Movie Review ~ Monuments

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A young widower sidesteps grief, loss, and familial dysfunction when he steals his wife’s ashes and sets off on an impulsive odyssey through America’s heartland to find something he’d lost long before her death.

Stars: David Sullivan, Marguerite Moreau, Javier Muñoz, Paulina Olszynski, Shunori Ramanathan, Kathy Scambiatterra

Director: Jack C. Newell

Rated: NR

Running Length: 94 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  It’s too late to keep you from knowing what Monuments is about and that’s too bad considering what happens in the first ten minutes of the film. If there’s a movie that would benefit from you just walking in blind, this would be it. Why’s that, you ask? I think that would make an already special movie that much more of a treat because for once there’s something interesting going on in the script from director Jack C. Newell, based on a story by Rebecca Fons.  Like Ride the Eagle last week, there’s an element of unpredictability to Monuments that keeps you focused and engaged throughout, leaving you more than willing to go along with whatever wildness is thrown at you for 90-ish minutes.  And it’s wild.  And it has heart.  And it’s funny on top of it all.

So…I’m title dropping like mad already here but in my review of Joe Bell two weeks back I mentioned that I’m often on the fence about the “deceased loved one” character showing up in movies because it can often be an easy way out of a narrative dead end.  In Joe Bell, much of that true story centered on a main character who was on a solo walk, so the screenwriters used the man’s dead son as a conversation starter and a way to go back in time to reveal plot points.  With Monuments, we never know quite how long Laura Daniels (Marguerite Moreau) has been appearing to her grieving husband Ted (David Sullivan, Argo) but she’s absolutely integral to the developing plot and central to the action unfolding.

In the modest Colorado town where they both were college professors; Ted is having trouble coming to terms with the death of his wife.  Recently reconciled, her tragic death left Ted with some wounds unresolved and so he carries around Laura’s ashes everywhere he goes, unable to let her fully go.  This doesn’t sit well with her kooky relatives who want to spread her ashes with their other kin on family land…if only stubborn Ted would relinquish the urn.  Finally, they resort to enlisting Howl (Javier Muñoz), the man that had loved Laura but could never have her, to steal the ashes from Ted who now plans to spread them in a museum in Chicago.  No sooner does Howl get the ashes before Ted steals them back and goes on the lam toward Chicago, with Laura’s relatives, Howl, and a number of other eccentrics in hot pursuit.

Movies like Monuments are all about tone and if the dial had been turned just a few more inches to the right on the wacky meter, the film would have gone glib with its comedy and then it would have been an outright disaster.  Instead, there’s enough pause for reflection and sweet moments between Ted and the ghost of Laura to reflect back on their good times as well as their struggle to paint a picture of the life and love that was lost.  Amidst all the crazy shenanigans that go on, such as Ted evading Howl by hitching a ride with a trio of harmonizing hippies, there’s a warmth that grows on an even keel throughout.  Strong performances from Sullivan and Moreau help make those genuine moments felt all the more deeply and Muñoz takes what could be your standard rejected lover role and gives it a nice adjustment so that you don’t want him to win but you don’t want to see him humiliated either.

Even a smaller budget can’t sink this one and there’s an abundance of “going the extra mile” effort on display in Monuments.  The eclectic score from Nick Takénobu Ogawa was perfectly in line with the mood of the piece, the cinematography by Stephanie Dufford was lovely, and while the supporting cast can get a little widespread at times, they’re all clearly defined by a talented cast.  I wouldn’t go so far to say Monuments is a hidden gem waiting to get uncovered but it’s one of those worthwhile watches you’ll take a chance on and be glad you devoted time to. 

2021 Bentonville Film Festival – Preview

This year has afforded me an excellent opportunity to “attend” a number of film festivals without ever leaving my hometown and how fun to get a chance to participate in a forward-thinking one such as the Bentonville Film Festival, now in its 7th year. Chaired by Oscar-winner Geena Davis and held in Bentonville, Arkansas and other areas of the Northwest part of the state, the week-long event aims to champion the underrepresented voices in media and they’ve routinely been heralded for making good on their commitment. One of the Top 10 film festivals reaching over 85,000 attendees each year, content includes Movies, TV, Digital Content, Books, Music, Games and Technology.

