The Last Resort


Back in the day, the residents of South Beach really knew how to have a good time.

(2018) Documentary (Kino Lorber) Gary Monroe, Ellen Sweet Moss, Susan Gladstone, Kelly Reichardt, Mitchell Kaplan, Edna Buchanan, Stan Hughes, Denise Bibro. Directed by Dennis Scholl and Kareem Tabsch

 

In the years after World War II, the city of Miami went through what would have to be termed a major renaissance. The beautiful beaches, warm weather and the presence of brand spanking new air-conditioned hotels became irresistible to those from the Northeast who endured harsh winters. Many of them, close to retirement age, decided that Miami would be a fine place to live. There were plenty of old art deco hotels in the South Beach area that had been converted to apartments; rents were dirt cheap. South Beach became a largely Jewish community, termed by residents as a stetl, a small but vibrant settlement.

Andy Sweet was a Miami native, the son of a prominent Miami judge whose family had helped develop the big beach side hotels that brought in a vibrant nightlife (Miami was the second home of the Rat Pack and most of the big names in Vegas played there regularly. Jackie Gleason hosted a variety show from there back in the day.

Along with his good friend Gary Monroe, the two young photographers set out to capture the South Beach community. Most of the residents were getting on in age; many of them were Holocaust survivors. Dubbed the Miami Beach Project, Sweet and Monroe proposed a ten year involvement, recording the residents and places that made South Beach so unique.

The two couldn’t have had more different styles. Monroe preferred black and white as a medium; his pictures were largely posed and had a more somber quality to them. Sweet preferred a much more spontaneous approach; his photos nearly exploded with color capturing not only the moment but the personalities of the people in them. Although many of the subjects posed for Sweet, he managed to get a more casual look as if capturing them in the act of being themselves.

Sweet wouldn’t live to see the project through to completion. A mere five years in to the project, Sweet was brutally murdered in 1982 at the age of 28, found stabbed 29 times in his apartment in what was conjectured to have been a drug deal gone terribly wrong. Miami was already changing drastically when Sweet died; a huge influx of Latin (mainly Cuban) immigrants began to change the culture of Miami and on the flip side, became the center of the cocaine trade at about the same time leading to an exponential increase in violence. Although Monroe went on to complete the project alone, by the time he did most of the Jewish residents were already gone, having moved to places like Fort Lauderdale and Boynton Beach where rents were more reasonable. These days South Beach is the center for nightlife in Miami, where the young and famous go to be seen.

While there are plenty of talking head interviews with Monroe and Sweet’s sister Ellen as well as a few people who knew him or of him (director Kelly Reichardt is one) which generally speaking can be terribly irritating, it is the photographs that Sweet took that takes center stage. They very nearly didn’t.

After Sweet’s death, his family was too distraught to even look at his photographs and put his negatives in storage. When Monroe broached the subject of putting together a retrospective of his partner’s work only three months after Sweet’s death, his family was infuriated and this led to an estrangement between Monroe and Sweet’s family that lasted for decades. In the meantime, the storage company charged with keeping Sweet’s negatives inexplicably lost them during a move. They have to this day not been recovered.

Fortunately, his sister’s partner Stan Hughes found several boxes of work prints while emptying a family storage unit. Hughes is something of a digital photography expert and although the prints were badly faded with time, he was able to start the restoration process, restoring the pictures to their original color vibrancy.

]The movie is not only a pictorial history of the evolution of South Beach but also a love letter to a man whose career was cut far too short. His work speaks for itself and we are fortunate to have the opportunity to see them. The pictures may sometimes have resembled vacation snapshots of happy seniors dancing, flirting, sunning themselves or porch-sitting but every one of them captured so much more than a moment.

REASONS TO SEE: The photographs really have character. A very interesting chronicle of the evolution of Miami’s South Beach.
REASONS TO AVOID: This is definitely a niche film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some mild profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sweet did a series of city government employees shortly before his death. One of the subjects turned out to be the police detective who would investigate his murder.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/16/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 74/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Smash His Camera
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Patrick

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Big Sonia


Big hearts can come in small packages.

