Tag Archive | Movie Review

Recommended Viewing: Naz & Maalik

Naz and Maalik Movie Poster
Curtiss Cook Jr. and Kerwin Johnson Jr. Star in Naz & Maalik (All Images Courtesy of Wolfe Video)

One day in the life of a pair of Brooklyn teenagers moves beyond their typical routine to mark an emotional turning point in the lives of the two best friends in Naz & Maalik; an engaging new film from screenwriter/director Jay Dockendorf. The film’s dynamic script is based on a first-person account from one of Dockendorf’s former neighbors; a gay Muslim man who revealed his own experience as a teenager living in Brooklyn, at a time when the NYPD and FBI were spying on Muslims across the country. In Bed-Stuy (Bedford Stuyvesant, a heavily African American neighborhood of Brooklyn) in particular, COPs would infiltrate mosques with undercover agents, coerce civilians arrested for petty crimes into becoming informants and conduct door-to-door interviews with Muslim citizens in front of their homes. The overbearing presence of the police created a charged environment, and a similar atmosphere of consistent tension infiltrates this bittersweet coming-of-age story that is expertly directed and acted.

Naz and Maalik Screen Shot

Portrayed by Curtiss Cook Jr. (Maalik) and Kerwin Johnson Jr. (Naz), two young actors both making their feature film debut in these roles, Naz and Maalik spend their days together, earning cash by selling Lotto tickets, Saint cards, candy and scented oils on the streets of their neighborhood, as well as while riding the subway lines. Their faith is also made evident, as they make a stop at a local mosque during their day to pray with the faithful. Their bond of friendship is fast and tight, and, as we learn early on, their relationship has only just taken a romantic turn — something that Naz is way more comfortable with than Maalik. As devout Muslims, their love is forbidden, and it doesn’t help that Maalik’s bratty younger sister has already threatened to “out” the couple to their parents. As if being a teenager wasn’t hard enough.

And then there’s the matter of that FBI agents that starts following the boys’ every move…

Naz and Maalik In Park2

As their story unfolds naturally, Naz & Maalik takes on many hot-button issues — racial profiling, religion, sexuality — as the streets and subway trains of Brooklyn advance the backstory of just who these kids are without a need for superfluous narrative dialogue. In fact, to suggest that Brooklyn is also a main character in the film is not out of line.

Naz and Maalik Park

Naz & Maalik isn’t so much a film about easy resolution as it is about tackling life’s curve balls and trying to stay true to yourself and your beliefs while also embracing the uncertainty of new love. Naz and Maalik are extremely likable characters and their story is both straightforward and nuanced, and highly engaging overall. The film’s original score, also written by Dockendorf is also fantastic. I can’t say enough good things about this film.

Grade: A

After Debuting at NYC’s Cinema Village, Naz & Maalik is currently available via Wolfe on DVD and Video On Demand.

Naz and Maalik on Street

Movie Review: Jeruzalem

Jeruzalem Movie Poster

Did you know that here on earth there are three gates to hell: one in the desert, one in the ocean, and one in Jerusalem? I had no idea, and I’m betting that Israel’s tourism board wants to keep that nugget of information on the down low; because it would surely be bad for business if word got out.

Unfortunately, no one tipped off Sarah and Rachel, two young American tourists on their way to a carefree vacation in Tel Aviv, who instead get a one-way ticket to the End Times in Jeruzalem, a new independent film directed by Israeli brothers Yoav and Doron Paz.

Jeruzalem Rachel Sarah Selfie
Rachel (Yael Grobglas) and Sarah (Danielle Jadelyn) Pose for One Last Selfie before Departing to Jeruzalem

On the flight over, the girls meet a sexy and charismatic anthropologist named Kevin (Yon Tumarkin) who convinces them to take a detour to the old city of Jerusalem for some historical sightseeing before continuing on to the serious partying in Tel Aviv. Sarah and Kevin hit it off, and Jerusalem is seemingly filled with all kinds of hot guys for Rachel to flirt with, so it’s kind of a no brainer. They plan to stay only 48 hours, but their second night in Jerusalem happens to be Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, and that is when all hell, literally, breaks loose.

Jeruzalem Escape

While Sarah, Rachel, Kevin and new friends from the hostel where they’ve been staying make a frantic attempt to escape the walled city, it’s equally frightening to imagine that the Apocalypse will be documented via Google Glass, which, as worn by Sarah, serves as the first person-perspective from which the entire movie is shot (be forewarned that if shaky, hand-held camera movements make you nauseous, you might want to drop a Dramamine before the film even starts).

