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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner – ‘The Wonders’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner – ‘The Wonders’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: Cannes Grand Jury Prize Winner – ‘The Wonders’ Review

The younger you are, the bigger your dreams. The realities of life haven’t shown themselves in full to you. You have ambition and drive. You know what it is you want, although you have no idea what kind of effort, work and luck needs to be put forth in order to achieve it. And when an authority figure dares to spit truths into your face, you lash out with defiance.

“The Wonders” is an Italian film about dreams. Not the kind of dreams where your teeth fall out, but dreams of achievement and dreams of escape. The heart of the film is a young girl named Gelosmina (Maria Alexandra Lungu). She’s about 14 years old. She lives with her family of famers in a tiny Italian village, making honey. She’s the oldest child and good enough within the family business that she’s her father’s number two (no, Gny. Sergeant Hartman, that doesn’t mean she ended up as a brown stain on the mattress), even granted the enviable task of wiping off the stingers from her father’s back after each encounter with the producers of their product. Although Gelsomina seems happy enough with her current situation, she pangs for more.

Her family is isolated to a degree to where they don’t particularly have neighbors. She doesn’t really have friends. She has a couple younger sisters.  When the family runs into a commercial being filmed for a local contest called “The Wonders,” where laborers get to talk about their product and perform a little show for cameras to get a small chance to leave their lives behind for a second, she is enraptured in the possibilities. The dad wants no part of entering the contest, as he doesn’t want visitors around. Ironically, he takes in a German foster child, Martin. His motives are not altruistic. They’re for having another working body to help with the business and for the additional money the government will pay for providing a home for the boy. Although winning “The Wonders” comes with a cash prize, Gelsomina’s father shuns the idea of receiving it by way of entertainment in the same way my dad would be furious whenever he’d hear the Jeopardy theme. Gelsomina can continue to dream about life’s little approved entertainments or take the big swing against her father’s wishes.

This plot sounds weird for a “Candyman” remake, doesn’t it?

The trope of the forbidden pursuit is a familiar one. Whether it a star-cross’d love or something the character is right to be forewarned about. What makes “The Wonders” unique is its miniscule scale. Gelsomina’s yearning is so meager, because her world is so small. The hashtag #firstworldproblems serves as a reminder of people like Gelsomina who have so little. A little brat is upset at not being given an XBOX One for Christmas; Gelsomina just wants one chance to have fun. As an audience member, it’s a small thing for which to be asked. This makes it all the more frustrating for it not to be granted.

The film reminds me of Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 “classic,” “The Bicycle Thief.” Their country of origin makes them easy bedfellows, as well as the accolades each film has received. “The Wonders” won the Grand Jury prize at Cannes. I already labeled De Sica’s film, though the quotation marks were meant to be facetious, but it’s not an opinion shared by many. Where the true similarities between the films lie is their frustration for the viewer. In “The Bicycle Thief,” the unemployed and desperate protagonist is given a job which requires the use of a bicycle. His bike is stolen almost immediately. He spends the rest of the film in pursuit of his bike for fear of losing this job his family depends on. It’s a film with a fatal question at the heart of it: why not just borrow a bike? This type of frustration runs the course of “The Wonders,” though it’s not a plot hole gnawing at you. It’s that the film’s ambitions may be even more limited than Gelsomina’s. A character having a limited scope is understandable, but Gelsomina is not behind the camera.

That job belongs to writer-director Alice Rohrwacher. Her vision for the film is as tiny as Gelsomina’s is for herself. There are certainly small pleasures to be found in the film. “Delightful” is a word that would describe it in parts. However, the film compares favorably to an unsalted cracker. If you’re starving, you’re happy you received anything to eat, but would it kill you to add a little flavor? Though not particularly a children’s movie, perhaps younger viewers would get more pleasure out of “The Wonders.” Again, they’re the big dreamers.

