Cocote


It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when there is no wall.

(2017) Drama (Grasshopper) Vicente Santos, Yuberbi de la Rosa, José Miguel Fernández, Kalyane Linares, Enerolia Nuñez, Pepe Sierra, Isabel Spencer, Ricardo Ariel Toribio, Judith Rodriguez Perez. Directed by Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias

Changing locations can sometimes change a person. Their outlook on the world may evolve and eventually become unrecognizable from the person who left their original home. That person, though, remains inside whether we want them to be there or not.

Alberto (Santos) is a gardener in a Santo Domingo upper class home. He receives word of the death of his father in the village Alberto grew up in. It was not a natural death; he was murdered by a local bigwig over an outstanding debt. Alberto grew up in the Los Mysterios faith, a mixture of Christianity and West African beliefs but has since converted to evangelical Christianity.

He goes back to his village to mourn the loss of his father only to find he has already been buried. His family makes the reluctant Alberto take part in the funerary ritual of the faith which involves music, and a kind of ecstatic grief. There’s a lot of screaming, singing and sobbing and the occasional animal sacrifice.

It soon becomes apparent that it is expected that Alberto will take revenge on the murderer of his father but that is not who Alberto is anymore. It causes a great deal of friction particularly with his outspoken sister (de la Rosa). Alberto is caught in a struggle between who he was, who he is and who he is to become.

This isn’t a movie that follows normal storytelling tropes. There are often changes between film stock, moving from color to black and white, widescreen to almost a Super 8 type of perspective, grainy to crystal clear. Interspersed are grainy video snippets that are something of a cinematic nonsequitir, like a local news report of a chicken that apparently crows “Christ is coming.” I think that de Los Santos Arias is utilizing a new kind of cinematic language but for most filmgoers this is going to look like a patchwork film.

Santos has a passive, scowling face. He doesn’t get violent (until late in the movie), preferring just to endure whatever life serves up to him. The dichotomy of past and present are at war within him but there is no clear winner; it is something like the ongoing wars in the Middle East where there are no winners – only survivors.

The imagery captures the beauty of the Dominican Republic as well as the poverty in her rural villages. There is lots of the Los Mysterios culture on display here but the scenes of the rituals go on interminably, one after the other until far from illuminating they become annoying. The arguments between Alberto and his sisters become more strident and eventually, one loses interest on any sort of resolution. It’s just people shrieking at each other.

I can’t say I liked this film, although I admire de Los Santos Arias’ ambitions. He has no interest in making just another movie and to be sure, that’s not what he made. This is going to appeal only to a very specialized audience, equivalent to music fans who like bands like Animal Collective and Pere Ubu. They seek to transcend the ordinary and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just not convinced that this movie transcends anything.

Tickets for the Miami Film Festival can be ordered online here but hurry; the Festival ends on Sunday.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The ritual scenes are fascinating at first but then they go on and on and on and on. There’s too much shrieking, screaming and pretensions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arias based the story on an incident that occurred when he was a child visiting his aunt and meeting her gardener.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Sun
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Keep the Change

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Oh Lucy!


Luuuuuuuucy, you’ve got some ‘splaining to do!

(2017) Dramedy (Film Movement) Shinobu Terajima, Josh Hartnett, Kaho Minami, Köji Yakusho, Shioli Kutsuna, Megan Mullally, Reiko Ayelsworth, Nick Gracer, Liz Bolton, Miyoko Yamaguchi, Hajime Inoue, Hiroaki Miyagawa, Stephanie A, Leni Ito, Calvin Winbush, Eddie Hassell, Todd Giebenhain, Tre Hale, Noelani Dacascos, Kimie Tanaka. Directed by Atsuko Hirayanagi

 

We don’t always end up where we expect to in our lives – in fact we rarely do. The bright promise of youth often gives way to the dreary reality of middle age. Sometimes it just takes the smallest of changes for us to recapture some of that bright promise and make a go of changing that dreary reality.

