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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THE WHITE TIGER (2021, India)

April 26, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Ramin Bahrani (the excellent 99 HOMES, 2014) adapted Aravind Adiga’s 2008 novel, and for his efforts, he was awarded an Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay. The honor is justified thanks to the complexity of the story, though we are never sure if this is satire of, or insight and enlightenment into India’s caste system. Either way, it hooks us early and never lets go.

Adarsh Gourav stars as Balram, and the story is structured via his narration of his own life story as outlined in a letter he drafts to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao prior to his official visit to India in 2010. The timeline stretches from Balram’s youth to the time of the letter, when he describes himself as a Bangalore entrepreneur who rose from poverty to being a self-made man. We are there when Balram overhears the local powerbroker known as The Stork (Mahesh Manjrekar) mention that the family needs a second driver. The ambitious Balram borrows money from Granny (Kamlesh Gill) for driving lessons, and soon he’s at the gate talking his way into the job.

Balram is hired as the driver for The Stork’s son, Ashok (Rajkummar Rao) who has returned from his time in the U.S. with an American woman, Pinky (Priyanka Chopra Jonas) by his side. It’s bizarre to see Balram’s eager-to-please ways contrast with the western approach Ashok and Pinky apply. Whereas servants are usually treated poorly, mixed messages are received by Balram, who ends up sleeping in a parking garage storage room while his masters luxuriate in a Delhi penthouse.

A tragic event occurs leaving Balram betrayed by the family to which he’s displayed nothing but loyalty. The film even takes a wicked shot at the Oscar winning SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008), although the films do share some common themes. This film follows the plight of a servant, and takes a particularly close look at the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’. Just how far can one be pushed before standing up or fighting back. Since the film starts where the story ends, we are prepared for the path, though the actual steps are stunning.

Filmmaker Bahrani floats dark comedic undertones, though it’s never really funny – in fact, most of the story is quite serious. Mr. Gourav excels in the lead role as he explains India’s social structure through big belly vs small belly. His journey takes him through multiple personality shifts – the poor villager busting rocks, the eager to impress new servant, the insightful young man who learns a harsh lesson, and finally, the “self-made” man, confident in his abilities and able to overlook his own actions that got him there.

available on Netflix

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ABOUT ENDLESSNESS (2021, Sweden)

April 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. A quarter-century once elapsed between feature films for Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. He only directed a handful of short films between “GILLIAP” (1975) and SONGS FROM THE SECOND FLOOR (2000). Mr. Andersson makes Terrence Malick look prolific. He’s certainly not a traditional filmmaker and this latest is not a typical movie. In fact, its highest and best use may be in a graduate Psychology or Philosophy class, so that the mental capacity of students can be stretched and tested to determine whether Andersson is celebrating life or bemoaning our existence.

The narrator begins most segments with something along the lines of: “I saw a man …”, “I saw a woman …”, “I saw parents …”, and “I saw a couple floating …”. These lead us into static one shot vignettes with little or no dialogue. For example, in the first segment, a woman on a park bench concludes with, “It’s September already.” There is a priest who makes a recurring appearance as one who has lost his faith. In another, parents have lost a son. The emphasis is on the artistic impression and one’s own interpretation.

Over the opening, and again later in the film, we see a couple floating over the ruins of Cologne. It’s Andersson’s take on Chagall’s 1918 painting, “Over the Town”. Another segment is a recreation of Hitler’s bunker in Kukryniksy’s 1946 painting, “The End”. These are simple, stark, low-key snapshots in time. The color palette seems to be off-gray, and the sun never shines in this world – there’s no tanned skin in the bunch. Andersson offers just enough moments of hope/happiness to prevent this from being 80 minutes of full-on depression. We always think he’s trying to tell us something, but can’t always decipher what the intended message is. Like the best art, it’s up to your interpretation, and surely dependent on individual perspective.

Release delayed due to COVID-19

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ANOTHER ROUND (2021, Denmark)

April 24, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Oscar nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Denmark), its director, Thomas Vinterberg was also nominated for Best Director. Mr. Vinterberg also directed the excellent 2012 film, THE HUNT, and this time out, he collaborates yet again with his co-writer and lead actor from that film: Tobias Lindholm and Mads Mikkelsen, respectively.