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AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Russian-Based ‘Leviathan’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Russian-Based ‘Leviathan’ Review

AFI Fest Movie Screenings: The Russian Based ‘Leviathan’ Review

Note: Piece continued from here. “Leviathan” is a 140-minute Russian drama about small and large players in a small Russian town. Kolya (Aleksey Serebryakov) is ostensibly doing the job of Job. He’s a mechanic being constantly hit up by a local policeman to help fix his car for free. The house he built himself has been lost to the local government, specifically to the corrupt local mayor, Vadim (Roman Madyanov), who once drunkenly stops by the property to boast after the court rules in his favor. Kolya’s  lawyer friend from Moscow, Dima (Vladimir Vdovichenkov), attempts to blackmail Vadim under the guise of helping Kolya, but really because he’s having an affair with Kolya’s wife, Lilya (Elena Lyadova) and they hope to come away with some cash in order to start a new life.

There are a few other characters, friends of Kolya and Lilya’s, Kolya’s son and more who play instrumental roles in the way the drama plays out and this causes the film to lose focus. Almost everyone named gets their chance to shine, but there aren’t enough stories to make any of the tangential characters interesting. The Coen Brothers already made the quintessential Job film with “A Simple Man,” but “Leviathan” would’ve been better off trying to make Kolya’s plight the star of the show. Instead, things feel overly long, disjointed and unsatisfying.

leviathan pic

“Well-made” is the “good use of the prop” kind of garbage constructive criticism I was vilified for giving in junior year Drama class, but the film did have an assuredness about it. Director Andrey Zvyagintsev made exactly the film he intended to make. This is exemplified in his multiple long takes of a judge reading rulings that pertain to Kolya’s case. These are several-minute unbroken shots with a long string of dialogue expounding upon the decision. This is not boring. He moves the camera closer and closer to the judge as her ruling makes is clearer and clearer there is no more wiggle room for Kolya and Dima to finagle. The decision she delivers is harsh, but final.

There is a scene around the middle of the film where Kolya’s family, Dima and their friends venture to a mountainside location to take out some of their aggressions by firing bullets into glassware. When the cop, Stepanych (Sergey Bachurskiy) takes out his AK-47 and lays waste to their log set-up with one quick burst, it’s because he has something more fun in mind to play the role of fragment receptacles. He digs into his vehicle to pull out portraits of prior Russian political figures. Even Russians are angry at their government. Welcome to the club.

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Joaquin Phoenix Pimp Walks His Way Through ‘The Immigrant': A Review

Joaquin Phoenix Pimp Walks His Way Through ‘The Immigrant': A Review

Joaquin Phoenix Pimp Walks His Way Through ‘The Immigrant': A Review

James Gray’s latest film The Immigrant, is yet another which stars the incredible talents of Joaquin Phoenix. It’s set in New York in the early 1900’s. A beautiful immigrant, Ewa (Marian Cotillard) and her sister flee Poland to the US, but fresh off the boat and due to strict rules, they face deportation. Phoenix plays Bruno Weiss, a man of potentially troubling motives, who offers Ewa a chance to stay in the US and make a living if she so pleases. Soon, Ewa is tossed into a role as burlesque star/whore for Weiss’ troupe of successful theatrical ladies. Weiss is essentially a pimp of his era.

Ewa trusts nobody, especially Weiss, and lives only to see her sister freed from the infirmary at the prison in which she is being held. She will do whatever it takes to survive, whether stealing, fighting or earning her keep in such a despicable manner to her soul. Ewa constantly wants to flee Weiss’ clutches, but his fancy for her and his ability to keep her fed and earning is tough to leave. A typical but powerful conundrum to be sure.

 

The Immigrant

The US can be a lonely place without a companion, as depicted in “The Immigrant.”

Eventually, a travelling magician, Emil (Jeremy Renner), who also happens to be Weiss’ cousin, falls for Ewa, creating a love triangle, the likes of which Gray is so famously good at bringing to the screen. The usual themes of jealousy, deceit and redemption are at play here. The film, aided by a sepia tone look, remains interesting, though paced a bit deliberately until a climax that also is right up Gray’s alley.

Joaquin Phoenix is perhaps the best actor working today. With the passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman, to me, Phoenix immediately ascends to the top of the heap, if nothing else, sharing the crown with a handful of other acting greats. Phoenix’s Weiss is tortured with an internal gnawing that reveals itself in a brilliant final scene of acting. Though the movie may not payoff in a manner satisfying to audiences, Phoenix makes Weiss as human as possible in a moment of significant catharsis. For that alone, I give The Immigrant a pass.

