ELVIS FROM OUTER SPACE (2020)

July 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. All you Elvis Presley fans out there can relax. This is not a documentary. In fact, trying to put a label on the film co-written and co-directed by Marv Z Silverman and Tracy Wuischpard would be pointless … unless we can just agree on “Midnight Movie Madness”, and leave it at that.

Not that I would ever encourage such activity, but some have declared that the best ‘midnight movies’ are most enjoyed whilst a sufficiently mind-altered state is achieved, and one is unnaturally influenced by beverage or ‘other’. Now that’s a category this film easily and happily (and likely by design) fits in. There is no reason to start this film while thinking clearly, and actually, thinking is best avoided for the entire 90 minute runtime.

The story kicks off with the narrator explaining that Elvis has spent the last 30 years or so with the aliens of Alpha Centauri. He has been playing music for the community of ETs proving “music is the universal language.” ’But now Elvis is homesick for Earth and wants to see his daughter, Linda Bess Truman. The aliens contact the CIA and arrangements are made for the drop in Area 51. Some quick math places the story sometime around 2010 or a couple years prior.

There is no way I will risk spoiling the zaniness that occurs, but Elvis, now codename John “JB” Burrows, finds himself in the 1970’s Elvis World Crown Competition at the Desert Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You may have heard about the time that Charlie Chaplin lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, but here, JB brings down the house as an Elvis impersonator. He’s so good the other contestants (quite a motley crew) question his identity. One of those is “Big M” who is also the film’s narrator. All of this drama is broadcast via “Barry Live”, a TMZ type show delivers laughs along with the daily scoop.

George Thomas plays JB/Elvis, and he seems at ease in the jumpsuits, although those fake sideburns are a punchline by themselves. David Heavener is Big M and the narrator, and his initial role as rival shifts as the story progresses. Diane Yang Kirk plays CIA Agent Messina, who is on JB’s side, and Lauren-Elaine Powell is Jackie, the earthly love interest. Barry Ratcliffe nearly steals the show as the TV host of “Barry Live”, and I believe TJ Myers plays daughter Linda, while Martin Kove (you’ll recognize as bad guy Kreese from THE KARATE KID, 1984) is the State Trooper. Alexander Butterfield is CIA Chairman Townsend, and in real life, Mr. Butterfield served as Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon, and was the one who revealed the existence of the Oval Office recording system during the Watergate investigation. Best of all, Sonny West appears as himself. Sonny was part of Elvis’ “Memphis Mafia” back in the day. Sonny and his cousin Red West died within a couple of months of each other in 2017.

Hopefully you’ve picked up that this move is so far outside of mainstream that a traditional review is simply not possible. Animation is used for the aliens and spaceships and the rest of it must be seen to be … well, seen. It appears to be a re-boot of Mr. Silverman’s 2011 project entitled MEMPHIS RISING: ELVIS RETURNS, making most of the footage almost 10 years old. Still, a passion project is the heartfelt pursuit of a filmmaker, whether it’s SCHINDLER’S LIST or Elvis being held captive in ‘Area 52’.

watch the trailer:


THE TRUTH (La Verite, France, 2020)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Surely every movie lover will savor the chance to watch two of France’s screen titans go at each other as combative mother and daughter. Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche don’t disappoint in this latest from writer-director Hirokazu Koreeda, who was previously Oscar nominated for SHOPLIFTERS (2018).

Ms. Deneuve stars as Fabienne Dangeville, an aging French Oscar winning actress who has recently published her memoir. To celebrate the book, her daughter Lumir (Ms. Binoche) is coming with her family for a visit. Husband Hank (Ethan Hawke) is a self-admitted second rate actor, and their daughter Charlotte (newcomer Clementine Grenier) is awfully cute and meeting her grandmother for the first time. Lumir is a scriptwriter, and harbors less-than-favorable childhood memories of dear old mom.

The personalities of mother and daughter are pretty easy to ascertain. Fabienne admits “I’d rather be a bad mother, a bad friend, and a good actress.” She’s a petty and sometimes nasty woman, who’s quite self-aware. Lumir is the type that has critiqued her mother’s memoir with post-it notes throughout, and calls her out on the false claims of being a doting mother. Most of the movie deals with memories, honesty, and family relationships. It’s not just Lumir who is bothered by book. Fabienne’s long time handler Luc (French screen veteran Alain Libolt) reacts strongly to being omitted entirely, as if he never existed.

Fabienne waves off the criticisms by claiming she’s an actress, so the naked truth is not expected … whereas interesting stories are.  The film opens with Fabienne being interviewed by a journalist (Laurent Capelutto, “Black Spot”), and between this interview and what we learn of the memoir, we can’t help but chuckle at some of the real life similarities. First, Ms. Deneuve’s real middle name is Fabienne, and there are teases of her multiple lovers and “almost” movie with Alfred Hitchcock.

