To Dust


“It could be worse. It could be raining!”

(2018) Dramedy (Good Deed) Gėza Röhrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Bern Cohen, Ben Hammer, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno, Ziv Zaifman, Leanne Michelle Watson, Jill Marie Lawrence, Larry Owens, Isabelle Phillips, Marceline Hugot, Natalie Carter, Andrew Keenan-Bolger, Joseph Siprut, Linda Frieser, Stephanie Kurtzuba, Jaclyn S. Powell, Sarah Jes Austell. Directed by Shawn Snyder

 

In life, death is certain but growth is optional. The wisdom of a Star Trek movie “How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life” is lost on most of us. We deal with death by ignoring it.

Shmuel (Röhrig) can’t ignore it. His beloved wife has just passed from cancer and it has thrown him for a loop. A cantor in the Hassidic Jewish faith, he is having a hard time dealing with it – he can’t even tear his coat properly until his mother supplies him with a tiny pair of scissors. Shmuel is nothing if not tied to his faith but he begins to have nightmares of his wife’s body decomposing. Troubled, he seeks the advice of his rabbi (Hammer) but is left unsatisfied. He needs to know precisely what is happening to his wife’s body. He has questions: is her soul suffering as her body decays? He needs to know.

His quest takes him beyond the parameters of his faith and to a scientist. Well, to a guy who teaches science at the local community college: Albert (Broderick). Albert is going through a rough emotional time of his own, having just been divorced. At first, he finds Shmuel’s persistence annoying – anybody would. Shmuel has the dogged determination of a mule trying to get that carrot. Eventually though Albert warms to the scientific aspect of the question and the two begin to delve into “experiments” that are started by an innocent remark on Albert’s part that Shmuel takes literally and eventually involves dead pigs, kidnapped pigs named Harold, road trips and body farms.

This movie is plenty quirky and mostly in an endearing way. Death and the mechanics of bodily corruption are not things we are geared to talk about much as a society. Nobody wants to know about the bacterial breakdown of our mortal remains; nobody wants to hear about maggot infestations and what happens to our skin, our eyes and our brains. It’s a vaguely disturbing subject but it is tackled with surprising compassion here.

It helps having a pair of charismatic leads. Broderick is perfectly cast here to the point where I can’t imagine any other actor playing this role. Albert is a bit of a kvetch in many regards and Broderick excels at those kinds of roles. Albert copes with his grief by smoking a lot of dope and listening to Jethro Tull – in other words, reverting back to his high school years in which he likely smoked a lot of dope and listened to a lot of Tull. I give the movie a lot of cultural points, by the way, for including Tull on the soundtrack. Rock on!

Röhrig, who some might remember from a much different movie called Son of Saul, plays a man who is consumed by his obsession to the point that he can’t see that his sons are also grieving and need him more than ever. His behavior is so odd that the two believe he has been possessed by a dybbuk, a kind of Jewish demon, and are researching the prospect on their own. The problem here is that often we don’t get a sense of Shmuel’s actual grief, the pain of losing someone so beloved although I will give you that maybe his obsessions with the body’s breakdown is his way of dealing with it. We all grieve in our own ways.

I don’t know enough about the Hassidic culture to determine whether or not the production was accurate on their rituals or lifestyle. Shmuel lives in an upstate New York townhouse, drives a station wagon and occasionally curses like a sailor. His sons are conversant with the Internet and computers. This is a different portrayal of their culture than I think most of us are used to.