(2017) Documentary (Argot) Sonia Warshawski, Regina Kort, Caroline Kennedy, Morrie Warshawski, SuEllen Fried, Debbie Warshawski, Marcie Sillman (voice), Chris Morris, Ehsan Javed, Rachel Black, Kollin Schechinger, Grace Lamar, Isabella Mangan, Leah Warshawski. Directed by Todd Soliday and Leah Warshawski

 

After the events in Charlottesville and as we watch the rise of white nationalism and an emergence of racism in the wake of last year’s Presidential election, one has to wonder what Holocaust survivors must think, particularly those who came to the United States to heal, raise families and move forward with their lives. I can’t imagine how awful it must be for them to hear our president characterize those low-life scumbags as “fine people.”

Sonia Warshawski is one of the dwindling number of concentration camp survivors living in the United States, in her case in the Kansas City area. 90 years old at the time of filming (she turned 92 this month), she continues to run her late husband’s (also a Holocaust survivor) tailor shop, the last remaining storefront in an otherwise deserted mall. It is her lifeblood, where she is able to interact with long-time customers, sew and help people dress with somewhat more panache. She’s the kind of gal who is fond of leopard prints and is unembarrassed by it – “(they) never go out of style” she crows at one point in this documentary. Still beautiful even in her 90s, she has a style and glamour all her own.

A somewhat recent development in her life has been her willingness to speak out about her experiences in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. She had rarely spoken to her own children about the war, although they were aware that both their parents were haunted by their experiences (daughter Regina Kort speaks about John screaming in his sleep at night which is why she never hosted sleepovers at her own home). However when she heard about Holocaust deniers and American Nazis, she felt it was her duty to those who didn’t survive to speak about her experiences and share them with high school kids while she still could.

Even more recently Regina has been accompanying her mother on these speaking engagements, usually presenting a sobering preamble before her mother speaks. Displaying a family photograph of about 20 people, she points out an 11-year-old Sonia and her sister as the only two who survived. Sonia’s entire family was wiped out almost overnight. At 15, she witnessed her mother being herded into the gas chamber; she recalls vividly that the last act she saw her mother perform was to comfort a fellow prisoner headed for certain death. Afterwards, she would discover that the fertilizer she was spreading in the fields was the ashes of the victims that had come straight from the crematorium.

Speaking at a prison, hardened convicts describe her as “WAY tougher than (we are)” and reduced some of them to tears. One high school student, Caroline Kennedy (not JFK’s daughter) was so moved by her encounter with Sonia that after graduation she formed an organization to help inspire other students called Empower. Sonia has that effect on people.

Like many Holocaust survivors, family is of the utmost importance to Sonia and she has instilled that value in her children, her grandchildren (one of whom is co-director of the film) and even her great-grandchildren. Sonia makes homemade gefilte fish for Passover and Rosh Hashanah and seems to be surrounded by members of her family nearly all the time.

Her life isn’t without challenges though; the property owners of the mall are dithering whether to demolish the property and build condos or rebuild it. Either way, Sonia’s beloved tailor shop is in a state of flux in many ways. She’s survived so much worse however and it is clear that regardless of what happens she will survive this too.

This is absolutely a labor of love; yes, her granddaughter is one of the directors but it goes beyond that. Much of the film revolves around an NPR interview Sonia gave a few years ago with Marcie Sillman, but that’s only a framework. The centerpiece of the movie is Sonia herself.

Nearly everyone who encounters Sonia in the film becomes an admirer but the filmmakers manage to give the film a sense of balance. Sonia is no saint, but she’s pretty dang close. Some of the interviews with her children are heartbreaking, recalling how guilty they’d feel for giving their parents hell when they’d both lived through hell. Morrie, Sonia’s writer son, breaks down while reading a poem he wrote about his mother during a passage where he describes her whistling a tune her brother used to hum to her while they were hiding from the Nazis, an uncle who he would never meet. There are quite a few scenes of similar emotional power.