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Cate Blanchett Sparkles in Woody Allen’s 2013 Film ‘Blue Jasmine’: A Movie Review

Cate Blanchett Sparkles in Woody Allen’s 2013 Film ‘Blue Jasmine’: A Movie Review

Cate Blanchett Sparkles in Woody Allen’s 2013 Film ‘Blue Jasmine’: A Movie Review

There’s a thing I like to call “getting to a place” in acting. This primarily refers to an actor attempting to cry on film. Some are naturally far better at it than others. In Woody Allen’s latest film Blue Jasmine, Cate Blanchett reaches this crescendo over and over in a sterling performance. Too bad the rest of the film doesn’t quite do enough to keep up.

In Jasmine, Blanchett plays Jasmine French, perhaps not her real name, though this is never entirely explained. Jasmine is down on her luck, supposedly broke and forced to move to a menial location in San Francisco to live with her estranged and kind-hearted half sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Jasmine is coming off of a tumultuous “break up” where her ultra rich, bastard of a husband (Alec Baldwin) deceived countless people in money laundering schemes, including Ginger and her then husband, Augie (Andrew Dice Clay). The movie focuses on Jasmine’s present while flashing back to her past to show how she got here.

blue jasmine blanchett

A picture of isolation and despair, Jasmine (Blanchett) deals with her comeuppance.

Jasmine is saddled with drinking and drug problems, tumbling from high society to trying to find real work and put her life back together. Along the way she encounters good people and bad, while she always has an opinion of others shaped by her past. While Ginger works as a grocery bagger and sees a regular Joe greasy monkey, Jasmine desires to return to her past, seeking a man of substance and success. Once this finally happens, we wonder whether she has the fortitude to keep the relationship together and Allen’s film answers that question in pinpoint fashion.

Blanchett gives the performance of a lifetime in Jasmine, constantly under self torture and duress. She carries nearly every scene of the film, so while her character struggles to change, her acting echoes the same traits admirably. She was rightfully at least acknowledged for her work come awards season. The film however is a little too one note, if more the fault of the story than anything else. Everyone involved brings their A-game, but the story doesn’t reach the heights that Allen can sometimes touch and that ultimately keeps the film from being must-see entertainment. While Jasmine “gets to a place,” your emotions watching the film will be far more subdued.

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Michael Bay’s Mark Wahlberg-Led ‘Pain & Gain’ (2013) Movie Review

Michael Bay’s Mark Wahlberg-Led ‘Pain & Gain’ (2013) Movie Review

Michael Bay’s Mark Wahlberg-Led ‘Pain & Gain’ (2013) Movie Review

What happens when a couple of dumb bodybuilders decide to kidnap a rich man and take all his money? That question is answered in the Michael Bay action-comedy Pain & Gain. P&G features events based on a true story, in which Mark Wahlberg’s gym-running Daniel Lugo recruits some friends to pull off a get-rich-quick heist. The heist in this case is a big money scheme involving one of Lugo’s jerk-off fitness clients Victor Kershaw (a detestable Tony Shalhoub). Lugo, inspired by a telemarketing genius, gathers his boys to push further and further down the rabbit hole until pulling off the scam is seen as the only viable option for a better life. They’ll commandeer Kershaw, get him to sign away his life and live happily ever after.

If there was ever a hard to believe story, this is it; not so much in the kidnapping, but the truly bungling abductors. Lugo’s keystone roid-heads include Paul – the brilliant Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson – and Anthony Mackie’s Adrian. The born-again Paul, yoked and fresh out of prison, fights his coke addiction and desire for a more faithful life, all the while toeing the fine line between good and bad. His manic and funny performance is the highlight in this caper. Mackie and Wahlberg also hold their own, each providing yeoman’s work, as well as the gorgeous semi-newcomer Bar Paly, as stripper/temptress Sorina. From the moment these grunts decide to kidnap Kershaw, nothing could go less smooth.

bar paly pain and gain

A little taste of the powder leads to later problems in ‘Pain & Gain.’

What is supposed to be an easy day job, turns into weeks of failed capture, then torture, then bungled murder attempts. When they finally go through with the plan and execute it, Kershaw miraculously (you have to see it to believe it) survives and thus, there goes the group’s chance for a simple escape. Eventually, the law (in the form of Ed Harris) and raised stakes/blown cash catch up to them. They want to pull another bigger caper but things couldn’t go any worse when they try miserably to follow up on their plan.

