THE LAST VERMEER (2020)

November 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Knowing the film is based on Jonathan Lopez’s 2008 book, “The Man Who Made Vermeers” removes some of the mystique from the story; however Dan Friedkin’s (stunt pilot on DUNKIRK) directorial debut is an enticing look at a blending of art history and world history. The screenplay was co-written by John Orloff, Mark Fergus, and Hawk Ostby.

It’s May 29, 1945, three weeks after the fall of Hitler’s Reich, and the Dutch military is on a mission to reclaim valuable art and collectibles confiscated by the Nazis during the war. Some of these were hidden in Austrian salt mines by order of Hermann Goring, actions also depicted in the 2014 film, THE MONUMENTS MEN. After serving in the war, Captain Joseph Piller (Claes Bang, “Dracula” 2020) is tasked with tracking down those who stole the art, and those who sold the art to Germans. It’s a task meant to preserve his country’s culture. One particular piece, “Christ with the Adulteress” held special significance, as it was billed as ‘the last Vermeer’, a long lost painting by Dutch master Johannes Vermeer (“The Girl with the Pearl Earring”), for which Goring had paid a record price.

Investigation on this painting led Piller and his assistant Minna (Vicky Krieps, PHANTOM THREAD 2017) to Han Van Meegeren (played with panache by Guy Pearce and his stylish eyebrows). Piller is also helped by his friend Esper Vesser (Roland Moller, ATOMIC BLONDE 2017) who supplies a bit of muscle and brawn. Van Meegeren has a fancy manner of speech, and Piller determines he’s the key to the case, and to unlocking what occurred and how. At the same time, the Ministry of Justice (August Diehl, INGLORIOUS BASTERDS 2009) is after Van Meegeren for conspiracy, and the parties end up in court.

Piller and Van Meegeren existed in real life, and though some dramatic license is taken, much of what we see actually happened. Art experts and politics collided. And it’s not surprising that egos ruled the day (not unlike today). The twist may or may not be a shocker to those who know the story, but it’s still fascinating that folks would risk their lives in such a manner during the darkest of times. It seems opportunists exist regardless of the era. Mr. Bang and Mr. Pearce are both excellent here, and it’s quite fun to watch their verbal wranglings. Director Friedkin adds an Epilogue that will surely bring a smile to most viewers.

Opening in theaters November 20, 2020

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HEARTS AND BONES (2020)

November 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. How would you feel if someone photographed the worst moment of your life, and then exhibited it for the world to see? That question is at the heart of this drama, the first narrative feature from writer-director Ben Lawrence. His co-writer is Beatrix Christian, who also wrote the screenplay for JINDABYNE, an excellent 2006 film directed by Ben’s father, Ray Lawrence.

Daniel Fisher (Hugo Weaving, “The Matrix” and “The Lord of the Rings” franchises) is a renowned war photographer, and we first see him on assignment in 2018 Iraq. When he returns home to the Western Sydney suburbs, his longtime partner Josie (Hayley McElhinney, THE BABADOOK 2014) surprises him with news that she’s pregnant. They still struggle with the pain of losing their previous daughter, Eve. On top of that, Fisher’s work is scheduled to be the centerpiece of a high profile exhibit coming soon. The stress manifests itself physically through shaking hands and fainting spells.

Fisher is a bit of a mess when he’s tracked down by Sebastian Ahmed (the screen debut of Andrew Luri), who requests that Fisher not include photographs of the massacre which occurred in his south Sudan village 15 years prior. Sebastian says the memories are too painful, as he lost his family during that time. He’s now a refugee building a new life for his pregnant wife Anishka (Bolude Watson) and their young child. Sebastian works as a taxi driver and in a commercial laundry, and when he pushes Anishka to let him buy a house for their family, she says matter-of-factly, “We work. That is our life. It’s all we do.” It’s a frustrating dose of reality for Sebastian who sees a house as confirmation that they belong.

There is so much going on in what, on the surface, appears to be a quiet little film where two men form an unlikely friendship. PTSD is a factor for both men, as war has left its mark, as it so often does. Sebastian has kept his past life a secret from his wife, but that’s only part of the story when it comes to why he doesn’t want the photographs exhibited. Fisher is described as “documenting human pain and misery”, while his work is labeled “misery porn”. Is that fair? We get both sides of the gray area associated with that question noted in my first paragraph above.

Filmmaker Lawrence benefits from four terrific performances, and though the ending is a bit shaky, the stress and emotional turmoil that those four characters endure is extremely well handled. “Who are you?” is a question Anishka asks her husband, and by the end it can be asked of all four characters. There is little wonder why this has been so warmly received on the film festival circuit … it’s thought-provoking and emotional.

