Ashes (Cenizas)


Sometimes an erupting volcano doesn’t hold a candle to the rage in a human heart.

(2018) Drama (Abaca) Samanta Caicedo, Diego Naranjo, Juana Estrella, Estela Alvarez, Pavel Almeida, Maria José Zapata, Emilio Reyes, Julia Silva, Cristina Muñoz, Eduardo Filippini, Martino Pacheco, Arnoldo Sicles, Pablo Villacis, Myriam Valdivieso, Michel Dreyer, Ignacio Lordugin, Pamela Noboa. Directed by Juan Sebastian Jacome

The things that cause families to implode more often than not come from within. Secrets, held close over months, years, decades – they are incendiary devices on a timer with an unknown setting. The longer that the timer takes, the more destructive the blast becomes.

Caridad (Caicedo) lives in a small Ecuadoran town near the base of a long-dormant volcano. When the volcano begins to erupt, she knows she has to get her belongings out of town. Reluctantly, she asks her father Galo (Naranjo) from whom she has been long estranged if he can come help her assemble her things and store them until it is safe for her to come back home.

Galo is only too happy to oblige. The estrangement of his daughters has been very painful to him and he is eager to reconcile with both of them, including his older daughter (Silva) who is a shadowy presence who will only speak to Caridad. Despite Galo’s attempts to try and bridge the gap between Caridad and himself, Caridad is cold to his attempts. Galo’s new wife Julia (Estrella) tries to mediate but is met with similar frost.

It turns out that Galo was accused by his ex-wife and mother of the two girls of horrible acts. Galo swears that the whole incident was the invention of a vengeful wife who was furious at her husband for cheating on her, so he pleads his case and tries to show Caridad tenderness and compassion although his temper gets the best of him at one point when her boyfriend (Almeida) gets a little too aggressive. Caridad now has doubts about the veracity of the rumors that surrounded the accusations that were made against her father. Was he really the monster she believed him to be all her life, or was he a innocent man who faced with terrible accusations sacrificed his own feelings to do what was best for his children?

The slow eruption of the volcano is a metaphor for the slow build towards the climax. The film feels unsteady early on as the story seems to ramble quite a bit but as the film unspools eventually things do come together for patient viewers. Still the story is somewhat difficult to follow early on particularly the first 20 minutes or so. Be patient; it does get better.

It doesn’t hurt to have two extremely proficient actors handling the two main roles. Caicedo is absolutely luminous, a true star in the making whereas veteran actor Naranjo uses an unusually expressive face to get across a whole lot of anguish without saying a word. The two work extremely well off each other and the tension between them is palpable, making the strained relationship believable which is crucial in a film like this.

The erupting volcano covers everything in a soft grey ash which gives the film a kind of winter-like feel, as well as a feeling that an explosion is not very far away. The ash makes things feel cold even though clearly there is heat and humidity going on; it’s an interesting dichotomy. Even the scenes in Quito (where Galo lives) are slightly overlit giving the movie a kind of soft unfocused look, mirroring the confusion that Caridad feels as her long-held beliefs about her dad are called into question.

There are some very powerful emotions at work throughout the film and there are several scenes that will provoke tears, revulsion or frustration. At times Caridad feels unnecessarily cruel and callous to her dad but as you discover the nature of his alleged indiscretions you realize she has good reason. I’m not sure that keeping that particular revelation was necessarily a good thing; it makes it harder to relate to Caridad as for a good half hour the audience is led to believe that she’s just a gold medal-winning bitch. As Jacome manipulates our perceptions of Caridad, we feel a bit cheated. Perhaps others may disagree but I think it would have been better to allow the audience to know what the nature of the accusations against Galo was from the start.

This is the kind of movie that makes going to film festivals so rewarding. It is hard not to come out of this with some feeling of catharsis as we discover the truth behind the rumors that kept Caridad and Galo apart The climactic scene is perfectly played and shows a director, in only his second feature, growing confident in his own skill. Undoubtedly Jacome is going to be an important figure in Latin American cinema for decades to come

While the film doesn’t have an American distributor as of yet it should be appearing on the festival circuit once it makes its world premiere in Miami on the 14th so keep an eye out for it. Their Facebook page (which is mostly in Spanish) promises a theatrical release down the line so hopefully that will happen. This is a movie not to miss. If you don’t want to miss it, you can order tickets here.