Setsuko (Terajima) is in that place where she goes through life almost as an automaton. Shuffling through the streets of Tokyo with a white surgical mask obscuring her features, she trudges day after day to a job in a nondescript office as a fabled Office Lady, working for a boss (Inoue) who has no respect for her in an office of shallow lab rats who sneer at their colleagues (always behind their backs) and don’t quite see that they are no different than they. One day, Setsuko witnesses something horrible on the way to work but it doesn’t seem to faze her at all.

Setsuko dotes on her niece Mika (Kutsuna) who dressed up as a sexy maid for her waitressing job in one of those Tokyo themed restaurants and whose enthusiasm for life is like a tonic to Setsuko who lives in what could charitably be called a hole in the wall apartment that from its slovenly appearance seems to be the residence of someone who has given up. Perpetually dealing with money problems, Mika asks her aunt to take over payment on an English language lesson. Setsuko doesn’t really want to but Mika charms her into it by telling her about a free sample lesson.

The lesson is taught by John (Hartnett), an ex-pat American whose methods are to say the least unorthodox. He is a hugger, which is something that the stoic Japanese are not. He assigns Setsuko an identity of an American; he bestows on her a blonde wig and the name of Lucy. Surprisingly Setsuko enjoys the lesson and she decides to come back. Perhaps Tom (Yakusho), a widower who is also taking English lessons and turns out to be a kind and sweet fellow, is one big reason why but it might be more that John’s hug has awakened something in Setsuko.

But it all comes to a screeching halt when John resigns and goes back home to America. To make matters worse for Setsuko, he takes Mika with him – the two had been having a romance. Setsuko eventually gets a postcard from Mika inviting her to visit her niece in sunny Southern California. Following the awkward and dispiriting retirement party of a colleague who was a particular target of behind the back abuse, Setsuko determines to take her niece up on the offer.

Joining her is her bitchy sister Ayako (Minami) with whom Setsuko bickers incessantly. The two women despite their sibling ties don’t seem to like each other very much and we eventually find out why. Ayako seems to be bitter, demanding and rude. The two Japanese ladies greet a bewildered John who greets them with equally bewildering news that Mika broke up with him and took the car to drive down to San Diego. There’s only one thing to do – the two Japanese women and John set out on a road trip in which Setsuko will try on the Lucy persona for a test spin.

Hirayanagi developed this from a short film she created that made the festival rounds a couple of years ago, including SXSW and Toronto. However, this is substantially different from the short which was much more of a comedy than this is. That said, this is a very, very, VERY good film.

The humor is low-key and a bit quirky, giving the film an off-beat charm that keeps the more dramatic sequences from being overwhelming. Don’t be fooled by the charm however; this is a very human film with all that implies with highs and lows (and sometimes very low lows) that when pen is put to paper describing the plot, it makes this movie sound like it should be a downer but curiously, it isn’t.

Part of the reason for that is a terrific performance by Terajima. She imbues Setsuko with a near-impenetrable mask but the sadness that Setsuko carries in her is very close to the surface and becomes apparent from her body language and especially her eyes. Setsuko has spent her life just accepting the lot given her like the sweets given to her by her colleagues to help her over her smoker’s cough that go straight into a drawer in her desk and stay there. Now, she is ready to change her lot and change is never an easy process. It’s terrifying and dangerous.

One of the highlights of the movie is the way American and Japanese cultures are juxtaposed and how mystifying they are to one another. I suspect neither Setsuko nor Ayako are truly representative of Japanese culture any more than John is representative of American culture; John is not at all as he represents himself to be and the more time we spend with him, the more we realize his facade is a front. By the end of the movie, our appraisal of John changes a good deal.

Suicide is a major theme in the movie which for some viewers might be difficult. Caution should be taken if you’re the sort who gets extremely bothered by onscreen suicide attempts. There are three in the movie and they aren’t done for laughs. At least two are pretty shocking so be aware of that. Nonetheless this is the first indie movie of 2018 to carry on last year’s parade of high quality indie films that made 2017 one of the best years for indie films in recent memory. If this is indication, 2018 may be as good or perhaps even better.