Buoyed by almost incongruously light animated sequences that show visually some of the most horrible moments from Sonia’s time in the camps, the movie isn’t a downer although it could well have been. Rather, this is uplifting that makes you want to cry and laugh and sing. You will want to take this woman in your arms and give her a hug and it might even give you a renewed determination to see the forces of racism and tolerance be made to slink back under the rocks they’ve crawled up from under. Those who shouted “We will not be replaced by Jews” should only be so lucky.

In any case, this is a movie that can change your life and I don’t say that lightly. It played the Central Florida Jewish Film Festival here in Orlando recently and has begun a brief theatrical run in New York, Los Angeles and Kansas City and hopefully other cities will show the film as well. This is certainly one of the year’s very best and I can’t recommend it enough.

REASONS TO GO: Sonia is a major inspiration. This is most definitely a labor of love. The pain she and her family feel isn’t kept hidden. A movie that makes you appreciate the things you have.
REASONS TO STAY: There is some repetition that goes on with Sonia’s presentations.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some very adult themes regarding the Holocaust.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The diminutive Sonia stands at 4’8” tall.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/20/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 86% positive reviews. Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT:
Despicable Me 3

Denial (2016)


Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the "Fantastic Beasts" film series.

Timothy Spall reacts to the news that Johnny Depp has been cast in the “Fantastic Beasts” film series.

(2016) True Life Drama (Bleecker Street) Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott, Jack Lowden, Caren Pistorius, Alex Jennings, Harriet Walter, Mark Gatiss, John Sessions, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Pip Carter, Jackie Clune, Will Attenborough, Max Befort, Daniel Cerqueira, Laurel Lefkow, Elliot Levey, Helen Bradbury, Hilton McRae, Andrea Deck. Directed by Mick Jackson

 

The trouble with history is that people are constantly trying to rewrite it. Sometimes that’s in an effort to interpret the significance of events but sometimes it’s in an effort to promote a point of view.

Deborah Lipstadt (Weisz) is a professor of Jewish history from Queens teaching at Emory University in Atlanta. She is promoting a book entitled Denying the Holocaust in which she discusses how an insidious effort is being made to discredit the pain and suffering of millions of Jews. At a lecture promoting the book, she is confronted by David Irving (Spall), a British historian who had enjoyed a lucrative career on the basis that he claimed there was no evidence that Auschwitz had any gas chambers. An unabashed admirer of Hitler, he offers $1,000 to anyone who can conclusively prove that the Holocaust happened. Lipstadt refuses to debate him on the basis that she doesn’t “debate facts.”

xzSo Irving sues the American academic and her publisher (Penguin Press) for libel, but he does so in a British court because under British law, the burden of proof rests with the defense rather than the accuser. In other words, Lipstadt must prove that the Holocaust happened and then on top of it, that Irving knowingly distorted the facts otherwise. Penguin agrees with her that this suit must be fought and so they hire a British dream team; solicitor Anthony Julius (Scott) and barrister Richard Rampton (Wilkinson). Incidentally, the film explains the two roles; the solicitor researches the case and the barrister argues it in court.

The strong-willed and often just plain stubborn Lipstadt immediately begins to butt heads with her defense team. She wants to take the stand but they refuse to put her there and she also wants Holocaust survivors to testify. They absolutely refuse; for one thing, the charismatic Irving, who is acting as his own barrister, would use the opportunity to shame and abuse the survivors and in the words of Julius, “they’ve suffered enough already.” Lipstadt begins to have serious doubts that she is being well-represented.

Although this was fairly big news when it happened less than ten years ago, the details are not well-known particularly in America where knowledge of news going on across the pond tends to be less well-reported. While you may know how the trial turned out (and in case you didn’t I won’t mention it here) how it got there might be a bit less well-known.

Weisz has a tendency to play somewhat strident characters and certainly Lipstadt qualifies. While I’m not sure she’ll get Oscar notice since the role is somewhat similar to ones she’s done before, it certainly is not outside the realm of possibility that she will. I’d also put up Wilkinson and Spall for nomination consideration as well.

