United by music, divided by ideology

Brothers Ilmar Gavilan (left) and Aldo Lopez-Gavilan play together after years of separation in Los Hermanos. (Photo by Melissa Bunni Elian)

By Richard Ades

Music. Politics. Brotherly love. These three forces collide in Los Hermanos (The Brothers), a bittersweet documentary about siblings separated by 90 miles of ocean and 50 years of economic policy.

Ilmar Gavilan and younger brother Aldo Lopez-Gavilan were born into a musical Cuban family. As boys, both were encouraged to develop the talents they so obviously inherited from their parents, but rather than bringing them together, this shared interest soon tore them apart.

Aldo, a budding pianist and composer, was only 8 when 14-year-old Ilmar set off to Moscow to hone his skills as a violinist. Eventually settling in the United States (the documentary doesn’t explain how this came about), Ilmar was free to perform with just about anyone except the brother he left back in Cuba. Due to U.S. trade embargoes and travel restrictions against the communist society, collaborations between the two were nearly impossible.

The documentary, fluidly directed by Marcia Jarmel and Ken Schneider, draws a stark contrast between the brothers’ lifestyles. While Ilmar plays and tours with a chamber group called the Harlem Quartet, Aldo deals with the limitations of making music in a poor and isolated country. In all of Cuba, we learn, there are only two or three performance spaces with decent pianos. And when Aldo does play in a concert, he often is responsible for prep work that anywhere else would be handled by backstage technicians.

One thing is clear. Despite the differences in their daily lives, the brothers are alike in their devotion to their chosen art form. Ilmar is a gifted violinist, while Aldo’s keyboard virtuosity, particularly when he’s playing one of his own rhythmically complex pieces at breakneck speed, marks him as a musical genius.

For this reason, as well as their family ties, the brothers desperately want to play and record an album together. When Ilmar succeeds in visiting his homeland for the first time in years, it looks like this just might happen. But it’s not until Barack Obama becomes president and relaxes trade and travel restrictions against the island that they’re completely free to share their talents.

They even arrange a joint tour of American concert halls, as documented in the film’s most joyful moments. However, joy turns to dread when then-presidential candidate Donald Trump begins appearing on TV screens and threatens to reverse Obama’s conciliatory policies toward Cuba.

As concerned as Los Hermanos is with politics and brotherhood, it’s really the music that ties the film together and constitutes its greatest strength. Specifically, it’s the music of Aldo, which makes up the bulk of what we hear throughout. Whether fast, jazzy and avant-garde or slow, simple and heartfelt, it never fails to impress and delight.

It’s the music, if one reads between the lines, that also makes the film’s most salient political point. We realize that the U.S., by cutting itself off from that island to the south, is not only depriving two brothers of each other’s company—it’s also depriving us of the enjoyment we could be getting from extraordinary Cuban talents like Aldo Lopez Gavilan.  

Rating: 4½ stars (out of 5)

Los Hermanos will be available in theaters and via virtual screenings beginning May 14. For ticket information, visit hermanosbrothersfilm.info/screenings.

War-traumatized Marine seeks healing on the road

Iraq War combat veteran Jonathan Hancock walks across America in Bastards’ Road.

By Richard Ades

Jonathan Hancock can’t stop replaying a horrifying moment from his service in the Iraq War: After firing a grenade toward an enemy position, the Marine watches helplessly as a child runs onto the scene just in time to be blown up.

This slow-motion memory is one of many that torment Hancock as he undertakes a 5,800-mile journey in the documentary Bastards’ Road. Also on his mind are the many comrades he lost during the war, and the many more who were lost after their tours of duty due to PTSD and suicide.

It’s partly to prevent more losses—and partly to deal with his own internal demons—that Hancock decides to set off the morning of Sept. 11, 2015. Strapping on a backpack adorned with a Marine banner, he leaves his home in Maryland and begins walking. His plan is to take a roundabout cross-country route that reunites him with fellow comrades who survived the war, as well as the families of those who didn’t.  

Directed and edited by Brian Morrison, the documentary takes its title from the nickname of Hancock’s Marine unit: “The Magnificent Bastards.” Visually, the film is a beautiful travelogue that includes some of America’s most striking vistas. Psychologically, it’s a revealing dissection of the lasting trauma that war can create in those who fight it.

