America Adrift (2018)

America Adrift (2018)

As America deals with an intensifying opioid crisis, both independent and mainstream films have stepped in to raise awareness about the problem, and sometime to propose solutions. While Beautiful Boy gave the Hollywood treatment to the cycle of addiction and relapse, America Adrift instead focuses on a Latinx family in Long Island as they cope with the youngest son’s descent into heroin addiction and crime.

America Adrift tells the story of the Fernandez family, a well-to-do Latinx family living in East Neck, Long Island. Despite a comfortable home life and loving parents, the youngest Fernandez boy, Cameron (Angel Bismarck Curiel), has become a victim of the opioid crisis. First using and then dealing heroin, the young man is a source of constant worry to his mother Cecelia (Lauren Luna Velez), father William (Tony Plana), and elder brothers Sam (Davi Santos) and Alex (Esteban Benito). As the family deals with the endless cycle of Cameron’s addiction and deeper dive into drugs and crime, they come unstuck, unable to help the boy they love and searching for ways to cope with a problem they cannot solve.

America Adrift makes use of some odd cinematic and visual choices, some of which pay off while others fail to. The early part of the film makes use of temporal confusion to emphasize the cyclical nature of addiction, as conversations take place again and again in different spaces and at different times. Each member of the family deals with Cameron’s constant moves in and out of rehab in their own way – the men largely get angry or shut down, as William can’t handle his son’s relapses, while Alex removes himself from the family altogether. Sam is closest with his brother, but even he steps aside to write a book about his brother instead, leaving their mother Cecelia to deal most intimately with Cameron’s problems. Cecelia herself is blind to her son’s abuse of her trust, and there are moments of excellent pathos as she argues with husband and sons that Cameron has changed when it’s quite obvious that he hasn’t.

The problem of the film, however, is in failing to establish anything particularly sympathetic about Cameron other than his opioid addiction. There’s little no treatment of him as a likable kid, or as someone who has fallen into a cycle he can’t escape from. His mother’s willful blindness to his exploitation of her trust would make greater narrative sense if there was something cutting through that – if he had an inherent sweetness or was able to move between his wildness and his attempts, honest or not, to become better. While it’s of course realistic that some people will love and care for family members simply because they’re family members, Cameron’s consistent exploitation of his mother feels neither clearly co-dependent nor manipulative – he’s just not a very nice person.

Some of these issues are down to the script and the directing. America Adrift often feels like a school special intended to showcase the problems of opioid addiction by making everything easy to access—which is a venerable project in itself, but not conducive to a deep exploration of addiction and grief. All of the emotions are on the surface, as characters scream, cry, and threaten each other one minute, then calm down and carry on with dinner the next. There’s a bit of tonal whiplash going on here, through which the film evades digging deeply into its subject matter.

As America Adrift proceeds, it begins to strain credulity, leaving large gaps in time and character development that keep the film from ever digging deep into its subject matter. There’s a lack of establishing shots or location in space and time. The temporal overlaps can be interesting, but after a while they begin to feel like a good idea never quite carried through to its logical conclusion. And there are a lot of good ideas here, and some strong performances, especially from Velez, but none of that can quite keep hold of the film and stop it from, well, drifting away into some unbelievable territory.

Ultimately, this is a film that has its heart in the right place, that wants to discuss the depths of the opioid crisis, particularly focusing on a Latinx family to do it – a nice change from the upper middle-class white people of films like Beautiful Boy. But its superficiality stops it from finding a strong center of pathos, and a final act shift becomes unintentionally comical. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of potential here that the film never manages to exploit.

America Adrift is available to stream on VOD, including Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play.

Hummus! The Movie (2015)

Hummus! The Movie (2015)

Everybody loves hummus. It’s tasty as hell, an original superfood, and massively popular around the world. It’s also the topic of some controversy among nations, peoples, and even religions. Where does hummus come from? Which country or people has a right to call it their own? Hummus! The Movie attempts to address some of these questions, including the biggest one: why can’t we all just agree that hummus is the best and not worry about where it comes from?

