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a powerful woman role model
Greetings again from the darkness. She is now in the 7th decade of her acting career. She was married to one man for 55 years. She recently turned 89 and is still working regularly. Olympia Dukakis is a marvel to behold. Strong-minded, direct-speaking, charismatic, talented and long-lasting, she makes a fascinating subject for director Harry Mavromichalis in his first feature-length documentary.
An early segment features Ed Asner presenting her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Soon after she admits that "it doesn't mean anything" to her, but her Academy Award did. She won the Best Supporting Actress for her role as Cher's mother in MOONSTRUCK (1987), and we later see her at the ceremony as her elderly mother is captured watching it unfold on TV. This moment matters because we have already heard Olympia discuss her challenging times growing up with her mother (she claims to have channeled her own mother for the role).
Much of this documentary was filmed years ago. We are there on her 80th birthday and her 49th wedding anniversary. Clips are included from some of her theater work, as well as movies. Playing a transgender character in PBS' "Tales of the City" (1993) made her a gay icon, and we see her as Grand Marshal of the Gay Pride parade in San Francisco. This is especially timely today given that Halle Berry just announced she was stepping down from a transgender role ... due to the pressure brought on by her not being transgender.
Olympia is very forthcoming in discussing her approach to life, and life itself. She discloses the initial doubts she had regarding a woman's place in Greek history, before bucking up and proclaiming "it's not me that's less." When she felt the theater world considered her "too ethnic", in 1973 she founded The Whole Theater in Montclair, New Jersey. She refused to let the world place limits on what she could do. She offers up many personal memories such as her time fencing at Boston University - stories that provide clear examples of her personality and makeup.
As I watched the film, my thought was that it meandered a bit too much. Upon reflection, it makes complete sense, as that's the manner in which she lives and works and thinks. We see clips as she converses with her cousin Michael Dukakis, the former Governor of Massachusetts, during his candidacy for President. The film bounces around with stops in New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and Cypress. Toronto was for a Norman Jewison retrospective (including MOONSTRUCK), and while in Cypress we walk the aisles of a grocery store with her (very weird).
Insight is offered from fellow actors such as Laura Linney, Austin Pendleton, Lainie Kazan, and Whoopi Goldberg, but it's really the bits and pieces we get regarding her long-term marriage to actor Louis Zorich that are most meaningful. The couple discuss why their marriage and partnership has worked, and how friendship is the key. Louis passed away in 2018, and Olympia continues to act and teach acting classes. We even get a peek behind the curtain when we watch her work through/find a character in rehearsal. Seemingly tacked on towards the end are clips from a trip to her mother's village in Greece with her daughter and grandkids. It's a chance to see her interact with local women, and does provide a stark contrast to what Olympia has done with her life. She claims that she can "remember plays and theaters"; however, "it's people" she doesn't remember. She can be certain that the people will remember her.
an imaginative directorial debut
Greetings again from the darkness. Anyone who has a friend or relative afflicted with dementia knows it's often like living in a real life horror film. It's frustrating and claustrophobic and guilt-inducing and above all, frightening. The first feature film from director Natalie Erika James deals with dementia, amongst other topics, in the guise of a horror film. Is it a haunted house movie? Is it a demonic presence movie? Well, yes to both. The script from Ms. James and Christian White blends multiple familiar aspects of horror films into something that ends up quite original.
"Ends up" is the key, because the first two-thirds of the story moves slower than a glacier in the middle of winter. Don't get me wrong, the film looks great - the house and the atmosphere are ultra-creepy. It's just that almost nothing happens during that span, and that's an eternity for set up. Kay (Emily Mortimer) receives a call that a neighbor hasn't seen her mother in a while. Kay and her 20ish daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote, PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES, 2016) take the drive over the hills and through the woods to grandmother's house. Their initial measured walk-thru of the house tells them (and us) much. Post-it notes are stuck everywhere, including one that says "Don't follow it". Spoiled fruit on the counter, a favorite chair moved, and food for a pet long ago passed, are all indicators that something is off. If that's not enough, the house that grandma is missing from has mold on the walls and ceiling, and strange locks on doors.
After an unsuccessful search party through the nearby woods, Grandma Edna (Robyn Nevin) reappears with no recollection of where she's been. Of course, this doesn't really improve things for anyone. We sense that workaholic Kay and her mother have never really been close, and the same can be said for Kay and Sam. Generational disconnect is on display. And poor Edna has lost her husband, her pet dog, and most of her essence ... except for the few moments when she snaps back to lucidity.
Dread and impending doom dominate every scene for the first hour. Kay has dreams of an old cabin from her past, and Edna has an unexplained bruise on her chest. The stained glass window on the front door is a key, and the sounds coming from the walls are unable to be tracked down. As disoriented as Edna is, the house itself has that impact on us and Sam. Is it the house that's haunted, or the characters?