At times, the two sides of the film’s personality don’t quite gel, especially when soothing ballads are heard during Hancock’s wanderings. They seem out of place because we know they don’t reflect his state of mind.

More convincing are the comments Hancock and others make about the changes war can create in a human being’s psyche: Battle takes away one’s belief that everyone is basically OK. It forces one to adopt behavior that would be inappropriate in ordinary life—and that must be abandoned if one survives and returns to that life. And it forces one to face the deaths of those who don’t survive. “We didn’t know how to deal with that,” Hancock says.

A recurrent theme of Bastards’ Road is the importance of veterans’ admitting when they need help. Due to macho pride—or to shame over their inability to get on with their lives as some of their comrades seem to have done—many don’t seek that help. Instead, they turn to drugs, alcohol or worse. One result, the film states, is that the suicide rate among veterans is 50 percent higher than it is among the general population.

To counteract this disturbing trend, Hancock meets with as many former comrades as he can during his journey. Together, they commiserate over what they went through in Iraq and encourage each other to get counseling if they need it.  

Coincidentally, just two days after watching Bastards’ Road, I caught a 60 Minutes report on the “Ritchie Boys,” a secret U.S. military unit formed during World War II. The unit included many German Jews who had fled to America and were eager to use their knowledge and language skills to help defeat the Nazis. What struck me the most about the interviewed veterans was the pride these elderly men took in their long-ago war efforts.

That set me to thinking. Though PTSD obviously has been around since warfare was invented, it must be at least a little easier to recover from serving in a just and universally supported cause like WWII than it is to recover from serving in an ill-conceived and widely condemned conflict like the Iraq War. But that’s a question that Bastards’ Road never takes up.

Ignoring the politics of the situation, it instead focuses on the psychological damage the war did to those who fought it. In the process, it offers new insights to those who weren’t there and, hopefully, a bit of healing to those who were.

Rating: 3½ stars (out of 5)

Bastards’ Road is available via VOD/digital platforms and DVD beginning May 11.

Walken stars as Monsanto-fighting canola farmer

Percy Schmeiser (Christopher Walken) is in no mood to be pushed around in Percy vs. Goliath.

By Richard Ades

When a Canadian farmer takes on the chemical giant Monsanto in Percy vs. Goliath, the result is similar to what happens when an American farmer takes on DuPont in 2019’s Dark Waters: Determined to protect its profits, the corporation threatens the farmer with ruin by dragging him through endless court battles.

The films are also similar in another respect: Both are earnest but sometimes preachy efforts that score more points politically than they do dramatically.

The new flick does have one big advantage over its predecessor in that it stars Christopher Walken as heroic Saskatchewan farmer Percy Schmeiser. Even playing a mild-mannered character whose chief attribute is stoicism, Walken supplies enough edge and mystery to add a smidgeon of unpredictability to a tale that otherwise offers few surprises.   

Percy, 73, has spent his life farming the land and using the agricultural techniques he inherited from his ancestors. “I’m a seed saver,” he explains, meaning he collects the seeds from each year’s crop and replants the ones that gave him the best yields. That makes it doubly surprising when Monsanto hits him with the claim that he’s been using its genetically modified canola seeds without paying for them.

Convinced he’s been unjustly accused, Percy turns to local lawyer Jackson Weaver (Zach Braff), who advises him to pay the demanded fine rather than risk a much bigger loss by forcing Monsanto to take him to court. When Percy refuses to back down, he ends up getting himself in more trouble than he could have anticipated. In the process, he gains the attention and support of activist Rebecca Salcau (Christina Ricci), who represents a nonprofit group that opposes Monsanto’s attempt to monopolize the international market with its expensive GMO products.

Screenwriters Garfield L. Miller and Hilary Pryor adapted the tale from an actual court case that happened around the turn of the millennium. Directed by Clark Johnson, it’s brought to the screen with cinematography (by Luc Monpellier) that’s sometimes more dramatic than the action. Besides being relentlessly low-key, the film undercuts itself with characters whose behavior occasionally seems inconsistent.

