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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The Brass Teapot


You ain't never had a friend like meeeeeeee!

You ain’t never had a friend like meeeeeeee!

(2012) Fantasy (Magnolia) Juno Temple, Michael Angarano, Alexis Bledel, Billy Magnussen, Alia Shawkat, Bobby Moynihan, Stephen Park, Debra Monk, Ben Rappaport, Lucy Walters, Jack McBrayer, Michael Delaney, Tara Copeland, Thomas Middleditch, Bob McClure, Rebecca Drake, Claudia Mason. Directed by Ramaa Mosley   

I don’t think there’s a person alive who hasn’t had a wish-fulfillment dream – a dream where their most fondly imagined wishes are made to come true. Sometimes it comes in the form of a Lottery win, or of an inheritance – most of our actual real world dreams generally come with real world fulfillments. But then again, would anyone turn down a magic lamp….or teapot?

Alice (Temple) and John (Angarano) are a couple with more love than money. Alice is recently unemployed and John works at a crap job that he can’t stand – one in which he is hoping for a promotion from a boss who spouts meaningless aphorisms that motivate John not even a little bit.

They live hand to mouth and whenever the rent is late, which it is often, Alice must put up with the brutish come-ons of landlord Arnie (Magnussen). While driving to visit Alice’s parents, the two are involved in a car accident when they are t-boned at a rural intersection. While John sorts things out, Alice wanders into a neighboring antiques store and finds hidden away a teapot. Impulsively she decides to take it and as it turns out, their car was drivable so they drive away.

When John discovers what Alice has done, he is disgusted; “We’re already two steps above white trash as it is.” He doesn’t ask her to take it back however and the continue on to dinner where they get put down by both Alice’s parents, her sister (Monk) and brother-in-law (McBrayer) who are those smug conservative Christians that drive most liberals crazy.

The next day, John is back at work but not for long – he’s being laid off. Fortunately for him, Alice is finding out something about the teapot – anytime pain is experienced anywhere near it, the pot produces hundred dollar bills. Lots of them depending on the severity of the pain. She spends much of the afternoon beating herself up – literally – until John arrives. At first incredulous, he is soon motivated to join the party.

John knows they need the cash but he is concerned about the price to be paid and makes Alice agree that they won’t let this brass teapot take over their lives and when they’ve made enough, they’ll stop. She readily agrees.

They’re able to start buying new things but before long they receive a visit from a pair of Hassidic Jews who beat the crap out of John and steal the proceeds from the teapot. Apparently it was their mother whom Alice stole the teapot to and she’d recently passed away. Not long after that the two get a visit from Dr. Li Ling (Park), a patient Chinese expert on the teapot who warns them that the teapot can destroy them and that the only way to save themselves is to give it to them.

They have no intention of doing that however and continue to discover new things about the brass teapot, including that mental and emotional pain can trigger cash as can the pain of others. Soon they have enough to buy a mansion near new neighbor and former high school rival Payton (Bledel). However, things begin to take a turn for the worse. Arnie finds out about the Teapot. John becomes increasingly worried that Alice has become obsessed with it and won’t be able to give it up when the time comes. It sure looks like Dr. Ling’s worst prognostications are coming true.

This is Mosley’s first feature after a sterling music video career and it’s pretty solid. Writer Tim Macy has developed a pretty solid mythology behind the teapot which gives it a solid footing. I like the imaginative concept although the execution of it really didn’t utilize it properly. The equation of pain and wealth sounds on the surface like a commentary on our materialistic society.

Macy and Mosley don’t really do that though. Mostly this is a comedy of creative ways to hurt yourself which wears a little thin by the end of the movie. Fortunately, there’s a pretty solid cast to keep your attention even when the vignettes lose their luster. Temple, one of the most engaging up-and-coming actresses today, has a good comic timing, something I wasn’t aware she was known for. Angarano has made some missteps in his career but is slowly emerging as a talent of his own.

The important thing is that the chemistry between Temple and Angarano is genuine. The movie doesn’t work if you don’t sense the love between John and Alice but that emotion is clearly there. Even when they appear to be drifting apart there is still that connection – that’s why you continue to root for them even though they’ve done such disagreeable things. You also get that these are people made desperate by an economy that failed them.

The denouement is pretty interesting and doesn’t particularly come out of left field. I would have liked to have left this film with a bit more thought regarding the value of the pursuit of wealth and its effect on the human soul. The Brass Teapot doesn’t particularly add anything to that particular conversation, which is a bit of a shame but then again it doesn’t necessarily have to. As entertainment, the movie delivers which is really all you can truly ask of it but a little something extra would have been nice.