In theaters and On Demand November 20, 2020

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MEMORIES OF MURDER (2003, South Korea)

October 19, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Between 1986 and 1991, 10 women were raped and brutally murdered in the province of Gyeong-gi outside Seoul. Considered South Korea’s first serial killer case, the crime went unsolved until 2019. The case was the inspiration for writer-director Bong Joon Ho’s second feature film, as was Kwang-rim Kim’s play, “Come to See Me”. Director Bong Joon Ho co-wrote the screenplay with Sung-bo Shim, and of course, went on to win an Oscar for PARASITE (2019), in addition to providing other popular features such as OKJA (2017), SNOWPIERCER (2013), and THE HOST (2006). This early film can be compared to David Fincher’s ZODIAC (2007), although this one is a blend of murder mystery, crime thriller, black comedy, and political commentary.

Kang-ho Song (PARASITE) stars as Park, a local detective called to the scene of the first victim. Almost immediately we can tell Park and the police force are borderline incompetent. Park is convinced he has “Shaman eyes” and can identify the guilty party simply by looking at them. Of course, this is ridiculous and is proven so on a few occasions. Park’s partner, Detective Cho (Roe-ha Kim), is a hothead who takes a heavy-handed approach to interrogation (though he later experiences true karma). When a second victim is discovered, a more seasoned professional, Detective Seo (Sang Kyung-Kim), arrives from Seoul. In contrast to Park’s gut-feeling approach, Seo puts faith in evidence, proclaiming, “Documents never lie”. These two detectives are at the core of the story and we watch as each evolves.

The film begins on October 23, 1986 as the body of the first victim is found. We witness how the crime scene is immediately corrupted by both cops and local kids. This is also our indoctrination to how the filmmaker is treating this much differently than most crime dramas. A stream of suspects Park refers to as “punks” are paraded through the station, but true chaos ensues at the scene of the second body. We can’t help but be relieved when a professional, big city detective arrives. Bits of evidence are slowly assembled – red clothes, rainy nights, a song on the radio – each may play a role in the actions of the killer. Frustration builds as more murders occur and the detectives are unable to pin down the perpetrator.

The mental and physical toll that detectives endure with such a case are on full display. The obsession with finding the murderer never ends and the fantastic ending proves that even a career change doesn’t erase the failure. We are inundated with crime thrillers these days, but it’s difficult to grasp how this masterpiece was put together by a director whose career was just getting started. Certainly today we recognize the brilliance of Bong Joon Ho, but this was 17 years ago! It plays as a time capsule of South Korea socially and politically in 1986, and it works on that level every bit as much as a crime thriller. Cinematographer Hyung Koo Kim (THE HOST) balances the crime scenes with the police station, as well as the telling facial expressions of the characters. Last year’s solving of these horrific crimes pushed this classic into release, and it’s well worth a watch.

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LA RESTAURACION (2020, Peru)

October 15, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. We don’t typically look to Peru for observant black comedy filmmaking; however this first feature film from writer-director Alonso Llosa (story co-written with Gustavo Rosa) is one of those pleasant surprises we usually only get from film festivals or a spontaneous streaming selection. It’s yet another reminder that an entertaining film doesn’t require a massive budget or a mega-movie star. A terrific story with relatable characters and heartfelt performances will do just fine.

Shots of Lima’s towering and shiny new skyscrapers open the film as we hear from the narrator who describes the booming economy, as well as Peru being “a country of builders that peaked during the Inca period”. That narrator is Tato Basile (played by Paul Vega), a 50-ish failure at life. He dropped out of school which kept him from pursuing his preferred career as an architect. His marriage didn’t last. He has no job, lives with his mother, is addicted to cocaine, and claims he is ‘psychologically incapable of working”. His mother Rosa (Attilia Boschetti) is bedridden and near death, and is fairly disgusted with her grown man son who should have figured out life by now. Still, she grudgingly gives him money for his habit. Her long-time trusted housekeeper and personal assistant Gloria (Delfina Peredes) has protected Rosa from the fact that the family funds are nearly depleted … and the once glorious mansion is crumbling.

One day Tato runs into old friend Raymond (Pietro Sabille), who is now a real estate tycoon cashing in on Lima’s boom market. Their conversation leads Tato to concoct an ingenious and devious plan that requires the assistance of Gloria, as well as Eladio (Luis Fernando Ananos Raygada), the family friend-gardener-handyman-driver, and Inez (Muki Sabogal), Rosa’s young caregiver. The idea is to sell the family house to Raymond for top dollar, and to keep the transaction a secret from Rosa by telling her the family home is being renovated. To pull this off, the co-conspirators will re-create her bedroom in a remote location, and pipe in construction noise and the familiar aroma of the neighbor’s stew. Of course the plan is ludicrous, but desperation for money often leads to poor decisions.

