FALLING FOR FIGARO (2021)

September 30, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. There aren’t many Opera singer-Romantic Comedies, so that alone made this one worth checking out. Writer-director Ben Lewin (THE SESSIONS, 2012) co-wrote the script with Allen Palmer (his first feature film) and cast the film perfectly, while also gifting us an inordinate amount of beautiful singing voices, as well as a uniquely picturesque setting in the Scottish Highlands.

Danielle Macdonald (PATTI CAKE$, 2017) stars as Millie, an American who has been living in London, and establishing herself as a highly successful fund manager. After an evening at the opera with her boyfriend (and co-worker) Charlie (Shazad Latif, “Penny Dreadful”), Millie makes a life-altering decision. Rather than accept a big promotion at work, she’s going to sacrifice her career and follow her dream of becoming an opera singer. Of course, as with most rom-coms, none of this really makes much sense. Rather than compare this to reality, it’s best to enjoy the fun parts (and there are plenty) and disregard the rest.

Those fun parts begin once Millie leaves London and lands in the Scottish Highlands. Her first comical interaction is with the proprietor of The Filthy Pig played by Gary Lewis (GANGS OF NEW YORK, 2002). This only pub in the village also serves as its only restaurant and motel. More zaniness ensues as Millie auditions for Megan Geoffrey-Bishop (a terrific Joanna Lumley, “Absolutely Fabulous”), a “retired” singing teacher who once made her own mark on the stage. Her only current pupil is Max (Hugh Skinner, LES MISERABLES, 2002), a local who has been training for years. Max and Millie have the same goal – qualify for the ‘Singer of Renowned’ competition. So we immediately know where this is headed … and sure enough, it does.

While much of the story focuses on the ‘will they or won’t they’ connection between Millie and Max, it’s Ms. Lumley who steals every scene she’s in. Her theory that opera singers must suffer is part of her curriculum for both of her students. At first we aren’t sure whether she’s just taking Millie’s money because she needs it, but that answer comes soon enough. The actual competition is packed with amazing singing voices, and the three-way love story follows many of the rom-com clichés – though we don’t seem to care because Millie and Max are so torn between their dream and each other, and Ms. Lumley just keeps cracking wise.

Of course we know that opera singers train most of their lives for competitions and stage roles, so it’s absurd to think that a fund manager can take a year off work and reach this level. But again, this isn’t about reality. No, this is about Millie singing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” like you’ve never heard it before. It’s about “fish and chips without the vinegar”. It’s about not wanting to rent a room because the floor would need to be mopped. It’s about opening your heart and chasing a passion – following a dream. And we can all use a little of that right now.

In select theaters and on VOD beginning October 1, 2021

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THE EYES OF TAMMY FAYE (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We now have the latest example for those who fall on one side or the other when it comes to documentary vs dramatized biopic. Director Michael Showalter (the excellent THE BIG SICK, 2017) and writer Abe Sylvia have adapted the 2000 documentary from Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato – and even kept the same title. The focus here (obviously) is on Tammy Faye Bakker, as she and her televangelist husband Jim skyrocketed to fame before imploding in a quite public and spectacular fashion. Jim went from world-renowned Christian TV personality to scandal-burdened prison inmate, while Tammy Faye rose up from roots of poverty to beloved personality, before becoming a media and Talk Show punchline caricature.

Regardless of your preferred biopic style, or your memories of the Bakkers’ rise and fall, most of us can agree that Jessica Chastain delivers a superb and entertaining performance as Tammy Faye. Already established as one of our finest actors, this is truly a passion project for Ms. Chastain, as she purchased the film rights nearly a decade ago. Here, as you might expect, her features are often buried under prosthetics and mounds of make-up to achieve the oh-so-familiar Tammy Faye look. She captures the babyish voice, the recognizable chuckle, and even sings the songs (very well) that Tammy Faye sang on camera and released albums.

