Nona


See no evil.

(2017) Drama (Rock Salt) Kate Bosworth, Sulem Calderon, Jesy McKinney, Diana Cabuto, Jasper Polish, Giancarlo Ruiz, Brittney Bell, Mildraide Lazarre, Lily Melgar, Chris Arellano, Ramsay Phelps, Jonathan Contreras, Billy Helmers, Mariana Cabrera Orozco. Directed by Michael Polish

 

Illegal immigration is a hot button topic these days and while some may chafe at the label “human rights crisis” that is in fact a more-than-adequate description of what’s going on at our southern border. Poverty and violence in Central and South American nations has led to a wave of refugees trying to make it to the United States and what has to be a better life than the one they are faced with.

Nona (Calderon) works in a small Honduran city “painting the dead”; that is, putting make-up on corpses at a local funeral home to make them funeral-ready. She is essentially alone; her father was gunned down on the way home from the local grocery to purchase a bag of chips, her brother knifed by a criminal gang, and her mother fled to America. Nona wants to join her but neither Nona nor her mother can afford the cost of getting her there.

Enter Hecho (McKinney), a bowler-wearing hipster with a free spirit and breezy attitude that belies his broken heart. He’s headed for Mexico – specifically Tijuana – and is willing to take Nona along for the company. She can pay him back for the expenses later. Although Nona is a smart and worldly sort, she finds the charm that Hecho exudes irresistible and agrees to go with him.

At first it seems like a great idea. Hecho seems to be in no particular hurry as they take various buses through the Honduras, Guatemala and into Mexico, sometimes taking boats and on one occasion, a yacht. Sometimes they just hoof it but Hecho seems to have plenty of money to buy food, and occasionally party in bars and discos. The difficult and dangerous journey to the border is portrayed essentially as a stroll in the park. But when Nona reaches the border and Hecho turns her over to a coyote who will get her into the country, the parting of ways hides a dark truth that will shatter Nona’s life.

The movie makes a very jarring turn about two thirds of the way in and it is completely unexpected. I toyed with the idea of revealing what that turn is but decided not to reveal it to give that turn greater impact. Suffice to say it reflects a problem that is all too prevalent in the immigration equation.

The first two thirds of the movie could well be a travelogue with the attractive couple of Nona and Hecho sampling the culture along the way. The cinematography is idyllic and the pace somewhat languid. There is no romantic relationship between Hecho and Nona and little sexual tension so any thoughts of romance through the first part of the movie is best left put on the back-burner.

I don’t have a problem with tonal shifts in films, even ones as completely opposite as the tone of the last half hour is to the first hour. The problem is that the first hour of the movie doesn’t really set up the last 30 minutes adequately; it feels like the filmmakers wanted to give the audience a sense of how Nona must have felt when confronted by her situation which changed radically in a matter of moments. It almost feels like two different films and maybe it is. I think Polish would have benefited by spending more time on the second half of the film and less on the first.

Polish is a veteran director who has an impressively diverse filmography, although none of his films to date have really blown me away. I think this one was meant to but at the end of the day, while it is timely and even borderline essential, it is a disappointing treatment of a subject that deserves better.

REASONS TO SEE: The chemistry between the leads is strong.
REASONS TO AVOID: The abrupt shift in narrative is jarring and not adequately set up.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some strong sexual situations, rape, profanity, violence and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Kate Bosworth, who is also a producer on the film, is married to Michael Polish; Polish also frequently collaborates with his brother Mark although Mark isn’t involved with this specific film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes:60% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Trafficked
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Echo in the Canyon

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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

Manchester by the Sea


Grief is an emotion best shared.

Grief is an emotion best shared.