The cinematography from Charlie Sarroff plays well off the stillness and unknown, and the sound design and music (Brian Reitzell) work hand-in-hand in establishing the creepy atmosphere. The three actresses are superb, and I especially enjoyed Ms. Nevin and her piercing eyes, as she is known mostly for her live theatre work (and also as Councillor Dillard in The Matrix movies). For her first feature, Ms. James has delivered a high-concept Australian horror/suspense film with a very original (and weird) ending. Others may be a bit higher on the film, but we likely all agree that Ms. James is an intriguing filmmaker.
Machete's new leaf
Greetings again from the darkness. It's easy and convenient to lump folks into the old adage "people don't change", because not changing is the easiest way. However, we'd be hard pressed to find someone who fits the "turned over a new leaf" description better than Danny Trejo. He has certainly made the best of his second chance ... and he knows it. What makes his story inspirational is his willingness, no make that determination, to share his own story in hopes that he can help others.
Director Brett Harvey surprises us in a couple of ways with this documentary. First, he spends the first two-thirds on Trejo's background, with barely a mention of movies. Second, he recognizes the gold to mine here is derived from Trejo himself, and he allows the man to talk and show us what he's all about. Sure, we get bits of insight from Trejo's neighborhood friends, his acting peers, and his own kids and sister, but no one can tell Trejo's story better than Trejo. In fact, director Harvey bookends the film with Trejo talking to convicts, and beginning with "my number was B-948."
While cruising around town in his 1956 Chevy Bel Air, Trejo points out "Richie Valens Junior High", which is actually Pacoima Middle School. It's fascinating that he still lives in the same area in which he was raised, especially after we hear him recall his childhood. As a kid, his hero was Uncle Gilbert - the cool guy who had money, cars, and girls. Trejo stuck like glue to Gilbert, who turned the boy onto weed at age 8 and heroin at age 12, and then transitioned him to armed robbery (including a live grenade!). It was four bags of sugar sold to an undercover cop that sent Trejo to San Quentin.
Trejo is very direct as he discusses his time in prison and what occurred to push him towards getting his life in order. He mentions it's not about reform, but about keeping a promise. He talks about the 'predator or prey' aspect of prison and recalls some of the best advice he received: remaining on the path of drugs-alcohol-crime can only lead to death-insanity-jail. He absolutely believes these words and works this in to his motivational speeches to this day.
He stumbled backwards into an acting career, simply by visiting a friend on the set of RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985). His look and that tattoo were instrumental to his acting gigs, and that's where the title of the documentary comes from - he was cast as "Inmate #1" in the early days. Of course, things really exploded for him after his second cousin, director Robert Rodriguez, cast him as the silent assassin in DESPERADO (1995), and then again when Trejo got the lead in the tongue-in-cheek MACHETE (2010) which spawned from a fake trailer in the Rodriguez-Tarantino blend GRINDHOUSE (2007).
One of those interviewed states, "They make movies about guys like him", and by the time the documentary ends, we simply with there were more people like Danny Trejo in society. It's rare that we find such respect for an actor after getting to know what they are like "in real life." He may joke about learning acting at the San Quentin School of Dramatics, but he spends most of his time doing good for others. His infectious laugh and upbeat demeanor are traits of a man who appreciates his second chance in life. Just keep in mind, "Machete don't text."
Elvis from Outer Space (2020)
Greetings again from the darkness. All you Elvis Presley fans out there can relax. This is not a documentary. In fact, trying to put a label on the film co-written and co-directed by Marv Z Silverman and Tracy Wuischpard would be pointless ... unless we can just agree on "Midnight Movie Madness", and leave it at that.
Not that I would ever encourage such activity, but some have declared that the best 'midnight movies' are most enjoyed whilst a sufficiently mind-altered state is achieved, and one is unnaturally influenced by beverage or 'other'. Now that's a category this film easily and happily (and likely by design) fits in. There is no reason to start this film while thinking clearly, and actually, thinking is best avoided for the entire 90 minute runtime.
The story kicks off with the narrator explaining that Elvis has spent the last 30 years or so with the aliens of Alpha Centauri. He has been playing music for the community of ETs proving "music is the universal language." 'But now Elvis is homesick for Earth and wants to see his daughter, Linda Bess Truman. The aliens contact the CIA and arrangements are made for the drop in Area 51. Some quick math places the story sometime around 2010 or a couple years prior.
There is no way I will risk spoiling the zaniness that occurs, but Elvis, now codename John "JB" Burrows, finds himself in the 1970's Elvis World Crown Competition at the Desert Sands Hotel in Las Vegas. You may have heard about the time that Charlie Chaplin lost a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest, but here, JB brings down the house as an Elvis impersonator. He's so good the other contestants (quite a motley crew) question his identity. One of those is "Big M" who is also the film's narrator. All of this drama is broadcast via "Barry Live", a TMZ type show delivers laughs along with the daily scoop.
George Thomas plays JB/Elvis, and he seems at ease in the jumpsuits, although those fake sideburns are a punchline by themselves. David Heavener is Big M and the narrator, and his initial role as rival shifts as the story progresses. Diane Yang Kirk plays CIA Agent Messina, who is on JB's side, and Lauren-Elaine Powell is Jackie, the earthly love interest. Barry Ratcliffe nearly steals the show as the TV host of "Barry Live", and I believe TJ Myers plays daughter Linda, while Martin Kove (you'll recognize as bad guy Kreese from THE KARATE KID, 1984) is the State Trooper. Alexander Butterfield is CIA Chairman Townsend, and in real life, Mr. Butterfield served as Deputy Assistant to President Richard Nixon, and was the one who revealed the existence of the Oval Office recording system during the Watergate investigation. Best of all, Sonny West appears as himself. Sonny was part of Elvis' "Memphis Mafia" back in the day. Sonny and his cousin Red West died within a couple of months of each other in 2017.
Hopefully you've picked up that this move is so far outside of mainstream that a traditional review is simply not possible. Animation is used for the aliens and spaceships and the rest of it must be seen to be ... well, seen. It appears to be a re-boot of Mr. Silverman's 2011 project entitled MEMPHIS RISING: ELVIS RETURNS, making most of the footage almost 10 years old. Still, a passion project is the heartfelt pursuit of a filmmaker, whether it's SCHINDLER'S LIST or Elvis being held captive in 'Area 52'.
I, Pastafari (2019)
pirates and pasta
Greetings again from the darkness. You are to be excused for not taking seriously any person, club, organization, or religion that chooses to be identified by wearing colanders (pasta strainers) on their head. After all, many municipalities and courts of law would and have agreed with you. Still, writer-director Michael Arthur takes a direct approach in presenting the Pastafarians, and many will be on board with some of the points made.
Bobby Henderson founded the "ancient but forgotten religion" in 2005 to oppose the teaching of creationism and intelligent design in schools, and claimed Pastafarianism as a real religion, "as much as any other." The intent was to keep religion out of government-financed schools. While many will agree with the philosophy, it is difficult to gain credibility when one's deity is an invisible 'flying spaghetti monster' and your leader defends the religion as legitimate by showing up in court wearing a colander on his head.
Mr. Arthur takes us through The Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Russia, and Costa Rica as he explores the followers and the factions. We meet Bruder Spaghettus, who claims humans and Pastafarianism are descended from pirates, and he attributes the increase in global warming to a decrease in the number of pirates. Many religions have had "splits", and this one is no different in that regard. What is different here is that Bruder's Pastafari followers wear pirate garb instead of colanders. Only you can decide if that's an improvement. Is this a real religion, a fake religion or a parody of religion? Director Arthur interviews followers, as well as academic scholars in search of the truth.
Reading between the lines, it appears likely that the religion was started as a lark, but has evolved into a somewhat loose organization with a philosophy of opposition to "traditional" religions being given more power, respect, advantages, and influence than should be the case. There is no real evidence to support claims that Pastafari (a play on words from Rastafari, the Jamaican Abrahamic religion) is the 'fastest growing religion' or has 'millions of believers.' Is it possible to take a serious look at a ridiculous topic? What Mr. Arthur finds is that it seems legitimate to question the manner in which "real" religions are treated with privilege. The film doesn't feature founder Bobby Henderson, which seems odd, and it skims the surface more for entertainment than enlightenment. And what I have to say to that is ... R'amen, brother.
The Outpost (2020)
puts us in it
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.
Greetings again from the darkness. You know what it's like when people start talking about some great new restaurant that just opened (think back to pre-pandemic)? And then you start to hear your friends and co-workers raving about it ... best 'steamed broccoli' (ok, insert your favorite entrée) I've ever tasted! Having been burned many times with high expectations, you remain skeptical, but make the reservation. Well, that's been me with "Hamilton." For almost 5 years, the hype was just too much. Surely folks were caught up in the frenzy, and peer pressure was such that no one would admit it wasn't all that. So, now I'm here ... throwing myself at the mercy of the Theater Gods. Thanks to Disney Plus, I only needed to invest a little (ok, a lot) of time, rather than a few hundred dollars for a ticket. This is me humbly admitting I was wrong. The show is fantastic, and I only wish my first viewing had been a live performance.