Llosa includes humorous moments and memorable characters, in addition to the life lessons that Tato learns about 3 decades later than he should. Rosa has a recurring acute punchline about disliking “social climbers”, and the score has a 1980’s “Miami Vice” vibe that complements the retro look and feel of the film (including the credits). Llosa’s film is sweet, funny, and sad, and is an example of excellent story-telling. Mr. Vega perfectly captures adult Tato as he finds the soul and love that he’s been lacking. This one might take some effort to track down, but you’ll likely find it worthwhile and entertaining. I sure did.

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OUT STEALING HORSES (2020, Norway)

August 6, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Contrasts are plentiful in this film. The bleakness of winter versus the greenery of summer. The resignation of old age versus the naivety of youth. Pet Petterson’s award-winning novel was released in Norway in 2003, and then in English version in 2005. Norwegian director Petter Moland tackles it with the best intentions, though the nuances prove too much for one movie. Mr. Moland is a fine director as evidenced by his excellent IN ORDER OF DISAPPEARANCE (2014) with Stellan Skarsgard and the English remake COLD PURSUIT (2019) with Liam Neeson.

Morland and Skarsgard reunite as the actor takes on the role of the elder Trond, who we first see as he has relocated to Norway from Sweden. Through his narration, we learn Trond has lived in Sweden for 42 years, and it’s a chance meeting with his new neighbor Lars (Bjorn Floberg) that triggers memories of one summer when he was 15 years old. It’s now 1999, and the impending new millennium has Trond self-isolating on top of the grief and loneliness he has carried since his wife was killed in a car crash. Skarsgard is an actor who can be either sympathetic or powerful, and he brings gravitas to a character who is mostly lost at this late stage in life.

Much of the film is spent in Trond’s flashback to 1948, when he lived the summer with his father, a “practical” man, at his cabin in Norway. Young Trond is played very well by Jon Ranes in his first role. He clearly admires his father (Tobias Santelmann, KON-TIKI, 2012) and enjoys working beside him and taking rain showers alongside. Over the weeks, Trond and his father become entangled with a village family after a tragedy involving Lars (the future neighbor) when he was very young, and Lars’ father and mother (Danica Curcic). What follows for Trond are the things in life that cause us to alter our view of people and the world. Lost innocence is rarely easy.

Cinematographer Rasmus Videbaek (A ROYAL AFFAIR, 2012) captures the beauty of nature during the 1948 summer, as well as the stark white stillness of 1999 winter. Some of the look and feel and symbolism reminds of the work of Terrence Malick. The stunning Norwegian landscapes play a role for us as viewers and for Trond. There are also some quiet moments that carry weight between the elder Lars and Trond, as the missing pieces of life slowly fall into place.

The elder Trond states his goal is “to sleep as heavily as possible without being dead”, but we see part of him may have already died. Flashbacks to that summer, and even earlier during the war, combine with some awkward conversations with Lars to fill in gaps that had blurred over the years. Childhood memories from old age are often not to be trusted, but coming to grips with one’s family and the past may bring peace – or it may not. Trond is an avid reader of Dickens’ “David Copperfield” and there are many references throughout. He’s even given life advice: “Don’t be bitter”, which is a worthy goal for all. It’s an odd film with multiple timelines and damaged characters at different stages. It may not reach the level of Petterson’s novel, but director Moland gives us plenty to mull.

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PSYCHOMAGIC, A HEALING ART (2020, doc)

August 5, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Alejandro Jodorowski is a long-time avant-garde and visionary director known for cult classics EL TOPO (1970) and SANTA SANGRE (1989). He’s now 91 years old, and this is his first film since ENDLESS POETRY (2016) – only categorizing this as a “film” is a bit of a stretch. More in line with what we see would be, ‘a procession of demonstrations of Jodorowski’s own trauma therapy that he calls Psychomagic’.

Fortunately, we kick off with Jodorowski himself explaining his therapy. He defines Psychoanalysis, founded by Sigmund Freud, as being based on science and words. In contrast, he defines his Psychomagic as based on acts and touch. We then transition directly into an ongoing session – a sequence likely to be the last one many people watch, as only the most curious (or those charged with reviewing the film) will subject themselves to more.

The rest of the runtime is broken into “cases” distinguished by the specific reasons people are seeking treatment. Few can argue that treatments for emotional trauma can vary widely, and that not everyone will be affected the same, and that we should all be open to whatever works. However, I can assure you, Psychomagic treatment is unlike anything you have seen or experienced. These filmed sessions come off more like an acting workshop than therapy, though we are to assume they are legitimate.