Depending on your expectations, the film serves up a sympathetic view of a true believer with a heart of gold, or it merely skims the surface of a ministry filled with fraud, greed, and deception. And it’s likely both. Tammy Faye is a bit of an enigma. As a child, she was forbidden by her mother (Cherry Jones) from attending church, as she served as a reminder of the ‘Scarlet D’ (divorce) burdening her mother. However, one sip of the sacrament sent young Tammy Faye (Chandler Head) into speaking in tongues and on the road to North Central Bible College where she would meet Jim Bakker.

Andrew Garfield portrays Jim Bakker, and captures the very familiar speech pattern and effeminate mannerisms of the man who proclaimed God did not want poverty for his followers … a belief that led first to the Bakkers’ “The 700 Club” on Pat Robertson’s (Gabriel Olds) Christian Broadcasting Network, and ultimately to their own network and “The PTL Club”, followed by Heritage USA, a Christian theme park. Along the way, they crossed paths with the powerful, ultra conservative Christian, Jerry Falwell (a reserved Vincent D’Onofrio), a man who was envious of the number of followers and the dollars generated by Jim and Tammy Faye. Falwell filled a significant role in how things played out for the Bakkers, and that part is touched on here.

Showalter opts to open the film with a montage of newscasts reporting the Bakker collapse, followed by Tammy Faye in 1994 commenting on her famous eyelashes by stating, “That’s who I am.” The rest of the film is a re-telling of the Tammy Faye story, though we are left to ponder, ‘How much did she really know?”. We see a good-hearted person – a woman brave enough to publicly stand up for the LGBTQ community despite the objections of powerful men in the church. We also see a woman who enjoys fine luxury living and asking few questions, while consistently holding to her message, “God loves you. He really does.” Evangelicals, hypocrisy, financial standing, and political influence are all part of the story, but this is no deep dive into what sent Jim Bakker to prison. Even the Jessica Hahn scandal garners but a brief mention. Instead, this is the story of one woman who was trusted by so many prior to becoming a punchline. One could even say Jim and Tammy Faye were the pioneers of Reality TV, and their rise and fall are only unusual due to the ties to Christianity.

In theaters September 17, 2021

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THE NOWHERE INN (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Have you ever wondered what would happen if David Lynch and Fred Armisen collaborated on a contemporary reimagining of THIS IS SPINAL TAP (1984)? Well, me neither, and that has not happened. But it’s the closest I can come to giving you some idea of this meta-comedy concept film from director Bill Benz and co-writers and co-stars Carrie Brownstein and St Vincent.

We are told that initially singer-songwriter-musician St Vincent has asked her friend Carrie Brownstein to direct a documentary on the singer and her tour. Brownstein envisions a blend of concert and offstage footage so that fans get to know the “real” St Vincent. It turns out the real St Vincent is Annie Clark, a woman who plays Scrabble and video games, and loves to shop for radishes at local Farmers Markets. The contrast between St Vincent’s onstage red guitar riffs, giant video screen, leather outfits and her offstage calm personality is not just stark, but actually a bit boring.

Boring is not what Brownstein has in mind and it creates a rift between the two women, and flips a switch for St Vincent. The musician goes overboard in trying to manufacture the typical rock star image of cool and aloof. Brownstein is frustrated not just with the artificiality of the new approach, but also in the expanding distance between the two friends. Some of the vignettes are quite humorous – in a surreal way. St Vincent stages an intimate scene in her bedroom with a scantily clad Dakota Johnson, and then another sequence features St Vincent’s “family” in a scene right out of “Hee-Haw”.

The satire on public vs private life is a topic worthy of discussion. Often it’s the fans who feel entitled to know more about their icons, while other times it’s the celebrities who are trying to cultivate a public image and garner some extra publicity. In this era of social media, the bigger the personality – the more outlandish – the more publicity and the more followers.

Director Benz’s film drags a bit in the middle, and the final act turns somewhat surreal as Brownstein and St Vincent both have their lapses from reality. Both seem to be confused about their public persona vs real life, so it begins to mimic what’s happened with the original documentary concept. There is a terrific scene involving St Vincent singing on stage and working her way through red velvet stage curtains, but for the most part this isn’t a biting satire – it’s more like a soft-touch. The “Portlandia” connection is clear throughout (Benz, Brownstein, St Vincent) but I’m not sure the film is cohesive enough (mockumentary? wry comedy? satire?) for a mass audience … it might work best as midnight madness.

