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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Baby Mama


Tina Fey is just miffed that Amy Poehler won't share the Pringles.

Tina Fey is just miffed that Amy Poehler won’t share the Pringles.

(2008) Comedy (Universal) Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Greg Kinnear, Steve Martin, Dax Shepard, Sigourney Weaver, Maura Tierney, Holland Taylor, James Rebhorn, Will Forte, Fred Armisen, Romany Malco, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Mailer, Siobhan Fallon Hogan, Kevin Collins, John Hodgman, Thomas McCarthy, Jason Mantzoukas, Dave Finkel, Felicity Stiverson.  Directed by Michael McCullers

Starting up a family is always something of an overwhelming proposition, never more so for a single parent who intends to stay a single parent. It is darn near impossible for an infertile single parent.

Kate Holbrook (Fey) is a capable, ambitious woman and that has played out into an executive position for a health food store chain, a beautiful apartment in Manhattan that is absolutely empty when she comes home. Not that she’s complaining, mind you – she owns her choices, after all. However, she is feeling her biological clock ticking down. She wants a baby in the worst way, and in her own organized fashion is doing what it takes. She’s tried adoption, and has been turned down. She’s tried artificial insemination, but her doctor (O’Hare) informs her that her uterus is not really suitable for impregnation and that an actual pregnancy would be a one in a million shot.

Desperate, she decides surrogacy might be the answer. She goes to the Chaffee Bicknell agency, whose titular head (Weaver) is despicably fertile, but promises to get a surrogate mother for Kate’s baby that passes the most rigid scrutiny. Chaffee sends Kate to Angie Ostrowski (Poehler), who couldn’t be any more different from the prim, cultured Kate. While Kate frets over every detail, Angie tends to be less detail-oriented than, say, a ten-year-old. While Kate keeps her apartment neat and clean, Angie prefers a more let-it-all-hang-out attitude. Kate dresses in smart business suits; Angie’s style can only be described as rural whore. In fact, if there were trailer parks in New York, Angie and her conniving boyfriend Carl (Shepard) would probably be living in one. If Kate is Masterpiece Theater, Angie and Carl are The Dukes of Hazzard.

Despite this, the two women find themselves bonding against all odds and decide to go through with the pregnancy. Not long after, Angie and Carl have a big fight and Angie shows up on Kate’s door, having nowhere else to go. Now, instead of preparing for a new baby in the home, Kate is having to live with a woman whose maturity level isn’t far above the baby she’s carrying.

The stresses begin to pile up. Kate is given a huge project at work by her new age boss (Martin) that may make unwelcome changes to a neighborhood, whose residents are not happy about the prospect, led by the handsome smoothie store owner Rob (Kinnear) who Kate is beginning to develop feelings for. On top of that, Angie is driving Kate crazy, and doesn’t appear to be all that concerned with the health and well-being of the baby – and Angie’s sins are rapidly catching up with her. Kate’s dream of being a mom is beginning to look like a longshot at best.

Fey has proven herself one of the funniest women working today, and those who loved her on 30 Rock are going to love her here. Poehler, so good in Blades of Glory and on SNL, does some of the best work of her career here. Martin, who has been mostly sticking to family comedies, returns to the silliness that characterized him in the ‘70s. Kinnear has carved out a niche as the nice, solid guy and makes a fine foil for Fey – hey, alliteration! ER’s Tierney plays Fey’s married mom of a sister and performs capably. Worth mentioning is Holland Taylor as Kate’s overbearing mom – she’s one of those dependable character actresses who almost always improves every movie she’s in. Shepard does the sleazy manipulator as well as anyone – if you saw him in Let’s Go to Prison, you pretty much know what to expect here.

Fey and Poehler work exceedingly well together, so much so that it leaves you hoping that they will continue to make movies together although as of yet they haven’t. The laughs come crisply but not at the expense of the characters and story.

This is definitely aimed at a female audience, and I found Da Queen laughing much more at things that only puzzled my poor, underdeveloped male brain. Not relating with the messy details of pregnancy and birthing, I found myself having a hard time relating to characters going through it and wanting to go through it.  .

Think of this as a chick comedy. If you’ve had a baby, or are pregnant, you are going to find this much more funny than the rest of us. That doesn’t mean that it’s completely without redemption, however. Fey and Poehler are a very good team, and their scenes together are the highlights of the movie. Bottom line, this is pretty well-written and plotted, although it isn’t difficult to discern where this is heading.

