Midnight Family


On the mean streets of Mexico City.

(2019) Documentary (1091Juan Ochoa, Fer Ochoa, Josue Ochoa, Manuel Ochoa. Directed by Luke Lorentzen

 

Mexico City is one of the most crowded metropolises in the world. With nine million inhabitants spread out over 573 square miles, it is the most populated city in North America. Serving those inhabitants are just 45 ambulances provided by the government; filling the gaps are private ambulance services that are largely unregulated.

One of these private services is run by the Ochoa family. Patriarch Fernando (or Fer, as he is better known) is compassionate and suffering from type 2 diabetes himself. He is slow-moving which frustrates his son Juan to no end; in a cutthroat business like the one they’re in, speed is everything. A matter of seconds can be the difference between grabbing a paying customer and losing everything they have. As a result, the weight of the world often seems to land on Fer’s shoulders.

The family mainly works nights with 16-year-old Juan generally driving the rig. He also tends to be the one who has the uncomfortable job of discussing payment with their patients who often have no insurance and can’t afford to pay them. Sometimes, the family doesn’t get any income whatsoever for days. Young Josue, a chunky young kid who looks to be on the cusp of middle school (his age is never discussed), doesn’t seem to go to school, or at least often finds excuses why he shouldn’t. Juan chides him and lays down the law with his little brother; if he doesn’t go to school, he doesn’t get to ride in the ambulance.

There is marked corruption. The family pays out a healthy percentage of their income in bribes to cops who tell them about accidents and other incidents where their services could be needed, like the first call in the film which is to a gas station where a young woman has been assaulted by her boyfriend and her nose broken.

There is an unmistakable correlation to our own health care system; in many ways the Mexican system is what our own is developing into. Patients are given the choices of going to overcrowded public hospitals (where they don’t have to pay but often have to wait hours before being seen), private hospitals (less crowded but often substandard facilities) and deluxe private hospitals (generally with all the most modern equipment but expensive). This is what “the best healthcare you can afford” looks like.

Lorentzen employs a cinema verité style; other than a title graphic at the very beginning explaining the lack of public ambulance services, the story unfolds as the camera catches it. There is no music, no talking head interviews, no cute animations; the viewer is left to interpret the story for themselves but Lorentzen clearly has faith that the story speaks for itself.

We don’t get much insight into what the family does when they aren’t working. We see Juan primping before heading off to work. We also see Juan talking to his girlfriend, recounting the events of the day. At one point we see Juan and Fer picking up Josue from school and we get a glimpse of a cluttered apartment, but no real sense of how they live day to day; for them, as far as the film is concerned, work is life. That makes it more difficult for us to relate to them.

What we do get are beautifully filmed scenes of the city late at night, lit by garish greens, blues and yellows. There is an almost impersonal feel to the look of the film, emphasizing how uncaring life in the big city is. There is an emptiness and disquiet as we often go from deserted streets in the middle of the night to crowded streets where Fer cajoles taxis to move out of the way via loudspeaker; “We could be helping someone in your family.” Puling over for emergency vehicles is apparently not a thing in Mexico City.

This is not for the squeamish as we see Juan and Fer cleaning the blood out of the rig after a run more than once, plus hearing the screams of the suffering. The movie recently appeared on the shortlist for the upcoming Oscar Best Documentary Feature award and may well sneak in to the final list of five. The movie doesn’t hit you like a thunderbolt, but it does work on you insidiously, slowly getting under your skin. You do end up caring for the Ochoa family and feeling outrage that a system like that could exist. The chilling part is that we’re not so far away from it ourselves.

REASONS TO SEE: Well-crafted cinema verité.
REASONS TO AVOID: Is a little disjointed at times.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film debuted at this year’s Sundance Film Festival.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 84/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bringing Out the Dead
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
In the Tall Grass

The Autopsy of Jane Doe


The face of death.

The face of death.

(2016) Horror (IFC Midnight) Emile Hirsch, Brian Cox, Olwen Kelly, Ophelia Lovibond, Michael McElhatton, Parker Sawyers, Jane Perry, Mary Duddy, Mark Phoenix, Sydney, Yves O’Hara. Directed by André Ǿvredal

 

When we die often the most reliable evidence for how we died is our actual bodies. The things scraped from under our fingernails, the DNA inside our mouths, the lesions in the skin and the damage to internal organs all tell a story. That story not only tells the coroner  how we died but also how we lived.