Hummus! The Movie primarily follows three hummus-makers, all different religions and ethnicities, from different parts of the world: Jalil Dabit, a Christian Arab from Ramle; Eliyahu Shmueli, a Hasidic Jew living near Galilee; and Suheila Al Hindi, the only female Muslim owner of a hummus restaurant in the Arab market in Acre. Each have unique stories about how they came to become hummus makers—Jalil and Suheila both come from hummus-making families and carry on different traditions, while Eliyahu arrived at his craft by a more circuitous route, eventually coming to identify it with his Jewishness. All three are successful chefs, and all three find meaning in the creation of the best hummus. Jalil sees the ubiquitous and multifaceted dish as a way of bridging cultures as well as carrying on his family tradition – he recognizes that hummus has been claimed by almost every nation and people in the Middle East and Mediterranean, and sees that as a common denominator to connect people through a mutual tradition. Suheila faces sexist criticism as an unmarried Muslim woman running her own business, while Eliyahu sees hummus as his vocation.

All the people featured here who are very passionate about their hummus and where it comes from. The filmmakers interview the Lebanese Minister of Culture, who claims that hummus is only Lebanese. Israeli, Greek, and Palestinian hummus-makers challenge this, and a forms the secondary plot in the film as a competition between nations over a Guinness Record for the largest serving of hummus heats up (at the time of the film’s completion, this goes to Lebanon, at over 20,000 pounds). But what Hummus! The Movie ultimately reinforces is that the fact that so many cultures, nations, and ethnicities can claim hummus as their own argues that it belongs no one, that it crosses arbitrary geographic and ethnographic boundaries.

Hummus! The Movie at times suffers from a lack of focus, with cuts between scenes and the overlapping stories of hummus makers that causes a bit of mental whiplash. It’s not always clear at what point in the story we’re picking up again, or why the focus has suddenly shifted. The lack of clear introductions to the main figures means that it can be difficult for the audience to locate themselves in time and place, especially as the people featured move from city to city. The film could have actually done with a longer runtime—it clocks in at an hour and ten minutes—and thus built its stories a bit more clearly, with more explanations or elucidations of some of its secondary tangents. For instance, how do we read the relationship between Eliyahu and Aluf Abir, a rapper who wrote a song about how hummus makes people stupid? How do we shift from Jalil wanting to create a space for musicians at his restaurant to his move to Berlin with his fiancée? And who is the mysterious man in the red hat who gives Eliyahu the best tahini ever?

Despite its occasional lack of focus, however, Hummus! The Movie is an entertaining, diverting documentary. It’s not over-serious about itself but recognizes that the people it profiles do take their work very seriously indeed, and strikes an excellent balance between the inherent humor of being so passionate about a single food, and the social, cultural, and religious implications of that food and who makes it. The correct way to make hummus, the relationship between chickpeas, tahini, oil, and other flavorings, the passion of the hummus-makers…for such an apparently simple food, it’s quite complex—as is Hummus! The Movie.

Hummus! The Movie is available on DVD and VOD, including iTunes, Amazon, Google Play, and Vudu.

A Boy Called Sailboat (2018)

A Boy Called Sailboat (2018)

Although there are one or two big names attached to indie comedy A Boy Called Sailboat, the true stars are a group of child actors led by Julian Atocani Sanchez, who plays Sailboat, a little boy with a little guitar who just wants to write a song for his Abuela. It’s a special kind of film that can rely on children to drive its story and maintain its charm, but A Boy Called Sailboat pulls it off, evading some of the pitfalls of the quirky indie comedy to deliver something truly wonderful.

