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 KILLING OF KENNETH CHAMBERLAIN (2020)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. No one denies law enforcement officers have a tough and demanding and risky job. However, with cell phones putting video cameras in the hands of just about everyone, any poor decision by cops … and certainly any tragic one… is likely to get recorded and then plastered across all media. Writer-director David Midell delivers a dramatized reenactment of a tragic and inexplicable interaction between one man and a team of frustrated cops whose actions proved deadly.

On November 19, 2011, former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain Sr was asleep in his White Plains, NY apartment. He rolled over and accidentally enacted his LifeAid alert pendant. Since he slept without his hearing aids, Kenneth didn’t hear Candace, the LifeAid operator, try to reach him. Following protocol, Candace ordered a welfare check. 90 minutes later, Kenneth lay dead – killed by police after they broke down his front door. The tension during that 90 minutes is nearly unbearable.

Frankie Faison (“Banshee”) gives an excellent and gut-wrenching performance as Chamberlain. We ‘feel’ everything he says. As he talks to the cops through the door, we learn he has a heart condition, as well as a mental health issue (likely bi-polar). His constant pleas of “leave me alone”, “I’m fine”, the alarm “was an accident”, and “you’re not coming in” all heighten the sense of impending doom he feels. We feel it too. His experience tells him to expect something to go wrong anytime the police are involved.

The three cops banging on his door are Sergeant Parks (Steve O’Connell), Officer Jackson (Ben Martin), and Officer Rossi (Enrique Natale). Jackson is the racist, hot-headed gum-smacking cop (blond of course) who has judged Chamberlain simply by the demographics of the run-down complex he lives in. Rossi is the empathetic rookie cop who has a feel for the pressure Chamberlain is under, and his attempts at preaching patience are shot down by the more experienced cops. Parks has little time for Rossi’s cuddly approach or Jackson’s on-edge nature, but he’s not appreciative of Chamberlain’s refusal to cooperate, and certainly can’t relate to his distrust of the badge.

Midell’s film has been well received at film festivals the past couple of years, and his ‘real time’ approach coupled with the performances and the claustrophobic setting (it all takes place in Chamberlain’s apartment and the stairwell outside his door) work to give us a feel for the emotions and nervous energy of the situation. Throughout the ordeal, Chamberlain communicates with Candace at LifeAid and his own family on his cell. The opening quote tells us that depending on who you are, the sight of a police officer could mean “safety” or “terror”. This film relays the latter, and the actual audio and photos over the closing credits prove this horror film was unbearably true. “This is my home” was not enough for Kenneth Chamberlain. One small quibble: Chamberlain’s hearing aids come and go through the film.

In select theaters and VOD on 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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LAST NIGHT IN ROZZIE (2021)

September 16, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Fulfilling the dying wish of a long-ago childhood friend is the basis of this story from screenwriter Ryan McDonough and director Sean Gannet. It’s the feature film version of their own 2017 short film with the same title.

Jeremy Sisto (WAITRESS, 2007) stars as Joey Donovan, a crude man just waiting to die in his hospital bed. Out of the blue, he calls his childhood buddy Ronnie Russo (Neil Brown Jr, “SEAL Team”). The two haven’t spoken for 25 years, and Ronnie is now an attorney in New York City. He’s the one who “got out”, while Joey remained in the Roslindale area of Boston, a working class neighborhood. It’s an awkward reunion for the two men whose last connection was their Little League team. Joey asks for Ronnie’s help in fulfilling his final wish.

We soon learn that Joey is not the most straightforward and truthful of individuals. In fact, he’s downright deceitful at times, and director Gannet includes flashbacks to give us some background on why these two turned out the way they did, and what event from so many years ago ties them together. Joey’s request forces Ronnie to re-connect with his childhood crush Pattie (Nicky Whelan, HALL PASS, 2011). And of course there’s more complexity to the situation than Joey discloses.

The film has been well received at film festivals, but I can’t help but think that more attention to the background of the three main characters could have added a bit more heft. Supporting actors include Kevin Chapman as Joey’s father, Greyson Cage and Ryan Canale as young Ronnie and Joey, and James DeFilippi as Patti’s son, JJ. The film touches on a few interesting topics – childhood friends, split second decisions, regrets and final wishes, as well as the reasons behind lies.