Tommy Tilden (Cox) and his son Austin (Hirsch) run the Tilden mortuary (in the family for generations) in a small Virginia town. They also act as the town’s medical examiners. It’s just been the two men since Tommy’s wife passed on several years ago, but Austin has a pretty girlfriend named Emma (Lovibond) who unbeknownst to Dad has been urging Austin to follow his dreams which don’t include being a medical examiner in a small town. Austin has been trying to find a way to break the news to Tommy when Sheriff Sheldon (McElhatton) brings in a body that he needs autopsied right away, even though it’s well past business hours.

Jane Doe (Kelly) was discovered buried in the basement of a home where a brutal mass murder took place. What she was doing there is a mystery as is what relation she might have had to the killings; the Sheriff needs answers and is relying on Tommy to give them to him quickly. Tommy agrees to stay and even though Austin and Emma were about to leave on a date, Austin blows her off to help Dad out, not wanting him to be left holding the bag on what looks to be a rough autopsy.

For one thing, the body appears to be pristine – no evidence of external wounds or even a clue as to what the cause of death might be. Once the two open up the body though some unsettling facts begin to come to life; the victim’s tongue was severed, for one thing. Her lungs are black as if she had inhaled smoke. Also her wrists and ankles are broken even though there’s no external bruising.

As they perform the autopsy a bad storm hits town but now some odd things are happening. The radio changes stations on its own. The doors to the storage units for the bodies in the morgue open on their own. And there’s evidence that the dead may be walking around again and no Sheriff Andy to save the day. When things at last get to be too creepy, Tommy decides to get out (which Austin had been urging him to do for some time) but it’s far too late now. They are trapped inside the morgue with a supernatural entity who may have a bone or two to pick with them.

Ǿvredal is the Norwegian director best known for The Troll Hunter, a very different kind of horror film. This one has less of a sense of humor than his last movie and is his first English language film. It’s a whiz bang effort that relies much more on creepy atmosphere rather than over-the-top effects; like that film, there isn’t a ton of character development either.

One of his smarter moves was to cast Emile Hirsch as Austin. Hirsch is an often underrated actor who given some of his performances should at least be in the top echelon of actors but for whatever reason hasn’t gotten that kind of recognition. He plays Austin as a pretty decent guy who wants to do the right thing but has a bit of a backbone problem. Cox is one of the most respected character actors out there with such roles as Hannibal Lecter (he originated the role in Manhunter) and General William Stryker (from X-Men 2). His Tommy Tilden is very proud of his son, a pride that doesn’t allow him to see that his boy is moving down a different path than he. I would have liked to have seen more of the dynamic between them but once the horror action starts basically that element is left behind.

Otherwise, the movie is extremely well-written and creates a mythology that is easy to follow and yet is original. The ending is a bit of a letdown but not much of one; it certainly leaves room for a sequel and I have to admit that there is some appeal in the possibility that this might become a horror movie franchise, although I’ll grant you that to my mind there aren’t a lot of places a franchise can go to with this concept. The concept here – following a corpse through the autopsy process with terrifying results – is a solid one that is unique so far as I know.

The scary stuff starts pretty quickly into the movie but it doesn’t feel rushed. It builds, rather, and it builds fast. Once it gets going even horror veterans are going to find their hearts pounding and their adrenaline rushing through their systems. It’s legitimately scary and those who are sensitive to gore and nudity (the corpse of Jane Doe is naked throughout) are well-advised to consider carefully whether this is the film for them.

There has been a renaissance in horror movies over the past decade or so and Ǿvredal is one of the leading lights of it. We have seen some movies that are sure to be classics of the genre over the past three or four years in particular and this one is likely to be one of them. It’s a great time to be a horror fan and movies like this one are the reason why.

REASONS TO GO: If you love scary movies, this is the one for you. Terrific performances by Cox and Hirsch drive the film.  Ǿvredal creates a terrifying atmosphere that doesn’t relent during the entire film. Ǿvredal doesn’t wait too long to get into the thick of the horror.
REASONS TO STAY: This may be too intense for some.
FAMILY VALUES:  There are some extremely gruesome images, plenty of foul language, graphic nudity and some intense violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  After seeing The Conjuring, director Ǿvredal told his agent that he wanted to do a horror film for his next project and to find him a good script. This is the one that his agent brought to him and Ǿvredal was immediately taken by it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Witch
FINAL RATING: 9/10
NEXT: Chapter & Verse

All Things Must Pass: The Rise and Fall of Tower Records


Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

Russ Solomon welcomes all and sundry to the Manhattan Tower Records.