(2016) Drama (Roadside Attractions/Amazon) Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, C.J. Wilson, Josh Hamilton, Tate Donovan, Jami Tennille Mingo, Anna Baryshnikov, Liam McNeill, Gretchen Mol, Kara Hayward, Joe Stapleton, Brian Chamberlain, Christian Mallen, Oscar Wahlberg, Ruibo Qian, Tom Kemp, Chloe Dixon, Matthew Broderick, Quincy Tyler Bernstine. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan

 

Joseph Conrad famously wrote that “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” but like all aphorisms, it isn’t always true. There are some things, some horrible terrible things, that may not necessarily kill us but they destroy us emotionally, mentally and spiritually. They turn us into the living dead, unable to recover, unable to die.

Lee Chandler (Affleck) is someone like that. He works as a handyman/janitor in several apartment buildings in Quincy, Massachusetts, taken for granted and overlooked – and quite happy in that circumstance. He’s good at what he does, but when he gets guff from the tenants he tends to give it right back. He hangs out in bars, ignoring the come-ons of attractive women and then getting into meaningless bar fights, exploding over the slightest provocation.

His routine is disrupted with the news that his big brother Joe (Chandler) has died suddenly. Joe has had heart problems for years so it isn’t completely unexpected but it is still a devastating blow. Both brothers are divorced but Joe does have a son Patrick (Hedges) that lives with him since it turns out that his mom (Mol) is a raging alcoholic. Lee for whatever reason has been unable to forgive her for this. Lee goes back to Manchester-by-the-sea, a North Shore town where he grew up but he has left for good reason.

To Lee’s dismay, it turns out that Joe in his will named Lee as Patrick’s guardian. It also turns out that Joe has left enough money that will assist Lee in paying for things that Patrick will need. Lee has no intention of taking care of Patrick in Manchester – he wants Patrick to finish out the school year and then live with him in Quincy until he goes to college but Patrick balks. His whole life is there in Manchester – two girlfriends and a truly bad garage band – but he doesn’t want to start over, particularly with his Uncle who is taciturn, grim-faced and possessed of an explosive temper that gets him into trouble.

Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Williams) is seeing someone else but seems eager to re-connect with Lee, which Lee seems absolutely against. There are those in town who seem to have some sort of issue with Lee as well; most seem to shy away from him, as if he’s a bomb with a hair trigger. Bit by bit, we discover why Lee has these walls up…but can anything bring them down?

Most Hollywood movies dealing with a broken man (and Lee Chandler is most assuredly broken) who is forced unwillingly to become responsible for a child (although Patrick is 16 years old) usually end up with the broken man being fixed by the experience. Manchester by the Sea is a refreshing change from that trope as Lee is changed, but not fixed. The pain he is in is still there when the movie ends, and it is clear that pain will always be with him – and understandably so. What he has to live with is not something that people can just fix and forget.

Affleck, who in many ways has always been in the shadows of his brother Ben, has emerged with this performance. Oh sure, we always knew he could act – Gone Baby Gone and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and several other examples are proof of that. Here though he is an odds on favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar and is a lock to get at least a nomination. This is the kind of performance that sears the soul of the viewer and stays there; it is a performance one can view again and again and still find something fresh and new about it. It is the step one takes from being a good actor to being a great one, and it is worth celebrating – we can always use great actors and Casey Affleck has become one.

Much of the movie is concerned with grief and how different people experience it. One point that Lonergan makes is that no matter how together someone seems on the surface, eventually that pain must manifest itself in some way or another, either through tears or walls or both. There are several scenes – a late film encounter between Lee and his ex, the moment when Patrick finally breaks down, the aftermath of a tragedy – that are as important as any you’ll see in a movie this year, or any other for that matter.

This is a movie firmly entrenched in working class values. Hollywood has a tendency to either mythologize those values, or condescend towards them. Lonergan does neither; he simply presents them as he sees them and allows the audience to draw their own conclusions. He doesn’t shy away from allowing people to think either; there are a lot of concepts here worthy of post-movie discussion and while it can be a hard movie to sit through, it is rewarding because of that reason. The subject matter is heavy and Lonergan refuses to take short cuts or dumb things down.