Each character in the film is fueled by their own specific obsession and constructs their lives around it. Sailboat lives with his parents in a small house in the middle of the desert, somewhere along the Texas border. His father Jose (Noel Gugliemi) dreams of horses and six-shooters, but has to keep an eye on the Stick, a wooden prop painted the colors of the Mexican flag that stops their house from falling over. Sailboat’s mother Meyo (Elizabeth de Razzo) spends her days making meatballs, rarely leaving the house. His best friend Peeti (Keanu Wilson) teaches himself to play soccer, and classmate Mandy (Zeyah Peterson) wanders the halls of their school plugged into her portable Discman. Sailboat spends his days at school, at home, or traveling to the Oasis, a roadside car lot run by Ernest (J.K. Simmons), who recounts the brilliance of his three vehicles while Sailboat communes with his namesake – an old wooden boat parked on one side of the lot. One day, Sailboat discovers a little guitar in a pile of junk by the roadside, which he takes to carrying around. When he visits his Abuela (Rusalia Benavidez) in the hospital, she makes him promise to write her a song on his guitar, setting into motion a fable that will change the lives of the people who appear in it.

A Boy Called Sailboat is so self-consciously quirky that it would almost be annoying if it weren’t so sincere. It’s visually and thematically reminiscent of the Hesses’ Napoleon Dynamite or Nacho Libre, with its cast of odd characters and bright color palette. But rather than exploiting its characters for laughs, A Boy Called Sailboat begins to reveal the layers of their obsessions and the reasons behind them, told through the eyes of a boy with a strange name and strange family who doesn’t consider himself strange at all. Sailboat is a loving, accepting little boy, and those around him love and accept him in turn. As he writes his song, the world around him transforms, drawing on the power of music to elicit emotional response, even without our fully understanding why. The soundtrack is primarily composed of classic rock and folk songs – “My Bonnie,” “House of the Rising Sun,” and “La Bamba” among them– played without lyrics on guitar, a subtle tribute to the little guitar that so inspires the people who hear it.

Centering the narrative on a Mexican-American family provides an opportunity for some interesting undercurrents given the current national dialogue. The film could easily slip into a story about “magical” Latinx people, but evades that, instead drawing on magical realist traditions in an ambiguously American setting, effectively marrying cultural traditions without exploiting its central characters. There’s a deft sleight of hand going on here, and writer/director Cameron Nugent pulls it off with aplomb, turning A Boy Called Sailboat into a modern fable the moves and amuses without going too far over the edge in quirk. The performers, too, acquit themselves well—including Jake Busey, who plays Sailboat’s hypermasculine teacher, and a fantastic final act appearance from character actor Lew Temple. But the film really centers on Sailboat—yes, his name is explained—and Sanchez carries it all on his shoulders without ever slipping into the maudlin or the overly cutesy.

While A Boy Called Sailboat is not going to remake the world of indie comedy, it really doesn’t need to. It’s a sweet, uplifting film, telling a gentle story about a little boy, his family, his Abuela, and his little guitar. The film doesn’t need anything more or less than that.

A Boy Called Sailboat arrives on VOD, including Amazon, iTunes, and Google Play, on February 5.

Stay Human (2018)

Stay Human (2018)

What does it mean to stay human? In the face of public cynicism, physical and emotional violence, personal pain, and communal poverty, how do we as individuals and as a community retain our grasp on humanity? That’s what director/writer/musician Michael Franti asks in his documentary Stay Human, a deeply personal dive into the problems and the passions that bind us together as human beings.

Stay Human focuses on four stories about people with whom Franti has come into contact, whether from his experience of them as fans or in his travels and interests as a social activist musician. The film encapsulates social, cultural, environmental, and personal narratives that attempt to lay bare how to “stay human,” and what that even means. He opens with a general thesis about his project and his personal connection to this problem of maintaining humanity in the face of cynicism, then delves into the first narrative about Robin Lim, a midwife in the Philippines who established the Bumi Sehat Foundation for expectant and new mothers. Lim has since helped over nine thousand children into the world, but her foundation is about more than just maternity care. She helps with home births, keeps mothers and babies connected, and goes into areas devastated by natural disasters to ensure that children and mothers are cared for. Her project encapsulates Franti’s project of connectedness and maintain connection to our families, our communities, and the natural environment.