(2015) Documentary (Gravitas) Russ Solomon, Bruce Springsteen, Elton John, Mark Viducich, David Geffen, Michael Solomon, Steve Knepper, Heidi Cotler, Dave Grohl, Mike Farrace, Rudy Danzinger, Paul Brown, Steve Knopper, Steve Nikkel, Stan Goman, Ken Sockolov, Chris Hopson, Bob Delanoy. Directed by Colin Hanks

To people of a certain age, a visit to a record store was akin to a spa day; we would spend literally hours browsing the bins of records, cassettes and later compact discs. We’d pour through the bargain and used bins, sweaty palmed and wide-eyed until our breath would catch in our throats as the one record, that one record that made the time and effort worth it appeared out of the stacks. There were no finer moments in my life.

Those days are gone; most of us, myself included, get our music digitally downloaded through iTunes, eMusic, Amazon or some other service, or stream our music through Pandora, RDIO or Band Camp. Music is so easily accessible that it has lost much of its magic to many of us. Why bother spending that kind of time haunting a record store when you can just Google the name of your treasure and it will be located in seconds? Who among us of a certain age can remember the thrill of first entering a Tower Records, a record store that dwarfed anything we’d known before and had just about anything and everything that was available – and if they didn’t have it by God they could get it for you in a week, tops.

In 1999, as a title card at the very beginning of the documentary All Things Must Pass which chronicles the story of what is perhaps the most iconic record chain in history, Tower Records had over a billion dollars in sales. Five years later, they filed for bankruptcy. How did that happen?

Well, the Internet happened. Music suddenly was being file shared and downloaded. Who needed to go inside an old-fashioned brick and mortar emporium? Who had the time? Besides, you could find anything on Napster for free. Why pay twenty bucks for a CD when you could get the very same quality for free? You can’t compete with free, says one talking head ruefully during the course of the film.

Competition happened. Big box stores like Wal*Mart and Target began stocking CDs in comparable qualities and sold them at cost. Tower couldn’t compete with that either. But this wasn’t all Tower’s doing; the music business itself made some incompetent decisions, focusing on music piracy. They may have won the battle against Napster but they lost the war; the major labels these days are shadows of their former selves and making a living as a musician is way harder than it used to be – and it was never easy.

&Tower grew because it was a family store, a neighborhood store. It began as a few bins in a drug store located in the Tower Theater building in Sacramento. When the proprietor’s son, Russ Solomon, decided to get in the record retail business, his father sold the bins to him and soon Russ had a couple of stores in Sacramento. Then one in San Francisco. Then another in Los Angeles.

Russ believed in expansion but he also believed in having more stock than anyone else. He believed in putting people as clerks who were people you’d want to hang out with and talk music with for a couple of hours. I remember going into the Tower Records in Mountain View, California and when the clerks found out I was the rock critic for the San Jose Metro ended up spending nearly three hours just chatting with nearly all of them in between them ringing up customers. They grilled me on various groups and styles; about some I would plead ignorance but others I knew well. When I left the store, the manager told me that I was “Tower Records clerk material.” I don’t ever recall being as thrilled about a compliment in all my life.

That family feeling carried through to the executives of the company, nearly all of whom started out working at the cash register. As we listen to their interviews, particularly Mark Viducich (he of the walrus-like moustache in the photo above) and Heidi Cotler, we get the sense that these are people who are used to speaking what’s on their mind and would be a hoot to hang out with for a few beers after work. These guys knew their market because they were their market.

Solomon’s aggressive expansion phase made Tower a global presence, particularly in Japan which was rabid about American culture (the Japanese expansion was Viducich’s call). Music being such a personal thing, they understood that it had to be treated almost as therapeutic and so it was. If music was the catalyst for change in the latter half of the 20th century, Tower Records was the company that provided the chemicals for the reaction.

Times did change and despite their best efforts Tower Records is no more. Now Colin Hanks, the actor and son of Tom, has fashioned a documentary that is a very good idea – it is going to inspire a ton of nostalgia for a lot of people ranging from the baby boomers to Gen X; in other words, the people that Millennials roll their eyes at these days. That can’t be a bad thing for the box office.

If I have one complaint with the film it’s just that the format is pretty tried and true – lots of talking heads with archival film footage interspersed with it. The soundtrack is pretty good but not as great as that which accompanied The Wrecking Crew or Muscle Shoals. That’s a bit of a problem, but one that isn’t a deal killer at least.

There are some record collectors left but most of us have reverted to digital storage. Ironically the CDs which prompted the golden era for Tower in terms of profits were also the vehicle for the doom of big record chains including Tower. Once music was digital, the obsolescence of brick and mortar record stores was assured.

Still, one can look back fondly on hours spent at Tower, Amoeba and Park City CDs and the money spent and not one dime of it do I regret. Music is as essential to life as breathing (the Japanese Tower continues to use the old Tower slogan “No music, no life”) and I can’t imagine life without it. We all have our own soundtracks and Tower was the place where many of us acquired ours.

