Cocote


It’s hard to be a fly on the wall when there is no wall.

(2017) Drama (Grasshopper) Vicente Santos, Yuberbi de la Rosa, José Miguel Fernández, Kalyane Linares, Enerolia Nuñez, Pepe Sierra, Isabel Spencer, Ricardo Ariel Toribio, Judith Rodriguez Perez. Directed by Nelson Carlo de Los Santos Arias

Changing locations can sometimes change a person. Their outlook on the world may evolve and eventually become unrecognizable from the person who left their original home. That person, though, remains inside whether we want them to be there or not.

Alberto (Santos) is a gardener in a Santo Domingo upper class home. He receives word of the death of his father in the village Alberto grew up in. It was not a natural death; he was murdered by a local bigwig over an outstanding debt. Alberto grew up in the Los Mysterios faith, a mixture of Christianity and West African beliefs but has since converted to evangelical Christianity.

He goes back to his village to mourn the loss of his father only to find he has already been buried. His family makes the reluctant Alberto take part in the funerary ritual of the faith which involves music, and a kind of ecstatic grief. There’s a lot of screaming, singing and sobbing and the occasional animal sacrifice.

It soon becomes apparent that it is expected that Alberto will take revenge on the murderer of his father but that is not who Alberto is anymore. It causes a great deal of friction particularly with his outspoken sister (de la Rosa). Alberto is caught in a struggle between who he was, who he is and who he is to become.

This isn’t a movie that follows normal storytelling tropes. There are often changes between film stock, moving from color to black and white, widescreen to almost a Super 8 type of perspective, grainy to crystal clear. Interspersed are grainy video snippets that are something of a cinematic nonsequitir, like a local news report of a chicken that apparently crows “Christ is coming.” I think that de Los Santos Arias is utilizing a new kind of cinematic language but for most filmgoers this is going to look like a patchwork film.

Santos has a passive, scowling face. He doesn’t get violent (until late in the movie), preferring just to endure whatever life serves up to him. The dichotomy of past and present are at war within him but there is no clear winner; it is something like the ongoing wars in the Middle East where there are no winners – only survivors.

The imagery captures the beauty of the Dominican Republic as well as the poverty in her rural villages. There is lots of the Los Mysterios culture on display here but the scenes of the rituals go on interminably, one after the other until far from illuminating they become annoying. The arguments between Alberto and his sisters become more strident and eventually, one loses interest on any sort of resolution. It’s just people shrieking at each other.

I can’t say I liked this film, although I admire de Los Santos Arias’ ambitions. He has no interest in making just another movie and to be sure, that’s not what he made. This is going to appeal only to a very specialized audience, equivalent to music fans who like bands like Animal Collective and Pere Ubu. They seek to transcend the ordinary and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’m just not convinced that this movie transcends anything.

Tickets for the Miami Film Festival can be ordered online here but hurry; the Festival ends on Sunday.

REASONS TO GO: There are some nice images here.
REASONS TO STAY: The ritual scenes are fascinating at first but then they go on and on and on and on. There’s too much shrieking, screaming and pretensions.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some adult themes.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Arias based the story on an incident that occurred when he was a child visiting his aunt and meeting her gardener.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/15/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: White Sun
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Keep the Change

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Sunset Park (2017)


You’ve got to be tough to make it in Sunset Park.

(2017) Sports Drama (108 Media) Michael Trevino, Robert Miano, Sam Douglas, Jamie Choi, Vladimir Versailles, John Bianco, Nolan Lyons, Matt Wood, Michael T. Weiss, Eric Arriola, Amyrh Harris, Christopher M. Elassad, Robert Morgan, Khalil Maasi, Rocco Rozzotti, Ras Enoch McCurdie, Kaitlin Mesh, Silvia Spross, Stephanie Thiel, Alanna Blair. Directed by Jason Sarrey

 

Life is hard enough; in some places, it’s even harder. In Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, there are more than the usual obstacles.

Duane (Weiss) is a degenerate gambler and an alcoholic who has been battered by life and is not strong enough to take ownership of his own mistakes. His wife died young leaving him with a son (Lyons) he barely knows. He lives with his dad, Gramps Joe (Miano) who was once a Golden Gloves champion. When Duane gets in deep (to the tune of six figures) to the mob, he does what you’d expect someone like him to do – he cuts and runs leaving Joe to raise his kid and the mobster, Sledge (Douglas) is only too happy to transfer the debt to Joe. After all, why chase someone when you can get the money right at home?