REASONS TO GO: Some of the scenes are raw, emotional and explosive. Caicedo does an amazing job in her role.
REASONS TO STAY: The story is often hard to follow, particularly at the beginning.
FAMILY VALUES: The thematic content is very adult.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Andrew Hevia, one of the producers on the film, has an Oscar for being one of the producers for 2017 Best Picture winner Moonlight.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/9/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: There’s Something About Amelia
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Brawl in Cell Block 99

Mr. Roosevelt


Noël Wells contemplates life, the universe and her dead cat.

(2017) Comedy (Paladin) Noël Wells, Nick Thune, Britt Lower, Daniella Pineda, Doug Benson, Andre Hyland, Armen Weitzman, Sergio Cilli, Paul Gordon, Jill Bailey, Christin Sawyer Davis, Anna Margaret Hollyman, Alex Dobrenko, Nicholas Saenz, Carley Wolf, Kelli Bland, Nathalie Holmes, Kenli Vacek, Gary Teague, Jill Fischer. Directed by Noël Wells

 

There are occasions which force us to confront our past. It might be something traumatic – say, the death of a loved one or a pet. On those occasions the loss forces us to see other losses and how we ourselves contributed to them and maybe even caused them directly. It forces us to look at ourselves in a harsher light.

Emily Martin (Wells) is a comedian in Los Angeles. Well, at least she’s trying to be. She spends her days going to auditions for comic ensemble programs (and doing maybe the best Holly Hunter impression you are ever likely to see) and working in an editing bay on commercials and Internet programming. By night she goes to improv performances by her friends and hooks up with other desperate comedians. It is in the middle of such a hook-up she gets a phone call from her ex.

Erik (Thune) was the man she left behind in Austin, possibly the most self-consciously hip place on the planet. He had been taking care of her cat Teddy Roosevelt but the cat was very sick – dying in fact. Emily drops everything to fly to Austin despite the fact that she can’t afford it, like, at all. When she gets there, the cat has already passed on. She hopes she can crash at the home she once shared with Erik but there’s already someone else living there – his new girlfriend Celeste (Lower) who is kind, generous and accomplished. Naturally, Emily hates her.

But kind, generous Celeste invites Emily to stay and so she does. Emily’s hostility and over-sensitivity towards Celeste leads to a restaurant meltdown during which she is befriended by waitress Jen Morales (Pineda) whom Emily decides to pal around with to parties in which Jen’s band plays, a topless outing to the river while Emily, who never really resolved her feelings for Erik, finds herself attracted to her ex in a very unhealthy way. Things come to a head during a memorial gathering to honor Mr. Roosevelt and to bury his ashes; Emily considers the late Presidential namesake to be HER cat and even though Celeste had been caring for him for two years resists any attempt to share the feline with anyone. The claws are definitely going to come out.

The Manic Pixie Dream Girl indie subgenre that Zooey Deschanel and Greta Gerwig both popularized has a new potential member in the club ; ex-SNL cast member Wells. Her first feature as a writer-director really doesn’t mine any new territory – indie film clichés abound here – but she manages to put her own spin on the film and gives it a distinct personality of its own. As a result I suspect this is going to play well in hipster film buff circles around the country but particularly in New York and El Lay.

Wells is an engaging presence and while her pixie-ish personality wears thin after awhile, Emily is just bitchy enough to keep our interest; her frequent panic attacks cause Jen to literally throw water on her in order to calm her down. However, as fascinating as Wells is, Pineda nearly steals the film. The free-spirited Jen is in many ways more interesting than the occasionally whiny Emily and definitely less prone to doing cutesy things (like her “can’t help myself” dance she does when Erik, an ex-musician who gave up his art for Celeste, goes back onstage).

There is definitely a millennial vibe here; most of the characters are obsessively self-centered and social media-savvy. Erik is going to school and getting a real estate license; Jen is caught up in the gig economy and shares a duplex with a collective of artists and stoners, one of whom becomes a revenge fuck for Emily during one of her many tantrums. Not that older viewers will be unable to relate; younger viewers will recognize and resonate with the characters better though.

The story isn’t always authentic but the characters within it always are, if that makes any sense. While there are plenty of safe choices made by Wells in the writing and execution of the film, there’s still plenty about it that has its own voice, enough to recognize that Wells could very well be the next great indie filmmaker. Here’s your chance to jump on her bandwagon early.

REASONS TO GO: Wells is an engaging lead.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is too overwhelmed by indie clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bunch of profanity, sexuality, drug use and nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Immediately after losing her job at SNL, Wells began work writing and directing this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/17/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 73/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Destined

Abundant Acreage Available


One look at Tracy’s face reminds us that farm life isn’t an easy life.