Stay Human doesn’t stop with the activities of foundations, however, looking into the personal as part of the communal. The Dezembers are fans of Franti’s, and they married not long after Steve Dezember’s ALS diagnosis. Arief Rabik, an Indonesian environmental scientist, explains his project for making bamboo an acceptable lumber alternative and helping to maintain work and sustainability in local communities; Sive Mazinyo and Busisiwwe Vazi are educated at “cradle to career” center in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, and detail their reasons for getting an education, providing not only hope for themselves, but for others in their families and community. Interspersed with the stories are Franti’s own experiences as he deals with personal traumas, the place of music in his life, his family, and his work.

While this film could come off as an attempt to cash in on a social activist brand, there is a disarming earnestness in Franti’s on-screen persona and in the material of the film itself that pushes against the idea that it’s a cynical cash-grab. Franti is not attempting to solve all the world’s problems or argue that his music is the way to right social wrongs, but to take a personal look at what it means to be human in a world where we are consistently pushed away from our individual humanity, our connection to others, and our connection to the natural world. While each section of the narrative is designed to produce some feel-good vibes, one of the strengths of Stay Human is that it does not come off as pandering or, worse, showcasing these stories for cheap sentimentality. The narratives detail suffering and resilience without becoming poverty porn; they are about community and recognizing our humanity in the faces of other humans. Franti asks the Dezembers how they’ve dealt with Steve’s diagnosis financially, and they are open about how difficult it has been, and how much they’ve relied on the kindness of others. Lim explains that a large portion of the Filipino population are young, pregnant women, and that part of her project has been to pressure the government and aid workers to obtain needed supplies for an impoverished, often homeless population. Rabik shows the connection between creating sustainable resources and maintaining community, a marriage of the environment and the social system. Mazinyo and Vazi are empowered by their community, and they in turn give hope to the next generation by their examples.

The documentary sometimes falls back on the trappings of the social activist documentary, especially at the beginning, when it shows Franti buddying up to his fans, or shots of him walking, barefoot and in slow motion, through golden wheat. But there is an earnestness that comes through, even when the films threatens to become corny. It’s still being honest with itself and with its project, as though the film is challenging a viewer’s (or a critic’s) inherent cynicism and distrust.

Stay Human makes no bones about this being a passion project of Franti’s, and it relies heavily on his personal experiences, voice, and perspective. But because it sets him front and center, because it doesn’t claim to be objective but in fact revels in its very subjectivity, it allows the viewer to decide whether to accept Franti’s personal conclusions about humanness, or to reject them. There’s no chicanery here, no lies, and no sales pitch at the end. In a time when we are consistently barraged by hateful rhetoric, by distinctions that try to wrench us away from our common humanity, it’s refreshing and moving to see a film, however subjective, that asks us unironically to be good to one another, to maintain our humanity by seeing others as humans, too.

Stay Human is available on VOD (including iTunes and Amazon) on January 25, 2019.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

The Perfume of the Lady in Black (1974)

Giallo horror tends to run the gamut from artistic to exploitative, and often just combines the two into an unholy union that is at once profoundly uncomfortable and deeply enjoyable. One of the stranger works in the wide range of giallo films is The Perfume of the Lady in Black (the greatest title ever), from director Francisco Barilli, starring Mimsy Farmer as a perfumier in Rome who begins to hallucinate (or does she?) images from her childhood that center around a lady in black.

Farmer is Silvia, a talented chemist who enjoys making perfume, going out with her boyfriend Roberto (Maurizio Bonuglio), and hanging out with his friends, including a professor (Jho Jenkins) with an interest in black magic and the occult. But things begin to get weird when she smells a new perfume and begins to hallucinate a woman, all dressed in black. As the hallucinations get more intense, recalling Silvia’s childhood, her deceased father, and her mother’s old lover, she also begins to believe that she’s being stalked by men in dark trench coats. At the behest of her friend Francesca (Donna Jordan), Silvia goes to a blind psychic, who brings up even more past memories, inspiring another flood of hallucinations. What’s real and what’s Silvia’s psychosis become more and more intertwined, exacerbated by the machinations of her strange neighbor, and the mysterious people who may or may not be following her.