Gino (Trevino), the son, grows up to be a talented fighter in his own right. Gramps sends him to be trained by local legend Caelin Roche (Morgan) but times are tough. Rents are going up, Gramps had to go back to work to meet the payment schedule that Sledge set him with to pay Duane’s debt and the economic downturn has caused Gramps’ hours to be slashed. Gino’s good friend Rajon (Versailles) figures Gino can make bank in the underground boxing scene. In the meantime, Sledge has taken notice of Gino’s talents and means to own his career – which would on the plus side wipe out the crippling debt for Duane’s marker but of course would potentially warp Gino’s soul after all the effort Gramps put in to raise Gino to be a good man.

By this time Gino has struck up a romance with Jessica (Choi) but Sledge and his goon Carlo (Bianco) are not willing to take no for an answer – so when Gramps refuses to give them Gino’s career, they set out to make Gino an offer he can’t refuse. Gino will be forced to fight for those he loves in a battle he can’t afford to lose but will he be able to do what it takes to win a life or death fight?

If you’ve seen most boxing movies involving a promising fighter who the mob wants to own and corrupt, then you’ve seen this movie. It doesn’t really add anything new to the mix. Trevino, best known for The Vampire Diaries, does a fair to middling job in the lead but I’m not sure he’s ready for big screen leads just yet.

The boxing sequences quite frankly are atrocious. The actors plainly look like they don’t know what to do and the punches look fake. The dialogue sounds a little clunky as well although the actors try gamely to make it sound natural.

Really, the main failing of the movie here is that there is a lack of energy. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actors, the director, the editor or the writer – most likely it’s a combination of all of the above. Still, there’s nothing really for the viewer to hang their hat on and get involved in the story. There are plenty of movies that have taken this story and made it compelling; Sunset Park fails to do that.

REASONS TO GO: The tone is properly gritty for the material.
REASONS TO STAY: The boxing sequences are unconvincing. The film could use an infusion of energy.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence, a bit of profanity and a scene of sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sunset Park is the first full-length feature film for Sarrey.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/17: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fighter
FINAL RATING: 4/10
NEXT:
Brigsby Bear

Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie


Tim and Eric's Awesome Movie...Great Job (not!)

Tim and Eric’s Awesome Movie…Great Job (not!)

(2012) Comedy (Magnet) Tim Heidecker, Eric Wareheim, Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, John C. Reilly, Robert Loggia, Jeff Goldblum, Will Forte, William Atherton, Erica Durance, Michael Gross, Ray Wise, Matt O’Toole, Todd Wagner, Twink Caplan, Mobin Khan, Jon Baggio, John Downey Jr., Bob Odenkirk, Bill A. Jones, Ronnie Rodriguez, Nancy Stelle. Directed by Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim

Humor is a very personal thing. What makes you laugh may not even get a chuckle out of me and vice versa. That’s what makes comedies hard to write film reviews for and even harder to make movies of. Doing a comedy right is a lot more difficult than doing a drama right. It just is.

Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim are best known for having an Adult Swim sketch show a few years back called Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! It had (or looked to have) a budget that made your most recent YouTube submission look like Avatar. However, the sense of humor possessed by Tim and Eric couldn’t remotely be called conventional. I decided to watch a couple of episodes of the show before tackling the movie and had to stop. I didn’t want to taint my potential appreciation of the movie as I found the show to not be my cup of tea. Hopefully the movie would be better.

Tim and Eric have taken a billion dollars from Tommy Schlaaang (Loggia), the chairman and froth-at-the-mouth face of Schlaaang Industries which is itself kind of a Murder, Incorporated kind of business, to make a movie. God knows why these guys would have gotten anybody to give ’em a hundred dollars let alone a billion but y’know. Anyway, the movie which was supposed to star Johnny Depp instead stars a Johnny Depp impersonator (Rodriguez) and is only three minutes long.

So where did the money go? Mostly on things like a suit made of diamonds for the Depp impersonator, helicopter transportation to and from the set for the directors and drugs. Tim and Eric know they have to pay back the billion but how is that even possible? So they go on the lam and an opportunity drops itself in their laps – eccentric billionaire Damien Weebs (Ferrell) will pay them a billion dollars if they can get the dilapidated S’Wallow Valley Mall back on track.

This won’t be an easy task. The food court is staffed by a man-eating wolf, the stores in the mall are the sort that won’t attract any business (used toilet paper?) and the only people who ever go there are the homeless and the crazy, like Taquito (Reilly), the nearly-always runny nosed consumptive whose temperament is roughly the same as an angry hornet. There’s also Allen Bishopman (Forte) whose sword store is not benefiting from the reign of Tim and Eric and he wants vengeance.

Now on paper it sounds like it could have potential and that’s essentially what kept me going. I kept waiting for something to make me laugh but there really wasn’t anything. Opportunities are squandered and they have a habit of driving jokes into the ground much like stubbing out a cigarette with a stiletto heel until all that’s left is a lipstick smudge.