Not to spoil anything, but rather to offer a taste of what’s in store, you should brace for full body shoe polish while dancing at night, the shattering of dinner plates on the patient’s chest in nature, pouring cold milk on an unclothed person, the simulation of birth for ‘grown ups’, sledgehammers on pumpkins decorated with family photos (OK, this one actually makes some sense!), sprinkling water on a massive tree to treat depression, burying a wedding dress, and participating in Mexico City’s Walk of the Dead. And I have skipped over the connection between menstruation and finger-painting and cellos.

Artists often thrive with great freedom, and the therapeutic effects of art have certainly been proven many times. It’s just that watching this, I became something beyond skeptical. It reminded me of the old-time healers, and the fine line between healing and scamming. Perhaps it was the regular inclusion of clips from Jodorowski’s films that put me on high alert, or maybe it was simply the progression of segments that each struck as more outrageous than the last. Jodorowski is an old man with a history of creating art, so I’m choosing to give him the benefit of the doubt, though it’s not an easy task after enduring this.

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AMULET (2020)

July 24, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Horror films tend to serve up relatively simple plot points so that viewers are controlled by emotions rather than deep thinking. The exceptions typically use multiple story lines and atmosphere to build up suspense that often ends with a twist or surprise ending. You might recognize Ramola Garai as an actress from SUFFRAGETTE (2015) or the TV series “The Hour”, and this is her first feature film as writer-director. She definitely chose the latter plot path, and the result is likely a film that will be divisive amongst the horror crowd.

Tomaz (Alec Secereanu, GOD’S OWN COUNTRY) is a former soldier with such a horrid case of PTSD that he must bind his own hands when he sleeps. He’s now homeless and adrift, merely surviving day-to-day. We see flashbacks to his time as a soldier working a checkpoint deep in the forest. The war is never identified, but one day he decides to help a frantic woman (Angelika Papoulia) rather than shoot her (as we assume his orders dictate). This story and their time together pop up periodically through the movie to the point where we start to believe we have an understanding of Tomaz’s background.

While squatting with other homeless folks, the building where they sleep catches fire, and soon after Tomaz is taken in by Sister Claire (Imelda Staunton), a caring nun who gives him a purpose – helping out a woman who is dealing with a sick, elderly mother. Magda (Carla Juri, BLADE RUNNER 2049 seems withdrawn and initially not particularly happy that Tomaz is living in her house. And, oh my, that house. Dilapidated is too kind as a description. So in addition to a bed, and Magda’s cooking, Tomaz begins repairing the house. And while you may have your own renovation stories to tell, did you ever pull an albino bat out of the toilet? Tomaz has.

Magda does not allow Tomaz to see her mother. He (and we) only hear the confrontations and see the bite marks on Magda’s arms. Clearly something is amiss. The flashbacks to Tomaz as a soldier with Miriam make for a stark contrast between the forest and Magda’s creepy house. It’s in the forest where Tomaz finds the titular amulet buried. If you’ve always thought of an amulet as a good luck charm, your definition will likely change.

It’s interesting to watch the shifts in the relationship between Tomaz and Magda, culminating with a night out dancing, where she reminds us a bit of Elaine Benis at the company party … although Magda’s is a pure emotional release, rather than a comedic effect. As you might expect, the film is at its best when Imelda Staunton is on screen. Unfortunately, these moments are too rare. The “old school” gothic graphics for the opening credits do make for a terrific stage-setter. While Magda’s locked-away mother provides some mystery, the tension of the story never really matches the creepy atmosphere of the house. Ms. Garai includes some excellent moments of horror images, but the deliberately slow pace doesn’t deliver a satisfying payoff.

Available OnDemand July 24, 2020

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THE PAINTED BIRD (2020)

July 16, 2020

 Greetings again from the darkness. Polish-American writer Jerzy Kosinski’s 1965 novel “The Painted Bird” has one of the strangest and most controversial histories of any book. Initially celebrated as an extraordinary piece on the Holocaust era, the novel was banned in Poland, and author Kosinski was accused of falsifying claims of it being an autobiographical work. Later he was accused of plagiarism for this book and his 1970 book “Being There” (adapted into a 1979 movie starring Peter Sellers). This story of a young Jewish boy, abandoned by his parents and traveling the Eastern Europe countryside during WWII, is now accepted as a blend of fiction and his friend (director) Roman Polanski’s experiences. Czech filmmaker Vaclav Marhoul has turned the book into a stunning viewing experience.