It’s somewhat distracting at first, especially when Sarah does one of her many face-plants while running after, or from, something, but the device serves to further the narrative in interesting ways; providing facial recognition, maps, Wikipedia entries, music videos, social media and panicked Skype calls from Sarah’s concerned Dad, which all get tossed into the mix.

I really don’t want to spoil anything except to offer that Jeruzalem features truly mind-bending moments of psychological terror (the scene where Sarah searches frantically for Kevin in a derelict mental institution is particularly unnerving), and more than a few instances where smart people inexplicably decline to run away when confronted with nightmarish physical horror, such as menacing giants and undead Monsters with Wings.

If you liked Cloverfield, you’ll love Jeruzalem.

Grade: B+

Jeruzalem opens at NYC’s Cinema Village on January 22, 2016, when it will also be available on VOD. Rated: R, Runtime: 94 minutes.

Movie Review: Stink!

Stink Animated Movie Poster

The plots of many horror films, both modern and classic, often center on the tragic fate of individuals who take an interest in suspicious matters where their attention is neither wanted nor welcome. And while things rarely, if ever, work out well for the protagonists of those films, a provocative new documentary entitled Stink! aims to benefit, potentially, every consumer on the planet by revealing hidden truths about carcinogenic chemical ingredients contained in an innumerable list of products that we all eat, wear and put on our bodies every day. The cosmetic industry, the film points out, is especially lacking in federal regulation. It isn’t at all unlikely that the Chanel No 5 cologne that you spray on your body contains some of the same ingredients as your toilet bowl cleaner. Are you horrified? You will be by the time you’re about 20 minutes into Stink!

It’s been said that it’s not about what you know or what you don’t know: it’s what you don’t know that you don’t know that can hurt you. That’s what Stink! is all about. Created and directed by Jon Whelan, Stink! is one man’s quest for transparency that was prompted when Whelan noticed an overwhelmingly foul chemical smell coming from Pajamas he’d purchased as Christmas gifts for his two young daughters. Whelan was left as a single father after his wife, Heather, succumbed to breast cancer in January of 2009. A beautiful and vibrant woman, Heather Whelan makes significant posthumous appearances throughout the documentary as Jon pays tribute to her inspirational life and vows to protect their children from the the toxic chemical product additives that she, in life, was so vigilantly wary of.

While consumer product package labeling is more and more widely available, what most of us are clueless about is the fact that toxins can very easily hidden in the guise of being labeled as “fragrance,” and there are no laws that compel companies to divulge the fact that they are using toxic chemicals in their products. Yes, putting poisons in consumer products is completely legal and, in fact, it is a widespread, cost-cutting practice that’s protected by lobbyists who are hired to fight for a company’s bottom line in order to pad their own pockets. It’s disgusting. The level of bureaucratic bullshit — much of which is starkly revealed over Stink!‘s 91-minute run time, is both staggering and infuriating.

Engaging, enlightening, and scary as hell, Stink! takes you on a three-year journey from the retailer to the laboratory, through corporate boardrooms, down back alleys, and into the halls of Congress. In Stink!, the viewer follows Whelan on his dogged search for anyone willing to be accountable as he clashes with political and corporate operatives all trying to protect the darkest secrets of the chemical industry.

Troubling facts revealed by Whelan in the film include:
1. Almost 1,500 chemical ingredients are currently banned in the European Union. Only 11 of those ingredients are banned in the United States.
2. Formaldehyde, Propylparaben, Lead Acetate and other dangerous, carcinogenic chemicals are often found in cosmetic products on shelves in US retailers.
3. The FDA has virtually no authority to test cosmetics and other consumer products for unsafe levels of harmful chemicals.

Yes, even the FDA can’t save you! This film is wildly eye opening and will surely prompt you to ask the question “Is this safe to use?” about virtually every item in your home, and rightly so. As Whelen says in the trailer (below) “It’s my story, but it could be yours.” If that doesn’t scare you, trust me; it should.

The Worley Gig Gives Stink! Five out of Five Stars.

Stink! Opens in New York on Black Friday (November 27th) at Cinema Village on Second Avenue and 12th Street, and in Los Angeles on December 4th, 2015, Before Expanding to Additional Markets. Watch the Trailer Below.