In theaters September 17, 2021

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CODA (2021)

August 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Ruby Rossi is a high school student. She is also a CODA – Child of Deaf Adults. Her older brother is deaf too, meaning Ruby’s life has been spent as an interpreter for her family, while also working on the family fishing boat in Gloucester, Massachusetts, where they are treated as outcasts and viewed as oddities by others. Ruby also loves to sing and listen to music, activities she can’t share with her family. This is no coming-of-age tale, as Ruby has long been wise beyond her years. It is, however, a story of a young person finding their true self and breaking from the ties that bind to the only life she’s known.

Emilia Jones (HIGH-RISE, 2015) stars as Ruby, and we first see her slinging fish on the boat with her father Frank (Troy Kutsor) and brother Leo (newcomer Daniel Durant). Ruby belts out songs while the two men handle their duties, unaware of the lovely melodies filling the air. At home, the dinner table conversation is handled through ASL (American Sign Language) with mom/wife Jackie (Oscar winner Marlee Matlin, CHILDREN OF A LESSER GOD, 1986) leading the way.

At school, Ruby is an outcast due to her clothes, the lingering aroma of fish, and her “weird” family. With a silent crush on Miles (Ferdio Walsh-Peelo from the excellent SING STREET, 2016), Ruby signs up for choir, but freezes during the audition. The choir director, Bernardo (roll the r’s) Villalobos, is played energetically and colorfully by Eugenio Derbez (OVERBOARD, 2018), and he offers encouragement to Ruby – mostly because she has a beautiful singing voice. Bernardo explains how her singing voice offers a path to college, something she’s never before considered due to family responsibilities.

There is a lot going on in this film from writer-director Sian Heder (TALLULAH, 2016). It’s obviously adapted from the 2014 French film LA FAMILLE BELIER, and plays as a mainstream crowd-pleaser, when it just as easily could have been a deep cut indie film. Ms. Heder’s approach means a larger viewing audience, though there are elements we wish had been further explored. The teen romance never really clicks, and there are hints that Bernardo’s story holds more levels than we get. However, the Rossi family dynamics are quite something to behold. Father Frank wears his emotions on his sleeve. Sometimes those emotions are angry and bitter, while other times quite comical or even horny (for his wife). Brother Leo wants desperately to lead the family business towards prosperity. He has ideas for growth, but is frustrated being dependent on Ruby as a conduit to the community.

Mother Jackie and Ruby have a typical mother-teenage daughter relationship. The mother wants status quo where the daughter remains an integral part of the family, while the daughter wants her mom to acknowledge the dreams for a different life – one that capitalizes on her talents. When Jackie questions her daughter on her singing, she does so in the most hurtful way possible (brilliant writing). And yet, when mom recounts Ruby’s birth, the love is as clear as the disconnect … and likely to draw a tear or two. Filmmaker Hader serves up numerous strong scenes, but two really stood out for this viewer. First, when Ruby is singing on stage, we “hear” what the parents hear, and their pride is obvious. The second occurs when dad asks Ruby to sing for him as they are perched on the backend of the car. It’s phenomenal acting by Kutsor, and further clarifies a lifelong father-daughter bond … and the first time he fully comprehends her talent. All four leads give strong performances, and it’s a star-making performance from Ms. Jones (think a young Saoirse Ronan).

Apple paid a record-breaking $25 million for the film’s rights at Sundance, and the mainstream appeal of this family drama sprinkled with comedy and life messages is indisputable. So while my preference would have been more focus on the ‘outsider’ aspect of the Rossi family in the community, it’s easy to see why this choice was made. It’s an entertaining film that will likely land on many year-end “Best” lists. Maybe even mine.