In select theaters and on VOD beginning September 17, 2021

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TOGETHER (2021)

August 26, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. As expected, we are beginning to see an influx of “pandemic” movies and TV shows. What wasn’t expected is the unique and creative approach in this one from Co-directors Stephen Daldry (THE HOURS, 2002) and Justin Martin. The script is from Dennis Kelly and the writing, directing, and acting all work together seamlessly to create quite an unusual viewing experience.

The weight of the movie rests on the outstanding performances from James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan (GAME NIGHT, 2018). They don’t simply break the fourth wall, they outright obliterate it. These two characters, whose names we never learn, talk directly to us viewers at least as often as they do to each other. The story begins in March 2020 on the first day of COVID quarantine, and carries through for a full year. As we open, the relationship has admittedly run its course, though as the days go by, circumstances can change things. The two are joined in the house by 10 year old son Artie (Samuel Logan), who spends an inordinate amount of time hovering in the background, hearing the two adults say things he shouldn’t hear. They appear to devote very little time to the boy’s stress … although their own feelings are front and center.

It’s a bit off-putting at first as we adjust to the couple speaking directly to us. On top of that, the sharing of personal information and the overlapping dialogue of their caustic exchanges meant to hurt, make this feel a bit like we are intruding. But the conversations are so relatable since we’ve all experienced the uncertainty and frustration wrought by the pandemic. In a short amount of time, we understand these two. He shares the story of his early confrontation with a grocery clerk over his son’s food choices, while she explains the guilt associated with an ailing elderly mother during a lockdown. Their “mushroom” story is certainly one for the ages, and again, provides much insight into these two people of distinctly opposite political spectrums.

Daldry and Martin filmed this in just 10 days, and with the entire piece taking place on the lower level of the couple’s flat, the film has a definite stage feel – accentuated by the long takes and aura of live performances. The dialogue stands in for action, and Ms. Horgan’s explanation of the reality of “exponential growth” in regards to COVID is one of the most stunning math classes you’ll attend. This is a case study of personalities and the relationship effects of a pandemic, and it is infused with enough dark comedy to keep it entertaining, rather than depressing. Some similarities exist to the SXSW film THE END OF US, though this one is quite a different viewing experience.

Bleeker Street is releasing TOGETHER in theaters on 8/27/21 and digitally on 9/14/21

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FLAG DAY (2021)

August 19, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Life is full of choices, however sometimes destiny takes charge and there’s little we can do about it. One’s parents are the most obvious and crucial example. We don’t choose our parents and yet their impact on our lives is unavoidable. Jennifer Vogel’s book, “Flim-Flam Man: The True Story of My Father’s Counterfeit Life”, has been adapted for the screen by the FORD V FERRARI screenwriting brothers, Jez Butterworth and JohnHenry Butterworth. The film is directed by two-time Oscar winner Sean Penn, who also co-stars.

Told through the eyes of Jennifer (played here by Sean Penn’s daughter Dylan Penn, a lookalike of her mother Robin Wright), this is the “based on a true story” of John Vogel, but also the story of Jennifer, who managed to overcome challenges that stemmed from her far-from-ideal childhood. Jennifer’s mother Patty (Katheryn Winnick, “Vikings”) is an alcoholic and has a tumultuous marriage to John, a con man who constantly spews bombast and fabrications (aka lies) as he tries to scam the system and impress his family with his big plans (that go nowhere).

Since the film opens with a law enforcement standoff, and with Jennifer being interviewed by a Federal Marshal (Oscar winner Regina King), we know how John’s saga concludes, and most of the movie is spent in Jennifer’s memories to paint the picture of her dad and her life. Some of these are “flashes” of moments, while others are extended segments where we really get a feel for the father that cluttered a daughter’s mind and life. It’s tough to watch 105 minutes of a guy with little redeeming value.

This is not the place to detail what we see, but it’s at times disturbing to see the memories of a father who doesn’t so much slip in and out of the lives of Jennifer, younger brother Nick (played by Sean’s son Hopper Jack Penn), and mom Patty, as he appears and vanishes in proverbial explosions akin to the Wicked Witch of the West. Given that her mom is equally inept at parenting, high school Jennifer seems destined to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Covering a period from 1975 through 1992, we see Jennifer as a young kid, and then Ms. Penn takes over the role in high school. She is also our narrator, some of which is overwrought for a film that mostly strives to stay grounded in family dynamics, as Jennifer works to overcome. In addition to the previously mentioned appearance by Ms. King, there are also brief yet effective turns by Josh Brolin (as John’s brother Uncle Beck), Dale Dickey (as John’s crusty mother), Norbert Leo Butz (as Patty’s sleazy boyfriend), and Eddie Marsan (near the film’s end).