REASONS TO GO: This is an off-beat film but in a very good way. The humor is low-key and subtle for the most part. Terajima is an absolute gem. The movie makes great use of cultural differences.
REASONS TO STAY: Those who have issues with suicide may find this a hard film to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexual content and nudity, disturbing images, drug use and some brief profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hirayanagi originally developed this as a short film; Will Ferrell and Adam McKay took it to the branch of their Gary Sanchez Productions headed by Ferrell’s former assistant Jessica Elbaum (called Gloria Sanchez Productions) which specializes on movies made by and/or about women.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lost in Translation
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
The Vanishing of Sidney White

Short Term 12


Sharing is caring.

Sharing is caring.

(2013) Drama (Cinedigm) Brie Larson, John Gallagher Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek, Alex Calloway, Kevin Hernandez, Lydia Du Veaux, Keith Stanfield, Frantz Turner, Diana Maria Riva, Harold Cannon, Silvia Curiel, Melora Walters, Bran’dee Allen, Danny Roper, Elyssa Gutierrez, Garryson Zamora, Michael Marto, Patricia Barrett, Tanya Maria A. Bitanga. Directed by Destin Cretton

We call them “at-risk” kids but for the most part, we haven’t a clue what they’re really at risk from. Sure, we have a general idea that they’re runaways and come from less-than-perfect homes but the horrors that these kids live through doesn’t really hit home unless we’ve lived it, or know someone who did.

Grace (Larson) is the floor supervisor at Short Term 12, a residence facility for troubled teens. Most of them come from homes of abuse both physical and emotional and some of these kids can barely function in a normal society. She is compassionate and actually listens to the kids which makes her atypical for most humans. Her boyfriend Mason (Gallagher) also works at the home, along with newbie Nate (Malek) who’s just started.

Some of the kids are pretty messed up. Sammy (Calloway) periodically runs out of the facility screaming at the top of his lungs; he has a collection of toys that he clings to and has a somewhat creative imagination. Marcus (Stanfield) is about to turn 18 at which time he’ll be forced to leave this temporary facility and he’s intimidated at having to make it in the real world, so his normal quiet demeanor has turned angry and he is acting out more than usual, particularly when it comes to Luis (Hernandez) who likes to pick on him.

Into this volatile environment comes Jayden (Dever), a young girl with a whole lot of attitude. She’s a cutter – inflicts wounds on herself in order to relieve her psychological pain – and has a hair-trigger temper that explodes at the least provocation. She’s a problem child but Grace is patient and soon begins to notice that the two of them are not quite so different as it would first appear.

Grace however turns out to have some issues of her own – she rarely takes the advice she hands out her own kids and talk out her problems with Mason. However, Mason isn’t willing to give up on her and with the patience of a saint, waits for whatever it takes for her to open up and commit and as Grace faces an imminent life changing event, everything she’s built threatens to crumble down around her.

Cretton apparently worked in a facility such as the one depicted here and the first observation that comes to mind is “authentic.” The kids here aren’t monsters but they aren’t saints either; they’re just trying to cope despite having a deck particularly stacked against them. Grace, likewise is neither monster nor saint – she tries to help out the best she can but there is little authority that she can exercise (while the kids can be forcibly be brought back inside if they try to run away, once they actually leave the property they can’t be touched although staff member will follow them to whatever destination they have in mind and try to talk them back). As she tells Nate “We’re not therapists. You’re here to create a safe environment, and that’s it.” That’s a task not unlikely trying to juggle chainsaws and live hand grenades.

The relationship between Grace and Mason is genuine as well. They’re both twenty-somethings who spend nearly the entire day together but Grace has intimacy issues – not necessarily having to do with sex. Letting Mason in is nearly impossible for her and as it turns out with good reason. He is moon-crazy about her and she knows it and it tears her apart that she can’t give him what he needs. This is romance in the real world although men as patient as Mason are pretty hard to come by. Most guys would have said “hasta la vista” to Grace awhile ago.