Death isn’t an easy subject to tackle and our own mortality and the end disposition of our remains may be a little bit too uncomfortable a subject for some. The filmmakers are to be commended for taking it on and handling it in a mostly sensitive way – there is a lot of humor involved here but also a lot of respect for the subject. I’m not saying that this should be considered a primer in grief in any way, shape or form but any movie that allows us to discuss something so basic but so disconcerting deserves praise in any case.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is quirky in an endearing way. Broderick is solid as usual
REASONS TO AVOID: Röhrig is a bit too laconic at times. The subject matter may be too uncomfortable for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There are plenty of disturbing images of corpses, some brief nudity, drug use and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Scenes set at the community college were filmed at the City University of New York’s Staten Island campus.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 89% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The End
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Everybody Knows

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Larry Crowne


Larry Crowne

Julia Roberts smirks at Tom Hanks' new CHiPS-inspired look.

(2011) Comedy (Universal) Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts, Taraji P. Henson, Cedric the Entertainer, Bryan Cranston, Wilmer Valderrama, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Pam Grier, Rami Malek, George Takei, Rita Wilson, Jon Seda, Rob Riggle, Dale Dye, Grace Gummer. Directed by Tom Hanks

There are occasions in life where it becomes necessary to reinvent ourselves. We are almost forced to take stock, figure out what’s not working and attempt to fixing.

Ex-Navy “culinary specialist” (read: cook) Larry Crowne (Hanks) is sailing along at the big-box chain where he works and has won eight employee-of-the-month awards. He figures he’s being called in to win his ninth; but instead is dismayed to discover that he is being downsized. The reason? He has no college education (having chosen to serve his country instead) and has gone as far as he can go at the company without one. Not wanting to leave him in the same position for years to come, he is instead let go. Nobody ever said that big companies are logical.

He is underwater on his mortgage after buying out his wife after a somewhat messy divorce. After an unsuccessful attempt to refinance with an unctuous loan officer (Wilson), Larry is forced to start selling off his stuff at a perpetual yard sale run by his grouchy neighbor Lamar (Cedric) and his friendlier wife (Henson), who turns Larry on to the idea of going back to school. Larry also buys a scooter to get him places more economically.

At the local community college he takes a speech class with Mercedes “Mercy” Tainot (Roberts), a somewhat burned-out teacher who uses alcohol to numb out and help her forget she’s married to Dean (Cranston), formerly a promising science fiction author turned into a slacker with a penchant for commenting on blogs and surfing for porn on the internet. Mercy has the distinct impression that she is making not a whit of difference in the lives of her students.

He also takes an economics class under the watchful eye of the quirky Dr. Matsutani (Takei) who isn’t above a little self-promotion but has a distinct hatred of cell phones. In the class is the free-spirited Talia (Mbatha-Raw), who brings in Larry into her scooter gang, led by her boyfriend Dell (Valderrama). Talia decides to take Larry on as a bit of a project, remaking his house and his appearance in a more modern image.

Gradually Larry begins to rediscover himself, getting a job at a local diner and finding self-confidence through his speech class. Meanwhile, as Mercy’s marriage continues to fall apart, Larry begins to fall a little bit for the attractive but closed-off teacher, although Mercy assumes that Larry and Talia are together because of her clear affection for him.

That’s essentially it for plot. Hanks co-wrote and directed this star vehicle (this marks his second feature film as a director after the far superior That Thing You Do! back in 1996) tends to a gentle, inoffensive style in both writing and directing. I’ve often characterized Hanks as a modern Jimmy Stewart, an everyman with a heart of gold. He plays that role to the hilt here.

He is matched by Roberts, whose luster is undimmed 20 years after Pretty Woman. She still has one of the most radiant smiles you’ll ever see, although you’ll see far more frowning from her here which is a bit of a shame – but she nonetheless fills her role well. While the chemistry between Hanks and Roberts isn’t as electric as it is in Charlie Wilson’s War, they still work well together onscreen.

In fact this is very much a project moved forward by star wattage. The likability of Hanks and Roberts lies at the core of the film, and Hanks the director wisely utilizes it. He has a pretty strong supporting cast, but it is Mbatha-Raw who charms most. Best known here for her work in “Doctor Who,” she is incandescent and lights up the screen whenever she’s on. “Star Trek” veteran Takei also is strong as the curmudgeonly economics professor, while Cedric recycles his stage persona adequately enough. Valderrama breaks out of his “That 70s Show” type as the tough-seeming teddy bear Dell.