Unfortunately (because of what I mentioned above) this can't be a comparison of a live stage performance and the film version. Instead, this will briefly outline what I noticed in the movie. First, and I believe this is key, the original stage director Thomas Kail is back to direct the film. It should be noted that the film version is a blend of a couple of recorded live shows, plus some recorded songs seamlessly edited in. This is the original cast doing what they do best, and the edits are imperceptible. Second, the main cast is filled with dynamic performers. In many stage shows, one or two actors are head and shoulders above the others. Not so here. At a minimum the top seven actors are as skilled and fun to watch as any you've seen. Third, this is a true musical in that the songs drive the story. Some of the early songs require serious concentration to catch the lines, but even if you miss some lyrics, the gist of what's happening is pretty clear. These aren't so much catchy sing-along types, but you'll easily recall the scenes when you hear the songs again at a later date. We see a perfect melding of music-performance-story.
Of course most everyone knows that Lin-Manuel Miranda is the creative force behind the show. He credits writer Ron Chernow's book on Alexander Hamilton as the inspiration for the production, but it's Mr. Miranda that appeared on every talk show for a couple of years, and he also performs as Alexander Hamilton. Daveed Diggs has dual roles as the flamboyant Marquis de Lafayette and the equally flamboyant (at least here) Thomas Jefferson. Renee Elise Goldsberry takes over the stage with her powerful voice as Angelica Schuyler, and Chris Jackson is a dominating physical presence as George Washington. Jonathan Groff (from "Mindhunter") is absolutely hysterical and unforgettable as King George III, both through song and strut. Everyone will have their favorite performers, and truly they are all exceptional, and I'd like to point out the two that took my breath away. Phillipa Soo as Eliza Hamilton has a pristine voice that will bring tears to many eyes. She may not be as involved with the political elements of the story, but in the most emotional moments, she is front and center. Lastly, the passion Leslie Odom Jr brings to his role as Adam Burr is beyond description. He may be the "villain", but he makes Burr accessible and easy to understand ... plus Odom is a terrific singer and performer, and he lights up the stage.
It's easy to overlook the dance and stage choreography since it's never over-the-top, but the dancers are terrific and the performers make great use of the single set - although props are regularly brought in and taken away. Perhaps what really makes this click as movie entertainment is the expert use of cameras and editing. We see the full stage when we should, and we are offered close-ups when it's most effective. I do hope to catch the live show at some point, but if my Hamilton experience is limited to this cinematic version, well ... "that would be enough."
La vérité (2019)
2 French Masters
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.
a desperate time
Greetings again from the darkness. The vast majority of parents strive to do right by their kids. Knowing the right thing to do is the challenge. Sometimes the answer is easy, and other times it's soul-crushing. Director Martin Winter and writer Sebastian Schmidl have delivered a gut-wrenching 34 minute short film featuring a standout performance from Anna Suk.
Kathi (Ms. Suk) is on a 'day release' pass from jail, serving a sentence for a crime we never learn. Required to be back to the facility by 6:00pm, she immediately heads to the apartment where her mother is keeping Christopher, Kathi's son. It's Christopher's 3rd birthday and Kathi is clearly a loving mother, tortured by having to be away from her child. She notices that her mother (Birgit Linauer) is sick in an 'unstable' manner that has Kathi fearing for her son's safety and well-being. The clock is ticking, as she has only a few hours to come up with a solution.
Kathi tracks down the father of her child. Robert (Patrick Schmidl) is at his office, and we learn he is married. Robert is willing to offer her some money, but that's where his willingness to take responsibility ends. Christopher is a kid, and thereby oblivious to the pressure and stress that his mother feels. When Kathi asks a "stranger" if Christopher can use the restroom at her house, we quickly figure out Sylvia (Daniela Zacheral) is not just helpful and pregnant, but also closely affiliated with the story.
The final act is quite something to watch as Ms. Suk has very few lines of dialogue, yet manages to express so much emotion that we are right there with her in that final shot. She has reverted to the only spot where she's ever found true comfort. It's easy to see how this short film was so well received at film festivals this year and last.
Jon Stewart speaks
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.
don't mistake it for animated cuteness
Greetings again from the darkness. Madagascar is the fourth largest island in the world at 228,900 square miles. 90 percent of its wildlife is found nowhere else, and it features a unique ecosystem with staggering natural resources. It's been the subject of National Geographic specials and very successful (and cute) animated kids' movies. Contrasting to all of those details, is the fact that the vast majority of the citizens live in extreme poverty and suffer from malnutrition, while the government is in near-constant turmoil.
Cam Cowan is a former attorney, and this is his first documentary feature. Rather than bury us in bottom-of-the-world economic data, or frustrate us with details of years of political corruption and upheaval, he allows us to focus on the very personal stories of three women ... each woman striving to survive the day and provide for her family.
Lin offers laundry services for the community. The first day we see her, she makes 28 cents, which just about covers the cost of 2 cups of white rice. One of Lin's babies died a few months after birth, and she buried the young girl at the front door stoop, so that she never forgets. Deborah began as a sex worker at age 12. She recounts how some physically abuse her and don't pay. Her dream was to be a lawyer, but now hopes her kids can get the education she was denied. Tina busts rocks in local quarry. She spends hours each day under the sun without even the luxury of gloves to protect her hands.
