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Tribeca FF 2018, Hamptons FF 2018 Review: ‘To Dust,’ Starring Matthew Broderick

To Dust, Matthew Broderick, Gheza Rhoeig

(L to R): Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig  in ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder (photo courtesy of the film)

For atheists death is a macabre subject if they fear oblivion. For the religious death is an inevitable part of life and nothing to fear because there is something beyond. Those of various religious persuasions believe that as the mortal body turns “to dust,” the immortal spirit is in the loving embrace of a God of light, forgiveness and joy. The conundrum occurs for the religious who have a crisis of faith: 1)in a loving God; 2)in a spiritual dimension beyond the physical plane. When that siege of doubt appears and embraces the coffin of a loved one as a cemetery caretaker lowers it into the ground, depending upon the ability of the individual to “bury” fears and doubts, death and the mourning process can be catastrophic. In the instance of the Hasidic Cantor, Shmuel, (played by the wonderful Géza Röhrig of the Oscar winning Son of Saul), death turns him inside out and upside down. And it is his “turning” that creates the wonderful comedic situation of To Dust.

Tribeca FF 2018, Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue, Matthew Broderick Géza Röhrig, To Dust

(L to R): Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue, Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig, ‘To Dust,’ Tribeca Film Festival 2018 Q & A (Carole Di Tosti)

Part of the charm of To Dust, written by Jason Begue and Shawn Snyder and directed by Snyder lies in the superb casting of Röhrig and Matthew Broderick. as research buddies getting a handle on the rate of body decomposition after death. Röhrig has the right measure of intensity and frenzy as he attempts to confront the stark and unsettling images of what has happened to his wife’s soul and body. She died suddenly and unexpectedly leaving him with two young children. Broderick is his perfect foil. He portrays the dead pan, unassuming, steady, science professor (Community College, upstate New York), who Shmuel seeks out for information about the progress of his dead wife’s physical decomposition. Clearly, Shmuel cannot confront the emotional impact of his wife’s absence so he obsesses about her burial underground. He worries that she must suffer for a long the time until she finally turns “to dust,” an injunction of the scripture. In his own logic Shmuel imagines when her body arrives at its final “dust” phase, she will have arrived at peace.

There is no reasoning with him that the contrary might be true, that at the point of death, she entered realms of joy. And though Broderick attempts to shake Shmuel from his obsession, there is no stopping a man addicted to tormenting himself with emotional devastation handily submerged by a preoccupation with precise facts about decomposition. There is only the opportunity to extend one’s kindness, befriend the tormented one and help him relieve his misery going down the path of least resistance. And that is what Broderick does.

Hamptons International Film Festival, Tribeca FF, Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig, To Dust, Shawn Snyder Jason Begue

(L to R): Matthew Broderick, Géza Röhrig, ‘To Dust,’ Tribeca Film Festival, Hamptons International Film Festival (photo courtesy of the film)

Cleverly, the writers and the director quickly pass over the logic of the circumstance that anyone but Albert would dump Shmuel, ignore him, or call the police on him. However, the haunted Shmuel is a wandering ghost who does not know that his “deadness” outside covers up his raw bleeding wounds inside. Thus, if Broderick doesn’t help him with this scientific experiment, Shmuel’s state is such he will be haunted forever. Who knows what he might do? Thus, the kind teacher/helper, gradually allows himself to be persuaded to partner with Shumel on this secret adventure. Their friendship and rapport becomes the humanity and beauty of To Dust and the emotional payoff in satisfaction points is huge.

Broderick’s impeccable comedic timing and his fabulous intuition for what can get a laugh comes from his extensive experience acting on Broadway and Off Broadway. It is this pacing garnered from years of sensing audiences that he translates humor flawlessly to the screen. The comedy of the situation bounces back and forth on Shmuel’s and Albert’s journey of discovery. Broderick’s Albert becomes hooked out of curiosity, compassion and the fact that he has nothing much else going on in his life. And besides. He’s an open-minded stoner, not an uptight evangelical Christian.

