Category Archives: Film

“STEAK KNIVES”— Some Birthday!!

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“Steak Knives”

Some Birthday!

Amos Lassen

How do we know what is the right birthday gift? Here we have a short film about a man whose life is threatened by his wife when he gives her steak knives as a birthday gift. Steak knives seem like a great gift—knives are like underwear—one never has enough.

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At Katrine’s (Audrey Noone) party, everything was fine until people left and John (David Afflick) learns that his wife is none too pleased with his gift. They have been married some fourteen years but it seems that Katrine was expecting something other than a set of knives that do not represent much to her. She thinks about a possible different use for her gift—something for which these knives were not intended. Katrine is well aware that John is totally in her power. Up until this point John had been a good husband except for that time two years before when he had a bit of a dalliance with another woman. However, Katrine is not one who forgives easily…

The entire movie runs less than four minutes yet it tells a story with surprises. The cast does a fantastic bit of acting and it is amazing how much they do in such a short time. For that director Chris Esper gets credit. For a film that is shorter than what it takes me to make a cup of coffee is absolutely astonishing. What I really found interesting is thinking about whether this is a drama or a comedy or both. There is something exciting to be held in suspense for just four minutes and when I went back to watch a couple of more times, it took me longer to write down what I saw than to actually see it.

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Immediately we enter a world that seems serene but we soon realize that this is not the case at all. From serenity we move to suspense and ultimately to the deed. I was sorry to see the film end—it managed to pull me is so deeply and quickly. Because the story is so farfetched it is believable (if you understand what I mean by that). Sure the murder is an exaggeration of a response of a wife who does not forge the past. I was reminded of a short Hitchcock in which a woman killed her husband with a leg of lamb that she then cooked and invited the police to eat.

Granted the film is exaggerated yet it remains chilling to a degree and this is what I think makes me like it. As we watch it our minds change and any director who is capable of pulling that off in less than four minutes is a director to watch. After all were we not at a party where everyone seemed to be having a good time? We certainly were not anticipating murder.

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Suddenly Katrine is frustrated and irate—her eyes open wide, she movies from crying to sarcasm; she grabs a knife…. and everything changes. We are shocked by the unexpected and we remain that way.

“ALWAYS A REASON— Thinking Twice

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“Always a Reason”

Thinking Twice

Amos Lassen

After the death of his wife, he (Don Tempesta) feels he has nothing to live for and begins to think about suicide. He writes his thoughts down in a note, puts the gun to his temple and at that moment the phone rings and he realizes that he still has some thinking to do.

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It is amazing that in three short minutes can touch us so deeply and even more amazing that one small seemingly trivial thing can change how one lives or even dies. When I watched a second time with one eye on my watch and the other on the screen, I noticed that as we hit the two-minute mark, emotion was already taking over. The situation presented here is one we are all familiar with. We have all felt down sometime and have wondered what our next move would be as we see things as darkly as possible. We have all felt loss and we have all felt lonely (perhaps not to the point of suicide). We have all encountered a time or a period when we feel there is no hope and our lives have no direction. So we may not consider suicide but we know the feelings we have when nothing seems to matter. The important thing to remember is that just as those feelings come to us, they also leave us.

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The secret to surviving seems to lie in remembering that these moments don’t only come, but also go. It is the fine script by Don Tempesta and Chris Esper and Tempesta’s direction that makes this film so real. When he (Tempesta) writes that note about how he feels our hearts break with his. He apologizes for this as he explains how difficult life has become without his wife and just as he points the gun to his head, the phone rings and his son Timmy (Christian Goodwin) is on the line. He simply wants to know if the two of them are going to the game and if they can stop for a hot dog on the way. When his father answers as the tears well in his eyes, we know he has found a reason to stay alive even if it is as small as a hot dog or as big as a son. All it took was a phone call from someone that he cares about to snap him out of his plans and to give the ray of hope that he needed so badly. We are not contrived into feeling for him—the movie brings out the humanity in us. I could not help be reminded of what so many say at funerals—“he/she is in a better place” now but we know there is no place better than life.