I’m going to hazard a guess that most of this duo’s audience is in their early to mid 20s and are mostly male. Although I fulfill the latter part of the equation, I’ve left my mid 20s behind in my dust. There’s a very cultish feel to this stuff and if you like their show, that’s all good. It’s just that if you don’t like their show this isn’t going to hold any appeal to you whatsoever.

There are a ton of celebrity cameos of varying degrees of amazing but for the most part this is a movie you endure more than enjoy. It just wasn’t for me and I’m guessing it isn’t for a lot of you either. I will give it points for being quirky and having the balls to try and go outside the box but sometimes when you go outside the box you get eaten by a man-eating wolf.

WHY RENT THIS: If you liked their Adult Swim show, you’ll love this. Fine premise.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls flat. Not really for anyone except for their own cult following.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of crude and sexual humor, graphic nudity (briefly), drug use, some comic violence and lots of foul language..

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Rodriguez, who plays the Johnny Depp impersonator, is actually Depp’s photography double.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: On the Blu-Ray you’ll find a screensaver and a parody EPK-type feature called Good Evening S’Wallow Valley.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $201,436 on a $3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kentucky Fried Movie

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: RoboCop (2014)

Redemption Road


Morgan Simpson is just realizing that Michael Clarke Duncan switched hats with him when he wasn't looking.

Morgan Simpson is just realizing that Michael Clarke Duncan switched hats with him when he wasn’t looking.

(2010) Drama (Freestyle Releasing) Morgan Simpson, Michael Clarke Duncan, Luke Perry, Kiele Sanchez, Taryn Manning, Tom Skerritt, Melvin van Peebles, Linds Edwards, Catherine McGoohan, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Brooke Byam, Heather Simpson, Charlie Poe, James Cook, Lee Perkins, Wendy Keeling, Cinda McCain, Denise Johnson, Elizabeth Ayers. Directed by Mario van Peebles

 

Singing the blues has few requirements, but they are important. For one, you must have an expressive voice. It doesn’t need to be pretty, but it needs to convey pain and heartache. In fact, sometimes the roughest most un-lovely of voices are best-suited to singing the blues. Secondly, you must be authentic – true believers can spot a phony a mile off. Finally, you must have lived your blues to at least some extent.

In the case of Jefferson Bailey (Simpson) he’s lived those blues to the fullest. A blues singer with stage fright, he is a raging alcoholic deeply in debt living hand to mouth in Austin, Texas. One night a mysterious stranger named Augy (Duncan) shows up with news – his grandfather has passed away and has left him an inheritance. Rather than stick around and wait for an angry loan shark to take payment out of his hide, Jefferson elects to blow town and head to Huntsville, Alabama to collect. As it so happens Augy is headed his way.

The two form a kind of a bond on the way to Huntsville. This is no trip down the Interstate; this is a ride through the back roads of the Deep South. Once they arrive, Jefferson will discover that there is more than meets the eye to his friend Augy and that some things happen for a reason. There is also a cuckolded husband hot on his trail and even though the road to redemption stretches out before him, he must first confront his past in order to make his way down that road.

This is one of those movies that sounds a lot deeper than it actually is. Lots of the characters spend time pontificating on the nature of the blues and how it relates to life. The truth about the blues is this – nobody really knows what it is exactly but they know it when they hear it. Trying to put a handle on the blues is like trying to create an absolute definition of love – it changes from person to person.

The late Michael Clarke Duncan also co-produced this and this is one of his better performances since his Oscar-nominated turn in The Green Mile. There is an air of mystery about him but as the movie progresses we get to see a more human side of Augy. Duncan gives the character the distinct gravitas of his trademark baritone but also the humanity he brought to roles like John Coffey. Those fans of the actor who haven’t seen the film should by all means seek it out; it is a reminder of just what a tremendous actor he was and what a great loss his passing was.

On the flipside, Simpson – who co-wrote the script – seems to be a little bit out of his depth. Much of the movie hangs on his….well, redemption and we don’t get a sense of the journey the man is taking. Sure he has made some incredibly bad choices but we don’t get a sense of who Jefferson is, what prompted him to make those choices and to a great extent that cripples the movie overall.

Those who love the blues will be in for a treat as there are several noted blues artists on the soundtrack including the criminally ignored Blind Willie Dixon. One gets a sense of the roadhouses and juke joints, the summer night sweat with a cold beer and the blues being played well. There may be no more quintessentially American experience than that.

Cinematographer Matthew Irving and director Van Peebles both seem to have a deep abiding affection for the South because it is photographed so beautifully here. There are some beautiful Southern sunsets, small towns and rural fields juxtaposed with neon beer signs and a battered pick-up truck making its way up the highway.

This is a movie meant to appeal to both the heart and the mind. While it has its moments, it just doesn’t quite pull it all together as a whole. While the performances of Sanchez, Skerritt and especially Duncan merit a look, that’s about all I can recommend about it.