Film Review: Asia Argento’s Misunderstood

Misunderstood Poster English

People don’t normally equate childhood with a kind of battlefield, where the very process of growing up is an act of unqualified heroism, but then again not everyone has seen the Asia Argento film Misunderstood, where the lone soldier/hero is a nine-year-old girl named Aria. Set in Rome in the mid-1980s, Misunderstood is an exceptionally well-crafted (though not always easy to watch) film which focuses on a pivotal year in the life of Aria (played by Giulia Salerno), who has the misfortune to be the child of self-centered parents who are just on the verge of divorcing when our story begins. Aria lives with her parents (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gabriel Garko), a famous concert pianist, and a Screen-Idol actor respectively, and two half sisters; the oldest being the spoiled child of her father’s previous marriage, and the middle daughter belonging to her mother from a former relationship. What is evident from the beginning is that Aria, a beautiful, bright and talented little girl, is part of a family where she has virtually no one is on her side. Fortunately, she does have a tight and affectionate relationship with her best friend, Angelica (Alice Pea) and a beloved pet cat, Dac, which she dotes on throughout the film.

At school, Aria excels in composition, and is more of a wallflower than a victim of bullying. Aria and Angelica have a sweet and fiercely close friendship, and the two call each other by the same pet name, and get into quite a bit of harmless mischief together. As the story progresses, however, Aria’s relationship to her peers spirals downward and draws parallels to the plight of the character Dawn Wiener from Todd Solondz‘ merciless black comedy, Welcome to The Dollhouse (1995). Eventually, the cumulative affects of casual abandonment, neglect, and betrayal seemingly squash Aria’s indomitable spirit, and she takes unexpected actions in the face of her bleak circumstances.

Misunderstood is being billed as a comedy, but most of the comedic moments stem from feelings of absurd discomfort, in which her bickering and oftentimes cruel mother and father treat their shared child as if she were a bargaining chip or a mere inconvenience to be pushed off on the other as a form of revenge. We’ve seen this parental cruelty and indifference in films like What Maisie Knew (2013), and Fish Tank (2009), and it is never easy to watch, especially since Aria is such a charming and gentle child, who only wants what she deserves; her parent’s unconditional love and acceptance.

Misunderstood Madre and Aria
Charlotte Gainsbourg (Madre) and Giulia Salerno (Aria). Image Courtesy of Angelo Turetta.

The acting in Misunderstood is excellent all around, featuring possibly one of the best performances I’ve seen from Gainsbourg (who is no stranger to playing unsympathetic characters) and a fantastic, finely nuanced performance from Giulia Salerno, (whose resume already includes half a dozen films). Gabriel Garko (best known for roles on Italian television) is also well-cast as Aria’s almost cartoonish and completely clueless, egomaniacal father. The film also features an exceptional soundtrack that mixes period appropriate, deep-cut pop songs with classical pieces and original compositions, all of which were obviously chosen with a great deal of insight and care.

A few write ups on the film reveal that Misunderstood is highly autobiographical, based on the director’s early life as the daughter of actress Daria Nicolodi and Gialo/horror film director Dario Argento – and it’s easy enough to find out that Argento’s given name at birth was Aria – but the filmmaker claims this is not the case. I don’t think it really matters if Asia Argento suffered through a childhood similar to Aria’s or not, all that matters is that she’s managed to tell a story that successfully touches the viewer emotionally, and feels very real, even when at its most surreal.

In Italian, English and French, with English subtitles, this film is unrated and has a runt ime of 103 minutes. Misunderstood is released to theaters and On-Demand September 25th, 2015. In Manhattan, you can see it at the IFC Center, located at 323 Sixth Avenue at West Third Street. Click Here for Showtimes

The Worley Gig Gives Misundertood Five out of Five Stars.

Watch the Trailer Below:

Movie Review: My Way

My Way Movie Poster

Reminiscent of inspiring music documentaries such as The Punk Singer: A Film About Kathleen Hanna (which provided the Riot Grrrl movement founder with the substantial props she deserved), and Anvil, the Story of Anvil (a film that completely resurrected an unsung band’s entire career), My Way, focusing on singer/songwriter guitarist Rebekah Snyder-Starr, showcases one musician’s quest to find success in the music business while doing things on her own terms.

Directed by Dominique Mollee and Vinny Sisson, My Way centers on an engaging cross-country road trip taken by Starr and her close friend Annika, one of two tambourine players/back up singers in the all-femme Rebekah Starr Band, based in Starr’s home town of Kittanning, Pennsylvania.  Unsatisfied in her marriage to her childhood sweetheart, and having recently been fired from her own family’s corporate business, Rebekah is clearly a woman whose dreams have outgrown her small town environment. With little to lose, and no one else in the band able to leave their day jobs or family obligations, Rebekah and Annika map out their adventure from PA to LA, where their goal is to play a gig on the Sunset Strip, and, ultimately, to shoot a video for the titular song, which is Rebekah’s personal “My way or the highway” mantra which keeps her focused on getting what she wants. It does not hurt that she is completely adorable and has actual musical talent.