“HER HEART STILL BEATS”— A New Look at an Old Story

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“Her Heart Still Beats”

A New Look at an Old Story

Amos Lassen

Ed (Fiore Leo) left work early and came home to his wife Sarah (Leighsa Burgin) and found that he had a strange feeling about her. As he looked into her eyes, he wondered if something was wrong yet he cannot understand the feelings he has. He cannot decide whether she is insane or perhaps that she is evil personified. This is an updated version of the famous short story, “The Tell-Tale Heart” by Edgar Allen Poe. Director Christopher Di Nunzio uses Poe’s atmosphere and moves it to a different period of time and place.

 The couple seems to be living a normal married life until Sarah got sick and Ed noticed something strange in her eyes and whatever that was, it upset Ed to the point of wanting to murder her. Once the deed is done, Ed cannot deal with what he did.

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Ed’s issues with Sarah in conjunction with her illness and eventual need to stay home come forward and we are not sure if it was he eyes that disturbed Ed so or if it was the feeling that her being sick and staying home was an intrusion into Ed’s life. As he comes to confess what he did, he begins to “loose It” and go mad making this a fascinating attempt to look into the human mind.

“MARIE’S STORY”— Marie and Marguerette

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“Marie’s Story” (“Marie Heurtin”)

Marie and Marguerette

Amos Lassen

 Marie Heurtin was born both blind and deaf. She was considered unreachable but then she was brought to Sister Marguerette who won her trust and taught her how to express herself. Directed by Jean-Pierre Améris the film follows 14-year-old Marie (Ariana Vivioire who is actually deaf) as a dedicated nun (Isabelle Carré) was committed to finding a way to communicate with her. Marie was the daughter of an artisan and his wife who were despondent to discover that their daughter was unable to communicate with the world around her. They did not want to send her to an institution so they decided to send her to the Larnay Institute in central France, where an order of Catholic nuns managed a school for deaf girls. There, the idealistic sister saw in Marie a unique potential, and despite her Mother Superior’s skepticism, vowed to bring Marie out of the darkness into which she was born. The film is based on true events and tells the courageous journey of a young nun and the lives she changed forever by confronting failures and discouragement with faith and love. Some of you may feel that you have already seen the Helen Keller story, “Miracle Worker” with powerful performances but this is very special because it happened before Keller and Sullivan. While the stories are indeed similar each gives a different look at the issues.

Born in 1885 and brought to the Larnay Institute at the age of 10, Marie Heurtin arrived disheveled and incommunicative. She knew how to bang her tin fork and plate together to ask for food, but not much else. Sister Marguerite, herself suffering health issues that she kept hidden from her charges, worked tirelessly to make a connection for Marie between the object in her hand and the sign for it.

Once Marie learned how to “say” knife, the door was opened for her to learn all concept of language and expression; with Sister Marguerite’s help, she even learned abstract constructs like old and young, life and death. Marie would live the rest of her days at the Institute, which is still in existence today. She learned to sew and read Braille and eventually became a tutor and inspiration to other students.

Jean-Pierre Améris directed this beautiful and inspiring film.

“ROAR”— An Action-Adventure

roar“Roar”

An Action-Adventure

Amos Lassen

Uday is a photojournalist who while on assignment in the jungles of the Sundarbans, rescued a white tiger cub that was caught in a poacher’s trap. He them brought the cub to a small settlement where he was based but the villages became panicky. In order for calm to return to the villagers, the forest warden takes the cub away.

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The Sunderbans is one of the densest mangrove forests in the world and once the cub’s mother discovered what happened to her cub, went after the culprit and killed him. Pandit (Abhinav Shukla), Uday’s bother, who is a commando by profession, went to tiger’s territory to avenge the death of his brother. But, despite being a trained soldier he was helpless in a place that belongs to the deadly wild creatures. Since the beginning of time, stories like this have existed. are dealing with same set of nine emotions, and a good storyteller only changes the quantity of the ingredients. “Roar” is not the typical man versus wild story— it is somewhere between fantasy and adventure genres. There are sequences in the film that are total fiction and that lack any factual base but somehow have become the most intriguing parts of the film. 
The screenplay follows a usual linear structure where the director establishes the premise. A group of commandos is out on a mission to kill a so-called man-eater. They possess all the modern ammunitions and gadgets that they plan to use on this personal mission. Their anger brings them inside the delta region of the Sunderbans where they are tracked by wild beasts. Very soon, it becomes a direct fight between Pandit’s men and the tigress. Now there is something silly here and that is that the commandos arrive in the forest with enough arms and ammunition to blow up an entire district.