It’s remarkable that this story exists, embellished as it may be. Here, Michael Bay shows few “Bay-like” traits, instead letting the story speak for itself. Unfortunately, what is supposed to be funny often misses the mark (the dreadful and one note Rebel Wilson features here) and the action portions of the film lack drama or intensity, though you do remain entertained by the hi-jinx of the trio. Pain & Gain couldn’t be a more literal title, and the film is shocking in it’s small, indy feel from the biggest and brashest of visual directors. It’s not a great film, and maybe not even a good one, but it’s enough to stay tuned for two hours and sometimes that is enough.

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Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Directorial Debut ‘Don Jon’ (2013) Movie Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Directorial Debut ‘Don Jon’ (2013) Movie Review

Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Directorial Debut ‘Don Jon’ (2013) Movie Review

Don Jon is director Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s love letter to proper lovemaking. This is perhaps slightly odd given his personal life but nevertheless, the results here are mixed. The film focuses on JGL’s Jon, a New Jersey based “Don Juan” of sorts who always hooks up quality tail at the clubs. Getting girls and having plenty of sex is not Jon’s problem, his issue is his addiction to porn. Jon frequently visits Internet porn sites to get his fix, even post-coitus. This is where his actions really catch up to him, as he is caught watching porn by the woman he thinks he has fallen in love with. Barbara (not Bush), who is played by the fetching Scarlett Johansson, is of Catholic values (in some ways, as is Jon, who frequents confession weekly) and watching porn is a no-no. Hence, in order to be with Barbara, Jon needs to kick his habit.

don jon pics

Sans ink, Don Jon nails the Jersey-boy look and ethos as far as I can tell.

The film has Barbara pulling strings on Jon, or Jon willfully changing, depending on your perspective. Jon ditches his trim-chasing friends for Barbara, he goes back to school, and finds himself telling her he loves him. Some of this happens long before they have actually had sex. The film frustrates like this, as it feels more an exercise for teens that for two would be experienced mid-twenties adults possibly on the verge of marriage and family. You can understand Jon being pussy-whipped on Barb, as ScarJo has likely never looked better on film, but probably not to the degree that he is, given his supposed streak bedding “8’s or better” whenever he goes out.

There are a few fun scenes, including one surprisingly sexy flirtation at a doorway that guys can probably relate to (not that I’d know). A solid cast, including Tony Danza as Jon’s Dad, and some realistic grappling and issues are at play here, but ultimately the film lacks true punch. It’s message, which is to say that making love is more important than trying to “fuck” like a porn star, is fine but the execution is a little muddled. When Jon meets an older woman (Julienne Moore) who imparts said wisdom to him, it doesn’t quite hit the right notes. There are also some missteps in dialogue and story, though for the most part, JGL gives a solid first go sitting in the directorial chair. The acting talent is there all around and the sentiments are admirable, but the end result is like a premature ejaculation (from what I’ve been told). Yeah, you got what you needed but it wasn’t in the best way possible.

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Movie Review: Hip-Hop Documentary ‘Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’ (2012)

Movie Review: Hip-Hop Documentary ‘Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’ (2012)

Movie Review: Hip-Hop Documentary ‘Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’ (2012)

In the documentary, The Art of Rap, long time, legendary gangster(a) rapper Ice-T attempts to do what might be impossible, dive into the understanding of rappers and their art form. Most notably, T tries to get MCs to explain how they approach the craft of writing their raps. This, in many ways, seems like an effort in futility and that is borne out in the documentary itself.

T, a legend in his own right, who has been around since the very early 80’s, is not known for his rapping to many in the modern day. He is known as an actor. Interestingly, he was never really known much for wordplay and artistry in his raps, but more so for causing controversy and pushing boundaries. This makes him a questionable man to take on this task on the surface. But alas, the man, in his mid-50s these days, has a track record in the industry and obvious clout and contacts that few others could parallel. So as T begins his journey to discovery on the East Coast, most notably skipping throughout various NY boroughs, his ability to reach influential people comes into play.