In 2009, Malagasy citizens took to the streets to protest corruption in government. The international community responded by cutting off support. That support accounted for 60% of social services, including food, healthcare, and education. A sinking country sunk even lower. We learn that Madagascar is the only country untouched by war where the populace is now poorer than they were in 1960. In fact, the majority of citizens earn less than $2.00 per day, and 80-90% fall below the poverty line.
As a mother plucks fleas and larvae from her kids' feet, she admonishes them with, "From now on, tell me when you have fleas in your feet." We may think parenting is difficult, but the guess is, you've never warned your kids about fleas nesting under their skin. The film touches on some of the issues with government structure, but there really isn't enough time for a deep dive. We also learn about humanitarian Father Pedro, who helps educate and feed children. He's the subject of Mr. Cowan's next documentary, "OPEKA", which is being released as a follow up to this one.
The island's natural resources are not really discussed here, as the focus is on the people and the daily hardships they endure. There is an undeniable spirit amongst these people, even though it's a struggle to find hope. Some of the international support has returned, but it's clear real change won't happen until the government is structured to support the citizenry and trust is restored. This is tough to watch, but we must.
The Ghost of Peter Sellers (2018)
carry that weight
Greetings again from the darkness. Watching someone go through therapy - exorcising the demons of their life - is a bit uncomfortable. So while we understand Peter Medak's 'need' to revisit the project (from almost 50 years ago) that nearly derailed his promising career, there are plenty of moments here where we feel like we are intruding. As a filmmaker, Mr. Medak's most natural form of expression is with a camera, so re-tracing a dark time as a documentary makes some sense; we just wonder why he had to drag us along to share his misery.
A "67 day nightmare" is how Peter Medak describes the experience of filming GHOST IN THE NOONDAY SUN, a film that was never officially released. It was 1973 and Medak was a hot young director, fresh off THE RULING CLASS with Peter O'Toole. When Peter Sellers, one of the most sought-after international film stars, agreed to sign on, the 17th century Pirate movie based on the novel by Albert Sydney Fleischman, was thought to be a sure-thing box office smash. In reality, it was the beginning of Medak's nightmare that still haunts him today.
While re-visiting the original Cyprus sets, and meeting with seemingly anyone who was involved with production and is still alive, Medak recollects specific instances of things that went sideways. The vast majority of it leads right back to the behavior of Peter Sellers, who seemed to be sabotaging the film from very early on. Was it arrogant "star" behavior? Was Sellers depressed over his breakup with Liza Minnelli? Was he bi-polar? We get interviews with co-writer (and Sellers' buddy) Spike Milligan's agent Norma Farnes, as well as the film's Costume Director Ruth Myers, and Sellers' stuntman Joe Dunne. None of these folks seem to have any pleasant memories of making the movie, and when you add in commentary from other filmmakers like director Piers Haggard (THE FIENDISH PLOT OF DR FU MANCHU, Sellers' final film, 1980) and director Joseph McGrath (CASINO ROYALE, THE MAGIC CHRISTIAN), it appears the common denominator in creating anguish was Peter Sellers.
Among the tales we hear are in regards to Sellers firing a producer, his clashes with Medak and co-star Tony Franciosa, his push to keep Spike Milligan involved as writer and director of some scenes, and most shocking of all, Sellers' faking a heart attack on set, and the admission of collaboration in fraud from Dr. Greenburgh. We expect artists to have unusual personalities and quirks, but it's unfortunate when one person can affect the livelihood of so many others.
'Why go through the pain of re-visiting this?' Medak is asked the question a couple of times, and it certainly runs through our head while watching. Clips from the film are dropped in throughout the documentary, and it comes across as a pirate farce that appears to have been disjointed at best. I recently watched a "lost" Sellers film entitled MR TOPAZE (aka I LIKE MONEY) from 1961. It was the only feature film where he was credited as director, and if the stories from behind-the-scenes are true, it was yet another case was Sellers was guilty of sabotage.
Medak's mission with this documentary seems to be one of catharsis. Or maybe it's his chance to prove he wasn't to blame for the tragedy of this project. When he talks to producer John Heyman, it seems clear that Heyman, despite losing millions on the film, was able to move on - to get over the setback ... something Medak still hasn't done. While no cast or crew members attended the wrap party, we do wonder if anyone will have an interest in this mess that occurred nearly five decades ago. The only value may be from the perspective of cinematic history or lore, at least other than, hopefully, Peter Medak's mental well-being and soul cleansing.
Greetings again from the darkness. Writer-director Kyle Laursen delivers a very timely 19 minute short film addressing the nuances of racism and sexism, and how one's background alters the perception of an encounter. In a scenario that has played out countless times over the years, we witness an actor audition for a role, and we see how words in a script or words spoken without thought, can pack a punch.