I know a lot of people mistrust Hollywood as a bastion of liberal elitism and there’s some justification for that. Those people who feel that way should see this movie. It is a celebration of life in the midst of pain and death. It doesn’t shy away from the realities of life but it doesn’t wallow in them either. It finds the quiet bravery of just getting up in the morning without making a fuss about it. In short, this is one of the best movies of 2016 and one which you should make every effort to see.

REASONS TO GO: A show-stopping performance by Casey Affleck is one of the best of the year. Grief is looked at in an honest and realistic way. The attitude is completely working class in a good way. This film doesn’t dumb itself down for its audience.
REASONS TO STAY: The pacing is a little bit on the slow side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of foul language, some sexual situations and adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The project was originally intended for Matt Damon to direct and star in, but conflicts with The Martian forced him to withdraw.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 96/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Angels Crest
FINAL RATING: 10/10
NEXT: Vacancy

Jack Goes Boating


Jack Goes Boating

Amy Ryan tries to be polite but can't hide her confusion when Phillip Seymour Hoffman launches into a Kenneth Mars impression.

(2010) Romantic Comedy (Overture) Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Ryan, John Ortiz, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Thomas McCarthy, Lola Glaudini, Richard Petrocelli, Salvatore Inzerillo, Harry L. Seddon, Shawna Barmender.  Directed by Phillip Seymour Hoffman

Who can say why two people that shouldn’t be together end up that way, while two people who should be together don’t. The mysteries of human interrelationships would baffle Steven Hawking (and probably does) since so much of it is inexplicable. There are no scientific formulas to explain the human heart.

Jack (Hoffman) is a mild-mannered limo driver for his uncle’s (Petrocelli) company. His best friend is Clyde (Ortiz) whom he’s known since they were kids. Jack has ambitions to work for the MTA in New York City (where they live) but nobody really believes he can pass the test needed to become an MTA driver. Jack lives alone, has no girlfriend and most of his social life revolves around Clyde and his girlfriend Lucy (Rubin-Vega). Lucy, while fond of Jack, doesn’t want him around quite so much and thinks a girlfriend would be just the ticket to give him a life of her own.

Lucy works at a funeral home with Connie (Ryan), a woman who might just be as shy as Jack is. Like Jack, she is alone (although not nearly as dependent on others as Jack is). Clyde and Lucy decide to get the two together.

Surprisingly they get on very nicely and Connie remarks to Jack that she wants to go boating in Central Park. Since it’s the beginning of winter, that indicates an interest in a long term relationship. However Jack doesn’t particularly want to go boating – he can’t swim. Clyde offers to teach Jack how to swim, since Jack is eager to continue seeing Connie.

Jack also wants to cook Connie a meal in the meantime, which is quite an undertaking for a guy who doesn’t know how to microwave popcorn. He gets some lessons but when the big dinner date arrive (Clyde and Lucy are also invited), things go horribly awry. Still, Jack and Connie seem to get closer and closer – and as they do, Clyde and Lucy begin to drift farther and farther apart.

Not only does Hoffman appear in this as the lead actor, but he also directed the movie (based on Robert Glaudini’s stage play of the same name – Glaudini also wrote the screenplay) which is difficult enough. He is in nearly every scene and is the center of the action. That can be good and bad; while Jack is out to improve himself and improve the quality of his life, he is taking baby steps for the most part; for the audience viewing this it can be downright irritating.

I’m not saying watching a shy man change his life is inherently boring – it’s not – but as depicted here the more interesting characters tend to be the ones on the periphery. Clyde, Lucy and Connie all held my attention more readily than Jack did, a bad sign.

Still, the movie has a sweet charm to it that helps offset the lack of inertia. Hoffman does shy and awkward as well as anyone, and he does it here nicely. Jack isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier but he has a good heart. Connie is much smarter than he is but just as socially awkward. Ryan gives her a sweet and sexy quality that is self-conscious but totally believable.