There are a lot of quirky characters here, from the self-absorbed student (Malek) to the slacker husband (Cranston) and most of them aren’t developed all that well. We could have done with a number of them altogether, quite frankly. Also, I felt Larry is a bit too passive here. He reacts to people who essentially re-shape him. He just kind of goes along with it; Lamar suggests he goes to college, he goes to college. The proprietor of a local diner suggests Larry start working for him, Larry goes to work for him. Talia wants Larry to change his wardrobe and add a wallet chain, Larry does. Larry becomes a blank slate which everyone around him draws their version of him on; he could have used a little more self-assertiveness.

The movie takes a situation that all too many Americans are feeling – laid off, middle aged, at a crossroads of life – and really doesn’t do a lot with it. There isn’t a lot of angst here; Larry has a few depressed moments, caught in montage early on, and then rolls up his sleeves and gets about the job of finding himself a new job. He meets with rejection but that doesn’t really figure much into the plot. It’s more of a means of getting the story from point “A” to point “B.” To my way of thinking, there were some lost opportunities here for commentary on the current economic state of things but apparently the filmmakers didn’t want to do that

Be that as it may, the movie still makes you feel good. There is no raunchiness here at all as there is at most of the summer comedies you’ll see this year. That in itself is rather pleasing; it’s nice once in awhile to see a comedy that doesn’t rely on pushing the boundaries for humor. The good thing about Larry Crowne is that no matter what kind of rotten mood you’re in (and I was in a foul one when I saw it) you’ll leave the theater feeling good – and if you’re in a good mood to begin with, you’ll leave the theater feeling better. I’m sure some Hollywood blurb-writer will coin it “the feel-good movie of the summer,” but for once the blurb will be accurate.

REASONS TO GO: A warmhearted comedy that relies heavily on the charm of its stars. Will pick you up even on a bad day.

REASONS TO STAY: A few too many quirky characters. The character of Larry might be a little too passive for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words and some sexual content but otherwise pretty mild.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was originally titled Talk of the Town.

HOME OR THEATER: This works just as well on the home screen as it does in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Transformers: Dark of the Moon

The Next Three Days


The Next Three Days

Elizabeth Banks and Russell Crowe discover that this is anything but the Great Escape.

(2010) Crime Thriller (Lionsgate) Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Neeson, Brian Dennehy, RZA, Olivia Wilde, Daniel Stern, Ty Simpkins, Jason Beghe, Aisha Hinds, Lennie James, Trudie Styler, Allan Steele, Helen Carey. Directed by Paul Haggis

Desperate men will do desperate things, all in the name of love. When we are backed up against the wall with nowhere left to turn, we can become capable of things both amazing and terrifying.

John Brennan (Crowe) and his wife Lara (Banks) live a decent life. John is an English teacher at a community college, and Lara has a more upscale job with a boss she detests. The two go out with John’s brother and his wife and have a spirited conversation about female bosses (which Lara’s boss is) and their ability to work with female employees.

The two go home and the next day share breakfast. All seems to be normal – until the police arrive to arrest Lara. It seems she’s been fingered as a suspect in the brutal murder of her boss, bludgeoned to death with a fire extinguisher. The evidence is highly circumstantial at best; Lara was observed driving away from the scene of the crime (the parking lot at the office where she works), her fingerprints were on the murder weapon, she and her boss argued rather loudly earlier in the day and to seal the deal, some of the victim’s blood made its way to the back of her overcoat.

Lara claims that she didn’t see the body, and that she had bumped into another woman who was leaving the parking lot on foot, although nobody else saw her but Lara. Despite her protestations of innocence, she is convicted and sentenced to prison. Three years pass; appeal after appeal is denied and their lawyer (Stern) informs John that basically her options have been exhausted – she’ll have to do the time. Lara, who has grown increasingly more depressed, her relationship with their son Luke (Simpkins) deteriorating to the point of non-existence, attempts suicide.