Streaming on AppleTV+ on August 13, 2021

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NAKED SINGULARITY (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. After co-writing the screenplay (adapted from the Stephen King book) for the box office horror hit IT (2017), Chase Palmer gets his first opportunity to direct a feature film. He also co-wrote this screenplay with David Matthews, as the two have adapted the 2008 novel “A Naked Singularity” by Sergio De La Pava. Think of it as a meaning-of-life science fiction comedy drama heist film that critiques the justice system. You know what they say about trying to be all things to all people. But it does get bonus points for trying hard!

John Boyega (Finn in the STAR WARS movies) stars as Casi, a Public Defender who is exasperated with the NYC criminal court system. Casi is overworked and underpaid, and his heart of gold and frumpy suit matter little in his courtroom clashes with Judge Cymbeline (Linda Lavin, “Alice”), who thrives on antagonizing and baiting the young attorney. Casi’s early idealism has faded and now he’s just fed up, looking for a way out. The talented Olivia Cooke (SOUND OF METAL, 2020) co-stars as Lea, a bored clerk at a city impound lot. Lea is a previous client of Casi’s and they cross paths again when his lawyer friend Dane (Bill Skarsgard, Pennywise in IT) passes along a file for her latest case.

There are basically three stories going on here: First, Casi is (unsuccessfully) fighting the bias in the halls of justice. Second, there is a weird glitch in the matrix, referred to as a “ripple” by Casi’s stoner friend Angus (Tim Blake Nelson), who works out physics problems on the wall of his apartment. And third, there is a botched drug deal featuring creepy hoodlum Craig (Ed Skrein, DEADPOOL, 2016), who has dragged Lea right into his web of crime. Of course, Lea already had a criminal record, and she’s frustrated that the system penalizes her for the past … leaving her with lousy options for employment. She’s too is looking for a way out.

As the film begins, director Palmer includes a quote from Candide: “If this is the best possible world, what then are the others?” This goes directly to the dreamers – those who imagine escaping their situation, and those who imagine making it better. Act 3 becomes a heist film, but we miss out on the fun part, as the planning just seems to happen. When the big day arrives, some things go right, and some things go wrong. Mostly, it’s an unrealistic chain of events that involves every character listed above, plus The Golem (Kyle Mooney) as the leader of the drug-dealing Hasidic Jews, a couple of NYC Detectives, and a Mexican cartel boss, who raises eyebrows outbidding Craig for the Navigator where the drugs are stashed. It seems fairly likely that Lincoln contributed to the film’s production since “Navigator” is mentioned numerous times.

Director Palmer utilizes a countdown to the big event … assuming the “ripple” wouldn’t be considered a bigger event … and that provides the odd pacing for the film. Also odd is the inclusion of a Popeye Doyle reference, when it’s quite unlikely that these characters would be familiar with THE FRENCH CONNECTION. Additionally, it’s the unnatural dialogue and the wedged-in social commentary that come across as misplaced. Comparing being poor to slavery in a five second scene makes it appear the goal was to fit in as many social issues as possible within a 90 minute run time. Sometimes weird is interesting. Sometimes it’s just weird. Sometimes it’s just kind of meh.

Screen Media will release NAKED SINGULARITY in select theaters on August 6th as well as opening wide and on demand August 13th, 2021

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TWIST (2021)

July 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This is billed as “a modern take on the classic tale of Oliver Twist”. The problem with that is this feels neither modern, nor in line with the renowned Charles Dickins novel. Mostly it feels like a failed attempt at copying Guy Ritchie’s SNATCH, or the KINGSMAN movies, or even the NOW YOU SEE ME movies. Directed by Martin Owen with a script by John Wrathall, Sally Collett and six other credited contributing writers (in addition to the inspiration from Dickens), this film simply lacks the entertainment value necessary for any type of positive recommendation. So I won’t be writing much here, only addressing what we see on screen.

Raff Law (Jude Law’s son) nabbed his first starring role as Twist, a street artist living on his own. One day he stumbles into Dodge (Rita Ora), Batesy (Franz Drameh), and Red (Sophie Simnett) who introduce him to Fagin (two-time Oscar winner Michael Caine), who presides over this group of criminal misfits. The offer of free clothes, decent housing, a team to work with, and a possible romance, is enough to entice Twist out of his rooftop tent.

This is really a simple art heist movie with multiple scenes of parkour included in place of real danger or creative thrills. David Walliams plays the target, and as a bonus, ripping him off would settle an old score for Fagin, and the over-the-top psychopath Sikes (Lena Headey). Somehow out of step in a movie with no real step is a recurring gag featuring a traffic cop played by Leigh Warden. It’s unclear if this was held over from an early slapstick version of the film, or if it was intended to portray Twist as an outlaw.

Noel Clark maintains his dignity as Detective Brownlow, and Ms. Headey attempts to liven things up, but mostly the characters are forgettable due to an all too simple story and a lack of development. The annoying music doesn’t help, and neither does the lack of any insightful social commentary (a Dickens specialty). It seems obvious the filmmakers were trying to create something edgy and modern, and go so far as to open with a jab at Carol Reed’s 1968 musical OLIVER!, by having narrator Twist state there will be ‘No singing. No dancing. And no happy ending.’ If a filmmaker risks re-making or re-imagining a classic story, they must be ready for the comparisons. This one falls well short of that 1968 version, as well as David Lean’s 1948 OLIVER TWIST, with Alec Guinness as Fagin.

In theaters and On Demand starting July 30, 2021

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FIRST DATE (2021)

July 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. This is the first feature film for co-writers and co-directors Manuel Crosby and Darren Knapp. Despite mixed reactions from its Sundance Film Festival premiere, it’s safe to say that this madcap action-comedy-romance-crime drama provides enough to set the stage for additional projects from the filmmakers. It likely works best as midnight fare, but the film juggles multiple genres and tonal shifts well enough that most will find it at least watchable, if not quite entertaining.

Tyson Brown (his first feature film) stars as Mike, a meek teenager too shy to ask his kickboxing neighbor Kelsey (Shelby Duclos, also her first feature film) on a date. When Mike’s boisterous good friend Brett (Josh Fesler) forces his hand, Mike is surprised when Kelsey accepts … setting off a wild chain of events and comedy of errors featuring a whole host of looney characters. But first, Mike has to find a car to drive, or there will be no picking up Kelsey at 7pm.

Mike buys a $300 1965 Chrysler from a shady dude named Dennis (Scott Noble). Now, Dennis is a natural scammer, but there is another reason Mike’s newly purchased clunker is attracting the attention of drug dealers and corrupt cops. Mike and Kelsey’s first date gets delayed a bit due to all the chaos, and Kelsey briefly ends up in the front seat of the Porsche belonging to local stud Chet (Brandon Kraus). Two local cops played by Nicole Berry and Samuel Adamola have multiple run-ins with Mike, each with terrific comic flair courtesy of Ms. Berry. Walking the line between comedy and danger is the crime gang who spend less time chasing Mike’s car and more time on their book club – “Of Mice and Men” generating quite the debate. It’s like a bumbling character convention came to town.

Filmmakers Crosby and Knapp deliver a frenzied opening scene to try and prepare us for what’s coming. There are a few scenes that drag a bit, but for the most part, the pacing is pretty solid and the mixture of laughs and danger is well managed. Calling 8-tracks the vinyl of car radio is pure genius, and once things go awry, it’s no-holds-barred. The big shootout reminds of FREE FIRE (2016), while the zaniness recalls such films as ADVENTURES IN BABYSITTING (1987), AFTER HOURS (1985), and TRUE ROMANCE (1993).

The supporting cast includes Jesse Janzen, Ryan Quinn Adams, Jake Howard, and Samantha Laurenti, and Nicole Berry is quite the scene stealer as Police Sgt Davis. Tyson Brown is spot on as the deadpan Mike whose only talents seem to be misplacing his phone and staying alive, while Shelby Duclos leaves us wishing her Kelsey had significantly more screen time. We can debate whether it’s best to get caught by drug dealers or corrupt cops, and the comedy of errors is sometimes less funny and more dangerous, but that pinch of teen romance keeps the film grounded and personal.

