To Dust – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

It’s not every day that you can see a movie entirely about death without one drop of blood spilled. In fact, To Dust offers something else you’d never expect in a drama that examines a Hasidic Jew’s slow acceptance of his young wife’s death after intensely studying physical decomposition of dying bodies – humor, of the laugh-out-loud variety.

To Dust. Photo copyright 2018 Good Deed Entertainment.

We have screenwriters Shawn Snyder (who also directed the film) and Jason Begue to thank for that, as well as actor Matthew Broderick, who fully delivers the comedic goods as Albert, a burned-out community college biology professor. Albert and Shmuel (Geza Rohrig) are from two entirely different cultures and of two vastly dissimilar mindsets. The only thing they have in common is currently a lack of purpose.

Wife’s Death from Cancer

Shmuel is too distraught over his wife’s death from cancer to focus on his cantorial work at the local synagogue or to properly father his two young sons. After enduring horrible nightmares in which he sees parts of her body decaying, Shmuel becomes obsessed with learning how bodies actually decompose, as he’s convinced that her soul is suffering until her body returns to dust. That’s when he seeks help from a contentious coffin salesman and then Albert, whom Shmuel inaccurately presumes to be an expert on the subject.

Lonely and unhappy with his job, Albert at first dismisses Shmuel as a husband driven mad by grief, which, of course, he is. But there’s something about his quest for scientific knowledge that intrigues Albert as opposed to the bored, disinterested students he teaches five days a week. So they form a reluctant bond that begins with book research and progresses to absurd “clinical trials” and “field experiments” that become more gruesome (and illegal) each time.    

Humor Keeps Things Light

Although the dream sequences and experiments can be quite disturbing, the humor throughout the film keeps things from getting too heavy or depressing. Shmuel repeatedly calls Albert a scientist, and Albert frequently refers to Shmuel as a rabbi. Neither is correct, and it shows how little they understand the world of the other. In addition, Shmuel’s two sons are convinced their mother’s ghost has entered their father’s body and is directing his increasingly odd behavior. Their obsession about exorcizing the “dybbuk” (ghost) from their father parallels Shmuel’s single-mindedness about the decomposition of his wife’s body.    

The macabre theme of this film (and its focus on Hasidic Judaism) likely will prevent it from appealing to a mass audience, and something this dark almost needs to be accompanied by a Trigger Alert. Nonetheless this is a well-made film with a clever script and delightful acting that promises to be unlike anything you’ve seen before at the cinema.

To Dust

A Hasidic cantor mourns his young wife’s death by obsessing over the details of her body’s decay.

  • Stars: Geza Rohrig, Matthew Broderick, Sammy Voit, Leo Heller, Janet Sarno
  • Director: Shawn Snyder
  • Writers: Shawn Snyder and Jason Begue
  • Genre: Dramatic Comedy
  • Run Time: 92 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and some disturbing images)
  • Additional Information: The director, Shawn Snyder is from South Florida, and this film opens the 2019 Boca Raton Jewish Film Festival on March 10th with the filmmaker in attendance. To Dust screens in select theaters across Florida beginning March 15th.

Leslie C. Halpern is the author of Scantily Clad Truths: Essays on Life with Clothes (and without) and 200 Love Lessons from the Movies.

Whitney – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

This emotionally gripping documentary about the personal and professional life of the late Whitney Houston strives to present a balanced depiction of the six-time Grammy winner’s rise and fall from stardom.

Whitney Houston from the documentary Whitney. Photo copyright 2018 Roadside Attractions.

Comparisons to 2017’s Nick Broomfield and Rudi Dolezal documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me are inevitable. The newer film covers the same ground of Whitney’s ghetto beginnings, vocal training by her mother, singing with the church choir, meteoric rise to fame, marriage to Bobby Brown, and fall from grace – along with the family, friends, and lovers along the way.

Whispered Rumors

The new film, Whitney also brings up the long-whispered rumors of bisexuality, but drops a bombshell late in the film that was previously unknown to the general public: Whitney was the victim of childhood sexual abuse by a relative. Through compassionate storytelling and precise editing, we learn of Whitney’s self-described demons that have haunted her dreams since her youth when she was known as “Nippy,” instead of by her given name, Whitney.

It’s apparent from her self-destructive behavior during the final two decades of her life (she died at age 48 from drowning in a bathtub while under the influence of drugs and alcohol) that inner demons plagued her waking hours as well. Those closest to the singer, her mother (Cissy Houston), aunt (Mary Jones), ex-husband (Bobby Brown), her two brothers, her hairstylist, and others share their memories about her talent and troubles.

1980’s Zeitgeist

Combining archival footage, original interviews, backstage home movies, and rare performances, this documentary offers a variety of viewpoints that go beyond her obvious talent and beauty. The film also is a tribute to the early 1980’s zeitgeist with commercials, news reports, and pop culture influences depicting the years when Whitney made headlines for her accomplishments, such as a starring role in The Bodyguard, rather than her later drug use, fights with her husband, and failed attempts to reignite her career.