First time actor Petr Kotlar is extraordinary as the unnamed (until the end) Jewish boy on a journey that might be entitled Dante’s Circle of Abuse or Homer’s Odyssey of Misery. This is a young boy in need of kindness from strangers, but unable to find much. The film opens with the boy running through the woods carrying what appears to be his pet ferret. He’s being chased by a group of sadistic Anti-Semite bullies. It’s a chase that doesn’t end well. We learn the boy is living with his “Auntie” Marta (Nina Sunevic) on her rundown farm, and we intuit that his parents thought he would be safer here than with them. When the woman dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the boy accidentally burns the house down, kicking off his walk across the countryside. Almost inexplicably, this is the most upbeat segment of the film.

Director Marhoul divides the film into 9 chapters, each named after the person the boy meets and lives with temporarily. I’ll recap the following eight chapters with a focus on not giving away too much … just know that this film is unrelenting in its brutality and bleakness. After Marta’s death, the boy stumbles into a village where he is considered cursed and labeled a vampire. The witch doctor Olga (Ala Sakalova) enslaves him until he escapes down river, where he is rescued by a mill worker. The head miller (Udo Kier) is a frightening man who takes exception with his worker (not the boy) gazing lustfully at his wife. Kier’s eyes manage to burn right through the black and white film, and soon he turns exceedingly violent towards his wife and the worker, leaving us with an unforgettable visual.

The boy then finds himself at the home of Lekhi (Lech Dyblik) who captures wild birds and regularly hooks up with Ludmila (Jitka Cvancorova), a wild woman who lives in the forest. The boy witnesses two horrific deaths, but not before the sequence which gives the film its title and ensures we understand what happens to outcasts – those who are different. At about the one hour mark, the boy finds an injured horse and walks it into the local village. It’s at this point where we hear him speak (kind of) for the first time. A violent Russian invasion of the village results in the Cossacks offering the bound and gagged Jewish boy to the German soldiers as a “gift”. Stellan Skarsgard is the veteran soldier who draws the assignment of taking the boy into the woods to shoot him.

When the soldier sends him on his way, a sickly Catholic Priest (Harvey Keitel) takes the boy under his wing and trains him to be an altar boy. All is fine until a parishioner (Julian Sands) with despicable intentions agrees to take the boy in and provide for him. This segment has what may be the most cringe-inducing death scene in the film, after which we find the boy trudging through snow and falling through ice, and crawling towards a cabin where Labrina (Julia Valentova) and a sickly old man live. The boy faces more abuse as he’s incapable of pleasing Labrina, which leads to situations he’s much too young to understand. Traumatized, the boy’s personality takes a turn.

In his next village, an attack by Germans puts the boy in contact with Russian sniper Mitka (Barry Pepper), who leaves him with the real life advice of, “an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.” Having only recently lost his innocence, the advice hits home for the boy. He ends up in an orphanage where a surprise occurs that causes the boy to lash out in anger … at least until he observes something that makes him understand the world has been cruel to others, not just him.

Normally, I wouldn’t recap or outline the segments of a movie in this manner, but it’s crucial to understand what you are about to watch. It’s a nearly 3 hour epic of human cruelty and survival instinct. Young Petr Kotlar spends much of the movie taking and witnessing abuse while his face is near emotionless (save for a couple of extremes). Joy is elusive, if not non-existent. The film shows us not all Holocaust horrors occurred in death camps. The atrocities of war and the cruelty of humans result in a film that is beyond bleak at times, but also makes a clear point about how differently people treat those not “like” us, regardless who the “us” is. This point is as evident today as it was during WWII.

Director Marhoul excels in showing, rather than telling … there is almost no ‘telling’ throughout the film. Cinematographer Vladimir Smutney makes expert use of the 35mm black & white film to provide images that are stark and brutal like the world the boy sees. The Production Design from Jan Vlasak puts us right in the muck, while the Sound from Jakub Cech is crucial to every scene.

The film is a joint project of Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Ukraine, as Poland refused to participate. It had quite the festival run last year, including some high profile walk-outs during the Venice Film Festival. It’s one of the rare movies that every cinephile is thankful to have seen, yet as human beings, we would likely never want to watch again. Murder, abuse, suicide, torture, bestiality, rape, violence, cruelty, slaughter, pedophilia, incest, war atrocities … these aren’t topics we typically seek out, and they thankfully aren’t topics that all show up in a single movie very often! There are a few moments of compassion if you watch closely, but mostly it’s a reminder of the cruelty of humans when the structure of society collapses, and hope is hard to come by. As Edwin Starr sang in his number one hit in 1970, “War, good God. What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”

Available on VOD from IFC Films on July 17, 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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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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