To Dust (dir. Shawn Snyder)
“Isn’t that sweet,” I thought when I picked up my mother’s dropped pocket calendar. So many dates had names on them. Mom doesn’t want to forget anyone’s birthday. My daughter’s birthday was missing. So was my son’s. My great aunt’s name was there, though. She died in 1987.
Those weren’t birthday reminders. They were deathday reminders – or, in the parlance of my people, yartzeits.
My mother measures life like a safety sign on a construction site, counting the days between disasters. At least she isn’t possessed, like the poor Shmuel in To Dust.
Shmuel, played by Géza Röhrig (Son of Saul, The Chaperone), is an upstate New York cantor who loses his young wife to cancer. He’s left with two boys, a hat shaped like a fur drum, and an unholy obsession about his wife’s decaying corpse.
Shmuel has nightmares about a bloody Little Shop of Horrors toe flower. He doesn’t know where to turn. His rabbi is no help, so he visits a pushy, pasty funeral director, who shoos Shmuel out of his business, with dismissive advice: “You need a scientist.”
Shmuel finds the closest thing, a science professor at a nearby community college. This teacher, Albert (engagingly played by the ever-likable Matthew Broderick), goes from confused to annoyed to flummoxed. Finally, Albert is helpful to the point of no return.
I may not be a good Jew, but I know enough to understand some things my tribe does very well: we agonize, we argue, and we laugh.
To Dust, a dark comedy, offers the audience a fair amount of all three.
To Dust is a movie for a certain mood, a movie some people will surely diss in online forums and critical reviews. I’m pretty sure that kind of visceral reaction is okay with the film’s writer and director, Shawn Snyder, and The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which fronted Snyder $100,000 to foment comedy and controversy in this little dark gem of a film.
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Song of Back and Neck (dir. Paul Lieberstein)
Fred Trolleycar doesn’t get up in the morning. He gets down.
He brushes his teeth on floor. He showers and eats cold cereal flat on his back – damn the machinations and the mess.
Fred (Paul Lieberstein) waits agonizing months to see Dr. Street, a cheerful orthopedic surgeon (Paul Fieg) who relays the diagnosis with annoying aplomb: Fred suffers from “the trifecta of back problems.”
With a lousy job and a lonely life, and not much hope of relief, Fred is reminiscent of Toby Flenderson, another character that Lieberstein wrote, produced, and played on NBC’s hit sitcom The Office.
Across a law office conference table, the suffering, spineless Fred makes a wordless connection with lovely, wealthy Regan (Rosemarie DeWitt). When Regan sees Fred’s in pain, she recommends her acupuncturist.
Right then and there, to the well-mannered horror of his superiors, Fred makes the brave call to set up an appointment.
From the slithering agony of Fred getting out of bed to the hurt on his face when he discovers he’s the last person in the office to get big family news, this is a terrific setup for the fun ahead.
Fred has so much tension in his spine that the acupuncture needles vibrate – not just visibly, but within an audible range. Fred’s back … sings.
The supporting cast is spot-on, from Clark Duke, who plays an indignant millennial snit of a divorce lawyer, to Robert Pine, who plays Fred’s father, a lawyer who vacillates between shallow embarrassment and disappointment in his hapless son.
Like To Dust, I’d classify Song of Back and Neck as a dark comedy, but its weirdness is of the endearing rather than the offending variety.
The movie’s dramatic arc is predictable but satisfying.
Perhaps the biggest misstep is the title – Song of Back and Neck? Maybe because I ran from theater to theater during the Tribeca Film Festival, at first glance I thought the title was an awkward translation of a foreign-language film.
Song of Back and Neck is, in a way, Lieberstein’s own tune. A few years ago, Lieberstein came to accept that his own back pain was psychological. “I don’t think I yelled once before the age of 40,” he says. If Song of Back and Neck is indicative of Lieberstein’s capacity for emotional release, I would suggest his friends and family stand back.
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Diane (dir. Kent Jones)
Some women give and give and give … until, by force or circumstance, they give out.
Diane (Mary Kay Place), a septuagenarian widow, drives from place to place in rural Massachusetts, quietly helping others. She drops off chicken casseroles. She checks on elderly relatives. She plays gin rummy with her dying cousin. She serves the needy at a soup kitchen. She spends much of her life in the car, where the road ahead is bleak and the rearview mirror beckons. She wallows. Most of all, she worries about her drug-addicted adult son Brian (Jake Lacy).
There are some actors (right now, I can only think of Daniel Day-Lewis) who, while I’m watching them, I think, “Wow, this is incredible acting.” I never thought about the nuances Mary Kay Place had to capture for this role. Mary Kay Place is the ultimate Martyr Mom. She forges ahead without showing us – or herself – if her behavior is motivated by love, guilt, or caregiver inertia.
The only person who understands is Bobbie, a longtime friend played by Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Wedding). The two volunteer side-by-side at a soup kitchen. They meet up weekly, to vent and comfort each other, at a cheap diner.
I wish I’d seen the expressions on women’s faces when the casting call for this film went out. Wanted: A dozen 70-79-year-old females for lead role and supporting cast in feature-length indie film. Before I called my agent, I’d have checked to be sure the posting wasn’t a typo.
Diane’s cast list reads like a Who’s Who of Powerhouse Actresses: Estelle Parsons, Deirdre O’Connell, Glynnis O’Connor, Phyllis Somerville, Joyce VanPatten.…
The people in this movie are mostly old. The town looks old. Even the half-melted snow is old. The touchstone though, is Diane’s perpetually immature, vulnerable son Brian. Brian sucks the air out of his mother’s lungs, and, in Jake Lacy’s raw portrayal, he does the same to us.
This is a slice-of-life – and song-of-memories-and-death – movie that really is “for mature audiences only.” Diane is reflective and touching, but not uplifting. Jones’ use of roads as transitions is redundantly real, and really annoying. So is the distracting soundtrack, which pushed when it could have pulled.
This is the first full-length feature by writer/director Kent Jones, who, because he is not a kid, has written a movie about real characters who have experienced decades of real life. Jones and his executive producer Martin Scorsese both need to keep taking their Centrum Silver, because, mark my words, they’ve got a bright future in feature filmmaking.
* * *
Note: Images courtesy of the Tribeca Film Festival Press Office.