Check out the Bentonville Film Festival website for more info!

Stay tuned for reviews from the creative line-up of movies in the narrative and documentary categories — the programmers have curated an eclectic mix and I’m having trouble narrowing the field down to fit everything in with my limited schedule! Below, is a look at several of the movies I have my eye on…and you should too!

Narrative Features

Appearing as one of Bentonville’s first Spotlight films, COAST comes with the good buzz out of its initial run at the 36th Santa Barbara International Film Festival back in April. Centered on a group of girls from different cultural backgrounds within the same community growing up in a California coastal town and infused with an authentic edge courtesy of a rock score and fresh performances, it’s easy to see why this would rise to the top of the list to secure a place in a spotlight. Iman Zawahry’s AMERICANISH takes places in Jackson Heights, New York and and is billed as a “reimagination of and critical divergence from the classical romantic comedy.” Um, sold. I recently re-watched the criminally (at the time) underappreciated The Joy Luck Club from 1993 and count Lisa Lu’s performance as a standout among a cast of peerless talents so her casting as an “irascible” matriarch out for a wild road trip to help restore some broken bridges in THE DISAPPEARENCE OF MRS. WU (directed by Anna Chi) sounds like a can’t miss occasion. From Lissette Feliciano comes the period-set WOMEN IS LOSERS and what drew me to this one is not the Janis Joplin song reference of the title but the summary which sets-up an interesting view of women’s rise to power in the ’60s and the revolution that followed. Finally, Ben Lewin’s FALLING FOR FIGARO simply looks like a good time and I’m just waiting for that one role for star Danielle Macdonald that really puts her on the map. She’s so good in everything she does, but it winds up being in films that might sputter out too early (French Exit).

I’d also be a complete failure to not point you toward CATCH THE FAIR ONE and THE NOVICE, two films I saw earlier this summer at the Tribeca Film Festival that feature incredible performances by their lead actors. CATCH THE FAIR ONE is an excellent little revenge thriller with the dynamite Kali Reis as a former boxer plunged into a series of dangerous situations while looking for her missing sister. Reis, a boxer in real life, wrote the script along with the director and gives the kind of powerhouse debut you only rarely get in film. In THE NOVICE, star Isabelle Fuhrman won the Best Actress award at Tribeca and with good reason. As a college athlete that becomes obsessed with success on her college rowing team, this is unforgettable work and here’s hoping Furhrman and the film stay on the radar through the end of the year. For lighter fare, 7 DAYS is a cute little romantic comedy about two strangers set up by their Indian matchmaking parents that wind up being forced to shelter-in-place during the pandemic. It bounces along on the charm of its stars…for a while, but it doesn’t quite make it to seven days in my book. I’d say five days, max.

Documentary Features

There’s one doc in this bunch that I’ve already seen at the AFI DOCS Festival, TRY HARDER!, and if you aren’t too stressed watching a bunch of college hopefuls be put through the ringer as they do nothing but angle their way into the best college, then this well-done doc is for you.

There are three other documentaries I’m going to try to fit in and I tried to pick a range of emotions in my selections so I didn’t go too light or too dark in tone. I think A FIRE WITHIN from Christopher Chambers sounds like a devastating watch, so I’m either going to focus on that one first or save it until near the end and follow it up with the more lighthearted WORKHOUSE QUEEN from Angela Washko. The Chambers doc tells the story of three Ethopian immigrants that came to the U.S. after fleeing torture in their own country, only to find the individual responsible for their terror working in the same hotel they do. Heavy stuff that shouldn’t be forgotten and that’s not to say Washko’s feature on drag queen Mrs. Kasha Davis is meant to clear the mind…it just could balance things out a bit. I’ve already seen one documentary (BEING BEBE) on a former RuPaul’s Drag Race contestant so it will be interesting to compare the two. Finally, Ida Joglar’s KILI BIG feels like it could be a strong bit of inspiration to close out the fest for me, watching the Curvy Kili Crew (20 plus-sized women) train for and then climb a titanic mountain in Africa.