In addition to overuse of voiceover, director Penn includes a few too many song/musical interludes. Some of these songs are excellent (Cat Power, Eddie Vedder, Glen Hansard), but they feel a bit heavy-handed and forced into the film. In fact, melodrama is chosen over nuance on multiple occasions, but when the film is good, it’s very good. The best scenes are between father and daughter, Sean and Dylan, the latter of which shows flashes of incredible depth. We look forward to more of her work. As for Sean, can you name another actor whose natural look better exemplifies a guy who has had the snot kicked out of him by life (even if he’s made his own bed)? He portrays John Vogel as a con man who believes achieving the American Dream is something he’s owed, not something to earn. His love of Chopin is not enough to excuse his horrific parenting, scamming, or felonious behavior. There are various forms of freedom, and Jennifer must discover freedom from someone who has prevented you from being her true self.

Opens in select theaters on August 20, 2021

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THE MAGNIFICENT MEYERSONS (2021)

August 19, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. It might have been quite enjoyable had we just continued to eavesdrop on Kate Mulgrew and Barbara Barrie as they strolled through the park talking about life – past, present, and future. Their segment is easily the highlight of the film, and unfortunately, it’s difficult to put a positive spin on any other piece of this project from writer-director Evan Oppenheimer. Okay, some of the drone shots of New York City are lovely, however, it’s important to know when enough is enough.

The film opens by introducing the titular Meyersons. Ian Kahn plays eldest son Roland, a grumpy, uptight dude who seems to care only about 3 things: his young daughter, his success in business, and his strength in holding the family together during tough times. Relative newcomer Jackie Burns plays eldest daughter Daphne, who is married to nice guy Alan (Greg Keller), and she’s the type who holds grudges against him for what she dreamt, and keeps secrets that shouldn’t be kept. Shoshannah Stern plays Susie, the deaf daughter with an unscrupulous business plan and a luminescent also-deaf girlfriend Tammy (Lauren Ridloff, “The Walking Dead”). Youngest son Daniel (Daniel Eric Gold, a Josh Groban lookalike) is a Rabbi-in-training, while questioning all aspects of religion.

Most of the Meyersons are not very adept at being decent human beings. Their mother is played by the aforementioned Ms. Mulgrew (“Orange is the New Black”, Star Trek: Voyager”), and she’s a pediatric Oncologist, who questions her career choice since she has to regularly deliver such horrific news. Ms. Barrie plays her mother Celeste, who seems to be the only one with any real perspective on life or the family. Also appearing is terrific character actor Richard Kind as father Morty Meyerson, who is seen mostly through flashbacks prior to abandoning his family some twenty years prior.

It’s quite possible this would work better as a stage play, but that would mean the loss of the multiple street shots of the city, which are far more interesting than most of the conversations we are forced to hear. If a filmmaker chooses to fill the screen with a bunch of whiny New Yorkers, the whining should at least be interesting and/or entertaining. And while it’s understandable for a director to want to give his own child some screen time, all objectivity cannot be surrendered. This is quite simply a painful and laborious film to sit through. I don’t say that easily or often, as I inevitably find something or someone to latch onto in the 250+ movies I watch each year. This time I failed.

Limited theatrical release in NYC on August 20, and Los Angeles August 27

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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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CRIME STORY (2021)

August 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Thanks to (or maybe because of) Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and Liam Neeson, we are rarely without a senior citizen action film. However, it’s a bit surprising for most of us to see Oscar winner Richard Dreyfuss (THE GOODBYE GIRL, 1977) load up his gun and take to the streets for revenge. Writer-director Adam Lipsius scored a double Oscar coup by also casting Mira Sorvino (MIGHTY APHRODITE, 1995) as Dreyfuss’ detective-daughter.