In theaters and On Demand beginning July 2, 2021

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@ZOLA

July 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As far as I can tell, this is the first feature film based on an actual Twitter thread. Writer-director Janicza Bravo (LEMON, 2017) works with co-writers Jeremy O Harris and the real life Zola, A’Ziah King to mold the viral 148 Tweets (#TheStory) from 2015 into a somewhat coherent film that may just provide a bit more insight into the social media world than we’d prefer in one sitting. A24 movie studio proves yet again their original, creative, and unique films are unapologetically outside the industry norm … and they are generating quite a loyal following because of it.

Taylour Paige (Dussy Mae in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020) stars as Zola, a waitress with perfect certain “features” according to one of her customers. Zola and Stefani (played by Riley Keough, Elvis’ granddaughter who continues to build a strong and diverse resume, including a standout performance in AMERICAN HONEY, 2016), have an instant connection, and the next day they are off on a road trip to Florida to make big bucks dancing at exotic clubs. Accompanying them are X (Colman Domingo, Cutler in MA RAINEY’S BLACK BOTTOM, 2020), and Derrek (Nicolas Braun, “Succession”), Stefani’s doofus boyfriend.

Be forewarned: this is not the zany female buddy comedy the trailer teases. It’s a dark, twisted comedy laced with dangerous situations and violence. While Zola was led to believe this was a dancing trip for real cash, it turns out X is really Stefani’s pimp, and though Zola stands firm in not taking the sex for cash route, she’s prevented from leaving by a forceful X, no longer the charmer she first encountered. Zola’s wise-to-the-world ways allows her to assist Stefani in upping her cash flow, but things go wrong when Derrek socializes outside the group.

After the infamous Twitter thread, “Rolling Stone” writer David Kushner published an article entitled, “Zola Tells All: The Real Story Behind the Greatest Stripper Saga ever Tweeted”. This is an alternate universe to many of us, though it’s pulled from the “pages” of today’s online culture. Much of the dialogue is in Twitter-speak, and the new Tweet ding is used to emphasize certain spoken lines (think rim shots). Director Bravo instills the “B-word” at the same pace that Tarantino uses the F-word, and it should be noted that both actresses are terrific. Ms. Keough will likely make you laugh, while simultaneously making you uncomfortable. It’s a case study in cultural appropriation – especially her dialect, which is purposefully offensive. We aren’t accustomed to seeing this type of humor these days, but Keough is to be commended for going all in. Ms. Paige’s performance is much different, but no less impactful as her Zola tries to make the best of a horrible situation.

This is a wild story with characters I can only hope you don’t recognize from your own life. It begs the question, what kind of relationships arise from social media? We go a bit deeper on Zola, but really we don’t know much about these people. They are as deep as social media allows, while also serving up a warning to those who might somehow believe internet interactions are anonymous and harmless.

Now showing in theaters nationwide.

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THE MAN IN THE HAT (2021)

May 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Who is the woman in the picture? What did the five men toss in the river? Why are those men chasing the man in the hat? Why is that other man wet? If the man in the hat is running from the five men, why does he keep running into the same people? What are those two measuring now? Why doesn’t anyone (ok, almost no one) speak? Why are there so many questions, and why, by the end, do we not care that most go unanswered?

John-Paul Davidson, known mostly as a travel documentarian, and Stephen Warbeck, an Oscar-winning composer, have teamed up as co-directors and co-writers to deliver an unusual and whimsical road trip movie that tips a cap to the silent comedy films of yesteryear. Adding to the unusual elements is Ciaran Hinds starring as the titular man in the hat. Mr. Hinds is a long-time terrific actor, but not one we think of for jocular comedies requiring exaggerated facial expressions, physical pratfalls, and squeezing into a tiny Fiat for a back roads drive through rural France.

As the film opens, the man in the hat spends the day sharing a table with the woman’s photo at a charming riverside café. That evening, while still seated at the table, he witnesses 5 grown men pile out of a clown car Citroen and dump what appears to be a body into the river. The man escapes with the framed photo and one of the film’s recurring gags is the close calls he has with the five men as they drive through the countryside. The film plays a bit like Homer’s Odyssey in that the only real story occurs as the man interacts with various folks he meets along the way. The Damp Man is played by the always interesting Stephen Dillane, and a lovely woman on a bicycle who exchanges flirtations with hat man is played by Sasha Hails.