Jason Begue, Shawn Snyder, Géza Röhrig, To Dust, Tribeca FF, Hamptons FF

Géza Röhrig in Tribeca FF Q and A after the screening of ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder, written by Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue (Carole Di Tosti)

Tribeca FF Q and A, Matthew Broderick, To Dust, Shawn Snyder, Jason Begue

Matthew Broderick at the Tribeca FF Q and A for ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder, written by Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue (Carole Di Tosti)

The adventures they encounter involve grave robbing, but for a good purpose, research, and a visit down South to a “Body Farm” and other experiences. Many of the scenes at the grave or woods dealing with the wife’s shrouded body are hilarious and the ironies abound. The scenes with the pig are hysterical. The very idea that they would experiment and even touch the animal considered filthy among the Jewish orthodox who do not eat pork indicates the extent to which Shmuel is beside himself in horror at her death. His shuddering torment is worse than touching the porker a 5000+ year-old tradition of banning the cloven-hoofed from the Jewish Orthodox diets and presence. How Broderick and Shmuel deal with the unclean or ” trade”  —  האַנדל (טמאis beyond the pale riotous.

Also, there is the apprehension that they could be stopped and questioned by the police for their secret deeds. How would they answer for themselves? Making rational sense of what they are doing with Shmuel’s wife’s body to the legal authorities conjures all sorts possibilities. This alone is priceless sardonic humor.

The dialogue is exceptional because these actors are so authentic in their attempts to deal with the absurdity of death from their perspective as citizens of life. The concept of death taken to its existential extreme is one we all must confront. What happens to us after our hearts stop and our brain function completely ceases? Does consideration of what is beyond and of what we will look like 10 years after death terrify? Certainly, we identify and empathize with Shumel. So does Albert. We have to because we are mortal. And how fast do we decompose if we are not embalmed? The Jewish tradition stipulates burial before sundown of the day of death.

Jason Begue, Shawn Snyder, Géza Röhrig, Tribeca FF, Hamptons FF, Matthew Broderick

Géza Röhrig in ‘To Dust,’ directed by Shawn Snyder, Tribeca FF, Hamptons FF 2018 (photo courtesy of the film)

If the actors and the situation created by Snyder and Begue weren’t so humorous, we would be as frightened as this husband is every time his imagination resurrects his wife. She torments him with the only thing left of her, her body. If not for the situational absurdity and humor, we would be saddened for this husband’s emotional debility in not being able to get over her loss.

That would be a different film. As a result, there is not even an affirmation that there is a life after death or that she resides in another dimension, or has achieved a God consciousness. In all that these Orthodox Jews have sacrificed in their lives to uphold their religious culture and folksways, one would think that there would be much consideration and comfort available to the living as they mourn the passing of their beloved. However, introducing the concept of the sweet hereafter would throw in an inappropriate twist based upon religious tradition. And it would change the tone of this film. Its richness in moving between surprise, comedy and sardonic jokes forces us to shift on a dime and follow along. The fact that the director and writer have engaged us in this very dark subject, then made us laugh about it is sheer perfection.

Also, another irony is not lost on us as aa truism in life: those who readily help others cannot easily help themselves. Here is a religious cantor who sings at funerals and helps others grieve by stemming their sorrow with his beautiful, anointed voice. In his own life he is incompetent at helping himself grieve and mourn. Indeed, the religion to which he has devoted his life and purpose is insufficient until he confronts his loss in real time and doesn’t disassociate from it. Albert’s friendship and camaraderie is crucial for Shmuel. And then occurs a brief intervention by his young children which forces him into the realization that he and his wife are in different mediums. One way to engage with her is to be present for his children and shake off the concept that she experiences soul torment based on a material/empirical time constraint.

To Dust works on many levels. It captivates, entertains and enthralls us with unanswerable questions that we will never answer in our bodies. And that’s the rub of it. Thankfully, laughter, too is  a part of the mourning process. To Dust reminds us of this with bucketfuls of humor. For that and the adroit way the writers and directors negotiated this particular and inventive story with grace, humanity and love makes it a must-see.