Brandon (Luke Forbes, CROWN HEIGHTS, 2017) is up for a lead role in which his friend and the assistant director (Mather Zickel) has recommended him. The film's writer-director (played by screen veteran Kevin Dunn, recently of "Veep") is in the room, as is the production assistant (Melanie Chandra, "Code Black"). It's a Civil War era story, and includes the racially charged language of the era ... something that makes everyone uncomfortable. Well, everyone except the film's writer-director, who defends his words as truthful and authentic to the era. As the discussion progresses, emotions run high, and the director condescendingly states, "It's good to talk about these things."
Generational differences. Racial divide. Gender insensitivity. Thanks to the education and awakening that has been a part of society recently, it's obvious to us as observers when a remark is inappropriate or insensitive. Many times the words are said with absolutely no ill intent, but the lesson to learn is that is no excuse. As Brandon enters the elevator after the audition, we find ourselves exhaling with him.
memorable first feature
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 Mendolsohn (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 doctor). 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.
would you open the door?
Greetings again from the darkness. The first airplane hijacking movie I remember seeing was AIRPORT (1970, with Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin). Since then, it's been a recurring, relatively common cinematic topic blending our natural fears (flying and terrorism) with our love and admiration of heroic people, as seen in such films as EXECUTIVE DECISION (1996) and AIR FORCE ONE (1997). Writer-Director Patrick Vollrath (first feature length film, Oscar nominated for his excellent 2015 Live Action Short EVERYTHING WILL BE OK/ Alles Wird Gut) and co-w Sanad Halibasic use some of the familiar tropes we've come to expect, but do so with a unique twist ... the camera never leaves the cockpit (at least until the very end).
Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars as Tobias Ellis, the co-pilot to Captain Michael Lutzman (Carlo Kitzlinger) on this scheduled short flight from Berlin to Paris. Tobias is an American based in Berlin, living with his Turkish girlfriend Gokce (Aylin Tezel) and their young son. Gokce is also a flight attendant on the flight, and the two have attempted to keep their relationship a secret from their co-workers and employer.
The film opens with a quote usually attributed to Gandhi, "An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." We then get a couple minutes of Berlin Airport security footage as passengers and their carry-ons proceed through security lines. We hear no dialogue or sound. The first actual scene puts us inside the cockpit as the flight crew arrives.
Not long after a smooth takeoff, the terrorists rush the cockpit when the flight attendant is delivering water to the pilots. A fight ensues resulting in injuries, including to both pilots. The crisis quickly escalates as Tobias has to take over flying the plane, while dealing with the pressure of a life-altering dilemma: does he follow protocol and keep the door shut, or does he hopefully save passenger lives by opening the door? The tension mounts as Tobias (and us) views the actions of the terrorist through the small cockpit monitor.
The film's title is derived from the pilot's Squawk code of 7500, which notifies the Air Traffic Controller of a hijacking-in-progress. As we learn, these aren't the usual hijackers. These are extremists who are "avenging the deaths of Muslims." These terrorists prove they aren't afraid to kill, and proclaim they are "not afraid to die." Well, all except one of them. Nineteen year old Vedat (Omid Memar) is the terrorists' translator, and he's left frantically trying to make the best of a bad situation, despite no real plan. His clouded-thinking exacerbates the situation as he tries to deal with the police negotiator.
What gives the film appeal is the 'camera in the cockpit' trick and the tension of the moment. The space is cramped and claustrophobic. Showing the crew going through the pre-flight checks allows us to get our bearings in an unfamiliar setting. To this non-pilot, the sequence delivers a very authentic look and feel. Spending the entire time in a confined space recalls such films as BURIED (2010), LOCKE (2013), and Hitchcock's LIFEBOAT (1944). Joseph Gordon-Levitt carries most of the film with his performance, as he's rarely off camera. His temperament during chaos is fun to watch, but the final act is just a bit overwrought, and some of the good from the first two acts unravels a bit. Still, the close-quarters of a cockpit makes a unique viewing experience, and one that has us asking how we would react in this situation.
it's not the violence
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 Waislgas), 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 Ryhs-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.
who to believe?
Greetings again from the darkness. We wouldn't expect a 19 minute crime drama to have sufficient time to create the tension needed for impact. Writer-director Ben Reid and his co-writer Owen Gower serve up a short film that packs a punch, a twist, and also some commentary on our attitudes towards the disabled.
The film opens with a police raid on some type of facility. An orderly (Lawrence Spellman) refuses to answer the door since he's been drinking at the desk. Soon we learn that a body has been found, and the detective on the case (Alice Lowe, SOMETIMES ALWAYS NEVER) is watching the security camera footage. We also learn that it's a facility for those with Down Syndrome, and that orderly is an ex-con whose younger brother (Tommy Jessup) is a patient.