Percy is said to be shy, but he throws himself into a public speaking tour in an effort to publicize his case. Similarly, Jackson downplays his legal ability, but he argues cases like a Canadian Perry Mason.

Then there’s Rebecca, who mostly comes across as selfless and dedicated but at one point turns ruthless and manipulative. And Percy’s wife Louise (Roberta Maxwell) can’t seem to decide whether she supports her husband’s crusade or opposes it because of all the grief it’s brought the family.

None of these inconsistencies is impossible to believe. The problem is that the actors aren’t given enough opportunity to smooth out the transitions.

The film also makes other strange choices, such as when it leaves out the climactic moment in Percy’s first legal go-round with Monsanto. Instead, Percy and his lawyer simply review the development after the fact.

Percy vs. Goliath deserves credit for exploring a controversial issue that affects farmers not only in North America but worldwide. It falters only by failing to deliver its history lesson with all the drama it deserves.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)

Percy vs. Goliath (PG-13) is available in theaters and from VOD outlets beginning April 30.

Prospective dad hires surrogate mom; complications ensue

Matt (Ed Helms) hires Anna (Patti Harrison) to have his baby in Together Together.

By Richard Ades

I used to look down on the term “gentle comedy,” sarcastically defining it to mean “a comedy that isn’t very funny.” Together Together may have changed my mind.

Written and directed by Nikole Beckwith (whose previous film output is limited to 2015’s Stockholm, Pennsylvania), the flick lives up to both aspects of the genre. It’s sometimes really funny, and it’s always exquisitely gentle yet incisive as it orbits two people drawn together by both contractual requirements and emotional needs.

Matt (Ed Helms) is a 40-something man who’s tired of waiting for the perfect partner to come along before he can start a family. Anna (Patti Harrison) is a 20-something woman who answers Matt’s ad for a surrogate to bring to term the fetus formed by his sperm and an anonymous donor’s egg.

On paper, their duties are straightforward. Anna will give birth to the baby, then disappear as Matt begins experiencing the joys of fatherhood. But it’s all complicated by the months of shared responsibilities that must precede the birth, not to mention the years of pain and loneliness that brought each of them to where they are now.

We learn something about Matt’s unsuccessful attempts to find a life partner, and we learn more about Anna’s past traumas: While still a teenager, she got pregnant, had a son and gave him up for adoption. It’s an experience that interrupted her education and drove a seemingly permanent wedge between her and her family.

Ordinarily, a film that brings together a lonely man and an equally lonely woman is setting us up for a romantic connection, but Beckwith offers little hope for such a development. Instead, Matt and Anna establish boundaries, then cross them, redefine them and attempt to re-establish them as they stumble into something resembling friendship. But is any kind of friendship a good idea in a relationship that’s predestined to end after nine months?

The trickiness of their situation is explored in sometimes cringingly awkward scenes involving counseling sessions and such prenatal traditions as picking out a crib and hosting a baby shower. It’s also explored more hilariously in interactions with characters such as their sarcastic sonogram technician (Sufe Bradshaw) and Anna’s self-involved but occasionally perceptive co-worker (Julio Torres).

As welcome as the latter scenes’ laughs are, the film’s real source of joy is the delicate chemistry established by its two leads.

Helms’s Matt is an occasional blunderer whose heart nevertheless serves as a reliable rudder. Harrison’s Anna approaches life with a combination of amusement and determination that serves as an equally trustworthy guide. Together, despite their differences in age and temperament, the two sometimes manage to complement each other in ways that render their lives more bearable.

That makes the apparent temporariness of their bonding all the more bittersweet.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Together Together (rated R) is available in select theaters, including Central Ohio’s AMC Easton Towne Center 30, Cinemark Polaris 18 and Crosswoods 17. It will be available digitally beginning May 11.

His feet say yes, but his religion says no

Hasidic Jew Moshe Yehuda (Jos Laniado) and dance instructor Viviana Nieves (Karina Smirnoff) ponder how to enter a tango contest without touching.

By Richard Ades

Oh, those crazy Orthodox Jews. What bizarre dilemmas will their beliefs get them into next?

