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

Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale