THE OUTPOST (2020)

July 2, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Director Rod Lurie’s latest is not only based on a remarkable true story, it uses the real American soldier’s names (and some real soldiers) and depicts the valiant efforts of those who were part of the Battle of Kamdesh in Afghanistan on October 3, 2009. Mr. Lurie (THE CONTENDER, 2000) is a West Point graduate and Army veteran, and the film is based on the book by CNN correspondent Jake Tapper, with a screenplay from Eric Johnson and Paul Tamasy.

We first meet the new arrivals on their helicopter transport under the cover of darkness. They have been assigned to this combat outpost known as “Camp Custer.” The nickname comes from the assumption that everyone there is going to die. Why is that? Well for some reason, this military outpost is positioned so as to be surrounded by the foothills of a mountain range – creating a natural shooting gallery of which the soldiers are sitting ducks. It’s one of the most vulnerable military outposts ever created, and with it comes so many Taliban attacks that the soldiers can’t even take seriously their local scout’s constant warnings, “The Taliban are coming!”

There are 53 soldiers assigned to the camp, and the aura of impending doom hovers non-stop. To compensate, joking around and playing sports are utilized to pass the time between attacks. The men even debate whether calling home is a good thing or not. One of the bunk beds has “It doesn’t get better” carved into the frame – that’s a taste of the kind of inspiration floating around. “Thank you for your service” is pure parody amongst these soldiers, and it’s easy to understand, given the tension they must feel – we are nervous merely watching from the safety of an armchair.

The performances are solid and you’ll recognize a few. Orlando Bloom is Lieutenant Keating, Scott Eastwood is Sergeant Cline Romesha, and Caleb Landry Jones is a standout as Carter, the ex-Marine outcast who is more complex than initial impressions lead us to believe. On an unusual note, the list of “relateds” is quite impressive: Eastwood is of course the son of Clint, Milo Gibson is the son of Mel, James Jagger is the son of Mick, Will Attenborough is the grandson of Sir Richard Attenborough, and Scott Alda Coffey is the grandson of Alan Alda.

Director Lurie divides the film into chapters associated with officers, but the segment that most every viewer will find riveting is the near-40 minute attack on the outpost by hundreds of Taliban gunmen. It’s relentless battle action at a level rarely seen in movies, and we feel like we are in the middle of it. This onslaught feels like hopelessness, followed by desperation, followed by survival mode. Never does it feel like an outright victory, but more a relief for those who survive. Cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore makes this a visceral experience – one we won’t forget.

Very little politics come into play here. Instead this is about the men in the line of fire – their courage – and their desperate attempts to live and hold the outpost. All of which is followed by a haunting breakdown that stuns. This battle resulted in 8 dead and 27 injured American soldiers, followed by many medals, including two Medal of Honors. The closing credits honor those killed in action, and we see photos of the actual soldiers next to the actor who played them.

On Demand and Digital Platforms July 3, 2020

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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.

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IRRESISTIBLE (2020)

June 25, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Releasing on Digital/VOD on June 26, 2020

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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

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TAINTED (2020)

June 18, 2020

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

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

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

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

watch the trailer:


EXIT PLAN (2020)

June 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

Available on VOD June 12, 2020

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SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER (2020)

June 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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MR. TOPAZE (1961) re-release

June 11, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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HERE AWHILE (2020)

June 8, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Political opinions don’t appear in my reviews very often, but I can’t help wonder if many of those opposing ‘Death with Dignity’ might feel differently if they found themselves in Anna’s situation. The film opens with her in a doctor’s office obviously receiving the most dreaded of news. The camera remains on her face. There is no dialogue, only her last moment gasp before we move to the opening credits.

Anna Camp (“True Blood”) stars as Anna, diagnosed with terminal cancer. She has explored every possible treatment, including those in the experimental stage. Since none are an option for her, she has decided to move back to Oregon, where death with dignity is an option. She shows up unannounced on the front porch of her younger brother Michael’s (Steven Strait) house. The two haven’t seen each other in many years – not since their father kicked her out for being a lesbian. The father is now deceased and his ashes are in a file box in Michael’s spare room.

The once close siblings re-connect quickly as the pain of the past is released. They laugh, reminisce and get caught up. Michael works in IT, and Anna is an established artist in Salt Lake City, where she’s a homeowner with her partner Luisa (Kristin Taylor). Over the course of a few days, Anna meets Michael’s girlfriend Shonda (Chloe Mason), and his neighbor Gary (Joe Lo Truglio, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”). Gary has Asperger’s, plus a few other afflictions, and often pops in for a scoop of Michael’s sugar.

Anna is not prepared for Michael’s backlash to her decision, and that leads to heartfelt conversation, as well as an initially defensive Luisa when she arrives. It’s touching to see how Shonda and Gary react, and to see Michael’s emotional evolution. Of course, he doesn’t want to lose his beloved sister – the one he’s only just reconnected with. We can all relate to his feelings. But as Anna says, it’s her decision and she would rather go out on her own terms, than in a cold hospital with tubes sticking out.

This is the directorial debut and first screenplay from Tim True, who shares ties to Oregon with his co-writer Csaba Mera. Of course this is a tough and controversial topic. We witness Anna’s labored breathing and the other effects of late stage cancer, and the heaviness is offset a bit thanks to Gary’s t-shirts and coffee mugs. An alternative title to the film could be ‘the long goodbye’, but Anna’s farewell is handled very well by the actors and filmmakers. Anna recites a poem (from Mary Lee Hall) with the line, “Turn again to life, and smile”, and we realize she’s made the decision that’s right for her. Perhaps that’s all that matters.

Available on Digital and On Demand June 9, 2020

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