John knows she’ll never last the full length of her sentence. He also is completely sure she is incapable of murdering another human being, no matter how angry she was at them or what the provocation. With no further legal recourse, he determines that the only other option is to break her out of prison.

Of course, he knows nothing of prison breaks other than watching them on TV. He meets with an ex-con (Neeson in what is essentially an extended cameo) who achieved notoriety by breaking out of seven different prisons and lived to write a book about it. The author informs him that he needs a plan and a timetable. Being that she’s languishing in Allegheny County Prison in central Pittsburgh, he needs to know that 15 minutes after the escape is detected the police will have the center of the city locked down, the bridges closed and all of the subway and train stations as well as the airports manned with officers. 35 minutes after the escape is detected, the city will be on lockdown with toll booths manned by police officers and roadblocks on every major road out of the city.

John begins to spend a heck of a lot of time studying the prison and trying to figure out a foolproof plan. He is also going to need a weapon and a whole lot of money. Then he gets even more devastating news – his wife is going to be transferred to a prison far away from where they live in three days. If he doesn’t break her out in three days, their window of opportunity will be gone.

Haggis is one of the most honored writers in the business and he based this motion picture on a French film called Pour Elle (Anything for Her) which I haven’t seen yet. Haggis is a meticulous screenwriter and tends to fill his stories with an amazing amount of detail and research. Much of the first two thirds of the movie is kind of a how-to, setting up the story in the first 15 minutes of the two hour plus movie, then spending the next hour or so showing John doing research for the break-out. Fortunately, it doesn’t involve tunneling under the fence, putting mannequins in the beds to fool the guards or masquerading as day workers.

Few actors can resonate as an everyman as Russell Crowe can. He is quiet and strong, a perfect husband and father. Yet there is a core of steel to him, one which glimmers from time to time through the sweaters and the tweed jackets. Several critics have complained that they never quite catch the transformation from bookish teacher to efficient criminal, but I disagree. He is driven by desperation; desperate people have lifted automobiles off of other people. You never know what you’re capable of until you’re put into an untenable situation with no other options available to you but to achieve the impossible.

Banks has become one of Hollywood’s more reliable leading ladies. She doesn’t get the due of a Katherine Heigl or a Cameron Diaz but she is nonetheless just as competent and in many ways a better actress. We literally watch her fall apart before our very eyes and it is a compelling and believable performance in every way.

The movie really picks up during the final third when the actual escape is taking place. That is handled with edge-of-the-seat thrills and more than its share of gotchas. If the movie had been able to sustain that pace throughout, this would have been one of the year’s best.

Instead, we get kind of a how-to of prison breaks for the first two thirds that often stops dead in its tracks, particularly as we watch John stumble around Pittsburgh’s underbelly looking for falsified documents. The movie might still have gotten a decent audience, but stacked up against Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 it was essentially doomed to underperforming at the box office. This is a pretty solid movie that may not necessarily fit into your holiday movie plans, but is certainly worth a look on DVD/Blu-Ray if you can’t make it out to the multiplex.

REASONS TO GO: The last third of the movie when the escape takes place is tense, fun and energetic. Crowe is one of the best in the business.

REASONS TO STAY: The first two thirds of the movie about the planning stages drags a bit.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence as well as some drug references and a bit of foul language. There is also some implied sexuality; basically this is fine for any teen and/or mature older children.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Haggis remains the only screenwriter to date to win the Best Screenplay Oscar in back-to-back years (for Million Dollar Baby in 2004 and Crash in 2005).

HOME OR THEATER: With all the holiday offerings coming out thick and fast, chances are you won’t be able to fit this into your movie going schedule which is okay – it will work just as well at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: The Painted Veil