Among the strange and wacky paths that cross are a couple of onion-chomping geezers who fix his car, a cluster of singing female mechanics, a solo French biker, and a pair of city workers with a measuring tape and eyes for each other. Music plays a huge role here, which is not surprising given the presence of Mr. Warbeck. Not only does the accompanying music feature an unusual and varied blend of music types, but we also see and hear many local musicians, including Mathilda Homer. And for the finale, music again plays a role, bringing things full circle.

Coming up with a comparison movie is not easy, though one description could be director Michael Winterbottom’s “The Trip” franchise … if Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon were not allowed to speak! This isn’t a laugh out loud type of comedy, rather it’s mostly just pleasant and odd. For a drive through rural France or a chance to watch Ciaran Hinds chase his shoe down a drain, this bizarre little ditty from Davidson and Warbeck will work just fine.

In theaters and on demand on May 14, 2021

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LIMBO (2021)

April 29, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Immigration is an important and hot topic these days, and it should be noted that most countries have challenges with people either trying to get in or trying to get out … and for some, it’s both. Writer-director Ben Sharrock offers a unique and creative look at refugees stuck on a nameless remote Scottish island, awaiting word on their UK asylum request.

Omar (Amir El-Masry, Tom Clancy’s “Jack Ryan” TV series) has escaped the war in Syria, and we learn much about him from listening in on calls to his mother from the only phone booth on the island. An acclaimed musician in Damascus, Omar lugs around his grandfather’s oud (“it’s like a guitar”). As proof of his homesickness, the bulky case never leaves his side, nor does he pull the instrument out to play – music is meant for joyous occasions. Omar shares a small house with three other refugees: Farhad (Vikash Bhai) from Afghanistan, Abedi (Kwabena Ansah) from Ghana, and Wasef (Ola Orebiyi) from Nigeria, with the latter two posing as brothers in hopes of improving their odds for asylum.

Omar is a sullen stone-face who absorbs the racist taunts from young locals (they ask if he makes bombs), and stands in contrast to the more outgoing and optimistic (and darn funny) Farhad. Not only does he idolize Freddie Mercury for “teaching” him English, Farhad, with his ever-present cigarette, also captures a chicken and keeps it as a pet. These refugees regularly attend a class entitled “Cultural Awareness 101”, meant to acclimate those from varying backgrounds to the local customs and culture. These segments are mined beautifully for comedic effect, while also giving us insight into all those involved. There are also references to Chet Baker, Donnie Osmond, and the TV series, “Friends”.

This is a terrific film, as well as an odd one. Many of the shots from cinematographer Nick Cooke are static and sparse in style, and though focused on the individuals, the camera also captures much of the isolation of the island. These visuals are stunning in both their simplicity and relevance. It’s a dramedy unafraid to be absurd in a moment, while also being enlightening. At times it has the feel of Wes Anderson without the color palette. We aren’t sure what is worse, the weather or the local postal service. Brutal cold envelops the newcomers, while the delivery route of a postal van (and the reactions of the refugees) is a comedic highlight. Even the local market, with its limited spice selection and directions for urination, draws laughter from us.

Despite the comedy, we never lose sight of these folks being stuck in purgatory. Maybe it’s not true camaraderie, but they seem to take some comfort in numbers as they wait. Omar is carrying guilt and feelings of inadequacy as he chose to leave while his older brother Nabil (Kais Nashif) remained in Syria to fight in the war. There is a wonderful “scene” that allows Omar to make peace with their contrasting decisions, and it leads him back to playing music. After all, “a musician who doesn’t play is dead”. The titular term of Limbo often means stuck, and there is also a game of persistence that uses that name, and both definitions work here. We are reminded that regardless of the various cultures, those in the immigration system have their own personal stories and burdens.

Opens in theaters on April 30, 2021

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