Ortiz for me was the most interesting performance. A little bit smarmy, totally 100% New York, Clyde has the best of intentions but is derailed by his own failings. His heart is in the right place but he can’t get past his weakness for marijuana, nor his jealousy of Lucy’s past infidelities.

There is a scene near the end of the movie when the two couples are at Clyde and Lucy’s apartment which is as awkward as any I’ve ever seen in a movie (awkward in a good way). It is the most powerful scene in the movie and as Connie tries desperately to pull Jack away from the train wreck that is occurring, you are right there with her. It is in this moment where Hoffman shows the potential of being a really good director.

This isn’t a movie that’s going to reveal a lot of new insights into love or life; it’s just a look inside two relationships and four lives. It does give a sense of how it is to live and work in New York, which is always welcome. It also is charming and sweet at times, awkward and irritating at others. Just like real life.

WHY RENT THIS: The relationships are believable and the one between Jack and Connie is sweet.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie lacks inertia.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of cursing, a smidgeon of drug use and some sexuality.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hoffman originated the role of Jack in the stage production.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a featurette on how the process of adapting the movie from a stage play into a film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $619,570 on an unreported production budget; the movie was most likely a flop.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: 30 Minutes or Less

Get Low


Get Low

Robert Duvall goes all Old Testament on an incredulous Lucas Black and a skeptical Bill Murray.

(Sony Classics) Robert Duvall, Sissy Spacek, Bill Murray, Lucas Black, Gerald McRaney, Bill Cobbs, Scott Cooper, Lori Beth Edgeman, Linds Edwards, Andrea Powell, Chandler Riggs, Danny Vinson, Blerim Destani, Andy Stahl. Directed by Aaron Schneider

I think to a certain extent most of us would love to attend our own funerals. After all, it is a time when those who survive us think the best of us; who wouldn’t want to be a fly on the wall when their friends and loved ones are talking about us from the heart?

Felix Bush (Duvall) is a recluse living in the hills alone in a cabin that he built. All he has is a shotgun, his mule, a wad of cash and forty years of loneliness. One morning Rev. Horton (McRaney), a local pastor, calls on him to alert him that one of his old friends has passed on. Horton is a bit nervous and understandably so; Bush has a reputation for being violent, unpredictable and possibly even Satanic. Horton invites Bush to the funeral, but Felix brushes him off, making it unclear whether or not he’ll show. True to his mercurial nature, he arrives after everyone else has left.

Nonetheless that gets him thinking about his own mortality; he’s not a young man anymore, so he stops to see the good Reverend about arranging his own funeral with a bit of a twist – he wants it thrown while he’s still alive. Horton is a little taken aback by this and Felix storms out, but his proposal is overheard by Buddy Robinson (Black), the assistant to local funeral home director Frank Quinn (Murray).

When Frank hears about the incident from his underling, he is intrigued – by the size of the wad of cash Buddy says he has. Frank is originally from Chicago where, he tells Buddy sourly, people know how to die – they get hit by cars, shot by mobsters or drop down dead in the streets. “We know how to die hereabouts too,” drawls Buddy, “only we’re not in such a hurry to go about it.”

Frank, intimidated by Felix’ reputation, sends Buddy in to see if the hermit is still interested in throwing a funeral for himself and as it turns out, he is – and he and Buddy manage to establish a little bit of a bond. Frank brings Felix to town to work out some of the details – for instance, he wants the funeral to be open to “anybody who has a story to tell about me,” and to entice people to show up, allows people to sign up for a lottery for five dollars; the name that is drawn will inherit Felix’ land, with virgin timber rights and worth thousands of dollars. Felix begins to connect not only with Frank and Buddy, but with Mattie (Spacek), a widow with whom Felix once had a romantic relationship years and years prior.