This is extremely well-acted. Gallagher, who has turned a few heads for his work on the acclaimed HBO series The Newsroom shows big screen promise here. While at times Mason’s a bit too good to be true, he’s basically the kind of guy that most young women search their entire lives for. Not all of them find one.

Dever, who plays the youngest daughter on the Tim Allen sitcom Last Man Standing is also a revelation. This is a very different role for her, much more of a stretch than Gallagher had to make. I was impressed at the depth of emotion Dever went to and basically this is her clarion call to one and all that here is a very fine young actress who is going to be competing for some top acting awards in the future. Meryl Streep, watch your back.

However the movie truly belongs to Brie Larson and this is also a big step forward from The United States of Tara. If this movie had been distributed by a major studio, Larson would doubtlessly be on the short list for Best Oscar actress buzz this year. Maybe she still will be – certainly if critics voted for them she would be. This is a layered, deep portrayal of a young woman helping kids with some pretty serious issues while her own just-as-serious issues remain unresolved. She’s keeping it together with smoke and mirrors and as her façade begins to crumble, we see at last her rage and sorrow not just at Jayden’s predicament but at her own.

This isn’t all hankies and angst. There are some pretty humorous moments, like the opening scene in which Mason tells a self-deprecating story which very cleverly sets up the rules for the facility and sets the tone for the film. It is a masterful piece of writing (and acting) that labels Cretton as a talent to keep an eye on. While there are a few scenes that are somewhat predictable if you’ve watched any of ABC’s Afternoon Specials, by and large this is a rare take at a major societal problem from a point of view we rarely get to see – those young people who are actually responsible for the day-to-day care for troubled kids at facilities like this.

Many critics and film buffs have labeled this one of the best movies of the year and I have to agree. It’s still out there on a few screens but your best bet to catch it is on home video where it will be arriving soon. Keep an eye out for it – this is the kind of movie that you won’t soon forget.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-breaking and heart-warming. Larson, Dever and Gallagher are amazing. Exceedingly authentic and well-written.

REASONS TO STAY: A couple of scenes carry the faint smell of Afterschool Specialness.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some fairly salty language and a bit of sexuality, not to mention some fairly adult themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cretton previously directed a short film with the same title and setting but with a completely different cast of characters and plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/2/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 98% positive reviews. Metacritic: 82/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Warrendale

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: Escape Plan

Mama


So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

So put another dime in the jukebox baby.

(2013) Supernatural Horror (Universal) Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse, Daniel Kash, Javier Botet, Jane Moffat, Morgan McGarry, David Fox, Dominic Cuzzocrea, Christopher Marren, Ray Kahnert, Hannah Cheesman, Julia Chantrey. Directed by Andres Muschietti

The bond between a mother and her child is something that simply can’t be broken. It is stronger than diamonds and carries its own gravitational pull that makes a black hole look like a refrigerator magnet. That bond is there for life – and some say, beyond.

This story starts with murder, of a man who loses it and kills his estranged wife and ex-partner and kidnaps his two children. He takes them, not quite intentionally, to a dilapidated cabin in the remote woods of Virginia called oddly enough Helvetia (with Mad Men-era retro furniture) where he intends to shoot them, and then himself. However fate – in the guise of a malevolent presence – intervenes.

Five years later, the two girls are still missing and their Uncle Lucas (Coster-Waldau) is still looking for them although his funds are running low – he’s been utilizing the inheritance from his successful brother. Lucas apparently “draws things” although it’s never really established whether he draws paintings or cartoons or whatnot. Anyway his girlfriend Annabel (Chastain), a rocker chick who plays bass in a punk-edged indie rock band, is a little put off by her boyfriend’s obsession especially since she can’t get pregnant herself.

However quite accidentally Burnsie (Fox), the tracker that Lucas has hired for the task, stumbles on the cabin and finds the girls – Victoria (Charpentier), now eight and her sister Lilly (Nelisse) who is six. The two girls are nearly feral although Victoria seems to be recovering her ability to speak. Lilly, in particular, is nearly mute, moving in an eerie spider-like motion.