REASONS TO GO: Classic nostalgia for aging music geeks. Engaging interviews.
REASONS TO STAY: Pedestrian format.
FAMILY VALUES: Some foul language and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While Tower Records no longer exists in the United States, they still thrive in Japan under separate ownership.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/16/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews. Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Drunk Stoned Brilliant Dead: The Story of the National Lampoon
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Homemakers

The Godfather


Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

Marlon Brando teaches Al Pacino how to make an offer nobody can refuse.

(1972) Drama (Paramount) Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, James Caan, Robert Duvall, Richard Castellano, Abe Vigoda, Sterling Hayden, John Marley, Richard Conte, Al Lettieri, Talia Shire, Gianni Russo, John Cazale, Al Martino, Ruby Bond, Morgana King, Lenny Montana, Simonetta Stefanelli, Alex Rocco, John Martino. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola

There are a number of film buffs in the world who would say that The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made and they’d have a pretty compelling defense of their assertion to offer. There’s no doubt that the movie is a cinematic classic, if not the very best then for sure among them. This movie which had a good deal of trouble getting made and saw production nearly shut down at least twice had to overcome incredible odds just to make it in front of the camera at all.

The Godfather is cinematic opera, passionate and full of tragedy and triumph. Certainly it had its share of controversy – there are Italian-Americans even today who feel the movie reinforced negative stereotypes about the Italians as Mafiosi, largely violent and criminal minded with all of the women being tramps or mamas. It’s not exactly a fair complaint but there is some merit to it.

That there were (and maybe still are) families like this is certain. However, the Corleone family has influenced nearly every crime family depicted on the big screen and small ever since – there would be no Sopranos without them. However not every Italian family has interests in illegal gambling, black market sales and prostitution. It is only a small number that do but there is something fascinating about them. Perhaps it’s that fierce devotion to their families which in their cases comes with a healthy “up yours” to everyone else’s family. As Don Vito himself explains, their family is merely providing a service. Things people want and maybe even need. In a just world, these things would not be illegal. However, they are and so it falls to the bold and the strong to provide them. At least, that’s how I think he justifies what he does.

This is a cast that comes together only once in a lifetime; Brando as the wily and powerful Vito Corleone who plays him with an odd vulnerability that shows through unexpectedly; Caan as the hotheaded Sonny who is as ruthless as he is fiercely devoted. Pacino as the coldly logical Michael, a war hero who didn’t want to be part of the family business until circumstances dictated otherwise. Keaton as Michael’s WASP girlfriend who acts as the audience surrogate, an outsider allowed access to a dangerous and fiercely private world. Cazale as Fredo, the oldest brother and the weakest. Duvall as the consigliere, the legal arm of the Corleone family and often the voice of reason. Castellano and Vigoda as the underlings, genteel and sweet old men on the outside but killers on the inside. Martino as the Hollywood star who the Don owns. Rocco as Moe Green, the Vegas casino owner who discovers he’s not as powerful as he thinks he is. Montana as the fearsome Luca Brazzi.

There are so many memorable moments in this movie that it’s impossible to even list them all. Murder and mayhem discussed at the family dinner table. Scenes of incredible violence and incredible tenderness. Tragedy on an operatic scale and triumph on a lavish scale. The montage of murder during the christening of Michael’s godson and nephew is perhaps the best scene in any movie ever. It’s so well-choreographed and so well-directed that you can only sit back breathlessly and admire it. There have been numerous attempts to duplicate it but none have ever even come close.

If you haven’t seen this movie – and chances are you have – this should be the next one you make a point of renting or streaming. If you love movies, I’m officially giving you the excuse you need to revisit it. Either way, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with the Corleone family. Pass the marinara.

WHY RENT THIS: A must-see for everyone who loves movies. One of the best (if not the best) of all time.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some may find the violence off-putting.

FAMILY VALUES:  Lots and lots of bloody violence, foul language, sexuality and some nudity.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There is actually a town in Sicily called Corleone and Al Pacino’s maternal grandparents actually emigrated from there. However by the 1970s the town was too developed to be used in a 1940s period so filming set in Corleone was actually done in the village of Savoca, outside of Taormina.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: Be warned that editions which contain the individual films tend to be fairly sparse with extras. If you’re looking for extras you’re better off picking up the trilogy boxed sets in either DVD or Blu-Ray which include some scintillating material as it relates to the trilogy plus it is a cost-effective way to get all three films in the saga. However if you want to skip the third film and are just interested in the movies themselves without the bells and whistles, buying them individually is the way to go.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $245.1M on a $6M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Citizen Kane

FINAL RATING: 10/10

NEXT: Homefront