Strangely, Weisz was one of the things I liked least about the film. She whines quite a bit through it and often comes off as condescending to the British legal experts who I would think know her system much better than she does. I don’t know how accurate a portrayal of the real Lipstadt this is but if it is, she’s not a very pleasant person to know. It isn’t until the end of the film that she forms even a glimmering of a relationship (with Rampton) that isn’t confrontational and judgmental.

Even though the material is fairly dry – unlike how they’re portrayed in the movies most court cases are unexciting and even dull – Jackson does a good job of keeping things lively and even interesting. He manages to explain most of the ins and outs of how the law works in Britain to us ignorant Yanks without talking down to us. I am curious if it played differently in the UK where they’d understand the system somewhat better than we do.

There are some things in which the filmmakers acquitted themselves – ‘scuse the pun – well as well as others in which the jury is still out on. Weisz can be an acquired taste as an actress, particularly in roles like this which aren’t necessarily likable. Those who don’t like courtroom dramas might also think twice about this, even though the courtroom scenes are staged better than most. And some people just plain get uncomfortable around the holocaust. You know who you are.

At the end of the day, this is not necessarily a triumph so much as a success. I liked the movie overall and wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it but at the same time it’s not the kind of movie that’s going to end up being one of the movies that this year is remembered for, at least by me. Check it out if you have the chance but I think that you may wait and see if the Academy gives it any love before you do.

In these uncertain times with a climate seemingly skewed towards bigotry and hate, it is somehow comforting to see truth and justice win over those things – perhaps it still can. I like to think so. It takes people like Deborah Lipstadt, standing up for those who would lie and obscure and diminish and in so doing, relegate an entire race to second-class status. It’s a lesson that all of us should take to heart.

REASONS TO GO: Most of the performances here are strong. There are some very powerful moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Weisz is a little shrill here.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some adult concepts here that might be too much for the sensitive sorts; there’s also some fairly strong profanity from time to time.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: All the dialogue in the courtroom scenes are taken verbatim from the trial transcripts.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 64/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Man in the Glass Booth
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Gimme Danger

March of the Living


The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

The silent sentinel that is Auschwitz.

(2010) Documentary (Visit) Hayley Miller, Sigi Hart, Rafael Elkabets, Jake Goren, Débora Niesenbaum, Halina Wachtel, Rolf Joseph, Ariela Pier, Josie Quade, Emil Jacoby, Tess Neumann, Sidi Grűnstein Gluck, Max Zellerhot, Jean Greenstein, Erika Jacoby, Heinz Kallman, Dorothy Greenstein, Jamie Greenberg, Saul Hanari, Joelle Zingerman. Directed by Jessica Sanders

 

The Holocaust remains one of the defining moments of the 20th century. Not because of its brutality, or the horror of it, but because it reminds us that we can be led by the nose to ignore atrocities that are happening in our very midst. Certainly people in Poland had to be at least somewhat aware of the nightmare going on at Auschwitz, Treblinka and Birkenau and yet not a voice was raised in protest. Of course if any were, those voices were as likely to be stilled permanently.

Every year, concentration camp survivors and teenage Jews from all over the world march from Auschwitz to Birkenau, the route of the infamous Death March – except this is a March of the Living, not just a middle finger to the Nazis and the Holocaust deniers but also an affirmation of life. This is a demonstration that the human spirit overcomes and survives. It is hope.

In 2008, the documentary filmmaker Jessica Sanders was recruited by a Brazilian production company to document this event, known as the March of the Living. She followed several teens and several survivors from Los Angeles, Sao Paolo and Berlin. Before the actual March, the participants were taken on a tour of the various Camps, some of which are still standing – and at least one simply a monument to the hundreds of thousands of voices stilled there forever.

We see the gruesome detritus that was left behind; thousands upon thousands of shoes, stacked neatly floor to ceiling; dolls and toys, never to be played with again and human hair, to be used by the Nazis as carpet fiber. The sight of the hair seemed to be particularly disturbing to the teens, many of whom broke down inconsolably. It’s an unforgettable moment.