While friends, family, and fans can argue over whether her tragic downfall and death came from drug abuse, the pressures of fame, Bobby Brown’s influence, sexual identity conflicts, childhood sexual abuse, or a combination of these elements, nearly everyone can agree Whitney Houston had an extraordinarily beautiful voice and exceptional range that deservedly took her to the top of the charts. Whitney answers most questions about the singer’s life, but like every good documentary also raises new ones.


  • This documentary reveals never-before-seen footage of the late Whitney Houston, both on-stage and behind the scenes for a glamorous and gritty look at the singer’s life.
  • Stars: Whitney Houston (archive footage), Bobby Brown, Bobbi Kristina Brown (archive footage), Cissy Houston, Clive Davis, Gary Houston, Mary Jones, Robyn Crawford (archive footage)
  • Director: Kevin Macdonald
  • Genre: Documentary
  • Run Time: 120 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language and drug content)


The Shape of Water – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Describing Guillermo del Toro’s latest fantasy-horror-romance as Creature from the Black Lagoon meets Splash provides a good idea of the types of characters involved and where the story may be headed, but this genre-defying film contains too much beauty, poetry, and depth to be confined to an elevator pitch.

Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones (as the creature) in The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The other-worldly tale is set in Baltimore in 1962 where a top-secret government facility hides a large aquatic creature known as “The Asset” (Doug Jones) taken from the Amazon, where it was worshipped as a god. Here in the USA, however, it’s considered a monster and subject to verbal taunts and brutal assaults by its captor, Strickland (Michael Shannon), a sadistic misogynist who views the creature as an affront to God.

A Personal Vendetta

Strickland’s personal vendetta (renewed with vigor after the creature tears off two of his fingers in retaliation for one such assault) plays out on a semi-public stage when after condemning the aqua man to death, it mysteriously disappears from the facility. Strickland’s career – and very life – depend on finding the creature that he thinks may have been stolen by Russian spies or some competing Government team.

As Stickland nervously chomps on pain pills and nurses his gangrenous reattached fingers, the creature (who is definitely male) is now happily living in the bathtub of Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor employed at the facility who fell in love with him while cleaning the room in which he was imprisoned. Aided by her chatty co-worker (Octavia Spencer), lonely gay neighbor (Richard Jenkins), and a laboratory scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg), Elisa masterminded the escape for her interspecies love interest.

Two Silent Interspecies Outcasts

As creepy as it may sound, the onscreen romantic element between these two silent outcasts seems natural and inevitable. Watching beautiful blue lights streak across the creature’s body as he responds sexually to Elisa makes an elegant contrast to Strickland’s ugly animalistic efforts in bed. In fact, comparisons and contrasts abound in this film – part of what adds to its poetry. There are multiple depictions of how various people eat food, mend wounds, initiate romance, display anger, and use water. And, of course, there’s the question of what constitutes a god and a monster.

Although it’s primarily Elisa’s story of finally finding her “voice” and becoming complete, it’s also Strickland’s story of losing his control and acknowledging failure for the first time. Her growth and development make an interesting juxtaposition to his deterioration and regression. Beautiful cinematography (including an underwater dream sequence and retro-fantasy scene) combine with eccentric storytelling and masterful performances by Hawkins, Shannon, and Jenkins. It’s the kind of film you can watch over and over again, and see something new each time.

The Shape of Water. Photo copyright 2017 Fox Searchlight Pictures.

The Shape of Water

  • Set in the 1960s, a mute janitor working in a high-security laboratory forms a relationship with an aquatic creature being studied in a classified experiment.
  • Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones
  • Director: Guillermo del Toro
  • Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor
  • Genre: Romantic Fantasy
  • Run Time: 123 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence, and language)
  • Watch the trailer.


The Man Who Invented Christmas – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Based on the best-selling book of the same name by Les Standiford, The Man Who Invented Christmas looks at how Charles Dickens (Dan Stevens) changed the way people think about the holiday based on Ebenezer Scrooge’s personal transformation in A Christmas Carol.

Dan Stevens stars in The Man Who Invented Christmas. Photo copyright 2017 Bleeker Street.

Painters, filmmakers, singers, dancers, and other visual and performing artists are far easier to depict in the movies than writers. Putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard just isn’t that interesting to watch. The Man Who Invented Christmas circumvents this problem by depicting the dreams, memories, and imagination of Charles Dickens, in addition to his everyday circumstances. The past, present, and future combine with the real and imagined in a film that compares the creator and his creation.

A Master Storyteller

The movie begins in 1842, when Britain and the United States herald Dickens as a master storyteller for Oliver Twist. Just one year later, however, he’s had two unsuccessful new books, an expanding family, expensive house renovations, and a disinterested publisher. Desperate to reclaim his former glory and secure his finances, Dickens decides to write a Christmas book, even though the holiday is soon approaching.

Encouraged by his friend, Forster (Justin Edwards), who acts as a literary agent of sorts, he enlists the aid of an artist to illustrate the story of a misery man (Christopher Plummer in a terrific casting choice as Scrooge) visited by three ghosts in one night.