It’s nothing short of a miracle that two such young children could survive in an isolated cabin on their own for so long but nobody seems to be questioning that. In fact, their psychiatrist Dr. Dreyfus (Kash) thinks that in a stable home environment that the girls might achieve some normalcy. While Lucas’ Aunt Jean (Moffat) is anxious to get custody, Lucas is actually much closer to the girls and with some help from Dr. Dreyfus gets the judge (Kahnert) to agree once the University arranges for a nice suburban home for Lucas and Annabel to move into.

But things aren’t all My Little Pony in suburban Virginia. The girls are both extremely traumatized and look at Lucas and particularly Annabel with some wariness. They refer to an invisible entity they call Mama who looks after her – and apparently she’s dropped by the ‘burbs to keep an eye on her girls. And after Lucas is removed from the picture, it is up to Annabel – who neither wants the job nor thinks herself able to do it – to take care of two very difficult children.

But a funny thing happens on the way to the horror film. Annabel begins to bond with the two girls (in particular with Victoria) and this Mama doesn’t like at all, not in the slightest. Dr. Dreyfus isn’t much of a help – he has his own agenda which isn’t necessarily in the best interests of the girls. And Mama isn’t recognizing any agenda but her own which isn’t good news for Annabel or  the girls.

This is based on a short previously directed by Muschietti and was produced by fan favorite and all-around good guy Guillermo del Toro. Spanish horror tends to be really atmospheric and Muschietti has a flair for it, making the cabin look anachronistic and genuinely creepy. Everything from the movement of the actors which isn’t quite natural to the suburban setting which is deceptively ordinary contributes to the overall vibe that things aren’t right a’tall.

Enjoy Chastain in this role folks, because you won’t see her in this kind of movie ever again – or at least it’s very unlikely you will. Right now if I had to name the best actress working in Hollywood right now, today, this moment, it would be Jessica Chastain. She has that chameleon-like quality that Meryl Streep possesses that allows her to take on virtually any kind of role and not just make it hers but make it unique as well. Here she’s channeling her inner Joan Jett and gives Annabel a gamine like quality that is endearing with the immature feel of a teenage boy who hasn’t quite grown up yet. Annabel grows up a great deal during the course of the movie and Chastain makes those changes organic. You don’t often go to see a horror movie for the acting performances but this is one of those exceptions where you should.

Coster-Waldau, so excellent as Jamie Lannister in Game of Thrones on HBO is solid here, reminding me a little bit of Viggo Mortensen. He plays the dual role of Luke and his doomed brother and wisely lets Chastain take center stage. He’s a terrific actor in his own right and has all sorts of leading man potential. In addition, the two young juvenile actresses do extremely well – Charpentier as the emotional center reaching for the mundane and Nelisse as Lilly who has one foot in the spirit world wherein Mama dwells.

Mama’s backstory is nothing to write home about and when she is revealed she isn’t all that impressive but when she moves through the floor or ceiling it’s chillingly effective. Mama needs to elicit a certain amount of sympathy from the audience but in this case she doesn’t really inspire enough which is a hard feat I know but it would have made the movie exponentially more effective. As it is given Chastain’s performance this is a horror movie mainstream audiences should go see.

REASONS TO GO: Creepy in all the right places. Jessica Chastain is the best actress in Hollywood right now period. Nice ghostly effects.

REASONS TO STAY: Story a little bit convoluted. Final look of Mama is a bit of a letdown.

FAMILY VALUES:  There are some pretty scary images some of which are pretty disturbing, some thematic issues and a few nasty scares.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally scheduled for a Halloween 2012 release, the movie got bumped up to January which proved to be a smart move as it recouped its entire production and marketing cost in its opening weekend, debuting at number one at the box office.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/9/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100. Although the reviews are somewhat mixed, there are more positive than negative.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Woman in Black

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: The Sorcerer and the White Snake