This film screened at the 2018 Tribeca Film Festival and 2018 Hamptons International Film Festival. It won the audience award at the Tribeca Film Festival. It opens on 8 February 2019.



HIFF 2018 Coverage and Film Review: ‘Border,’ Special Jury Prize For Acting

 Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi

(L to R): Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander in ‘Border’ directed by Ali Abbasi (photo courtesy of the trailer)

Once again the Hamptons International Film Festival 2018 sparked interest and traffic during Columbus Day weekend. Crowds lined up in East Hampton, Southampton and Sag Harbor for film screenings, celebrity talks and special events. The 126 films hailed from around the world. And a number of them had previously won prizes at other festivals. “We are thrilled that these diverse, unique, and entertaining stories resonated with our audience,” said HIFF Artistic Director David Nugent.

Though I screened other films on Friday, fellow movie lovers told me that The Hate You Give astounded them. The Hamptons panel selected Amandla Stenberg as one of their Breakthrough Artists. She and director George Tillman Jr. gave a powerful introduction on Friday night for The Hate You Give. This film screens this weekend. An important film for our times, the film unsurprisingly garnered a post-screening standing ovation. This HIFF Audience Award Winner for Narrative Feature was the only film to receive such an accolade.

My screening coverage of the films included one unique and memorable multiple award winner. Border, “GRÄNS”, directed by Ali Abbasi, received the HIFF 2018 Special Jury Prize for acting for the two lead actors, Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff.  Border, selected as Sweden’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, also received a Cannes Film Festival award. The “Un Certain Regard” 2018 prize evinces the striking and memorable elements of this fantastical feature narrative that haunts with ironic, thematic truths. Thus far, Border received 6 wins and 9 nominations. Before it completes its screening cycle, it surely will win more awards. What a novel and extraordinarily compelling film!

Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi, HIFF 2018

Eva Melander in the award-winning ‘Border’ by Ali Abbasi (photo from the film trailer)


The screenplay adapted from John Ajvide Lindqvist’s “Let the Right One in,” mixes fantasy, horror, drama, mystery, romance and magical realism with scenes of banality. Screenwriters Ali Abbassi, Isabella Eklof, John Ajvide Lindqvist distill tension and gyrate it throughout the arc of plot and character development. They accomplish this by moving back and forth between static scenes and frighteningly realistic glimpses into the world of eerie phantasmagoria.

Invariably, the mundane static occurs in the scenes of city life. The mysterious environs of the forest, the lakes and streams and “wildness” of nature convey the fantastic, beautiful and ethereal. As the conflict increases and events unfold with fearful intensity, the natural elements, rocks, woodlands, streams predominate. The forest becomes a notorious symbolic playland. The themes speak to rejuvenation and abiding in the sanctuary of nature. This balanced haven is free from cultural conformity, stereotypical, fascist definitions (borders), of gender, appearance, class, and societal strictures.

Gradually, and with great care, the screenwriters reveal the true nature of the characters and lead us to their unexpected, extraordinary outcomes. To the director’s and writers’ credit, their storytelling precision artfully gives nothing away. They lead us to surprise twists, shock, delight and the strange acceptance of beauty in ugliness. The scenes, compactly shot and effected, do just enough to forward the action and suspense. When the revelations come, they unfold in the organic fury of the characters. And their rage spirals into dangerous, increasingly mystical events. Eventually, we understand how the thread of circumstances unfolds in a final overall truth laden with profound themes. These are further interwoven with preternatural threads of Norse mythology.

Border, Ali Abbasi, HIFF 2018

‘Border’ directed by Ali Abbasi, HIFF 2018 (photo from the trailer)

Especially in its characterization Border suggests that civilization and cultural norms demean and destroy uniqueness and particularity. And the societal emphasis on the empirical and materialistic nullifies an entire species of beings whose very preciousness is made anathema by cultural obtuseness and limitation.  This is superb writing and a superior adaptation perfectly infused by the brilliant, empathetic acting turns of Eva Melander and Eero Milonoff.