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fan of Shtisel, the Israeli TV series about an ultra-Orthodox family living in Jerusalem. It’s partly because of my affection for the show that I thought Tango Shalom might be worth a look. Now making the rounds of Jewish film festivals (though it actually was shot several years back), it’s the story of Moshe Yehuda, a Hasidic Brooklynite who wants to dance the Argentine tango.

Since Orthodox men are forbidden to even shake hands with women who aren’t their wives, doing the tango with another woman is clearly off-limits. Yet Moshe (Jos Laniado) has what he believes are extenuating circumstances.

Moshe desperately needs money to support his family and to help younger brother Rahamim (Claudio Laniado) pay for his upcoming wedding. And if he wins an upcoming tango competition, he’ll take home enough cash to solve both problems. Surely the rules can be bent just this once?

Shtisel is full of such collisions between faith and personal needs and wants, but its approach is a bit more nuanced than the movie’s. Well, more than a bit. It’s like the difference between dropping a cherry on a sundae and dousing it with high-fructose corn syrup. For starters, some of Tango Shalom’s characters are such over-the-top stereotypes that it’s impossible to see them as real people.

Oy vey, do they drop a lot of Yiddish words! And oy gevalt, are they emotional! Example: When Rahamim shows up at a family dinner after shaving off his Hasidic beard, his mother (Renee Taylor) doesn’t just give him the evil eye. She bawls at full volume, even though her son’s fiancée and prospective in-laws are present.

Moshe, fortunately, is portrayed in a more restrained manner, but even he has his cartoonish moments. When a non-Orthodox woman tries to shake his hand, he recoils in horror like he’s just seen a ghost. And when a female doctor wants to perform an examination involving his private parts, he flees her office without even bothering to cover his backside (which probably violates a few Hasidic rules on its own).

Moshe (Jos Laniado) is comforted by the one woman he’s allowed to touch, wife Raquel (Judi Beecher).

A true family affair, Tango Shalom was directed by Gabriel Bologna and was co-written by his late father, actor Joseph Bologna, and Jos and Claudio Laniado, who are brothers in real life as well as onscreen. In addition, Joseph Bologna was the husband of cast member Taylor and played Father Anthony, one of several non-Jewish clerics Moshe turns to for spiritual guidance after failing to receive helpful advice from his own rabbi. Finally, the film’s lively score was co-written by the director’s wife, Zizi Bologna, and Zoe Tiganouria.

Other cast members include Judi Beecher as Moshe’s long-suffering wife, Lainie Kazan as Rahamim’s prospective mother-in-law and a surprisingly good Karina Smirnoff (of Dancing With the Stars fame) as a widowed dance instructor who urges Moshe to enter the tango contest with her because she has financial needs of her own.   

Despite its excesses and occasional inaccuracies—for one, Orthodox people do not as a rule enter non-Jewish houses of worship, as Moshe does early on—it’s hard to dislike Tango Shalom entirely. It creates a quirky situation and works it out in an ingenious way while beating a drum for religious tolerance. But it does all this in such an exaggerated, farcical way that only fans of old-fashioned Borsht Belt humor are likely to find it irresistible.

Rating: 2½ stars (out of 5)

Tango Shalom can be viewed online through May 2 (in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia only) as part of Pittsburgh’s JFilm Festival. Visit filmpittsburgh.org/films/tango-shalom.

Man searches for past shaped by racial prejudice

Columbus resident David Bynum recaps his search for unknown family members in From a Place of Love–My Adoption Journey, a modest documentary he wrote and directed himself. For a review, visit the Columbus Free Press website.

Father’s death prompts dangerous quest for justice

Paul Lima keeps in touch with his team as they plot to capture a killer in After the Murder of Albert Lima. (Photos courtesy of This Is Just a Test Media)

By Richard Ades

After watching the unbearably tense (and now Oscar-nominated) Quo Vadis, Aida?, I was ready for something a bit calmer. Instead, I stumbled onto After the Murder of Albert Lima.

The documentary follows an American named Paul Lima as he heads to Honduras in 2013 to seek out his father’s alleged killer. The man in question, Oral Coleman, has actually been convicted of the crime but remains at large, apparently having bribed enough officials to evade prison.