A large portion of the film is spent on the film-within-the-film that Fabienne is working on. It’s a science-fiction film (from a short story written by Ken Liu) that focuses on an unusual and difficult mother-daughter relationship. Lumir spots the obvious symmetry, but we are never really sure if Fabienne does, as she’s so busy firing barbs at the lead actress played by rising star Manon Lenoir (the first feature for Manon Clavel). For the elder Fabienne, acting has always been about being a star, so she struggles seeing the younger actress take a role she herself would have embodied 50 years prior.

Other supporting work comes from Christian Crahay as Jacques, Fabienne’s live-in cook (and more); Roger Van Hool as Pierre (man, not turtle) as Lumir’s father who is listed as deceased in the book; and Ludivine Sagnier (SWIMMING POOL, 2003) who plays a younger version of Fabienne’s character in the film-within-the-film. One key character we never actually see is Sarah, a deceased woman who was a friend and fellow actress to Fabienne, and a kind of surrogate mother to Lumir when she was a young girl. Sarah’s memory still hovers over the lives of Fabienne and Lumir, and may be at the heart of any possible reconciliation. Koreeda is a terrific director, and watching the performances here is quite entertaining. We do have the feeling that the script could have gone deeper emotionally had it not attempted to tackle so much. Additionally, many scenes felt like they were begging for more biting comedy than what was there. This is mostly played straight, which leaves Ms. Deneuve and Ms. Binoche to carry the load – a burden they handle quite capably.

watch the trailer:


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

watch the trailer:


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!

watch the trailer:


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

watch the trailer:


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

watch the trailer:


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

watch the trailer:


THE TRIP TO GREECE (2020)

May 21, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Now is either the absolute best time to release this movie, or it’s the worst. During a pandemic with directives to stay home, you would be excused for classifying a cinematic travel trip by funny buddies as either a harsh prank or a welcome fantasy. Director Michael Winterbottom is back for his fourth film in the franchise featuring wise-cracking pals Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. The first three were: THE TRIP (2010), THE TRIP TO ITALY (2014), and THE TRIP TO SPAIN (2017), and each were edited into feature films from their respective BBC Television series.

The players remain the same, as does the formula. Only the location provides a change-up. Beginning in Turkey near the historical site of Troy, complete with the photo op at the Trojan Horse monument, Coogan and Brydon are on a 6 day assignment to cover (mostly) the 10 year journey of Odysseus in Homer’s “The Odyssey.” The symmetry is noted in the film as this marks the tenth year since they first began traveling together.

The men make their way to Stagira (now Macedonia), the birthplace of Aristotle, as well as Hydra, Athens, Delphi, and Ithaca. Of course, at each destination, the boys stop for a ridiculously upscale gourmet meal at a world class restaurant that features a breathtaking view. It’s during these savory meals, and in the car during the trip, and well, just about any other time, Coogan and Brydon continue their never-ending game of one-upsmanship. Impersonations, punchlines, and spirited verbal sparring are all done with the hope of making the other person laugh, or admit defeat. While the Michael Caine impersonation never makes an appearance, we do get dueling Mick Jaggers and Dustin Hoffmans, as well as moments for Werner Herzog, Ray Winstone, and Barry Gibb/Bee Gees (with “Grease” and “Staying Alive”).

Stunning scenery and historic locations provide ammo for some of the banter between the two comics, including whether Alexander the Great was an original gangster. However, there is also an underlying message here. The two argue over who should wear the respective masks of comedy and tragedy while they are on the hallowed grounds of an ancient Greek Theatre, and Coogan makes the point that “Originality is overrated. Everything is derivative.” This commentary applies not just to their own “Trip” franchise, but also to many other elements of society.

Perhaps there are a few too many aerial shots of their Range Rover traveling down a road, but the back country is so beautiful, we can’t complain. The same goes for those restaurants. Sure it’s torture to watch as they enjoy delicious food, but the scenery is unique to their locale. As we wonder when, or even if, we will ever be able to travel the globe again, perhaps the best lesson here is to value our time with friends and loved ones. A personal crisis is used for this series finale, though it also leaves us with the proclamation that that these trips have been “Mostly fun and games.” So, “already enjoy.”

Available on Digital Platforms and VOD May 22, 2020

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HOW TO BUILD A GIRL (2020)

May 7, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. British writer Caitlin Moran has adapted her own 2014 semi-autobiographical novel-memoir for the screen, because who better to write about the coming-of-age of a talented outcast than that talented outcast herself? Given the profusion of coming-of-age movies that hit the screen every year, it’s a welcome change when one takes a different approach. And this one does just that.

Beanie Feldstein (BOOKSMART, and Jonah Hill’s sister) stars as Johanna Morrigan, replete with British accent. Johanna is a dreamer, and as she sits in her usual spot at the library, she fantasizes about Mr. Darcy riding in to save her from this mundane life. We quickly learn that Johanna is bright, and treated as quite the misfit at school. Even her English teacher asks her to scale back her writing assignments. See, in addition to being a world class dreamer, Johanna is a very talented writer … and she sees that as her only means to escape Wolverhampton.