Mikkelsen (already one of the few must-watch actors) stars as Martin, a married man, father of two, and history teacher. His long-time friends include Tommy (Thomas Bo Larsen), a PE coach; Nikolaj (Magnus Millang) a Psychology instructor; and Peter (Lars Ranthe), the music teacher. The buddies are chatting over dinner as they celebrate Nikolaj’s 40th birthday, and they come to realize they are each floating through life – in a mid-life crisis of sorts, neither happy nor sad. It’s at this point where Norwegian Psychiatrist Finn Skarderud’s hypothesis is discussed. They agree to test Skarderud’s theory by maintaining a .05% Blood Alcohol Content (BAC), even while teaching.

Almost immediately, the men each feel mentally sharper, more engaged, and awakened to their lives. Martin re-connects with his wife, Anika (Maria Bonnevie), and becomes a history teacher that inspires students … quite a change from the complaints he had been receiving. The accomplishments of Hemingway and Churchill are discussed, as if alcoholics need role models. And then, to push a good thing even farther, the men decide if .05% works, why not take it to .10%? Well that’s what the men do, and of course, the results aren’t so great – ranging from upsetting to tragic.

Is it possible to re-discover a life that’s being wasted in self-pity or a state of numbness? Can alcohol jolt one back to life after the loss of youth and the reality of adult responsibility? Mid-life crisis has been addressed in many films, and alcohol is often part of the story … think SIDEWAYS (2004). We learn here that the Danish culture involves heavy drinking, and in Denmark, there is an extraordinarily high rate of teenage drinking.

The film is well acted, and Mikkelsen is terrific. Vinterberg dedicated the film to his daughter Ida, who was scheduled to appear in the film before dying in a car crash. He strategically includes Kierkegaard’s quote about life being lived forwards, but only understood backwards, and that truly is the crux of what the men are experiencing. The final scene is extraordinary and unexpected, as Mikkelsen wows with an interpretative and energetic dance to “What a Life” by Scarlet Pleasure. What a life, indeed. And perhaps there is hope after all.

Available on HULU

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GUNDA (2021, doc)

April 15, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. We open on a pig in prone position with her head sticking through an opening in the barn. It takes a minute to realize the sow isn’t sleeping, but rather giving birth. Slowly the newborn piglets begin tumbling out into the world. Cutting to a reverse camera angle, we see the 12-13 babies desperately trying to latch onto mom for their first meal. The runt of the litter struggles more than the others. Award-winning filmmaker Viktor Kosakovskiy runs this first segment just over 19 minutes. There is no dialogue. No human on screen. The soundtrack is all natural from nature: the snorts from mama sow, the squeals from piglets, and unseen birds chirping.

Our second segment finds roosters in a crate. Clearly new to the surroundings, and likely never-before “free” to roam the land, these chickens cautiously explore as the camera focuses on their tentative initial steps from the cage and startled reactions to birds. A one-legged rooster captures our attention as it makes its way through the grass and over fallen logs. It’s likely the longest amount of time a movie camera has been dedicated to following roosters around.

We then head back to find the piglets have grown substantially. We don’t know how much time has passed, but we watch along with their mother as the youngsters play in the field, fight with each other, and bully their youngest sibling. Gunda, the mother sow, watches over them just as any mother would watch over her kids. Our third group is introduced as the barn door opens and the cows are released. They romp into the fields like school kids at recess. Some of the cows stare directly into the camera as if to inform us they are ready for their close-up. It’s fascinating to see how they use teamwork for an ingenious head-to-tail solution to the annoying flies that relentlessly pester them.

The final segment returns us to the pigs as they display the same feeding frenzy as one might witness at the buffet on a Carnival cruise. An ending that will surely evoke emotions in viewers, though maybe not at the extreme of Gunda herself. Filmmaker Kosakovskiy leaves us wondering how a black and white film with no dialogue or human characters makes such an impression as it focuses on farm animals. Pork, chicken, and beef. Clearly it’s no coincidence that he chose three staples of the American diet. There is no lecture on animal rights, and none of the brutality of other “raised for food” documentaries is shown. But the message is there. It was filmed on farms in Norway, Spain, and the U.K., but the locales matter little. Director Kosakovskiy previously brought us the excellent AQUARELA (2018), a documentary showcasing the nature of water and ice, and here he assisted Egil Haskjold Larsen with cinematography, and Ainara Vera with editing. It’s an unusual film, and one meant to inspire reflection and thought … and hopefully change.