WHY RENT THIS: Great comedic chemistry between Fey and Poehler. Women tend to find this funnier than men do so if you’re of the fairer sex, this works nicely. Great support cast.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Women tend to find this funnier than men do so if you’re of the male sex, this might be too much for you. Predictable in places.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of jokes about female plumbing. There’s also some foul language and a drug reference.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The Boo Boo Busters company that professionally childproofs Kate’s home is based on a real company by the same name in California. They supplied many of the child safety devices seen in the film, including the infamous toilet seat lock that “doesn’t work.”  Poehler eventually used that company to childproof her own home when she had children.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: There is a featurette on Saturday Night Live and its influence on the movies.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $64.2M on a $30M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Knocked Up

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Housemaid

The Heat


Some pictures say a thousand words; this one just says "say WHAT?!?"

Some pictures say a thousand words; this one just says “say WHAT?!?”

(2013) Buddy Cop Comedy (20th Century Fox) Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir, Marlon Wayans, Michael Rapaport, Jane Curtin, Spoken Reasons, Dan Bakkedahl, Taran Killam, Michael McDonald, Tom Wilson, Peter Weireter, Erica Derrickson, Kaitlin Olson, Joey McIntyre, Michael Tucci, Bill Burr, Nathan Corddry, Jessica Chaffin, Jamie Denbo. Directed by Paul Feig

It is 2013 in Hollywood and after decades of inspired (and uninspired) Odd Couple buddy cop pairings, America gets its first all-woman cop buddy duo. I would think that just for being a trailblazer The Heat should get props, and it does particularly since they cast the two roles perfectly.

Sarah Ashburn (Bullock) is an ambitious but uptight FBI agent. She’s very successful at closing cases but her people skills are a bit lacking. She’s smarter than most of the men around her and she knows it but what’s worse she likes to show it off. She’s eager for a promotion that she’s probably richly earned but her boss (Bichir) isn’t so sure; he instead sends her from New York to Boston to take down a mysterious drug lord who is pushing his way into the city.

Shannon Mullins (McCarthy) is a rude, crude and lewd Boston cop who intimidates her colleagues with her foul mouth, her nasty attitude and her hair-trigger temper. When she’s not abusing her boss (Wilson) – who bears more than a passing resemblance to Biff Tannen – she’s having one night stands with clingy men and bickering with her family. She’s so tough she arrested her brother Jason (Rapaport) and sent him to prison, from which he’s just emerging.

The two are more or less after the same guy. At first, of course, they are competing but when ordered to work together these lone wolves find out that there is some benefits from working in a pack. However they’re up against a very male-oriented culture which doesn’t take them seriously and to make matters worse, Mullins family is at risk from a sadistic killer (McDonald).

Melissa McCarthy broke out as a big star in a supporting role in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids and it’s no accident that he’s behind the camera for the role that may make her a superstar. This is the perfect part for McCarthy – foul-mouthed, physical with a tender side that really makes better use of her talents than this year’s earlier hit Identity Thief did. Some of her zingers were the kind that made you laugh so hard that you missed dialogue that came out after it.

She is paired perfectly with Bullock who has played tough cops before but here she allows a little prissiness to set in. She’s so lonely that her cat isn’t even hers – it’s her neighbor’s who is vexed that the cat visits “the weird lady next door.” Bullock is one of the best at playing socially awkward but extremely competent women – remember her boss from Hell in The Proposal? – and nobody does book-smart-but-people-dumb like Bullock. The chemistry between her an McCarthy is on the level of Nick Nolte/Eddie Murphy and Mel Gibson/Danny Glover in the annals of cop buddies.

Although the film is groundbreaking, it’s a shame they couldn’t give the two leading ladies a groundbreaking script to work with. Despite the terrific performances of Bullock and McCarthy (and of the cast in general), the plot is such that it feels like it was written in a Screenwriting 101 class. If you’re going to have two women leading a cop buddy movie, play to the strengths of women in general instead of just having them referring to their lady parts in a series of crude jokes. Cagney and Lacey and Rizzolli and Isles were both able to do this successfully on television; while I get those shows are both more procedurals than this one, I don’t think they needed to give the women ugly male characteristics to make this funny, unless of course they’re trying to make the point that the two sexes are more alike than unalike which I can appreciate.y

In any case, this is superior summer entertainment that has that element of familiarity that Hollywood thinks American movie audiences yearn for. It bodes well for the future of McCarthy to take the throne as America’s reigning film comedienne superstar with her two big hits this year. She is clearly the reason to go see this movie and clearly looks to be as funny if not funnier than some of her highest-paid male colleagues right now.

REASONS TO GO: Bullock plays surprisingly well against type and for her part this is right in McCarthy’s wheelhouse.

REASONS TO STAY: Beyond the novelty factor of two women in the lead roles, the movie doesn’t really add much to the buddy cop genre.

FAMILY VALUES:  A buttload of bad language. Some of the content is on the crude side, and there’s a bit of violence to top it all off.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Was originally set for a late spring release, but the studio, encouraged by early reception to the film, decided to move it into the summer.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 62% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100; the reviews are pretty much split but leaning towards the positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Other Guys

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The Lone Ranger (2013)