It's clear the older brother is protective of the younger one, especially when he has to intervene during spats with the supervisor (Richard Glover). Most of what we see is in flashback format, but we are never sure just how accurate the recollections are. Who are we, and the police, to believe? What assumptions do we make about those with Down Syndrome? What about those with a criminal record? THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON is another recent movie that featured a character with Down Syndrome, and Tommy Jessup does work here. The film is dedicated to Mr. Reid's brother who has Down Syndrome, and it's a thought-provoking experience with dark lighting and subject matter to match.
welcome to the Hotel Aurora
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?'
Sometimes Always Never (2018)
Nighy spells it out
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.
Mr. Topaze (1961)
after almost 60 years
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.
Quiet Crossing (2019)
a piece of candy, not cake
Greetings again from the darkness. The film opens with data points of 1967 East Germany. 300 watchtowers, 65 miles of trenches, hidden bunkers, 11,000 armed guards, and hundreds of "ordinary" people shot down trying to escape a communist regime shielded by a 96 mile concrete wall.
From the ominous statistics, we cut to the back of a delivery truck where two men, a woman, and a baby are hiding away in the back, trying to be as quiet as possible. It's not just their hopes for freedom at stake, it's their lives. From inside the truck, we experience a roadside security stop. Of course the concern is for an unpredictable cry from the sleeping baby, however, it's an unexpected twist that creates a "no win" situation.
Director Patrik Krivaner (using black and white film) and writer Rik Hulme generate an inordinate amount of tension in a mere 3.5 minutes. We see human nature at its most extreme - desperate for freedom, fearful of danger, and unaware as natural survival and defensive instincts take over. This is very impactful filmmaking.
Return to Hardwick (2019)
the greatest generation
Greetings again from the darkness. 'The greatest generation.' Some might consider it an overused colloquialism, but watching this documentary from Michael Sellers proves yet again just how true that "greatest" description is. Mr. Sellers blends the history of the 8th Air Force, 93rd Bombardment Group, the personal stories of those who served, and the airfield that was so crucial to their record number of missions ... Hardwick Aerodrome 104 in East Anglia.
As the grandson of John L Sullivan, a bombardier/navigator in the 93rd, Sellers has followed the group closely, and decided to make a film on the 2015 reunion as veterans and family members visited Hardwick. The result is a touching tribute that weaves personal stories with WWII history. Opening with the beautiful prose written by Ed Reilly, a radio operator with the 93rd, on his 1975 (30 years after the war) trip to Hardwick, we then shift to the narrator, actor Michael Cudlitz ("Band of Brothers") and this trip to Hardwick 40 years after Reilly's.
Sons, daughters, grandchildren and surviving unit members make the trip, and we are told that the 93rd Bomb Group was the most decorated, most traveled, and most effective of the WWII bomb groups. With much of the airfield now farm land, it would be easy to classify Hardwick as 'forgotten', but that's simply not the case. The main runway was bulldozed years ago, and many of the structures are long gone, but there is a group of locals who maintain a museum dedicated to Hardwick and those who served. There are multiple albums with organized photographs, and remnants including what's left of a pilot's jacket after a horrific plane crash. That pilot's nephew is on the trip, seeking any details he might discover.
It's that kind of personal touch that grabs us. There is even a love story - one that either blossomed due to WWII, or in spite of it. The daughter of the woman who fell in love and got married is on the trip. The museum's albums hold a photo of her parents that she's never seen, and she gets to visit the local chapel where their service was help. We hear from locals who recall watching the airfield being constructed, and how appreciative they are of 1942 when the US Air Force joined the Allies in the fight against Hitler.
Interviews are shown with those who served (Navigators, Pilots, Gunners, Ground Crew), their families, and those keeping the memories and history alive. We see photos, personal letters, and archival video of a time that truly changed the world. Director Sellers uses animated graphics to superimpose images of the original airfield and structures over today's topography so that we have a visual of what Hardwick once was. The 93rd is credited with flying 396 missions, the most in the Air Force, including air sport over Normandy on June 6, 1944. As if all of the personal tales weren't emotional enough, Sellers takes his camera to the Memorial Day ceremonies at Cambridge American Cemetery and Memorial. It's quite a sight. Finally, we learn that hot dogs were the "hurry up food" for those headed to their next mission!
Lost in America (2018)
making it personal
Greetings again from the darkness. The thought of anyone being homeless should not sit well with any of us. And whether you are a parent or not, the thought becomes even less tenable when kids are involved. Director Rotimi Rainwater accomplishes two goals with his project: making it personal, and revealing the scope.
"These are their stories." Director Rainwater introduces us to several young homeless folks around the country and allows each to explain their situation in their own words. As you might expect, the stories are painful to tell and excruciating to hear. The project spans about four years (2013-2017) and Rainwater revisits some of these folks more than once. In addition to hearing from these homeless youngsters, we learn how little data exists, and how, as a country, we seem to be pretending the problem is minor and not worthy of more attention. With youth homeless estimates ranging from 48,000 to 2.8 million, one need not be a statistical analyst to recognize faulty and incomplete data.