The director wants to hide this goof-up with an exhibition of beautifully chiseled physiques. Female members of the group keep show off their curvaceous figures in hot pants. Male members go shirtless because the director very candidly has a character state that the Sunderbans is devoid of mosquitoes and leeches.

Because the target is not any ordinary tigress the team has to go the extra mile where the animal starts killing them one by one. The tigress is smart enough to outwit the trained men at every point. Instead of falling into the trap meant for her, she devises a way to lead Pandit into the interiors of Sunderbans and she confuses Pandit with misleading footmarks and wrong symbols and ends up trapping them. It is here the hunters step it up instead of than backing off and all hell breaks loose. Were it not about the fantasized version of a jungle trail, the film would have turned into a joke at this point only. Instead, this is where “Roar” becomes quite engaging. 
 Director of photography Michael Watson has captured the essence of Sunderbans and its enticing death holes. He makes the film come alive and the landscapes that we see in “Roar” will remain with us for a long time. I understand that the 


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intentions behind “Roar” are clearly noble and are meant to draw attention to the dwindling numbers of tigers but despite its novelty the lack of story and acting skills make this a missed opportunity.

 

“Monk with a Camera”— From the Mundane to the Sacred

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“Monk with a Camera”

From the Mundane to the Sacred

Amos Lassen

Nicholas Vreeland, the grandson of Diana Vreeland walked away from the worldly lifestyle that he had been raised in after having been trained to use a camera by Irving Penn. When he met a Tibetan Buddhist Monk, his life changed totally. Not long afterwards, he gave everything up and began living in a monastery in India where, for fourteen years, he studied Buddhism. Ironically, he went back to photography to help rebuild the monastery. He was appointed Abbot of the monastery by the Dalai Lama and this made him the first westerner in the history of Buddhism to ever reach such a position.

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Vreeland’s father was a diplomat to the United Nations and he had quite a background. Born in Switzerland, he was educated in Europe, North Africa, and the United States. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Vreeland pursued a career in photography working as an assistant to Irving Penn and Richard Avedon, two famous masters of the art. However, he felt something was missing in his life but that changed when he met Khylongla Rato Rinpoche, founder of the Tibet Center in New York City, who became his guru. Eventually, he settled in Tibet and took charge of building the Rato monastery there.

Through his story as directed by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara, we see the challenges facing Tibetan Buddhism in the Western world. On a more personal level, the documentary also looks at Vreeland’s struggle reconciling his passion for photography with his spiritual life and his Buddhist understandings of attachment and impermanence. There was a time when he eschewed entirely. Then came 2008 economic crash that stopped funds coming in for the monastery construction so he traveled around the world raising nearly a half million dollars through the sales of his photographs.

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We see, in the film, some really touching scenes that include the encouragement his father and brother gave him, a scene of monks rescuing an ant who steps in their path, the joy given to Vreeland’s guru by a toy parrot, and the laughter of His Holiness the Dalai Lama when in the midst of very sober rituals.

He still takes pictures, which he says can be justified to the extent that it helps others. The Dalai Lama considers him instrumental in developing American Buddhism before naming him an abbot. This the story of a man who moved from being a dandy to becoming an ascetic.

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What makes this film so fascinating is the insight into Buddhism that it provides especially in the areas of values as well a look at some of the conflict and contradiction that are part of Nicky’s spiritual journey—especially the Buddhist desire to transcend ego. When Vreeland sought to dispense with worldly things, there is something about the very nature of art that emphasizes and affirms ego. Monasticism is only part of what Vreeland went through but he also had to learn how to live in the world while embodying the values of a religious tradition. Today Vreeland is at home in both Rato and New York City. I am sure that he still struggles with avoiding the kinds of attachments that feed his ego, yet he has also has a kind of certain grace that fills his life and his relationships with others. We can all learn something about the nature of spiritualism in our lives regardless of religion and we see that here.