Like many giallo horrors, the focus is more on the aesthetic than the actual plot, which telegraphs the solution to its mystery so clearly that it almost isn’t necessary. The garish seventies’ colors and weird character quirks – like a continuous emphasis on hippos that is just confounding – make for the entertainment value here. Rooms painted bright blue, yellow dresses that are just too yellow, pinks that conflict with purples, haunting music that dogs Silvia’s steps—these are the trappings of the weird. There are the usual elements of the occult and psychosis, as Silvia’s belief that she’s being bewitched co-mingles with her hallucinations, which are either repressed memories, are realities being perpetrated against her by some unknown assailant, or are the result of something more supernatural. What’s unnerving about the film is how difficult it is to completely understand what’s going on, or why. The ending is at once predictable and utterly shocking, and I doubt that a rewatch would be able to place it in proper context. It doesn’t make sense, which is half the fun.

In some ways, though, The Perfume of the Lady in Black needed to be more extreme, to indulge its tendencies to excess rather than attempt to tell a coherent story. What sets films by Bava, Argento, or Fulci off is the willingness to go all in on the aesthetics and overwhelm the viewer with imagery such that we almost forget there is a plot. This film doesn’t go far enough—there’s actually very little violence, and the most violent scene (of an attempted rape) comes off as too serious to be particularly enjoyable. The overlapping of reality and psychological horror is well done, but it could be emphasized more. I wanted more hallucinatory images in a film about hallucinations.

The Perfume of the Lady in Black is available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Child’s Play (1988)

Child’s Play (1988)

childs-play

Every year for my Halloween viewing, I attempt to fill some gaps in my horror knowledge. Is there a horror classic I have not seen? Is there an essential film I’ve avoided? I generally have a problem with horror franchises, often because the first film is often not the best and could easily be ignored, but I’m a completist and must watch it. Which is how I came so late to Child’s Play, Don Mancini and Tom Holland’s introduction to the Chucky franchise, about a doll possessed by the spirit of a serial killer.

Child’s Play opens with the death of Charles Lee Ray (Brad Dourif), a serial killer and black magic aficionado working on the South Side of Chicago. After being shot by police officer Mike Norris (Chris Sarandon), Ray survives just long enough to perform a ritual and commit his soul to a “Good Guy” doll. Not long after, Karen Barclay (Catherine Hicks), buys the doll as a birthday for her son Andy (Alex Vincent), who is obsessed with the Good Guy television show. Andy becomes convinced that “Chucky” is talking to him and, eventually, that Chucky is actually doing bad things, like committing pushing babysitters out windows. As the bodies pile up, Karen and Detective Norris must discover just what is going on, whether Andy has lost his mind or if Chucky really is responsible for the mayhem.

Like many slashers of the same type, Chucky the character has become better known than the film that spawned him, thanks to the development of the tongue-in-cheek humor only nascent in the original. But Child’s Play is good fun for what it is, thanks largely to the malevolent humor of Brad Dourif (vocally, at least) in the lead. The audience knows that Chucky is evil, but there’s a degree of glee to be had in watching what’s basically a Cabbage Patch doll run amok with a butcher knife, scrambling in and out of windows, threatening small children, attacking and biting grown men. There’s less blood here than one might expect, and the film does better with its tension up to Chucky’s attacks, which become overly comedic once they happen.

Child’s Play exploits a number of quintessential 80s horror tropes, setting itself in the slums and upper middle class neighborhoods of Chicago, playing with Western configurations of voodoo and Satanism, and wrapping it all up in a different kind of villain to undercut the whole idea of an “evil child” so popular in the 70s and 80s. Andy is an initially annoying little boy who becomes more sympathetic as the film goes on – he knows that Chucky is bad, but no one will believe that his doll is a walking, talking monster. Catherine Hicks and Chris Sarandon are likable as the adult leads facing a very bizarre and inherently funny situation. The scene where Chucky finally convinces Detective Norris that Andy’s not making it up is a combination of terrifying and hilarious, not least because it’s a grown man fighting off a child’s toy who keeps trying to stab him.

