“Heli”: a young factory worker in Mexico protects his sister after she accidentally draw him into a drug ring

Heli” is a gut-punching dramatic film about involuntary family responsibility in the third world, specifically rural Mexico in an area overrun by drug cartels. The film (in Spanish with subtitles) is directed and written by Amat Escalante, with other writers Gabriel Reyes, Zumurt Cavusgolu, and Ayhan Ergusel. The film was shot in 2013 and has shown in Cannes and Sundance and is now becoming available on DVD from Strand Releasing (June 27).

Heli (Armando Espitia) is a an slender, appealing young man, about 20 with wife Sabrina (like the 1955 film name, Linda Gonzalez), 12 year old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), and father (Ramon Alvarez). Dad works at the local auto assembly plant, which looks very modern (and perhaps tried to take American jobs – to Donald Trump’s consternation) and Heli has been working the night shift for some time. Estetla has a boy friend Belo (Juan Eduardo Palacios) who seems to be going through paramilitary training (maybe from a drug cartel) where he is forced to roll in his own chunky vomit.

Belo stores drugs in the family’s house, and when Heli finds them, he destroys them by throwing them into a well. But soon the house is raided, we think by police but they may be drug dealers disguised as troops. Dad is shot, and the rest of the family, as well as Belo, are captured.

The film’s middle section has one of the most graphic torture scenes ever filmed I’m recalling New Line’s “Rendition”, where Jake Gyllenhaal’s character witnesses “my first torture”) in which Belo’s private parts are set on fire, as if to imply permanent castration and epilation, and affront to “the virtue of maleness”. But soon Belo dies and his corpse is hung from a bridge in a public lynching.

The film had opened with a shot of Belo and Estela in the back of a pickup truck, leading to the lynching, as a prologue before the opening titles, a story preview familiar from the films of Jorge Ameer.

Heli is spared with worst but still injured. He eventually talks to police and is in the position of being the sole protector of his younger sister as well as wife and baby. The sister has become pregnant. Heli’s injuries cause him to be inefficient working on the factory assembly line, and soon he gets fired. But, as in typical screenwriting, he must prevail.

A reasonable comparison could be made to Steven Soderbergh’s 2000 film “Traffic“.

Guanajuato archeological site, near where film was shot (Wiki).

Name:  “Heli
Director, writer:  Amat Escanante
Released:  2013, 2017
Format: 1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Strand private screener on Vimeo, 2017/6/22, DVD BluRay available 2017/6/27
Length:  105
Rating:  R
Companies:  Strand Releasing
Link:  BluRay

Picture: Big Bend, mine (Thanksgiving 1979 Sierra Club camping trip, looking into Mexico).

(Posted: Friday, June 23, 2017 at 10:300 AM EDT)

“Gifted”: rooting interest and courtroom drama, where I want to see documentary and real issues

Gifted”, directed by Marc Webb (“500 Days of Summer”, 2009), and written by Tom Flynn, takes up the subject of a gifted kid and sets up an audience rooting interest in a somewhat stereotyped way. It’s not my favorite way to handle the topic, but we’ll come back to this.

Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) is the first grader, whom her uncle Frank (Chris Evans) has home schooled but now insists on sending her to public school for socialization.  She makes a scene of her brilliance in arithmetic class in front of a patronizing teacher  (Jenny Slate), who later becomes Frank’s girl friend.  The teacher and principal at the Tampa area school want so sent her to an academy for the profoundly gifted. But Frank wants her to learn to be a human being first.  I met teachers with this classroom style with elementary school kids when I worked as a substitute teacher, 2004-2007.  Although I did mostly high school and some middle school, I accidentally got some grade school (and a lot of special education).  It was actually common in kindergarten or first grade for kids to sit on the floor on a rug for arithmetic drills.

Frank had actually dropped out of teaching philosophy in Boston and moved to Florida to become a contractor prole and handyman repairing boats (replacing water pumps, especially). We aren’t told why.  But Frank’s sister had been a brilliant mathematician and committed suicide, after nearly proving one of the Millennium Prize Problems (one about fluid mechanics which probably deals with the entropy than makes forecasting tornadoes difficult). Frank had taken custody of Mary, a setup that at first recalls “Manchester by the Sea” (Nov. 25).

Enter grandma (Lindsay Duncan) who wants to take custody back of Mary, take her back to Boston and have her finish proving this math theorem.  That sets up a custody battle in front of a Florida family court judge  (John M. Jackson), with some retrospective courtroom drama.