(2017) Drama (Gravitas) Amy Ryan, Terry Kinney, Max Gail, Steve Coulter, Francis Guinan. Directed by Angus MacLachlan

It is a fact that America’s heartland isn’t terribly well-served by Hollywood. Often those who live in Middle America, those that grow our food are portrayed as bumpkins, buffoons or obsessive. Those who have religion are ridiculed; even those who don’t are made to look like stubborn coots hanging on to a way of life that is dying. Thus is the state of the family farmer in the second decade of the 21st century.

Jesse (Kinney) and his adopted sister Tracy (Ryan) are burying their father, recently deceased from stomach cancer, in the field where he toiled for fifty years. Primarily a tobacco farmer, he also grew corn and sorghum. Now his children are struggling to figure out what the hell to do next.

That question is set aside when they find three elderly men camping in their fields in a tent. It turns out that the three men – Hans (Gail), Charles (Coulter) and Tom (Guinan) – are brothers and they have a connection to the farm; they lived on it before Tracy was born. It belonged to their father and he sold it to their recently deceased dad – “Missed him by a week,” the pragmatic Tom says disconsolately.

Jesse, a man of faith, found religion when his life was absolutely destroyed by a tragedy. He believes the arrival of the brothers is a sign, an opportunity to right a wrong. Jesse wants to give them the farm, which his father used the brothers’ dad’s misfortune to his own advantage to purchase. The brothers are aging and Tom, who recently suffered a stroke, is in failing health. He also has a habit of saying course sexual remarks to Tracy, who bears them with the grace of a polar bear. Tracy is adamant; this is her farm as much as it is Jesse’s and the two argue incessantly about it.

Charles has become just a little sweet on Tracy which has been noticed by everyone except for maybe Tracy herself. The brothers are interested in buying the land; Tom wants to be buried there when it’s his time to go; the three live in Orlando and they certainly don’t want to be buried there where they feel no connection other than to a ratty old couch. The land – now that’s something else. Even though they haven’t been back in 50 years, it’s still home. It still calls to them.

As I mentioned, the people portrayed here represent a segment of the American public that has been underserved by Hollywood and in many ways, looked down upon by the elites of the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. These are the salt of the earth, those that tend the land and put food on our tables. Maybe they have been idealized a little bit here – unlike most family farms these days, Tracy and Jesse don’t seem to have any financial issues in keeping their farm afloat. We also don’t get a sense of the backbreaking work it takes to farm tobacco; most of this film takes place post-harvest during the late autumn and early winter months. The landscape is appropriately stark and yet rich at the same time.

Still, we get a sense of the people. Jesse, despite his rock-solid faith, is still suffering from the tragedy that befell him. He desperately wants to do the right thing and in a way, this is his way of atoning. Kinney doesn’t make Jesse too much of a martyr although he easily could; Jesse is complex and Kinney lets all his layers show.

Still, the performance of the film belongs to Amy Ryan. Tracy is almost crazed with grief in a lot of ways; Jesse wants to bury his father in consecrated ground but Tracy is insistent his ashes be buried where he toiled nearly all his life; the fields of tobacco and corn have been consecrated with his blood, his sweat and his love. Tracy sees that far more clearly than Jesse and Tracy is a bit more strident about it.

She’s not an easy character to like but we can at least relate to her and the longer the movie – which is only an hour and 16 minutes long – goes the more sympathetic she becomes. Tracy is pushing the half century mark and has spent most of her life taking care of her brother and her adopted father and things like marriage and family have passed her by. She doesn’t particularly love the farm but it’s the only home she’s ever known.

Cinematographer Andrew Reed lets us see the beauty in the stark fields, the decrepit farmhouse, the aging barn. We also see that behind the careworn lines on Tracy’s face there is a lovely woman behind them. Reed does as good a job as any cinematographer I’ve seen in making a middle aged woman beautiful without sacrificing her years; Tracy doesn’t look young for her age but she’s still beautiful.

Things move along slowly despite the brief length of the film; some might even opine that this would have made a better short film than a feature and they might have a point. Still, the movie captures a tone and a rhythm that belongs to those who toil on the land and there is a necessary beauty to that. Most Hollywood productions wouldn’t bother. I would have liked to see more of what drew these five people to the land other than the generations that lived and died there but the story being told here is a compelling one and there’s not a false note anywhere in the movie. This isn’t going to get distribution in a lot of areas but if it is playing near you I urge you to seek it out or if not, seek it out when it makes it to VOD. This is one of the best films of the year and you probably won’t see a lot of ink about it even so.