At home, Johanna has a “Wall of Gods” featuring photographs of her literary and historical heroes, including: Sylvia Plath (Lucy Punch), Elizabeth Taylor (Lily Allen), Bronte sisters, Sig Freud (Michael Sheen), and Maria von Trapp (Gemma Arterton). Johanna speaks to these photos, and they answer her. Johanna’s family hustles to stay just above poverty. Her dad’s (Paddy Considine) dream of rock stardom has passed, and now he breeds black market Border Collies while remaining optimistic about life. Her mother (Sarah Solemani) suffers from post-partem depression after giving birth to twins (kids number 3 and 4).

Johanna shares a small bedroom space (divided by “the Berlin wall”) with her cool brother Krissi (Laurie Kynaston). We know he’s cool, because he hangs out in the cool room at school – a room to which Johanna has never been invited. After embarrassing herself on a televised poetry reading show (hosted by Chris O’Dowd), Johanna is encouraged by brother Krissi to apply for a music critic job at a local publication. Her heartfelt submission on “Annie” the musical causes guffawing among the ultra-cool writing staff at the magazine; yet her writing skill and persistence land her a shot. It’s at this point that things change for Johanna.

An unusual interview with popular and earnest singer John Kite (Alfie Allen, brother of singer Lily Allen and son of actor Keith Allen) results in a connection and teenage crush, leading to a sappy article rejected by her employer. Given a second chance by the magazine, Johanna’s alter-ego Dolly Wilde does in fact turn wild. Her ‘bad girl’ image and mean spirited critiques of bands gain her a cult following – a type of notoriety. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but when the pen is used as a sword, the damage is severe. What follows, of course, are the inevitable hard (and painful) life lessons.

Director Coky Giedroyc has spent most of her career on TV shows, but she has a feel for this material. However, it’s mostly the no-holds-barred performance of Beanie Feldstein that makes this work – both the comedy and drama. We’ve seen the outsider with talent many times before, and because of that, expectations are a bit low going in. This time, a different twist and passionate filmmakers and actors turn this into quite an entertaining 100 minutes.

IFC Films will release the film on VOD on Friday, May 8, 2020

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THE INCOHERENTS (2020)

April 29, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. If you have yet to experience a mid-life crisis, it only means you haven’t lived long enough. Of course, this ‘crisis’ often has little to do with age, and can seep into your marrow at any time … even when you think your life is plodding along just fine. These little thoughts or doubts or ideas start creeping in, and soon the only thing on your mind is a sports car, a younger partner, traveling the world, writing a novel, changing careers, or yes, starting a rock band.

Meet Bruce. He’s working a dead-end job as a 40-something year old paralegal. He’s married to the lovely Liz and they have two children and a fine house. Bruce’s boss takes advantage of his lack of ambition by assigning menial tasks and requiring overtime. When a burned-out Bruce arrives home in the evening, he sees the ‘To-do’ list his wife has posted on the fridge, and he guzzles a beer before heading down to the basement to play music and write songs. It’s his escape from life, but also his tie to younger years when he and his buddies had a legitimate band named The Incoherents.

Jeff Auer stars as Bruce, and he also wrote the screenplay. When his wife Liz (Kate Arrington) green-lights his dream of getting the band back together, Bruce contacts the Hamilton brothers, drummer Tyler (Ben Foster lookalike Casey Clark) and bass player Keith (Walter Hoffman), and they all meet up at the pub owned by their former lead guitarist Jimmy (Alex Emanuel, also the film’s Music Director and a Producer). The long-standing riff between Jimmy and Bruce dates back to the band’s initial run, but soon the chill warms and the band is rehearsing at Annette O’Toole’s studio. She calls them a “lost cause.”

The (middle-aged) boys enjoy playing gigs, but can’t seem to draw a crowd thanks to their utter ignorance of marketing or social media. Enter Jules (Vincent Lamberti), an agent of by-gone years who is blunt in his assessments, even if he seems to bring little else to the band. While all of this is happening, Liz is pushing to open her own long-wanted graphic design business. The idea of both spouses pursuing their dreams is quite intriguing, but the film misses a huge opportunity by focusing almost entirely on Bruce and the band. Liz is left with the scraps of a few reaction scenes (a waste of Ms. Arrington’s talent).

This is director Jared Barel’s first feature film, and it’s likely many of the missteps will be avoided in future projects. Bruce is front and center for most of the run time, but there are other characters who seem to be much more interesting – though most of their backstories are simple teases. On the bright side, the dream of being a rock star is the dream of many, as is recapturing the vitality of a youth long passed. So the relatability factor is present.

Bruce and Liz have 2 kids, which are treated mostly as after thoughts that only come in to play when both parents have something they want to do on the same weekend. Somehow the $80 for a babysitter becomes an obstacle that can’t be overcome … this despite the band’s numerous $30 per rehearsal hour in the studio and Liz’s plane trip to attend her sister’s book signing and put together a business plan. Very little of the real world stuff makes sense, which leaves the band part feeling a bit superfluous and hokey. Amy Carlson (“Blue Bloods”) has an awkward scene as a super-promoter, and we do get see Fiona Silver perform. There are some good ideas here, but it feels like the filmmakers were a bit too close to the project for it to ever really click.

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