Adding to the plot are a neighbor played by Octavia Spencer, and particularly a one-eye male cat, who loves both Mary and Frank dearly, and creates the final plot twist.

I would rather see a documentary about  a gifted teen.  Maybe see how Jack Andraka (who invented a new test for pancreatic cancer for a science fair) spent his senior year in high school traveling the world and did his homework on planes (no electronics ban, as he sold his book “Breakthrough“), or see Taylor Wilson, educated at the Davison School for the profoundly gifted in Reno, would make the power grids safer. (The book is Tom Clynes, “The Boy Who Played with Fusion“.) Young UCLA mathematician Deven Ware could also fit this mold.

I also think that profoundly gifted kids in mathematics (or in music) may present evidence of reincarnation.

My own novel manuscript “Angel’s Brother” will feature a profoundly gifted college senior in Texas whom I’ve named Sal Garcia.

Angelika Mosaic also showed a short film, “The Dark Island” with an observatory on top of a maountain showing the heavens.  Was this Mauna Loa in Hawaii?

Name:  “Gifted”
Director, writer:  Marc Webb, Tom Flynn
Released:  2017
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2017/4/7
Length:  101
Rating:  PG-13
Companies:  Fox Searchlight
Link:  official

The film was shot around Savannah (like “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil”, 1997, with John Cusack and Kevin Spacey, with Cusack’s famous line, “New York is boring”).  There are also scenes in Boston around M.I.T.  The picture above is mine from 2015, central Florida.

(Posted: Friday, April 7, 2017 at 8 PM EDT)

“Manchester by the Sea”: an uncle becomes guardian of a teen, who turns out to have to parent the uncle


Name: Manchester by the Sea
Director, writer:  Kenneth Lonergan; Matt Damon is a producer
Released:  2016/11
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  Angelika Mosaic, 2016/11/24, Thanksgiving night sneak preview, starts today
Length 137
Rating R (implicit sex, including teens, in a strongly dramatic context)
Companies: Amazon Studios, Roadside Attractions
Link: official;  Vox review

Manchester by the Sea”, is the name of a town along the north coast of Massachusetts, and it’s the setting for the newest family drama film from Kenneth Lonergan.  The film is billed as a tear-jerker and as an essay on involuntary family responsibility.

The protagonist is a 40-year-old apartment handyman from Quincy, MA, Lee Chandler, played by Casey Affleck (and the obvious comparison is his role in the 2005 film “Lonesome Jim” (2005), also “Gerry” (2002)). He does good work but his interpersonal skills are mixed, as there is a slight degree of Asperger in his personality. (Oddly, the has personality behavioral quirks like sensitivity to being looked at in bars, and starts a fight over it.)  One day he gets a call from relatives in Manchester that his slightly  older brother has had another heart attack.  When he arrives, his brother has passed away.  And soon, the family lawyer is challenging him to become legal guardian of the brother’s (Kyle Chandler) erratic son Patrick (Lucas Hedges – the last name is tricky, not the more common “Hodges”).  He will become trustee, and the will provides him some income for doing so.  So this sounds like another “Raising Helen” scenario.

But Lee has actually contributed some of his own karma.  An early scene on a boat in the bay shows him bonding with the little boy (Ben O’Brien) Patrick, out of character for his otherwise sometimes introverted personality.  Later (by the time the moviegoer has gotten used to the flashbacks) we learn of a late night party where some inattention to home safety by Lee led to a house fire that destroyed his wife’s life.  We already know of the divorce, and ex-about wife Randi’s (Michelle Williams) problem with alcohol.  By present day, she has an older man dating her and having given her another child.  The older man is quite possessive.

So, partly because of Lee’s actions, mom would not be a suitable parent.  It seems that Lee is the best possible father figure for Patrick.

Patrick is emotionally disturbed but also probably profoundly gifted.  He plays hockey and basketball, and leads a rock band, all in high school.  He has the athletic talent to become a hockey pro, and probably the musical talent to become a rock star.  It’s as if someone like Bryce Harper also able to become a concert musician existed  (Bryce has already made a short film for ESPN).  Patrick does a good job of handling interpersonal conflicts among others in his band, so that bodes well for a future music career from a business aspect (even if that’s Trump-like).  He doesn’t want to go to college, but Peter Thiel would be fine with that (Thiel funds his own entrepeneurs like Taylor Wilson to skip college and start innovative businesses while teens, and Thiel regards college, with its student debt fiasco, a scam and ponzi scheme). Patrick is also very interested in keeping dad’s boat, which is breaking down and will cost $$$ to fix.  He has already learned to run it, but can do so legally until 18 or 21.  Most of all Patrick doesn’t want to move back Quincy because he has his life (including two girl friends he wants to “score” with)  in Manchester.  (Patrick also reminds me of the piano prodigy “Ephram” from the WB show “Everwood”, played by Gregory Smith.)