REASONS TO GO: The people and the ethics of America’s Heartland are nicely captured. This is a movie about the salt of the earth for people who relate to that feeling. The film is very well-written and very brief. Some truly lovely cinematography is here.
REASONS TO STAY: Despite the short length of the film the pace is glacial.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity, including sexual references
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie premiered at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival where it won the Best Screenplay award.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The River
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Rape of Recy Taylor

The Darkest Hour


The Darkest Hour

Emile Hirsch mistakenly thought his scavenger hunt list said "gremlin."

(2011) Science Fiction (Summit) Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor, Joel Kinnaman, Veronika Ozerova, Dato Bakhtadze, Gosha Kutsenko, Nikolai Efremov, Vladimir Jaglich, Arthur Smoljaninov, Anna Roudakova, Pyotr Fyodorov. Directed by Chris Gorak

 

Some movies have little or no potential and make the most of what they have. Others take wonderful ideas and go absolutely nowhere with them. Which one would you rather see?

This is one of the latter. Hirsch and Minghella play a couple of net entrepreneurs who fly to Moscow to pitch an app to a bunch of venture capital bigwigs, only to see their idea stolen by Skyler (Kinnaman), a slimy Swede. The boys, furious and with uncertain futures, decide to go to a sleazy disco to drown their sorrows. There they meet Natalie (Thirlby) and Anne (Taylor), American and Australian (respectively) tourists who are apparently globe hopping in order to meet boys. Guess there weren’t enough slimy club hounds in their own neck of the woods.

While in the club, Moscow gets invaded by – wait for it – Christmas lights. Well, that’s what it looks like at first until the aliens actually arrive and are completely invisible. They are also deadly, reducing any organic matter they touch into ash. Whenever they’re around, they generate an electrical field that turns on car alarms, light bulbs and cell phones, all of which have gone dead (we assume an EMP has passed through the city but are never shown that definitively).

After a week in the club’s pantry, the four (who have been joined by Skyler who turns out to be even more of a dick than they thought) set out on foot to find other survivors and to find food, shelter and water. Eventually they learn of a nuclear submarine which intends to ferry survivors to a safe place (the aliens can’t see through machinery or glass – they detect humans by their bio-energy or some such gobbledygook) which I would imagine is somewhere in the middle of the ocean.

Director Gorak’s last film was the much-superior Right at Your Door which made a lot more from a lot less. That film adequately captured what humans do in impossibly stressful situations (in that case, the detonation of a dirty bomb in a metropolitan area) and made his characters non-heroic at times. Here, he also makes some of the characters non-heroic although Hirsch’s Sean character falls into the mold of the brainy hero.

The problem here is that none of the characters are given much in the way of characteristics. They’re all pretty much unremarkable, all given a single characteristic (Anne’s fear, Skyler’s amorality) in which their character pretty much uses as a means of reaction to every situation. They come off as one-dimensional not because the actors are bad, but because they’ve only been given one dimension to work off of. Whereas Gorak’s last film was filled with real human beings, that doesn’t happen here.

Another missed opportunity is the aliens themselves. They are invisible through most of the film, which gives the filmmakers an opportunity to develop a great deal of tension and paranoia. That also never happens here; the aliens appear with such regularity that you just assume that wherever the characters go there’s going to be an invisible alien trolling about waiting to turn someone to ash (including a hapless dog). When the aliens finally are revealed, they are less than satisfying.

This is pretty bloodless. Not only the humans turn to ash but when the aliens blow up they turn into hunks of what looks like volcanic glass. Even gorehounds will be irritated by this movie.

The Russian locations aren’t used to their best effect in most cases, although there’s a really nice scene in Red Square. By and large, producer Timur Bekmambatov (director of such fine films as Night Watch and Wanted) should have done a better job of showing off his city; for the most part it looks pretty dull and boring.

The concept was good here; the execution was lacking and mostly due to lazy writing and poor decision making on the parts of the filmmakers. If you’re going to use Moscow as your backdrop, don’t trap your characters in malls and pantries. If you’re going to have invisible aliens, use them sparingly – make our spines tingle. If you’re going to write a science fiction picture, don’t baffle us with bull-crap; cut down the scientific jargon to a minimum and give the poor actors something to work with. I was sorely disappointed here.

REASONS TO GO: Interesting premise and some nifty effects shots.

REASONS TO STAY: Missed opportunity; none of the characters are drawn all that well and the plot is awfully predictable.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words, some disturbing images and lots of action violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Production was suspended for three weeks due to air pollution caused by the wildfires that surrounded Moscow in the summer of 2010 while production was underway. After production resumed, there was still some smoke in the air that had to be digitally removed in some shots.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/1/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 13% positive reviews. Metacritic: 16/100. The reviews are extremely poor.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Skyline

ALIEN INVASION LOVERS: Should be high on your list but be warned that when you finally do see the aliens, it’s a bit of a letdown.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Roommate

Bonneville


Bonneville

Three chicks on a road trip. Daughters, lock your fathers up!