“IF YOU DON’T, I WILL”— Modern Relationships

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“IF YOU DON’T, I WILL”

Modern Relationships

Amos Lassen

Sophie Fillières looks at modern relationships with the help of Emmanuel Devos (Pomme) and Mathieu Amaric (Pierre) who star in “If You Don’t, I Will”.

We see how people who are stuck stranded in a once hot romance gone cold; begin to pick at one another. Pierre and Pomme are a chic, attractive French couple, and, at first, it appears that their mutual arguing is either an ironic sign of affectation or the symptom of a rut.

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Pierre grows possessive over Pomme while they are at an art opening, and their dialogue ends with him attempting to abandon her at a bus stop. Later, he talks to Pomme briefly while she’s showering, and, though we clearly understand that she expects him to climb into the shower with her, he brutally shortens the conversation in an act of willful obliviousness.

It is impossible to guess what happens in this film; one of the trademarks of director Sophie Fillières is that she never plays put what she thinks the audience thinks is going to happen. Here instead of having cute altercations, Pierre and Pomme have painful exchanges and while we tend to feel for Pomme in the beginning we see that Pierre’s callousness is just a cover for missing something in life. Pierre allows us to understand that his attacks come from a deep feeling of feeling of continual emotional blockage that’s really confusion.

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Passion and spontaneity between the two have given way to predictability and cold shoulders. Yet there’s a lingering optimism and hope they can return to the couple they used to be, attending chic art openings and sharing a laugh like young lovers. On a hike together one afternoon, Pomme declares her independence by deciding to stay in the woods rather than return to an underwhelming life with Pierre. Pierre tries to return to “normal”, despite his worry over her whereabouts and the sense that he’s missing his better half. Meanwhile, Pomme begins an extended meditation in the forest on where her own life should go next, with our without Pierre. In the end, both are left to deal with the strength and meaning of each other’s commitment.  Pomme and Pierre seem to be very much in tune with each other even while they aren’t. (No I cannot explain that sentence).

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In the first half of the film we rely on the verbosity of the characters’ speech to try to understand who they are. Then the film takes on a structure that follows Pomme after she decides to live in the woods in order to detox from Pierre’s poison. Pomme is trying to get in touch with herself and maybe even find solace in nature. Yet there is still a great deal of uncertainty with her. While in the woods, Pomme and Pierre are surrounded by the beauty of nature but they cannot see anything but their constant bickering.

The point of the film seems to be that there is no human more self-absorbed than one who is part of a new love situation. The despair that comes with the erosion of feelings is what seems to doom our two main characters.

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Solitude provides us with an escape from the pressures and obligations that are part of our private and daily lives. Nature and being alone gives us a reprieve from the constraints of the clock and social conventions. Solitude can indeed cause purification where we leave old habits and emotions behind and begin anew.

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Their marriage is in deep trouble and both of them know it. Pomme is hurting the most; she is at the end of her rope with his little attacks on her being.

The film is an intense portrait of a marriage that is ending. Emmanuelle Devos gives a nuanced performance as a wife who takes a break from her unhappiness in order to discover in solitude what she should do with her life. Pomme’s wilderness sojourn becomes a spiritual wake-up call as she realizes that she can no longer live in the midst of loss, disappointment, and frustration. All that remains is for her to head home and test out her decision in dialogue with Pierre.