We simply don't know how many homeless youths live on our streets, and we don't have the background information to know why they are there. Celebrity activists interviewed include Halle Berry, Jon Bon Jovi, Mylie Cyrus, Tiffany Haddish, and Sanaa Lathan, as well as co-producers Rosario Dawson and Jewel. Additionally, we learn about the efforts of Senator Patrick Leahy (D, Vermont) and Senator Susan Collins (R, Maine) as they promote their bi-partisan "Runaway and Homeless Youth and Trafficking Prevention Act" to re-authorize and update the specifics of the "Runaway and Homeless Youth Act" first passed in 1974.
The film breaks down into four key elements faced by homeless youths: the failure of the Foster Care system, Sex Trafficking, LGBT affiliation, and the underfunding and scarcity of shelters. Actress Tiffany Haddish recounts her experience with Foster Care. We learn that 300,000 youths are targeted for sex trafficking each year, and the average age is 12. Surveys report that 40% of homeless youths identify as LGBT, and this one issue has prevented additional government funding.
The most poignant sections of the film occur when we hear directly from the homeless. The word "safe" is utilized numerous times, because being alone is scary and dangerous. One of those interviewed states, "When the sun goes down, it's a completely different atmosphere." Chilling words. The only misstep for the film comes from Rainwater's decision to include entirely too many talking heads. We simply can't keep up with who is talking and what their relationship to the homeless situation is. He does make the point that many are aware of the issue and that 5000 homeless youths die each year, but it's the personal accounts - including his own - that make an impact. It's also the first film this year where someone uses "burrito" as a verb. As the film concludes, Jewel's song "No More Tears" plays as the director provides updates on the individuals we met. Happy endings are not typical.
Here Awhile (2019)
Death with Dignity
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.
Greetings again from the darkness. Actress Lulu Wilson is not yet 15 years old (13 when filming this one), and yet her resume is already quite impressive, featuring roles in such high profile projects as "The Haunting of Hill House" (2018), "Sharp Objects" (2018), and ANNABELLE: CREATION (2017). She's clearly on the path to stardom, so seizing the lead role in a low budget ultra-violent home invasion flick provides her some fun and shows off her range.
If you are going to have a young teenage girl go full 'Rambo', you might as well have her facing off against some neo-Nazi escaped convicts. You might question the casting of Kevin James as the gang leader - a dead-eyed hulk with shaved head, long beard, and swastika tattoos (on his scalp). James typically plays a funny schlub like Paul Blart or a loveable simpleton like his character on "The King of Queens." Not this time. His Dominick is relentless and lacking all compassion in his quest for the key - a key that we never really learn the purpose of or the reason it's hidden where it is.
Co-directors and Design School buddies Jonathan Milott and Cary Murnion bookend the story with scenes of Becky being interrogated by the Sheriff after all the audacious events. So we know going in that Becky will survive - we just don't know about the others. Some fancy editing trickery has us bouncing between Becky at school and Dominick in the prison yard. The escape of he and his three buddies is chronicled alongside Becky's dad (Joel McHale, "Community") taking her and their two dogs to the family lake house. She's happy until Kayla (Amanda Brugel, "The Handmaid's Tale) and her young son Ty (Isiah Rockcliffe) pull up.
Becky is still grieving her beloved mother who died of cancer. We see flashbacks of their final days together. Becky is not ready for her dad to re-marry, and when she envisions the merged family, she bolts from the dinner table into the woods. Soon after Dominick and his boys knock on the door and take everyone else hostage. Becky dons what appears to be a knitted chipmunk cap (it's her nickname), and arms herself for battle. It doesn't take long for us to see that this is a rare, ultra-violent gore-fest featuring a rampaging teenage girl. One might compare to Kevin in HOME ALONE, but it's more similar in tone to READY OR NOT (2019) and THE HUNT (2020).
The script was written by Nick Morris and the husband and wife team of Ruckus Skye and Lane Skye. While there are some memorable moments, we do find ourselves wishing that the film veered a bit more in one direction - either more ominous or more tongue-in-cheek/outlandish. Perhaps a bit of background on Dominick, or some prep work on how Becky turns so quickly from angry teenager to murderous psychotic with an instinct for violence and mayhem. Dominick admits "Becky is a little more than we bargained for", and she's probably a bit more than we can accept.
Still, the scenes between Kevin James and Lulu Wilson are enough to keep us watching, and the cinematography from Greta Zozula (the excellent LIGHT FROM LIGHT, 2019) delivers the visuals to keep us cringing. For those who enjoy violence and gore served in bulk, you'll likely be satisfied.