Patrick is also very verbal and snarky at times.  He is prone to sudden emotional breakdowns, especially over the idea of his dad’s corpse staying in a freezer before the burial and funeral, which seem to take a long time to happen. But otherwise, it’s apparent that Patrick is rapidly becoming the parent and Lee the child.  It’s Patrick who has the talents to make a lot of money on his own, without college or much financial support.  It’s Patrick whose gifts could provide a living for everybody else.  So playing his dad seems like a good deal.

The film doesn’t make much of the brother’s congenital or maybe genetic heart disease that causes his early death, but it’s fair to wonder if it could run in the family.  One could another movie plot where heart transplant is considered (as with Dick Cheney).

The film is long (137 minutes) and filmed in regular aspect, which tends to emphasize close-ups and de-emphasize the gorgeous coastal scenery, even in winter.

Lucas Hedges, apparently 19, seems like a very charismatic teen actor, whose personality tends to dominate the films he is in (much as is the case with Richard Harmon, 25, for example).  Patrick here resembles “Bob” in Terry Gilliam’s “The Zero Theorem“, when Bob says “I’m nobody’s tool” and when Bob essentially parents Christopher Waltz’s Qohen Leth. Lucas would have been 15 when acting the part, and he completely dominates the second half of the film.

Some other films for comparison on filial piety include “Saving Sarah Cain” (a mainstream columnist becomes involuntary guardian of Amish sister’s kids) and “Gracie’s Choice“.

It does indeed happen, that childless career people are suddenly expected to raise nieces and nephews.  Much of the generosity of inheritance law (from a left-wing perspective, at least) expects “you take care of your own first.”

The picture above is mine (2015), from Cape Cod.

(Posted: Friday, Nov. 25, 2016 at 12:15 PM EDT)

“Summertime”: filial piety challenges a lesbian relationship in 1971 France


Name: Summertime
Director, writer:  Catherine Corsini
Released:  2016
Format:  2.35:1
When and how viewed:  Vimeo private screener 2016/11/14
Length 105
Rating NR (but would normally be NC-17; this is a legitimate, professional adult film with major social issues explored)
Companies: Strand, Pyramide (DVD available 2016/11/15)
Link: official


Summertime” (originally “La belle saison” or “The Beautiful Season”, 2015), directed by Catherine Corsini, gives a pretty thorough exposition of family values in France in 1971.

Georges Pompidou is talking about family values on French television as Spanish professor Carol (Cecilel de France) consorts with other radical feminists.  They hear a story about a gay man put into a mental institution for electroshock treatments (this late) but still find the comparison of a pregnant woman to a “car” carrying an unwanted baby more offensive than what can happen to gay men.  Carol meets Delphine (Izia Higelin), a twenty-something from a family farm apparently in Provence (judging from the scenery). They fall in love.

Suddenly, however (at 40 minutes into a 105-minute film) Delphine gets a call from home, as her dad has had a stroke.  She goes home, finds Dad (Jean Henri Compere) comatose, but gradually coming of it.  Delphine has no practical choice, out of filial piety, but to stay and run the family farm, and sacrifice her newfound lesbian passion.  This is about family responsibility that happens for the childless, regardless of their choices.

But Carol goes down to the farm to be with Delphine and resume the relationship. Passions resume, despite the fact that each woman has wannabe male suitors.  Eventually, Mom (Neomie Lvovsky) find out, and the results are not pleasant.  Mom may regard lesbianism as a perversion, but what’s obvious is that she feels she has lost a future lineage.

There is some suspense at a sad scene in a rural train station.  There is an epilogue, six years later, where we learn Carol is even more deeply into feminism and abortion assistance. Is this film “anti-baby?”

This is a lavish-looking, very professionally shot “patently adult” film – again, there is a need for NC-17 material in film to present some issues.

A good comparison is “One True Thing” (1998, Universal) where a college professor goads his yuppie daughter into giving up her own life and returning home to take care of mom dying of cancer.

Wikipedia attribution link for Provence photo by Civodule, CCSA 3.0.

(Posted: Monday, Nov. 14, 2016 at 8:45 PM EST)