REASONS TO GO: Quirky sense of humor. Nice fantasy environment without a lot of special effects.

REASONS TO STAY: A bit mean-spirited. Some of the self-inflicted pain is bit squirm inducing.

FAMILY VALUES:  There’s a bit of violence, some sexuality, some drug use and a fair amount of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Screenwriter Tim Macy also wrote the short story that the movie is based on.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/3/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 39/100; critics clearly didn’t like this film a whole lot.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Aladdin

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Oblivion

Holy Rollers


Holy Rollers

Oy! Betcha Jesse Eisenberg never flew coach in that Facebook movie!

(2010) Drama (First Independent) Jesse Eisenberg, Justin Bartha, Danny Abeckaser, Ari Gaynor, Mark Ivanir, Elizabeth Marvel, Jason Fuchs, Q-Tip, Hallie Eisenberg, Bern Cohen, Stella Keitel, David Vadim, Charlie Hewson, Penny Bittone, Ori Pfeffer. Directed by Kevin Asch

 

The Hasidic Jews are particularly devout in their Jewishness. They tend to follow Jewish law more closely than the reform and even the orthodox sects. With their distinctive side curls and black dress, they are easily identifiable and travel freely all over the world. Their devotion to God is such that crime is extremely rare among them, enough so that law enforcement doesn’t consider them any sort of threat.

Certainly Sam Gold (J. Eisenberg) wouldn’t seem to be. A young man growing up in the Hassidic community of Brooklyn, his life seems to be pretty much mapped out for him; a marriage arranged for him by his parents, a future as a rabbi which he is studying to be and raising a family in the same community he himself grew up in. The world for Sam is a pretty stable, secure place.

Then that stability begins to crumble. His marriage arrangement ends, leaving him single and a figure of some suspicion in the community. His father and mother become keenly disappointed in him, wondering if he fits in to the community at all. Sam begins to question himself.

His best friend’s (Fuchs) brother Yosef Zimmerman (Bartha) asks Sam to do him a favor amidst all this. If he could just go to Amsterdam and pick up a small bag of pills, some medicine that is extremely expensive here but cheap over there – he’d be ever so grateful.

Sam naively agrees. Soon he finds out what he’s really transporting – ecstasy – but rather than recoil, he embraces his new venture. With his business acumen learned from his father, he impresses Yosef’s boss Jackie (Abeckaser) who takes Sam under his wing. He also impresses Rachel (Graynor), Jackie’s girlfriend whom he develops a connection to. Sam begins to make some serious money, far more than his father. He becomes intimately familiar with the night life in Manhattan and Amsterdam. He changes.

Sam thinks he’s the smartest boy on the block, not realizing the police are pretty smart too and are closing in on him. In fact, Sam in wanting to make something of himself truly has – an outsider in his own community.

Loosely based on actual events, director Asch creates a movie that in lesser hands might have wound up as cliche and boring. He chooses not to make this a movie of car chases and gun fights but of insight into the Hassidic community and a look at the evolution of a young man from Godly to criminal.

Unfortunately, we don’t really see it as an evolution so much as an abrupt change from one to the other. We never get a sense of Sam’s moral dilemma, never see him wrestling with his conscience. One moment he’s a naive, shy Hasid and the next he’s a worldly drug lord, overseeing a network of Hassidic mules going from Amsterdam to New York City with the notion that the Hassidic won’t excite suspicion from the authorities.

This is the type of role Jesse Eisenberg does so well with. He can capture both elements of the character – the shy naiveté and the brusque somewhat streetwise criminal. In a large sense, it’s reminiscent of his Oscar-nominated performance in The Social Network although mostly there he is in the latter mode.

The story is unusual enough that it captures the attention; the execution of it sadly misses the mark somewhat. Still, there’s enough rich material here to keep the film moving from start to finish and keep our interest until the end credits run. I wish they might have taken a little more time to develop the internal conflict that Sam surely must have had; the audience might have been able to get behind the character more instead of just thinking he’s a colossal putz.

WHY RENT THIS: A role tailor-made for Eisenberg’s strengths. A rare look inside the Hasidic community. An interesting and unusual concept.. 

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sam’s change of character is abrupt and not well-explained.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some brief sexual stuff, lots of drug use and some foul language. Not to mention some Hassidic ass-kicking like you wouldn’t believe.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jesse and Hallie Eisenberg, siblings in real life, play siblings in the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s a sit-down interview with Bartha and Eisenberg, detailing the actor’s preparations for the film and how they became involved with it.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $608,027 on an unreported production budget; the movie was probably somewhere just south of breaking even.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Chloe