In theaters beginning April 16, 2021

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DEADLY CUTS (2021, Ireland)

April 15, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. If we have to depend on Dublin filmmaking for the year’s first stellar comedy, then so be it. This is the first feature film from writer-director Rachel Carey, but it certainly won’t be the last. Somehow she’s created a black and blue comedy that plays like a mash-up of ZOOLANDER (2001) and BLOW THE MAN DOWN (2018), two films I feel sure had not previously been mentioned in the same sentence.

Piglinstown is a small, working class community in Dublin … the metaphorical ‘other side of the tracks’. Michelle (Angeline Ball, THE COMMITMENTS, 1991) runs the salon, and is just one of the local business being threatened by gang activity and gentrification driven by greedy politicians. Michelle’s staff includes Stacey (Erika Roe, HERSELF, 2020), a stylist who believes winning an upcoming competition can not only save the salon, but also her dreams of finally being accepted by the mother that deserted her many years ago; Gemma (Lauren Larkin), the in-house amateur psychologist and therapist; and Chantelle (Shauna Higgins, “Red Rock”), a socially awkward wizard with hair color. It’s a motley crew of women who are stronger than they think, and display a camaraderie that defines small business and small towns.

The ladies embrace the upcoming “Ahh Hair” competition as their road to salvation, where a win would boost the salon’s reputation and make tearing the shop down for luxury apartments an unthinkable act. The problem is that the annual competition is consistently won by the posh shop where Michelle once worked before a catastrophic on stage occurrence many years ago. The high end shop is now run by her hilariously intimidating rival Pippa (Victoria Smurfit, “Marcella”). This becomes a bit of a parody of class distinction between Dublin’s north and south side.

But there is much more here than the hair styling competition. Some of the grit of the working class rears its head one evening when the gang leader threatens the ladies of the salon. One thing leads to another and soon the shop has earned its name, “Deadly Cuts.” Although crime and violence play a role here, the gore is minimal and mostly occurs off screen, and even packs its own level of humor. Ms. Carey loads up her script with a slew of one-liners, each expertly delivered by a cast that embraces the cinematic lampoon. “The hair tongs are heating up” is merely one example of what is broadcast by FAD TV during the competition. For a rollicking good time, check this one out … though you may need the closed captions unless your ears are in full Irish mode.

Featured at the 2021 Seattle International Film Festival


BETTER DAYS (2021, China)

April 12, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Chinese gaokao is the College Entrance Exams that determine the future of high school students and their families. The pressure is extreme for the kids, and when the film opens, the exams are only 60 days away. One of the students leaps to her death from an upper breezeway to the concrete courtyard below. Her fellow classmates converge on the scene with cell phones recording the tragedy. One girl, Chen Nian, quietly covers up the body. While most assume the pressure of the impending test was too severe for the girl, Nian knows better. The relentless bullies that motivated the suicide have now turned their attention to Nian.

Director Derek Tsang (aka Kwok Cheung Tsang) delivers a beautiful film with compelling characters and a heart-wrenching story. Jiuyue Xi’s novel, In His Youth, In Her Beauty” has been adapted for the screen by co-writers Wing-Sum Lam, Yuan Li, Yimeng Xu, and Nan Chen. Filmed in 2018, the Chinese government delayed its release due to concerns over how its society would be perceived, given extreme bullying, class differences, and the extensive use security cameras throughout. Instead, we note the similarities in people, and how young people carry burdens that often go unacknowledged.

Zhou Dongyu gives a terrific performance as Chen Nian. She’s an excellent, devoted student who has no one to depend on thanks to a mostly absentee mother who spends her time scamming for money and dodging creditors. Nian has no real friends, and her closest companion was the one whose body lay crumpled in the courtyard. Nian stumbles into a situation that could not be described as a ‘meet-cute’, and soon she has requested street punk Xiao Bei (played by Jackson Yee) to act as her protector against the bullies, so that she may focus on the exams. Additionally, she’s been questioned by the police in regards to the suicide, and Detective Zhang (Yin Fang) takes a particular interest given his knowledge of schoolyard bullies.

The bond between equally adrift and confused teenagers Nian and Bei grows, despite his being a dropout. Are they star-crossed lovers? Is it a budding romance? What makes it interesting is that it doesn’t even matter. What does matter is the courage these two youngsters show in the face of adversity. Does it go too far? The third act will leave you wondering just what is the answer to their dilemma. How harshly can you judge those in self-preservation mode when the school motto is “Work Hard. No Regrets”? There is a retro feel to Tsang’s filmmaking style, and we are left with the reminder that “used to be” infers a sense of loss … and we all experience different types of loss. Excellent filmmaking that rightly earned an Oscar nomination.