The problem I have with this 75 minute film is that it’s too short; we don’t get a sense of the journey these teens take. The survivors, we hear some of their horror stories and we are made well enough aware of their justifiable fear that once they are gone (and they are in their 80s and 90s now) there will be nobody to tell their story, nobody to answer the questions of the young. This is the last generation that will have direct access to living Holocaust survivors and the thought is chilling.

But the kids, as is the nature of kids, don’t have the experience and perspective to see it as anything other than what it isn’t – about them. “This could have been me, sixty years ago” says one teen girl in way too much make-up. Some of the teens – to their credit – get it. One makes plans to study at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem after she graduates from high school; she also arranges for the survivors to participate in their graduation ceremony because, as she points out, none of them got to graduate high school because they were in the camps. You can see the delight in the faces of the elderly grads.

But we get no sense of the personal growth these kids experience. One moment their just ordinary kids dealing with ordinary issues, the next they’re seeing the gas chamber at Birkenau. It just feels like we got to that point cheaply, without getting a sense of how this affected them. Some talk about their culture but few seemed to get much out of it more than a sense of accomplishment, that they went to the camps and are somehow better for it. That’s not how it works.

I recognize the difficulty in doing any sort of film about the Holocaust, be it a documentary or a narrative feature. After all, the subject has been tackled in many different ways by many different filmmakers. There really isn’t a lot of new material to add to the conversation. Yes, it is true that this generation and those following must take up the mantle of remembrance, to be the keepers of memory when those who originally lived those memories have moved on, and to pass those memories down to succeeding generations. It is, after all, important that we never forget.

But sadly, this movie has forgotten – that the Holocaust isn’t just something to be blared out at us in capital letters. It affects people differently, like the German girl who felt ashamed of her country because of the atrocities committed in the name of politics. And of course, we can see similar demagogues whipping up the masses against Muslims and Middle Eastern people in general. The sad fact is that we have learned nothing from the Holocaust and despite the best efforts of those who survived it to act as living reminders of the barbarity of our species and its ability to inflict mind-boggling suffering upon each other, the potential for another one is slowly looming it’s shaggy head even as we speak..

REASONS TO GO: Some unforgettable albeit unsettling images.
REASONS TO STAY: Don’t get a sense of the journey these people take.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images having to do with the concentration camps.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sanders was nominated for a documentary short Oscar for Sing in 2002.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, iTunes, Vimeo
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/28/16: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Shoah
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: What’s In the Darkness?

Taking Woodstock


Demitri Martin, Eugene Levy has only three words for ya: Second City Television.

(Focus) Demetri Martin, Emile Hirsch, Imelda Staunton, Liev Schreiber, Eugene Levy, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Henry Goodman, Jonathan Groff, Mamie Gummer, Paul Dano, Kelli Garner, Adam Pally. Directed by Ang Lee

From August 15 through August 18, 1969 a festival billed as “three days of peace and music” took center stage in the universe of the counterculture. It remains the granddaddy of all rock festivals, the touchstone to which all other large-scale festivals are inevitably compared. My brother-in-law Jim Ivey was one of the half million in attendance and has the ticket stubs to prove it; if you went by the number of people who claimed they were there, millions of people were at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm that day. The festival is known simply as Woodstock.

Elliott Teichberg (Martin) is an interior designer in Greenwich Village whose parents Jake (Goodman) and Sonia (Staunton) own a dilapidated hotel in White Lake, New York near the bucolic town of Bethel. The hotel is gradually going broke, run to ground by his parents’ inability to run even basic maintenance and his mother’s abrasive personality and unbridled greed.

He doubles as the head of the Bethel Chamber of Commerce, authorizing permits for the city. He has a counterculture theatrical company, the Earthlight Players, taking up residency in his barn and is planning a music festival where he’ll essentially spin records to inert townspeople on the lawn of the hotel.