If Child’s Play is still very much a product of its time – this was the era when people were literally stomping each other to get Cabbage Patch Kids – it’s an enjoyable product of its time. Chucky will return again and again, most recently in Cult of Chucky, to wreak havoc on unsuspecting victims who would never believe that a little doll could be so nasty. And for that, we have Child’s Play to thank.

The House of the Devil (2009)

The House of the Devil (2009)

The 80s are a favorite period for many horror fans, producing as they did films as diverse and disturbing as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, Child’s Play, and a whole range of brutal slasher films that indulged backlash male fears and, occasionally, a few feminist ones as well. The contemporary horror fan’s obsession with the 80s has some darkness to it as well, given the obsession with weaponized maniacs murdering bare-breasted women and prizing the Final Girl as the ultimate virginal fantasy. But there are times when 80s nostalgia produces something really unique, as is the case with Ti West’s The House of the Devil, a deliberate throwback to the decade that immerses its viewer in the chills and thrills of slow-burn violence.

Jocelin Donahue is Samantha, a sophomore at an upstate college who longs to move into a proper apartment. When she spots a flyer asking for a babysitter, she answers it, and heads out to a lonely house far from campus on the night of a full lunar eclipse. There she meets Mr. Ulman (Tom Noonan) and his wife (Mary Woronov), and learns that there are no children to look after – the couple just want someone to stay in the house for the evening in order to keep an eye on Mr. Ulman’s mother, a bed-bound old woman asleep upstairs. The whole setup is a bit creepy, but Samantha needs the money and agrees.

We all know where this is going, but The House of the Devil takes its sweet time in getting there. The opening act leading up to the arrival at the house takes up a good bit of runtime, but somehow the slow burn isn’t boring. This is a leisurely film that knows how to develop the tension, rather than getting straight to the violence. And that’s the film’s strength – rather than rushing into what’s ultimately a sparse and somewhat predictable narrative, there’s an inherent enjoyment of the development of the fear, as the audience waits for the killer, the cult, the ghost, or goblin to come into frame. Some viewers who demand more gore and less tension might find it dull, but the time that West takes to develop his story is time well-spent. There are momentary bursts of violence separated by long sections of Samantha ordering pizza, turning on the TV, investigating weird noises coming from the upstairs. As the narrative unfolds at its own pace, the viewer can only sit back and watch, secure in the knowledge that something is going to happen, held in thrall by not knowing when.

Donahue is a big part of what makes The House of the Devil work. She’s a throwback to the Final Girls of the 1980s, recalling Jamie Lee Curtis or Dee Wallace (who has a bit part as a landlady at the beginning of the film), innocent without being weak or even particularly naïve. Although the situation is creepy, the film takes care to develop reasons for staying at the house that are believable and that therefore don’t prompt the audience to dismiss her as stupid, or the film for concocting excuses to get to the scary bits. Given that Donahue has to spend most of her onscreen time alone, it’s a testament to her presence that The House of the Devil never bores, and that the audience can care about her character fairly quickly.

The House of the Devil won’t be for everyone. It’s very much an 80s film, even if made in 2009, with a self-seriousness that avoids any hint of the campy. As such, as it’s incredibly loving film, a movie that feels like an homage without attempting to be more knowing than the films it references, that tries and largely succeeds in approximating one of horror’s most famous periods. But it’s still slow, more interested in the creation of tension than in giving the viewer blood and guts. It works, thanks in no small measure to West’s use of old-school aesthetics in the creation of the house itself, and the occasional hints of what is actually going on just enough to the audience on their toes.

The House of the Devil is available to stream on Shudder.