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AMUNDSEN: THE GREATEST EXPEDITION (2021)

April 1, 2021

Greetings again from the darkness. Director Espen Sandberg continues his string of movies highlighting the heroes of Norway. Previous movies include MAX MANUS: MAN OF WAR (2008) and the Oscar nominated KON-TIKI (2012), the tale of legendary explorer Thor Heyerdahl. And then to earn some coin, Sandberg also directed PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: DEAD MEN TELL NO TALES (2017). This latest project, written by Ravn Lanesskog, takes on another legendary explorer – this time it’s Roald Amundsen, the first to traverse the Northwest Passage, the first to reach the South Pole, and the first to reach the North Pole by plane.

Pal Sverre Hagen stars as Roald Amundsen, and he also played Thor Heyerdahl in Sandberg’s KON-TIKI. Hagen bears a striking resemblance to the photos of Amundsen, and utilizes a low key, yet very direct communication style to give us a look at the relentless commitment to achieving his goals. We learn he held grudges – against the Brits and even against his own brother – and used this as motivation. Director Sandberg uses a conversation as a framing device throughout the film. Roald’s estranged brother Leon (Christian Rubeck, SWIMMING WITH MEN, 2018) and Roald’s lover Bess Magids (Katherine Waterston, THE WORLD TO COME, 2020) share their insights and perspective while awaiting word on Roald’s latest excursion. This begins after the opening sequence where we see Roald’s prop plane crash land on an Arctic ice shelf.

Of course, this is the story of one of the greatest explorers and adventurers in history, so there is a nice blend of that conversation, some backstory, and a first-hand look at some of Roald’s expeditions. The elements are incredibly harsh, but Sandberg never lingers too long on any one piece of this puzzle. It seems he is more interested in what made Roald tick – what drove him to these pursuits at the expense of most relationships. The rivalry with the Brits is clear and we see the humiliation Roald endured after besting Robert Falcon Scott to the South Pole. Rather than accolades, he faced criticism and judgment of his methods.

Roald Amundsen was clearly not a man to rest on his laurels, even after being presumed dead on more than one occasion. He was always a body in motion. We see his childhood fascination towards unexplored areas. No map? No problem. Roald’s harsh treatment of his brother is explored, and it’s interesting to note the differences in how Bess and Leon describe Roald. Amundsen went missing while on an Arctic rescue mission in 1928. He was 55 years old, but looked 20 years beyond that. This film is not hero worship or even a traditional tribute. Then again, maybe it’s the type of tribute a man like Roald Amundsen would appreciate. For those who wish to learn more, search out the 6-hour 1985 PBS mini-series, “The Last Place on Earth.”

Opening in Virtual Cinemas and VOD April 2nd

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THE AFFAIR (2021)

March 3, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. The world famous Villa Tugendhat is a physical, emotional, and visual metaphor for the collapse of the Czech Republic in this film from director Julius Sevcik (LOST GIRLS AND LOVE HOTELS, 2020). Writer Andrew Shaw (VOICE FROM THE STONE, 2017) adapted the script from Simon Mawer’s 2009 best-selling book, “The Glass Room”. The family melodrama is fictionalized, but the house itself is the character around which everything else revolves. And what a house it is.

Viktor (Claes Bang, TV mini-series “Dracula”, and THE LAST VERMEER, 2020) commissions noted architect Von Abt (Karel Roden) to build a home for Viktor’s new bride, Liesel (Hanna Alstrom, the KINGSMAN movies). Liesel works closely with the architect to create a modern masterpiece that is the envy of their Czechia town of Brno. The heart of the stunning structure is a glass room, causing Abt to ask Liesel, “Are you ready to live in the light?” Liesel’s close friend Hana (Carice Van Houten, LOST GIRLS AND LOVE HOTELS, 2020), who wishes they were even closer, spends a great deal of time visiting at the home. Liesel’s bliss is shaken when she discovers Viktor is having an affair with their nanny, Kata (Alexandra Borbely, ON BODY AND SOUL, 2017).

