamer-grandson Jack (Louis Healy) from an anti-social to a quite “spruce” young man capable of flirting with his bus stop fantasy Rachel (Ella-Grace Gregoire, “The Five”).

Grief and family dynamics are the core of the story, and the father-son wranglings between Alan and Peter are especially crucial. The film has a somber tone spiced with whimsy to serve up an unusual feel. To go along with that, Production Designer Tim Deckel and Set Decorator David Morison conjure up the visuals we might expect from Wes Anderson or early Tim Burton … colorful wallpaper and vivid furnishings … right down to the knick-knacks and even a label-maker. The aesthetic choices by the filmmaker and crew really combine nicely with the performances in a film that may arrive at a predictable ending, but only after a most interesting journey. We do learn what the title means, and it’s important not to mix up, confuse, or muddle this one with the recent teen abortion drama, NEVER RARELY SOMETIMES ALWAYS.

Virtual Cinema June 12, 2020 and On Demand July 10, 2020

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MR. TOPAZE (1961) re-release

June 11, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. This is the only feature film to have Peter Sellers credited as a director, and it was released in 1961. Retitled “I Like Money” for its United States release, it seems that regardless of the title or continent, the film can only be labeled a box office flop and disappointment to viewers and critics alike. Considered “long lost” and unseen for decades, the only surviving 35mm print has been restored by the British Film Institute, so that new generations can be disappointed … or perhaps appreciate it from a ‘history of cinema’ perspective (which I certainly do).

Peter Sellers directs himself, as he stars as Albert Topaze, a provincial schoolteacher of the highest integrity. We get a good feel for Topaze in the scenes playing under the opening credits. He’s a dedicated teacher, but not one the students respect. Topaze has a crush on fellow teacher Ernestine (played beautifully by Billie Whitelaw, whom you’ll recall as the nanny in THE OMEN, 1976). The obstacle here is that Ernestine is the daughter of the bellowing Headmaster Muche (Leo McKern, A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, 1966), Topaze’s demanding boss. Topaze’s loyal friend and landlord is Tamise (Michael Gough, BATMAN, 1989), another fellow teacher.

Topaze is a timid fellow, though of the highest moral principles. When the Baroness (fiery Martita Hunt) flashes what today we would call entitlement by demanding Topaze change her grandson’s grade or be fired, Topaze finds himself out of work. It’s here where scheming Suzy (Nadia Gray, forever a part of cinematic lore thanks to her unforgettable cameo in LA DOLCE VITA, 1960) and Castel Benac (Herbert Lom, Sellers’ memorable co-star in the “Pink Panther” franchise and THE LADYKILLERS, 1955), entice Topaze into their shady business … hoping to fend off legal inquiries given the reputation for honesty Topaze brings to the enterprise.

Can money corrupt even the most upstanding character? The story comes from renowned French writer Marcel Pagnol and his 1933 play with Raymond Massey in the lead. Pagnol also wrote the novels “Jean De Florette” and “Manon of the Spring”, the sources of two excellent films from director Claude Berri. There have been at least three other film versions of ‘Topaze’, two 1933 projects including one starring John Barrymore and directed by Harry d’Abbadie d’Arrast, and a 1951 version directed by Pagnol himself with Fernandel in the lead.

Mr. Sellers is in fine form here, and in the first half he displays some of the physical comedic traits that defined his Inspector Jacques Couseau in the ‘Pink Panther’ series a couple of years later, and this film was released three years prior to the all-time classic DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB. It seems the real issue with the movie, and why it was so poorly received, is that Sellers plays such a challenging character. Initially Topaze is a sympathetic, likable man and he transitions to one we have little interest in – one to whom viewers simply can’t relate.

Still, despite the obstacles within the story, it’s fascinating to go back almost 60 years and discover a previously unseen Sellers project that features not just the stellar cast listed above, but also John Neville (THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN or for fans of “The X-Files”, he known as “the well-manicured man”), British film veteran John Le Mesurier as a blackmailer, and the only film acting gig for Michael Sellers, the son of Peter (he plays young Gaston).

Nadia Gray sizzles in singing “I Like Money”, a song written by Herbert Kretzmer, and Herbert Lom gets an instant classic line, “He’s an idiot. I like him.” Is this a comedy? Certainly the first 20 minutes bring laughs, but by the end, those laughs seem quite distant. Watching a man lose his soul and his friends is painful. Can money buy happiness? Topaze has his answer, but as viewers we aren’t so sure he’s correct.

Available June 12, 2020 via Film Movement’s Virtual Cinema

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