None of this is doing any good. The bank is about to foreclose; they have managed to finagle enough time to last the summer, but that’s it. His parents, Holocaust survivors, they’ve gone through quite a bit and as unpleasant as Sonia is, Elliott still worries.

When he hears that the organizers of a large-scale music festival have been denied permits in Walkill, New York, he recognizes the golden opportunity to save the hotel. A festival with big name performers will draw people who will fill the hotel for the weekend but also serve as a headquarters for the festival. The festival’s organizers, Michael Lang (Groff) and Artie Kornfeld (Pally), come in with a bit of a flourish and the laid-back Lang instantly takes to Elliott. When the hotel property proves to be inadequate for the size of the crowds the organizers are expected, Elliott introduces Lang and Kornfeld to Max Yasgur (Levy), a dairy farmer who is sympathetic to the idea of a rock festival.

The rest of the town, not so much. The most vocal of these is Dan (Morgan), a man whose son Billy (Hirsch) came back from Vietnam shell-shocked and broken. He feels the hippies are disrespectful to the country that his son gave so much for. The tension between the townies and the hippies (including Max and Elliott in the eyes of the town) is palpable.

Against all odds, the festival comes together; even the weather conspired against them. In the process, Elliott comes to terms with his parents and makes the decision to follow his own heart.

Ang Lee is one of the most gifted directors in the world. One of my all-time favorite movies is the Taiwanese director’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. His other films – The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain, Eat Drink Man Woman among others – are always compelling, even the ones that are less successful. Here, he captures the essence of the festival nicely. He made the decision to put almost no emphasis on the music; the actual concert takes place off-screen and the only time music from the festival. Instead, he concentrates on the backstage elements behind the festival; after all, the music and the concert were already well-documented in Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock which is paid homage to in several places during the course of the movie.

Martin is best-known as a stand-up comedian and he’s a very good one. Strangely, even though this is a comedy, his role is more or less as a straight man. His deadpan stand-up delivery is mirrored here; the role is very low-key but is nonetheless still compelling. Staunton and Goodman give high-powered performances and Levy is surprisingly solid in a straight dramatic role. Schreiber shows up about halfway through the film and nearly steals the movie as the transgendered security guard Vilma. He is working on a level most of the other actors don’t attain, at least in this movie.

Sadly, the movie is a bit of a jumble. The performances are fine but they seem to be all coming from different movies. There’s no cohesion, no sense of unity; there are times you feel like you’re channel surfing while watching a single movie. That’s not a good feeling.

The movie is based on the memoirs of Elliott Tiber (renamed Teichberg here for some reason) whose version of events has been disputed by the real Michael Lang. The movie is not meant to be a documentary-like representation of what really happened; I get the feeling that Lee was attempting to replicate the spirit of Woodstock and illustrate just what a miracle it was that it got staged at all.

Woodstock remains a cultural touchstone for us even now, more than forty years after the fact. It is not only a symbol of a time, place and a movement; it remains a beacon of hope that the ideals of a generation may someday be adopted by a nation. Woodstock means different things for different people but regardless of how it makes you feel, nearly every person in the Western world is aware of its significance. This isn’t the movie that properly honors the event and I couldn’t tell you (having not been at the real one) if this gives you a sense of being there yourself. Still, it was insightful enough – and visually compelling enough – to make it worth a mild recommendation.

WHY RENT THIS: Even in his worst movies, Lee has a marvelous visual sense that borders on the poetic. Martin makes for an intriguing lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The movie is a bit of a jumble; the performances, while well-acted aren’t really cohesive and feels like the movie is made up of a series of unrelated vignettes.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole lot of drug use and nudity (hey, it was the Sixties after all) and some rough language; may be a little too much for younger folk to handle.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: No actual footage from Woodstock was used; while many of the events depicted here actually happened, they were all re-enacted for the film.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: A featurette entitled “Peace, Love and Cinema” not only does the usual happy-handed behind-the-scenes lovefest there are also interviews with the real people being portrayed in the movie.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Rudo y Cursi