WHY RENT THIS: Great soundtrack and cinematography. Duncan, Sanchez and Skerritt excel.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overly sentimental. Too many homilies. Simpson lacks the charisma for a role as central as his.

FAMILY VALUES: Definite adult themes along with some violence, some sexuality and some foul language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Made its world premiere at the Nashville Film Festival in 2010.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $29,384 on a $2.3M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Black Snake Moan

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: My Week With Marilyn

Girl Model


Girl Model

Meat markets come in all sorts of varieties.

(2011) Documentary (Cinereach) Nadya Vall, Ashley Arbaugh, Madlen, Tigram. Directed by David Redmon and Ashley Sabin

There is a certain glamour inherent with the modeling industry. Beautiful girls flown to exotic locations, dressing in designer couture, adored by millions. So when talent agents come calling, it’s not hard to understand why young girls answer with eyes full of stars.

One such agent is Ashley Arbaugh who herself was a teen model. Her territory is mostly the former Soviet Union where she plucks young girls to work in the lucrative Japanese market. The promise of easy cash and a foot in the door of an industry that’s notoriously hard to break into brings girls swarming to try-outs, particularly in economically depressed places like Siberia.

Nadya Vall lives in a small village in Siberia. Her parents are poor; they live in a tiny little house that her father has been adding on additional room so that his children may have rooms of their own. However work has stalled on that as he is barely making enough money to make ends meet as it is.

Her shy, sweet demeanor and lustrous child-like beauty get her a contract with Ashley and her Russian boss Tigram. Tigram sees himself as a kind of savior for these young girls, taking them out of bad situations and giving them fame and fortune. Of course, he gets a cut of both but that’s a small price to pay isn’t it?

Nadya sets out for Tokyo and things turn into a nightmare from there. Nobody from the agency meets Nadya at the airport; she is lost, not knowing where to go or what to do and doesn’t speak any other language than Russian; tearfully she begs the filmmakers to translate to English to the Japanese clerks to find out information as to where she can find the apartment she’s supposed to stay at.

Eventually things sort themselves out and she is set up in a tiny little apartment that looks to be the size of a walk-in closet. She has a roommate, Madlen, who is supposed to share the space with her – and it’s not a lot of space, let’s face it.

Japanese law requires her to have two paying jobs in order to remain in the country for the full length of the visa. She is sent to try-out after try-out, to shoot after shoot with no sales forthcoming. The two are made to realize that if their measurements increase even by a centimeter they will be sent packing and not paid; in fact, because of the cost of their apartment and their airfare, they will be deep in debt to the agency.

Homesickness, the psychological wear and tear of not being wanted and the general indifference of those who are supposed to be watching over them take their toll. Madlen, who at last has a credit card from her family that allows her to purchase food, eats her way back home on purpose leaving Nadya alone in a country that she doesn’t understand – and at 13 years old, is she really equipped to handle this situation?

This is absolutely riveting stuff. There are no real regulatory agencies that watch over these girls. 13 and 14 year old girls are encouraged to lie about their ages and are sent to Japan and other countries unsupervised and essentially thrown out into the waters to sink or swim – and they mostly sink. There is a good deal of hypocrisy – Arbaugh tells her next set of girls airily that everyone makes money in Japan after we’ve just clearly seen two girls who returned home deeply in debt, and we are given the impression that it isn’t all that uncommon. Everybody gets paid but the models.

This isn’t just exploitation, it’s white slavery. There needs to be an industry watchdog to ensure that these girls get proper supervision, understand what it is they’re getting into and have some regulatory power to watch that the girls aren’t exploited. Unfortunately, as Arbaugh herself says late in the film, it isn’t much of a step to go from modeling to prostitution. After all, both are instances of a woman selling her body.

I didn’t expect that there was a story here that I’d be hooked by. Fashion interests me not in the least and I’d always had the perception that models are mostly self-absorbed divas who had a very easy life that required very little work on their part. After all, how hard can looking beautiful be?

Obviously, being a guy makes me completely dumb and uneducated as to how hard work it is for women to look beautiful, models or no so perhaps I can be forgiven for my ignorance. However one screening of this documentary is enough to shock my system into understanding that there is exploitation of children going on in this industry – and it needs to be stopped.

REASONS TO GO: Compelling and heartbreaking. Eye-opening look on a shadowy world.

REASONS TO STAY: Pounds its point a little bit too relentlessly. May have benefitted from some follow-up.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s some sexuality, some profanity and some adult situations.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Following the making of the film, Arbaugh got a job with Elite Models in New York scouting American girls.

CRITICAL MASS: Not available.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Picture Me

JAPAN LOVERS: Some aspects of the Japanese culture are explored here.  

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

NEXT: Monsieur Lazhar