(2006) Road Trip Drama (SenArt) Jessica Lange, Kathy Bates, Joan Allen, Tom Skerritt, Christine Baranski, Tom Amandes, Tom Wopat, Laura Park, Victor Rasuk. Directed by Christopher N. Rowley

Women of a certain age tend to be marginalized by our society, particularly if they are without husbands. That’s especially true of Hollywood, which tends to depict older women as raging sex addicts, uptight old fools or complete loons.

Arvilla Holden (Lange) has just seen her world come crashing down about her. She had married Joe, an adventurous sort who took her globe-hopping in a mad orgy of travel, but while in Borneo he died suddenly, leaving Arvilla to hold together the pieces. To make matters worse, he hadn’t updated his will legally, leaving their Idaho home in the legal possession of his daughter from his first marriage, Francine (Baranski) who really doesn’t like Arvilla.

Joe had specified to Arvilla he wanted his ashes scattered in various places around the United States but shrill Francine wants his ashes buried next to her mother at their Santa Barbara estate. Arvilla is inclined to decline but Francine presents her with an ultimatum; bring the ashes to California or be evicted from her home.

Arvilla, not wanting to be 50-something and homeless, decides to take the ashes to Santa Barbara. She engages her closest friends Margene (Bates) and Carol (Allen) as moral support. Margene is a free spirit, one with an enviable love of life quotient. Carol is more uptight, a strict Mormon. In fact, all three women belong to the Church of Latter Day Saints, which is how they conceivably met. To the movie’s credit, this isn’t dwelled upon so much as presented as a facet of their personalities.

Originally set to fly to California, Arvilla abruptly decides to take one final road trip with Joe, which Margene heartily endorses and Carol quietly disapproves of. Along the way they visit the Grand Canyon and Las Vegas, meet a truck driver (Skerritt) who becomes seriously infatuated with Margene and are rescued from a flat tire on the Bonneville Salt Flats by Bo (Rasuk), a hunky hitch-hiker who gives the ladies a chance at being sweetly ribald.

Most road movies don’t involve grandmotherly sorts, but this one is a little different. Not often do you see women of the Red Hat Society generation portrayed as road warriors, but here you have one. It doesn’t hurt that three of America’s premiere actresses are riding in that 1966 Bonneville. Lange is the centerpiece of the movie, grieving without getting overly emotional although her loneliness is palpable at times. Ditto for Bates, who hides that loneliness with exaggerated bonhomie. Allen, however, might fare the best of all of them as an uptight woman whose life is ruled by strictures that even she feels troubled by at times. She sneaks sips of coffee when she thinks nobody is looking but outwardly at least is the perfect wife and mother of her faith.

The movie can be a little bit too bland in places and other than between Francine and Arvilla, there’s almost zero conflict. We wind up just along for the ride, pleasant as it might be. I would have preferred to examine the Francine-Arvilla dynamic a little more closely; her hatred for Arvilla can only be ascribed to Joe’s temerity of re-marrying after his first wife died, but she seems hell-bent on hurting Joe after his life was over as well; her anger towards her father is never adequately explained, although it may well stem from the same source as her anger towards Arvilla. The shame of it is that Baranski is also a terrific actress and her one real scene with Lange early on in the movie is a showstopper; I would have liked to have seen more of the two together.

The movie got tepid reviews for its somewhat brief limited run, which seems a little bit harsh to me. I thought the movie was solidly entertaining, particularly the performances of Allen, Bates and Lange as well as the supporting turns of Skerritt and Baranski. While the movie never explores the unpleasant side of bereavement (being more about the friendship between the three women), it at least is inoffensive at worst. I’d elevate it slightly higher than that given the talent in front of the camera.

WHY RENT THIS: The three leads are as good as any actresses in Hollywood and watching them together is a hoot. The movie has a sweet charm at its center. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: At times the movie is a little vanilla, and some of the relationships (particularly Francine and Arvilla’s) aren’t explored adequately.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild cursing and a bit of sexual innuendo. This is generally safe for all but the youngest audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The car used in the film was a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville. The chrome rearview mirror was removed so as not to show the reflection of the crew filming the movie.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a promo video for the Red Hat Society.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $1.3M on an unreported budget; while it’s unlikely that the theatrical release made money, chances are it wasn’t far off.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Damned United