During the journey (which took place in 2010), the girls play impromptu acoustic gigs in whatever local roadside bar will have them, earn gas money and promote the band by selling their CDs to everyone they meet, reunite with old friends, and make lots of new ones, while working through challenges that arise in their friendship. The storyline is advanced by the appearance of various music industry insiders such as Poison drummer Rikki Rocket (also a Pennsylvania native) who keenly illuminates both what it really means to struggle as an unknown band, as well as the type of relentless effort involved in eventually making it professionally. Enuff Z’Nuff  songwriter/bassist Chip Z’nuff (who has written original material with Rebekah) and former Guns ‘n’ Roses drummer Steven Adler also add their insight, as does veteran Porn Star Ron Jeremy, who appears as comic relief in one of Rebekah’s music videos (available on the DVD as an extra).

Even if you have not heard the Rebekah Starr Band prior to seeing this film, you will become familiar with many of their songs due to the music’s near-ubiquitous presence on the soundtrack, playing like a car radio under almost every scene in the film, adding a kind of biographical narrative enhancement. Comparable to girl bands such as pre-fame Bangles (when the band was know as The Bangs) or Luscious Jackson, Rebekah has an appealing voice, knows how to write a catchy, pop-punk tune and is an accomplished guitarist. The music has both artistic and commercial appeal, and while she certainly cares about looking her best, Rebekah never tries to “get by” on her looks or exploit her sex appeal. Any woman with an ambition to be a rock musician or any genre of artist would take inspiration from Rebekah‘s story while being entertained and also hearing some good music along the way.

My Way opens at NYC’s Quad Cinema, located at 34 West 13th Street, New York, New York 10011 on Friday, February 27th. Run Time: 93 minutes. This film is Not Rated but is (probably) fine for ages 13 and up..

GRADE: B+

The Fifty Shades of Grey Review: Not Completely Horrible

Jamie and Dakota
Jamie Dornan and Dakota Johnson Get Ready to Take a Bath in Fifty Shades of Grey

Confession: The Fifty Shades of Grey franchise is a pop culture phenomenon that has, to this juncture, been completely ignored/held in contempt by me, because I would rather kill myself than read poorly written accounts of blank-slate fictional characters having all kinds of ridiculous sex. Thanks, but I’ll pass.

But sometimes, curiosity gets the best of me when it comes to Bands/Books/TV Shows/Movies that are hyped up the ass, because I not only wonder what the big deal is, but want to know if I am missing something. So, when an invite to attend a free preview of the Fifty Shades of Grey movie came my way, I simply couldn’t refuse. Because 9 times out of 10, even the worst piece of shit movie is worth seeing for free. Just being serious.

Having not read the book then, but expecting to not even be able to sit through all 125 minutes of the film, I came away from the Fifty Shades cinematic experience with the opinion that this is probably the best Lifetime TV Movie ever made! I mean, once you make it past the excruciating first 20 or so minutes, it’s just really not that bad of a film. It’s not going to win any awards, but it will make shit ton of money. And you can’t imagine that the filmmakers were hoping for any more than that.

While there is certainly much to disdain, there are things I liked about this film. First off, I really loved Dakota Johnson’s portrayal of heroine Anastasia Steel. Johnson plays Anastasia as the perfect balance of curious innocent and would-be seductress, and she succeeded in visibly transforming the character from one end of the story to the other, despite its shallow arc. I think it’s largely thanks to Johnson’s acting ability that she and co-star Jamie Dornan (who didn’t impress me as much) were able to infuse some palpable heat into the “romance” part of the Anastasia/Christian storyline. Johnson also has excellent comedic timing and a terrific body. I look forward to seeing her in future film roles where she is working with a great script and is allowed to keep her clothes on for more than 50% of the film.

I enjoyed looking at Luke Grimes, the insanely hot actor who played Christian Grey’s brother, who ends up conveniently hooking up with Anastasia’s Roommate. Because: Real Life!

I loved all the sets, especially Christian Grey’s office, and the aerial panoramic shot of Seattle that opens the film. The film’s art direction is nearly impeccable.

If you’d like more details or plot analysis, I’m going to recommend that you read A.O. Scott’s review over at New York Times Dot Com, because it is a fun read and I can tell that Mr. Scott was in the same screening I attended based on hints he drops regarding the reaction of the preview audience during certain parts of the film. This is just my 2 cents, because nobody is paying me to write this.

Fifty Shades of Grey opens Nationwide this Friday, February 13th, 2015!

Grade: B-