The murder, by the way, took place 13 years earlier. Since then, Lima has devoted his life to seeking justice, but it appears to be in short supply in the Central American country. As a result, he’s hired bounty hunters Art Torres and Zora Korhonen to accompany him to the island where the suspect lives.

The plan: Find Coleman, subdue him with drugs and restraints, and turn him over to the proper authorities for delivery to prison. The problem: Coleman is a prosperous businessman/gangster who’s always surrounded by bodyguards and ever-vigilant underlings.

Bounty hunters Art Torres and Zora Korhonen

Torres, the more assertive of the two bounty hunters, effects an air of self-confidence as he assures Lima that their plan is sound. But even he seems taken aback when he learns how well-protected Coleman is, and how lawless and hazardous life on the island can be. Nevertheless, the three set about gathering the supplies they need for their dangerous mission, including a pair of poorly maintained firearms.

Is Lima setting himself up for the kind of tragic end that befell his father? Are bounty hunters Torres and Korhonen as competent as they claim, or are they in over their heads? Director Aengus James encourages such questions while keeping the dread factor high with help from composer Adam Sanborne’s ominous score.

The only respite comes during interludes that explain why Paul Lima decided to undertake such an insane quest. We come to understand that his need for closure largely overrules his instinct for self-preservation. That’s because his life is stuck in limbo and will remain there unless he succeeds in bringing his father’s killer to justice.  

Like a condensed, real-life version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, After the Murder of Albert Lima blends psychology and suspense in the tale of an obsession that both defines and endangers one man’s life. It’s quite a yarn.

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

After the Murder of Albert Lima is available beginning March 18 on Crackle, a free screening service.

Teacher/interpreter/mother tries to ward off tragedy

Jasna Djuricic plays Aida Selmanagic, a Bosnian teacher and interpreter, in Quo Vadis, Aida?

By Richard Ades

Quo Vadis, Aida? is set during the Bosnian War (1992-95), which gave rise to Europe’s most deadly outbreak of genocide since the Holocaust. Not only that, but it takes place in the town of Srebrenica, site of one of the conflict’s most infamous atrocities.

That should clue you in that the film won’t make you feel good about the human condition. Instead, you’ll feel drained, exhausted and saddened by its depiction of the hatred and cruelty one people can direct against another people—and of the inability of well-meaning but powerless institutions to prevent it.

Writer-director Jasmila Zbanic has created a breathless account of what happened in July 1995, when Serbian troops set their sights on Srebrenica even though the United Nations had declared it a safe zone. The fictionalized but based-on-reality tale is told through the eyes of Aida Selmanagic (Jasna Djuricic), a Bosnian Muslim teacher who works as an interpreter for the UN peacekeeping detail.

It’s Aida’s job to convey to other Bosnians what she’s told by the Dutch officers who are attempting to protect the town on behalf of the UN. This soon puts her in a bind, as she begins to suspect they have little power to stop the advance of Serbian forces under a ruthless general named Ratko Mladic (Boris Isakovic).

Though she’s charged with relaying a calming message, Aida becomes increasingly concerned for the safety of the thousands who’ve sought sanctuary in Srebrenica, including her husband and two sons. It’s an impossible situation, and a terrifying one.

As Aida, Djuricic digs deep to express the anguish of a woman caught between her duties to her employers and her loyalties to her countrymen. Most of all, she defines the fierce courage of a mother who will do anything to protect her family.

Throughout the ordeal, writer-director Zbanic mostly spares viewers the sight of actual violence by locating it just beyond our field of view. Otherwise, she’s merciless in her tense depiction of a wartime tragedy in the making.

The tension begins to abate only in an extended postscript that finds our heroine numbed by all that has happened. As the viewer, you’re likely to feel the same.  

Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)

Quo Vadis, Aida? (no MPAA rating) is available through VOD outlets beginning March 15.

Sexual assault’s aftermath puts interracial couple to the test

Test Pattern, written and directed by Shatara Michelle Ford, delves into sexual and racial politics as it shows what happens after a woman is violated while incapacitated by drugs and alcohol. For a review, visit the Columbus Free Press website.