“THE WAY THINGS GO” (“Der Laugh der Dinge”)— “Pranksters of Art”

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“The Way Things Go” (“Der Laugh der Dinge”)

“Pranksters of Art”

Amos Lassen

 Swiss artists Peter Fischli (b. 1952) and David Weiss (1946–2012) built an enormous, precarious structure 100 feet long made out of common household items—tea kettles, tires, old shoes, balloons, wooden ramps, etc. Then, with fire, water, gravity and chemistry, they created a spectacular chain reaction, a self-destructing performance of physical interactions, chemical reactions, and precisely crafted chaos worthy of Rube Goldberg or Alfred Hitchcock. The artists have been called “the merry pranksters of contemporary art” and Fischli and Weiss collaborated for 33 years, drawing global notoriety and praise for taking on big questions with humble materials and a tongue-in-cheek manner. The film now on Blu-ray for the first time, is their most acclaimed and beloved work.

The film is something of a homage to the two artists and as we watch the film we see thirty minutes of cause and effect. It all starts with a suspended and unwinding trash bag that sets a tire into motion and from there on, there is a chain-reaction with fire, water, foam, popping corks, balloons, sparks, tires, balls, cylinders and enough examples of balance, gravity, momentum, inertia and chemical reactions and as viewers we are visually stunned.

The film was made with just one take and the contraption reportedly measured more than 100 feet. There’s tension and suspense here with great fire effects.

The title is a bit misleading—this is not a film that explains something but rather a film about things that happen without explanation. The way it is edited makes it seem what we see is one long reaction rather that several shorter ones, one happening after another. I loved the experience but I also would have liked a bit of narration.

“DAYS OF GRACE”— Corruption, Violence, Vengeance—Three Destinies

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“Days of Grace” (“Dias De Gracia”)

Corruption, Violence, Vengeance—Three Destinies

Amos Lassen

“Days of Grace” is set in Mexico City during three consecutive World Cup tournaments. We see three lives impacted by kidnappings. Lupe is an idealistic cop, whose job it is to investigate a crime ring and he finds that justice has no place when a human life has a price. When Susana’s businessman- husband Arturo is kidnapped, she must go outside the law to fight for his release. Iguana dreams of becoming a boxer even as he is drawn into a lifestyle that finds him guarding kidnap Victim X and facing down a kidnapping mastermind. This was writer-director-producer Everardo Gout’s Out of Competition entry at the Cannes Film Festival about a fierce Mexican cop battling baddies and drug cartels and it is full of cruelty.

The film depicts Mexico as a lawless land of drug lords, kidnappers, and corruption so endemic it goes “all the way up to the top.” The hero, a handsome young cop, is as ruthlessly macho as the snarling, tattooed killers he battles. The pace is fast and furious, there’s little time to worry about the ethics of sympathizing with him as he goes about breaking arms and cracking skulls. The action takes place in 2002, 2006 and 2010, cleverly denoted by the World Cup soccer matches on everybody’s TV.  During the games, both cops and criminals let down their guard. But not Lupo Esparza (Tenoch Huerta), a champion of justice who will stop at nothing to catch his man. He is a tall, muscular young cop who exudes intensity and honesty; a family man with a big smile and an aversion to lawbreakers.

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The movie begins at the end—we see three armed figures caught in a stand-off as a menacing dog slavers away behind them. Then we jump back to the summer of 2002, where Lupe is shaking town two young boys suspected of peddling cocaine. Aggressive and seemingly crooked, we soon see the human side of Lupe as he rushes to meet his newly born son and exhausted wife at a city hospital. Meanwhile, the second narrative strand follows the kidnap and ransom of a businessman, his head captor inspiring a seductive mix of awe and fear in those who follow him. Throughout, Gout jumps from past to present in order to flesh out the complexities of those that are featured in the story.

Mexico City is seen as a nightmarish dystopia where an individual’s hopes and dreams are crushed immediately at conception. Lupe is our pistol-toting guide into this murky underworld and he was brought into an elite narcotics squad by his congratulatory Comandante (José Sefami) after a daytime shoot-out. However, Lupe’s actions prove to have severe consequences for both himself and his young family. The film shows us contemporary Mexico with little of the tourist baiting and alcoholic charm that have been used by others.

 By constantly cross-cutting between the years, Gout is able to keep the action rolling non-stop. It’s never clear how much Lupo is involved in the kidnapping story; his screen time is spent taking revenge on other criminals. According to family legend, his grandmother was saved by Zapata himself from being raped, and the Mexican revolutionary inspires Lupo’s ham-fisted yet ingenuous crime-fighting.

