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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EGG (2019)

January 17, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. In what would likely be more effective as a stage play than a film, director Marianna Palka (GOOD DICK, 2008) subjects us to first four, and then five adults, each participating in what is mostly a 90 minute exercise in passive-aggressive bickering. There are absolutely some moments of pure movie gold, and the premise is quite promising, but unfortunately the bulk of this movie experience is simply watching annoying people and listening to their irritating banter (courtesy of the first screenplay from Risa Mickenberg).

In defense, annoyance is the goal here. Former art school classmates Karen (Christina Hendricks) and Tina (Alysia Reiner) have arranged their first get-together in many years. Karen brings her wealthy snob husband Don (David Alan Basche, Ms. Reiner’s real life husband) to Tina’s bohemian loft which she shares with Wayne (Gbenga Akinnagbe). Karen is 8 months pregnant, Don is worried about his Cadillac in this neighborhood, Tina is a conceptual artist, and Wayne adamantly refuses to be defined by his work – of which he seems to have little.

Judging others seems to be the point of this little party, and as Karen calls giving birth “one of the most beautiful things in life”, she has to stop every 5 minutes to pee and eat, and repeat the cycle – all while being unable to sit comfortably. Riffing on how decisions are made on whether to become a parent, and how contemporary gender roles are defined, an abundance of societal commentary leads to a never-ending soft core argument. The bombshell hits when Tina announces she and Wayne are having a baby via a surrogate. Things get really interesting when Kiki (Anna Camp), the surrogate, joins the group.

The wheels go flying off when Kiki reveals she has been in a 5 year relationship with a married man, and that man’s wife is now pregnant with their 6th child. Kiki also talks about the 5 stages of womanhood … each seeming to be in service to man. The conventions of motherhood, and contrasts in suburbia vs. bohemian lifestyles are a central theme here, but none of these folks are the type from which we can draw any inspiration or insight. They are self-centered, insecure types with each trying to prove their high level of enlightenment to the others.

Mostly it’s 90 minutes of whiny women and whiny men, in what could have been a fascinating look at motherhood and the evolution of friendship between two women who chose different paths. There is a bitterness to the story and the characters, and uncomfortable discussions handled in such a way that the biting humor rarely hits its mark. Even the ending, which is totally believable, is unsatisfying given what we’ve been through with these characters.

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CAFE SOCIETY (2016)

July 21, 2016

cafe society Greetings again from the darkness. 80 year old Woody Allen continues to amaze with his proclivity to crank out a movie every year. With such movie abundance comes the inevitable hit and miss conversations. Of course, there are those who have never had a taste for his work and another group who have sworn off his films due to the headlines from his personal life. Still, as a filmmaker, his work is usually good for some analysis and debate.

This time out, Woody’s story is set in the 1930’s and it revolves around a young man from the Bronx who heads to Hollywood in hopes of making something of himself. Bobby (Jesse Eisenberg) is the typical on screen alter-ego for Mr. Allen and displays many of the physical and personality traits we have come to expect. It’s a perfect fit for Eisenberg. Bobby’s naivety takes a beating as he assumes a gofer job under his Uncle Phil (Steve Carell), a power broker agent to the stars. Things really get juicy when Phil directs his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the local sites to Bobby. As the two youngsters grow closer, Vonnie must choose between the romantic idealism of Bobby, and the luxuries afforded by her older boyfriend (guess who??).

Allen revisits many (if not all) of his familiar themes: religion and the afterlife, misfit relationships, Los Angeles vs New York, jazz, older man/younger woman, and one of his favorites … “what’s the point?” This time he also throws in a nostalgic look at Hollywood by name-dropping some famous stars of the era, but he’s just as quick to flash his lack of respect for the movie industry and seems to compare it to the world of east coast gangsters (such as Bobby’s brother played by Corey Stoll).

This is Mr. Allen’s first digital movie, and it’s his first time to work with legendary cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (3 time Oscar winner for Apocalypse Now, Reds, The Last Emperor). The golden hue and low-level lighting provide a nostalgic feel and warmth to the scenes – even when the characters themselves aren’t so cuddly. Excellent set design and costumes add to the beautiful and classy look of the movie. As always, Allen is working with a deep cast – this one includes Sheryl Lee, Anna Camp, Parker Posey, Paul Schneider, Blake Lively, Jeannine Berlin and Ken Stott.

Life is a comedy … written by a sadistic comedy writer.” It’s the perfect Woody Allen line and we get the feeling he actually believes it. Heard here as a somewhat emotionless narrator, Mr. Allen makes it clear that Bobby’s character (with no apparent skills) is a fish out of water in L.A, but thrives in nightclub management once he returns to the beloved NYC. Bobby’s adventure hardens the young man, while he maintains the mushy core of first love that Woody so adores. Toss in a love triangle and little respect for the women characters, and we end up with a movie that feels like a movie about Woody Allen movies.

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