Ice-T spits fire off the top of the dome (perhaps).

T talks to originators in the game, from Grandmaster Caz and Melle Mel, to more well-known artists to many, like Q-Tip of A Tribe Called Quest. The various interviews take place in people’s homes, studios, on the street, wherever T can grab a minute of their time. In the end though, that’s all this usually amounts to, a minute or so of somebody answering a question and then diving into a (often well written) freestyle rap. True information and insight is at a premium, but braggadocio and the N word is not. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy a lot of this, just because it is always good to take a trip down memory lane for someone who has knowledge of the game stretching back to T’s (that’s not bragging, but fact BTW). Still, there wasn’t much “insight” into creation of the art form and rap writing itself. Yes, we “witness” Caz penning a rap and it’s about as thrilling as it sounds. I do that shit on my own time, with my own mind, drop dimes while hitting dimes with sick lines. (Copyright 2014, this author.) See, its really not all that fun.

When T takes it to Detroit for his sole stop outside of LA or NY and meets up with Eminem and cohort Royce, there was actual slight insight into answering the question of how writing takes place and the creative process, but really still nothing that will blow you away and feel like info was revealed and now you too can become an MC or at least have a greater understanding of what it takes to do it. It’s mostly gladhanding, vague answers and the ever-present freestyle from almost every MC interviewed. These are fun, but not much into delivering on the promise of the premise. For real hip-hop fans there is value here with some amusing lines dropped and surprise appearances in some unexpected places. For instance, a few NY MCs are interviewed in LA and its funny that almost all NY MCs rock a Yankee fitted and LA heads rep similarly for their coast. But for the casual filmgoer or doc seeker, you probably won’t get much out of it. I prop T up for going into the project full bore and getting numerous names to speak up on the topic (relatively speaking) but in the end it doesn’t add up to much. That’s real game, bitches.

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50 Cent Vehicle ‘How To Make Money Selling Drugs’ Review (2013)

50 Cent Vehicle ‘How To Make Money Selling Drugs’ Review (2013)

Movie Review: How To Make Money Selling Drugs (2013)

Who doesn’t want to learn how to make money? Who doesn’t want to learn how to sell drugs? Why not combine the two? How To Make Money Selling Drugs is a documentary that purports to be able to do just that. What results is a film that is high on promise and middling on execution. Drugs features Hollywood stars like Susan Sarandon, 50 Cent and “The Wire” creator David Simon waxing on drugs and the politics behind them. The film centers around a structure of how you or I can sell drugs to make money from beginning as a small timer to becoming a mogul/czar who’s worth millions, if not billions. I’m in!

There is a multi-step methodology (something like 8 steps) which serve as chapters in the doc, essentially. The film begins with someone who started out as a kid in his teens looking up to guys who took and sold drugs, getting involved as a runner. Then the runner gets his own stash, then the man with the stash gets a corner and learns how to dodge/deal with the cops, eventually becoming a local star dealer then going overseas and importing and finally becoming above the law, or something along those lines. Various personalities, read: dealers and the like, talk about their experiences in the process at different levels. For instance, a Compton gang member is a focus on an earlier level, whereas a Mexican cartel-type dude is at the final level.

Detroit drugs

A Detroit dealer weighs some dope for quick sale. Easy ca$h.

Some of this is comical and ridiculous, while other parts are certainly eye-opening, if not entirely entertaining. Then there is Susan Sarandon, speaking on her experiences with drugs and how some should be legal. A cop turned activist features prominently on how to game the system and catch corrupt cops. Then David Simon waxes on how government and lawmakers are abusing the system for political gain costing the country billions of dollars. Some of this is maddening and scary, quite frankly, while other parts amusing or glossed over.

The film tries to do too much and goes too many places, eventually finishing with Eminem talking about his drug addiction, which while semi-interesting to me as a fan, has little to do with the promise of the premise so to speak. In the end, there is considerable food for thought, but if this was broken down into a 4-part mini-series (for example) by a more talented filmmaker, there would be more meat to chew on ultimately. It is an eye-catching title and you may want to buy in, but in practice a little too thin in the meat and potatoes areas that are described. It’s worth seeing but asks far more questions than it answers. I guess I won’t be slanging crack rock soon, however tempting it may be.

 

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