AMÉRICA – movie review

Lifelike Docs
Reviewed for & linked from Rotten Tomatoes by: Harvey Karten
Director: Chase Whiteside, Erick Stoll
Screenwriter: Chase Whiteside, Erick Stoll
Cast: América, Diego, Bruno, Rodrigo, Luis
Screened at: Critics’ link, NYC, 9/3/19
Opens: September 13, 2019 at New York’s Museum of the Moving Image


In “The Seven Ages of Man” found in Shakespeare’s play “As You Like It,” the Bard concludes:
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

In other words though it may be better than the alternative (only sometimes), old age is a pitiful part of life, even worse if the elderly spend it alone or adrift in a terrible nursing home. But sans everything? Not so, say directors Chase Whiteside, Erick Stoll in their documentary “América.” This is Erick Stoll’s freshman full-length movie though you might figure his politics if you see “Good White People,” his short doc about gentrification. For his part Chase Whiteside unfolds his first full-length doc, though figuring his politics from his short feature “Lifelike,” about a taxidermist, doesn’t sound political, but who knows? Documentary shorts are not easy to find even in New York.

While Americans are known to put their elderly and fragile oldsters into nursing homes, it’s a cliché that Chinese would never elect to do this but rather to care for the parents, who gave them so much, at home. Now it turns out that some Mexicans are doing the same for their grandmother, América, who is 93 years old at the movie’s opening and, though suffering from dementia, she can recognize the terrific grandchildren who are caring for her. “América” is filmed over three years first in Puerto Vallarta where Diego can be found riding a unicycle through a crowd and later demonstrating at least amateur level acrobatics with his brothers Bruno and Rodrigo.

The brothers’ grandmother América lives in the state of Colima, a woman who may no longer be a vibrant human being but who lucks out by having grandsons to take care of her. Diego is the most committed. He bathes her, talks to her, kisses her while straightening her hair, and forces her to exercise when all she wants to do is return to her bed. In one scene he demonstrates tough love by insisting that she stand up straight, though América wants at least to hold his hand.

Ironically, when she suffers a fall, her son Luis is blamed and sent to prison for eight months though he is quite innocent of bad intent, and it falls to the brothers, already submerged in América’s care, to get their father released. How they pay for a lawyer, and how they deal with a judge’s offer to release the man for 25,000 pesos ($1400) is not clear though the three argue, but finances and commitment to América are debated among the three, in one case leading to a physical fight. The good thing about the whole affair is at least the three threesome are together again. At times they come across like philosophers in conversation, though we have no idea how much education they’ve had.

We learn something about the Mexican social care system, a country that is awash with drug murders but still funds social workers who seem genuinely to care for their clients—at least while director Stoll’s camera is on them. (The directors share stunning fluency in their editing while Stoll doubles as director of photography.) At fifty-two minutes in length viewers will gain insights into extreme old age, grandchildren, and the social and legal systems of our friends to the south.

52 minutes. © 2019 by Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – B
Acting – B+
Technical – B+
Overall – B+

THE STRANGE ONES – movie review


Vertical Entertainment
Director:  Lauren Wolkstein, Christopher Radcliff
Screenwriter:  Christopher Radcliff
Cast:  Alex Pettyfer, James Freedon-Jackson, Emily Althaus, Gene Jones, Melanie Nicholls-King, Olivia Wang
Screened at: Critics’ DVD, NYC, 12/17/17
Opens: January 5, 2018

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There’s just so much you can do with mood, unless your name is spelled Ingmar Bergman.  The directors, Lauren Wolkstein and Christopher Radcliff, whose résumés are fill with shorts and videos, hope to capture audience attention through ambiance and mystery, but ultimately, the gaps in the narrative and the questions that are never answered prove frustrating.  The best thing about the film, though, is the music, and woodsy  photography, which takes place in rural New York State, could serve as a tourist brochure to entice people who think that the Big Apple is the only place in the state worth visiting.

The film is divided into two halves, the first involving Nick (Alex Pettyfer), a hunky fellow in his twenties, and his teen road-trip companion Sam/Jeremiah (James Freedson-Jackson).  Though they claim to be brothers on a camping trip, we sense that this is not true, considering that an opening shot shows young Sam facing a huge blaze that could serve to cover up a felony.  Each of the two has some specific traits that appear as though parts of his DNA.  The older man varies in temperament for caring and tender, regularly asking the boy if he’s having fun, but in one particular situation, a burst of temper that finds him slapping his companion.  Sam’s feelings come across often like a blank slate.  When the two stop at a motel and Kelly (Emily Althouse), the flirtatious manager, asks the boy about his older companion, Sam trashes the man, calling him a liar and worse.  Usually, though, he is morose, communicating blank stares at the questions that people ask him.

During the second segment, Nick is mostly out of the picture.  Centering on the teen, directors Walkstein and Radcliff see the lad as a runaway, one who is taken in by a camp using the labor of teens in return for bed and board, though Gary (Gene Jones), the head counselor, as it were, takes a keen interest in Sam despite, or because of, being faced mostly by the boy’s signature stares.  What sort of camp is this, where teen runaways are taken in and cared for by a benevolent manager who seems to grant residence to young people in trouble?

The principal mysteries remain throughout.  We never find out the relationship between Sam, who has been calling himself Jeremiah, and Nick, who has little in common with his cryptic pal.  Though points are made about Sam’s relationship to his dad, we are never certain of their bond or lack of affection, with the hint that perhaps the father has been abusing the boy.  Since Sam describes his nightmares to the counselor, we may think of the possibility that everything that looks real is actually the teen’s dream, and the nightmares he suffers are real life.  That’s just a guess.   After a while, the effect of mood drifts away and we are left with, what’s up?

Rated R.  82 minutes.  © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online

Story – C
Acting – B
Technical – B
Overall – C+