As Felix begins to return to the world, it becomes clear that he has been holding onto a terrible secret for some forty years and it becomes even more clear that the funeral is not about Felix hearing what other people think about him (he really doesn’t give a damn what other people think) so much as for Felix to get this terrible burden off his chest. To that end, he wants the Reverend Charlie Jackson (Cobbs) to preach at his “funeral party,” mainly because he is the only man alive who knows Jackson’s secret. As the big day gets closer, Felix’ resolve begins to waver and Reverend Jackson shows no interest in helping Felix out. The funeral party is in jeopardy, which would ruin Frank’s business and put the young Buddy out of work, with a wife and new baby to feed.

Get Low

The real Felix "Uncle Bush" Breazeale at his "funeral party" in 1938.

Schneider has had some Oscar experience for some of the short films he’s directed; this is his first full-length feature and it’s an impressive one. The story is based on the real life Felix “Uncle Bush” Brezeale who threw himself a funeral in rural Tennessee in 1938. There was a Reverend Charlie Jackson who preached at that funeral, and as depicted here, there was also a musical ensemble that played for the entertainment of the large crowd that gathered.

However, most of the dramatic action is an invention, particularly concerning Felix’ past. Schneider couldn’t have chosen a better actor for the role than Duvall, one of America’s best living actors. Now pushing 80 years old, Duvall doesn’t appear onscreen nearly as often; this is by far the best role he’s had since 1997’s The Apostle although I saw a lot of his “Lonesome Dove” TV role as Gus McCrae in his Felix Bush – despite the differences in character between the gregarious Gus and the curmudgeonly Felix.

Duvall carries the film for certain, but he is equaled by Murray, who shows the same level of performance as he achieved in Lost in Translation. He plays Frank with typical drollness, delivered with the twinkle of a conman’s eye. Frank is a complicated sort who isn’t quite trustworthy, or at least doesn’t inspire that kind of trust, even among the fairly simple folk of the town. Murray excels at this kind of role, going back to Caddyshack and beyond. Mention needs to be made of Spacek, who gives some of her finest work of the past decade here in a very down-to-earth role. One forgets how good she can be; it’s been a very long time since Coal Miner’s Daughter but when she gets the right role, as she does here, Spacek is as good as they get.

Schneider also enlisted Emmy-winning cinematographer David Boyd (“Deadwood”) to capture the majesty of the hill country in autumn. It’s a beautiful looking film, full of rich browns, muted sepia tones and flickering firelight.

The big secret is a bit of a disappointment; it’s pretty much what you think it is, and an opening prologue will give you all the clues you need to figure it out if you watch carefully, but even given that, Duvall’s delivery of the speech where he discloses the reason he has lived in exile from humanity for 40 years is a powerful, memorable performance.

This is one of those happenstance movies where all the right elements come together and magic happens as a result. The film captures time and place and allows us to dwell there for a short while and on that level can be enjoyed thoroughly. There really isn’t a message here that I could detect other than to let go of your burdens before they become the only thing you can call your own. Still, that’s a plenty good message to me, to which I add another one; if Robert Duvall and Bill Murray are in a movie separately or together, that is a movie worth seeing.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-worthy performances by Duvall and Murray, while Spacek does her best work in years. Beautiful cinematography of the Georgia hill country and a great sense of place and time make this a magic place to stop for a spell.

REASONS TO STAY: The big reveal of Felix’ secret is a little bit anti-climactic; most everyone will have figured out what it is long before then.

FAMILY VALUES: Some of the thematic material, having to do with the secret that Felix is holding onto, is probably a bit difficult for kids. There are a few swear words, but by and large this is suitable for teens and above.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: While the movie is loosely based on an incident that occurred in Roane County, Tennessee in 1938, it was filmed in Georgia and is set about ten years earlier.

HOME OR THEATER: While some of the gorgeous cinematography deserves a big screen, I would normally say that this limited release gem will be just as nice on the home screen except that a movie like this deserves all the support it can get.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Paul Blart: Mall Cop