If she thought that was the worst thing that could happen, Liesel soon finds things much worse. She and her Jewish husband escape to Zurich just as the Nazi occupation occurs. Hana and her Jewish husband are not so fortunate, and not only is she separated from her lifelong friend, she is forced to do what she must to protect her husband, and that includes an affair with a German contractor named Stahl (Roland Moller, THE LAST VERMEER, 2020). It seems all of our characters are doing what they must, and they all seem to be thinking of someone other than the one they are with.

The second half of the film is much stronger than the first, as real tension exits. Ms. Van Houten is superb in her performance as Hana, and she carries this part of the story. It’s through her eyes that we see the transformations of Liesel’s beautiful home. The symmetry with what’s happening in the country is unmistakable, and Hana is at the heart of the film’s message … love endures and overcomes. The issue with the film is that we never really connect with any character but Hana. Viktor and Liesel are out of sight for an extended period of time, leaving us with what is a great idea for a film – but one that lacks the necessary depth.

Regardless of that, it’s a gorgeous film to watch … thanks in no small part to the work of cinematographer Martin Strba. The film stretches from the early 1930’s to the late 1960’s and the production design is spot on. Some interesting notes include Villa Tugendhat was actually designed by German architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich, and the Tugendhat family did actually flee the home. German plane designer Willy Messerschmitt actually lived in the house while it was being used as a design studio, much like the character Stahl in the film. It’s a shame the script doesn’t do justice to the cast and the home, but this one falls short of being a must see.

Available VOD on March 5, 2021

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NIGHT OF THE KINGS (2021, Ivory Coast)

February 27, 2021

 Greetings again from the darkness. Could you tell a story that lasts all night? What if you were standing on a box in front of a few hundred rowdy inmates? What if your life depended on it? Writer-director Phillippe Lacote (RUN, 2015) opens the film with an aerial shot over the jungles of the Ivory Coast and slowly makes way to the isolated prison known as La MACA.

The camera takes us to the bed of a police pickup truck where a handcuffed young man is being escorted by an armed guard. It’s the first day of his prison sentence. La MACA has a warden and prison guards, but even they admit the place is mostly run by the inmates. The warden (Issaka Sawadogo) meets with the new prisoner (newcomer Bakary Kone), but it’s Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu) who summons the newbie to his cell. Blackbird has been the Dangaro, Chief of Prisoners, for years, and only recently has his hulking presence led to chatter of diminishing losing power. With his fatigue requiring regular intake from oxygen tanks, Blackbird realizes his reign is near … and tradition requires that, once too weak to lead, he take his own life.

Blackbird names the wide-eyed new prisoner Roman, meaning he will be the storyteller at that evening’s Red Moon. Blackbeard has this planned as his final hurrah as leader. Two prisoners are vying to become the new Dangaro: Blackbeard’s loyal assistant Half-Mad (Jean Cyrille Digbeau) and rival faction leader Lass (Abdoul Karim Konate). They each have their eye on wearing the “crown”.

If all this sounds a bit convoluted, you should know it’s fascinating to watch unfold on the screen. The rules and rituals are followed vigorously, and just like in any political situation, behind-the-scenes maneuverings are ongoing. We never lose sight of the fact that there are hundreds of criminals gathered in a confined area, yet the structure of their organization lends itself to Roman’s storytelling.

As a member of the Microbes gang in the Lawless Quarter of Abidjan, Roman doesn’t consider himself a storyteller, and is reluctant to begin. Urged on by the aggressive reactions of his audience, he’s soon weaving tales blending his childhood, the recent arrest of local legend Zama King, and the mythology and history of the Ivory Coast. Stunning flashbacks and visuals are utilized in just the right dosage to help us understand the stories without losing the danger Roman faces. What danger, you ask? Well a fellow prisoner named Silence (played by Denis Lavant, from 2012 cult favorite HOLY MOTORS), who keeps a chicken perched on his shoulder, warns Roman that his story must last through the night until the Red Moon sets on the horizon … or the ritual demands he be killed. Talk about motivation – as if the metal hook in the stairwell wasn’t enough!

Filmmaker Lacote excels with his ‘story within a story’ and the blending of truth and fiction. The fed-up guards watching through the small window in their protected office says more than words could. And cinematographer Tobie Marier Robitaille works wonders within the claustrophobic confines of the prison, and by capturing the emotions of the participants. This is an original film that could be equally effective as a stage production, as both vehicles can convey the glory of the moment morning breaks. Let’s hope this isn’t “once upon a time” for Lacote, and that he has more to offer at this level.

Available February 26, 2021 in select theatres and Virtual Cinemas

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