“Based on actual events”, Mr. Lipsius bookends the film with the elderly Ben Myers (Dreyfuss) riding in the back of a limousine. He’s barely coherent, but in the opening we can make out, “If I wake up, I’ll choose different.” We then flashback 12 hours to re-live what is likely Ben Myers’ worst day ever. He’s been diagnosed with terminal cancer, and though he’s a former mobster, he says he went “legit” 12 years ago, and runs a local bar with his loyal-to-a-fault sidekick Tommy (the always interesting Pruitt Taylor Vince). Ben’s estranged daughter (Sorvino) hits him up for money she says is for the daughter and grandkids that Ben has never acknowledged. Next thing we know, Ben’s house has been robbed of all his cash (a quite substantial amount) and trashed by 3 men who take advantage of Ben’s beloved dementia-stricken wife Nan (Megan McFarland).

This kicks off Ben’s mission of revenge. Gun by Glock, body by Devito. His daughter is concerned he’s taking this on by himself, and there is the added complication of her working for a politician that Ben once helped out of what would have been a career-ending jam. In fact, there are so many sub-plots, sub-sub-plots and characters who come and go, that much of this makes little sense. It works best when focusing on an aging (former) mobster trying to even the score, and gets a bit shaky when it reverts to dysfunctional family stuff. I believe there are five crying scenes, which is entirely too many for any movie not named SOPHIE’S CHOICE.

For those of us who recall Dreyfuss from his early TV days, a brief appearance in THE GRADUATE (1967), and of course in AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) and JAWS (1975), there is some enjoyment to be had in watching ‘Mr. Holland’ take a violent approach to revenge … though he’s certainly no AARP reincarnation of John Wick. Overall, it’s a pretty generic take on geriatric anger, with bonus points for a spot on description of what it feels like when one’s spouse is ravaged by dementia.

Arrives August 13, 2021 in select theaters, On Demand, and on Digital

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NINE DAYS (2021)

August 5, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. The meaning of Life is an ambitious topic to tackle for any filmmaker, but certainly as a first feature film. Japanese-Brazilian writer-director Edson Oda not only doesn’t shy away from existential questions, he has found a creative way of exploring these, leaving us with plenty to discuss after viewing. His approach is often bleak and slow-moving, yet his film excels in pushing us to examine our own attitude and appreciation for the gift of life.

Winston Duke (US, 2019) stars as Will, a kind of guardian angel charged with selecting the replacement souls after deaths occur on his watch. Will has a wall of old-style tube TVs, each with its own VCR wired up. He spends his time watching folks go about their lives. He takes notes and maintains files. See, those he watches are the ones Will previously selected for life. He picks his team, but he no longer plays the game (although he was once alive). His job now is to tweak humanity in the right direction by selecting “good” souls who are tough enough to handle life – not overly sensitive types, and certainly not those too self-centered.

There is no denying Oda’s film is high-concept, and some may outright dismiss his premise. What if pre-life was a competition to determine worthiness?  Will sets up nine days of interviews for the next round of souls. Of course, some won’t last the full nine days, but the process involves a series of quizzes as the candidates watch the wall of TVs and offer up their answers to Will’s questions. Well, all but one, that is. Emma (Zazie Beetz, JOKER, 2019) is a free-spirited soul who sees Will for what he is and what he was. She answers his questions with her own questions, or simply states that she can’t answer. He is intrigued and frustrated by her willingness to play this out in her own way.

Tony Hale (“Veep”) and Bill Skarsgard (IT, 2017) are a couple of the other candidates, and each has their moments to shine. Benedict Wong (DOCTOR STRANGE, 2015) plays Kyo, Will’s co-worker and the one who assists him with the interview process. Kyo also strives to make sure Will maintains some humanity, despite a recent event that shook him to his core, and now has Will second-guessing himself. As Emma slowly gets Will to open up about his ‘alive’ time, we also see how Will recreates a special moment for the candidates as they are dismissed … providing them with a taste of life.

A ‘taste of life’ is fitting because the point Oda is trying to make is that the best parts of life are emotions and sensations – the intangibles that bring joy, fear, and sadness. It’s not all cupcakes and unicorns, and being so tough to block out the senses is not the best way of living. Without him realizing, Emma helps Will re-connect with his inner-being of when he was alive. His re-awakening is a highlight.

The candidates are informed that, if chosen, their memories will be wiped clean, yet “you’ll still be you”. This conforms to the theory that much of who we are is inherent at birth. Again, some may disagree. Oda’s film will inspire thought and debate. If each of us aced our pre-life interviews, let’s make the most of it!  This is a terrific film with a unique look and style, and a standout performance from Winston Duke. We can only hope enough folks take the time to watch and think about the message.

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