A Looming Deadline

The next few weeks are spent observing everything in his atmosphere for inspiration – from the local cemetery to his children’s bedroom – so he can lock the pieces of his puzzling story into place. Sure enough, he finds all the characters and plot points he needs in his everyday life – except for the ending. Struggling with a looming deadline, he finally looks inward for his answer and finds it.

Director Bharat Nalluri and screenwriter Susan Coyne turn what could have been a depressing examination of family dysfunction and hurtful legacies into an uplifting story of self-discovery with the perfect blend of humor and seriousness for the subject matter and the PG rating. From the compelling acting to the extraordinary set design, this inspiring movie adds another dimension to the classic Christmas story about cleansing one’s soul and embracing others.

The Man Who Invented Christmas

  • This fantastical family film (based on a true story) examines how Charles Dickens created A Christmas Carol while writing under extreme financial limitations and a ridiculously tight deadline.
  • Stars: Dan Stevens, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Pryce, Simon Callow, Miriam Margolyes, Morfydd Clark, Justin Edwards
  • Director: Bharat Nalluri
  • Writer: Susan Coyne
  • Genre: Biography Comedy/Drama
  • Run Time: 104 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: PG (for thematic elements and some mild language)
  • Additional Information: For another recently released film about a famous British author, read Goodbye Christopher Robin – Movie Review, the story of A. A. Milne’s creation of Winnie the Pooh and his friends.


Crown Heights – Movie Review

By Leslie C. Halpern

Through flashbacks, fantasy sequences, and two men’s interconnecting stories over a period of 21 years, this fact-based crime drama is elevated by exceptional performances. Adapted from an episode of the weekly public radio show This American Life on NPR, the story itself is all too common: a poor young black man is falsely accused of a crime, but lacks the money, knowledge, and connections to adequately fight the charges against him.

Lakeith Stanfield stars in Crown Heights. Photo copyright 2017 Amazon Studios/IFC Films.

The story begins in the spring of 1980 when a black teenager is shot dead on the street in Flatbush, Brooklyn. Although most of the people in the community (comprised of Haitian and Jamaican immigrants) know the details of the crime, none are forthcoming to the police. In an effort to solve the case quickly, the cops round up a teenaged criminal from the area and offer him a lighter sentence if he swears to be an eye witness to the murder. Under pressure, the kid picks the mugshot of Colin Warner (Lakeith Stanfield), an 18-year-old car thief from nearby Crown Heights.

Wrongly Convicted of Murder

Although Colin has no involvement with the crime, he’s arrested, charged, and eventually convicted of driving the getaway car in the drive-by shooting (which wasn’t actually a drive-by shooting at all). The true murderer also is convicted as a co-defendant, but receives a light sentence because he’s a minor. At 18, Colin is sentenced as an adult and gets a 15-year sentence. Angry, shocked, and defiant, he refuses to confess or express remorse for a crime he did not commit. Though his resentful attitude is understandable throughout his 21 years in prison (extra time added for bad behavior), it doesn’t serve him well, as officials continue to pressure him for admission of guilt and punish him for refusing to comply.

Outside of prison, Colin’s best friend, Carl (Nnamdi Asomugha), struggles over the years to help exonerate his friend. Unfortunately he’s in the same situation as Colin was before the conviction. He’s an immigrant, low on funds, uneducated, and (unlike Colin) has a wife (Marsha Stephanie Blake) who resents the time and money spent on a family friend, rather than on their growing family. Colin’s own long-time love interest (Natalie Paul) promises to wait for him no matter how long he’s away from her.

21 Years in Prison

There’s a lot going on here with the two men, and the 21-year stretch of time is difficult to cover. Captions on the screen identify how many years pass as Colin waits in prison. To help speed the story along, writer-director Matt Ruskin uses flashbacks to show viewers what Colin is thinking, dreaming, and feeling. Fantasy sequences also depict his desire to be free to love and live outside the confines of prison. These artful touches (including quick cuts, extreme close-ups, and shaky altered images) get the point across quickly without the need for non-essential dialogue and scenes depicting the passage of time.

The entire cast seems committed to the task. Stanfield presents a believable three-dimensional character worthy of our concern and compassion, despite his earlier life of crime and violence born of frustration and injustice. Asomugha carries his side of the story well, also. The actor beautifully portrays his character’s strong persistence in his quest of justice for his friend, even at great personal expense and risk. Although some unpleasant stereotypes appear in the film (lazy and dishonest policemen; sleazy white attorneys and parole board members), the main characters appear well-rounded, reflecting strengths and weaknesses evident in all humanity.

Crown Heights

  • Based on a true story from 1980, an innocent young man from Crown Heights is wrongfully convicted of murder.
  • Stars: Lakeith Stanfield, Nnamdi Asomugha, Natalie Paul, Bill Camp, Nestor Carbonell, Amari Cheatom, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Luke Forbes
  • Writer-Director: Mark Ruskin
  • Genre: Biography/Crime Drama
  • Run Time: 99 minutes
  • MPAA Rating: R (for language, some sexuality/nudity, and violence)