There are so many subplots that sometimes it’s hard to keep the stories straight, especially when the ending throws a truly unexpected twist. But the exceptional tech work gives the film plenty of energy and excitement.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PQTBpoRVmFM

“MOTIVATIONAL GROWTH”— The Mold Knows

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“Motivational Growth”

The Mold Knows

Amos Lassen

Ian Folivor (Adrian DiGiovanni) is a depressed and reclusive 30-something who finds himself taking advice from a growth in his bathroom after a failed suicide attempt. The Mold is a fungus that talks smoothly and who was born from the filth collecting in a corner of Ian’s neglected bathroom. It works to win Ian’s trust by helping him clean himself up and remodel his lifestyle. (Yes, I am serious). With The Mold’s help, Ian is able to attract the attention of, Leah (Danielle Doetsch), a neighbor he’s been ogling through his peephole.

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Ian and Leah actually find some happiness despite his unnatural circumstances. But then Ian suddenly starts to receive strange messages from his old and broken down TV set and they make him realize that The Mold may not be as helpful as it seems to be. Then strange characters and even stranger events push Ian’s life into an epic battle between good and evil that Ian is only partially aware of. Ian is a slob who hasn’t left his couch in ages and it his broken TV (that he has named Kent) that propels him to act. Without Kent, his best friend, Ian begins talking first to the audience and then after a terrible and traumatic event, he talks to the Mold (Jeffrey Combs).

The Mold calls Ian by the name Jack and tries to help him deal with life without Kent as well as how to deal with events that he has to face. These include the creepy TV repairman (Ken Brown), a violent landlord (Pete Giovagnoli), a mouthy delivery woman (Hannah Stevenson) and Leah. Somehow   Ian not only cleans up his act (and face), he cleans up the apartment. Yes, there are some really sick and gross-out scenes so this is not a movie to watch while eating. You will be surprised how dirty Ian and his apartment are and, in fact, it just might be a catalyst for cleaning the house. This is certainly not a feel-good flick. Think about this—how many films have you seen when the main character becomes best friends with slimy, dirty mold?

Ian hasn’t left his apartment in over a year— he sleeps on the couch, letting food waste and garbage pile up around him as he sits glued to his cabinet style TV set for the majority of his day. He doesn’t set alarms to be woken up and he rarely bathes, For Ian, life has become a struggle and he cannot even seem to be able to lift himself from the couch to go and use the bathroom. On the day that we meet Ian, he decided to kill himself via a toxic mixture in his bathtub. However, when he stands up on his counter to cover the exhaust, he slips and falls, hitting his head and passes out on the floor.

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Only when he comes around does he notice that amid the grime and dirt of his small and disgusting bathroom, a huge mould has been growing. It also has a face; and it talks.

Ian and the mold come to terms and have a plan. The mold informs Ian that it has a plan but it will take a week to get it all together. has something in mind for Ian; it will take a week and it informs Ian that if he follows the plan, he will be rewarded. Ian does as he is told but something else is happening in his apartment—his interaction with the mold causes Ian to hallucinate and question the reality that the mold told him He begins to realize that the “motivational growth” in his bathroom may not have the best of intentions.

Watching the film is like watching live theatre with the entire film taking place in either Ian’s living room or the bathroom, the fourth wall removed. This set-up by Ian is the strongest part of the film; the description he gives of his depression is pretty uncomfortable due to its direct honesty. Yet, it is refreshing to see someone on the big screen describe something so painful and undeniably personal.

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When the moves forward and strange things begin to happen, the movie seems to be trying a bit too hard and it begins to drag. Ian is lost in a world that is inhabited by watching too much TV, and he hallucinates himself as being a part of the programs. While this is completely bizarre, it almost seems entirely unnecessary to the rest of the movie, but once it reaches the end it seems to make sense.

Director Don Thacker has a unique vision in  this bizarre film and even though it starts to lose its steam along the way, DiGiovanni’s mostly solo performance keeps it going strong.