Initially, the director introduces us to protagonist Tina (Eva Melander), in her sterile, uninspiring work environment as a customs official. However, as a border agent, Tina’s talents display a preternatural gift of smell. Notably, she targets drug addicts and illegal substances simply by sniffing individuals who come across her path. Her gifts extend to inanimate objects. For example, Tina sniffs out sealed bottles of alcohol.

But when she sniffs a micro disc that has pornography, we note the acute strangeness of this behavior. Tina tells her bosses that she senses and feels the fear and guilt associated with the object. By this juncture in the film, the second and third gyrations of character development have taken place. By then she has encountered a mysterious stranger, Vore (Eero Milonoff). His smile menaces. And he could be her brother in his unusual resemblance. He intrigues her and appears to be the most fascinating event that occurs in her tiresome existence. Also, the micro disc turns up later and ties in all the mysteries of character and conflict Tina confronts on her road to self-actualization.

Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi

L to R): Eero Milonoff, Eva Melander in ‘Border,’ directed by Ali Abbasi (photo from the film trailer)

Succinctly, the director sets up Tina’s lifestyle and environs. And these suggest subtle elements which guide her evolving journey as she discovers her true identity. Before meeting Vore, her monotonous days pass uneventfully in the atmosphereless unit at Passport and Border Control. And her evenings with cute Roland (Jorgen Thorsson), whom we initially believe is her partner, are equally purposeless. She doesn’t appear to have interests. Her lifestyle manifests a disordered order. And though Roland cages fighting dogs on her property which he exploits for gambling elsewhere, she could care less.

Because they don’t have an intimate relationship, though he wants one despite her unusual, homely appearance, we question why Roland remains with her. Finally, during a conversation with her father, we get it. Roland makes little money and must live off her largesse. In a quid pro quo she appreciates companionship, so she allows him to stay in the house she inherited from her disabled father whom she visits in a nursing home.

Eva Melander, Border, Ali Abbasi

Eva Melander in ‘Border’ directed by Ali Abbasi (photo from the film trailer)

Ali Abbasi ingeniously and believably sets up Tina’s “quiet life of desperation” emptiness, isolation and loneliness to enhance themes. Tina’s life mirrors the lives that many lead, i.e. a circumscribed, hateful existence, defined by nullifying social mores. Also, the tedious monotony of her days sets up the contrast to the new life introduced by the eerie, preternaturally appealing Vore.

Tina can’t forget Vore’s weird, repulsive attractiveness. This mystery leaves the questions initially unanswered until the end of the film. Perhaps, it is because of her own life of cruel banality and her disinterest in sex with Roland? Nevertheless, we cannot forget a comment a colleague confessed to her when he frisked Vore whose gender appalled him.

So when Tina runs into the sinister Vore in a shopping area and he mesmerizes her, we fear for her. Eventually, this encounter results in an invitation to rent a place on her property where she rents to another family with a baby. Roland, creeped out by Vore, like us, questions why she takes in a stranger. He makes an excellent point for the macabre embraces Vore. And indeed, we anticipate that Vore’s wild, naked romp in the woods where he screams with violence and pain signals that he will destroy Tina and the others if he stays. Unless, of course, Tina becomes intimate with him.

There is no spoiler alert. You will have to see how Tina makes her way through the horror and adventure to decide what path she will choose. Does she select a road toward defining her own contentment throwing off cultural shackles in the process? Or does she pick the well-traveled road of futility because she has become accustomed to it? Or perhaps she may be the one to merge both roads to attain a higher goodness?

The ambiguity presents delicious possibilities and leads to a fascinating conclusion. It reminds us that all of us for as long as we live on this planet are immigrants. And in carrying the metaphor of the film one step beyond, we may exist on the border of our own lives until we find ourselves home.  Border is psychic dynamite! Spellbinding with suspense, the film remains an award-winning standout that will haunt your imagination, if not forever, for a long while.


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