The Wonders

The Wonders is the latest film from the Arthouse Film Festival. It’s a film with both Italian and German dialogue, with English subtitles, and it’s directed by Alice Rohrwacher.

This is a coming-of-age story. It focuses on Gelsomina, played by newcomer Maria Alexandra Lungu. Her father Wolfgang (Sam Louwyck) and mother Angelica (Alba Rohrwacher) have four daughters, with Gelsomina being the oldest. They have a meager existence in farm country. The family raises sheep, sells honey, and Wolfgang and Gelso are the main beekeepers. They rarely socialize, but they do interact with the nearby farmers, but it seems like an adversarial relationship. Wolfgang is a bit domineering, indicating there’s work to be done and little time for such frivolity. Angelica’s sister Cocó (Sabine Timoteo) is there, and they are living off of some money she’s had, but it’s running out.

Gelso is slowly realizing that there’s more to life than what she knows. At one point, the family is relaxing at a lake, and manage to disturb a tv crew, who is shooting a promo for a reality show that’s essentially a local farm competition. The host, Milly (Monica Belucci), invites Wolfgang and his family to participate. He turns them down, as he considers it frivolous. He’s driven to become self-sufficient, for when it all comes crashing down. Besides, there’s work to be done and they can’t spare the time.

You see a lot of what it takes to succeed at beekeeping. I’m told there were insurance concerns in getting the film made, as they opted for using actual bees instead of some sort of digital trickery. The fact they did made me both fascinated and uncomfortable at the same time.

Gelsomina wants more than the life she has. Secretly, she enters the competition. Meanwhile, the family takes in a boy, Martin (Luis Huilca). He’s a German boy, who’s had a troubled life. He doesn’t say or do much, and Wolfgang sees him as more of a source of income, as the family’s to be given a subsidy to host him. Martin can also be another farmhand, if they can get him to do anything.

It all starts coming to a head when the reality show’s producer arrives to investigate the legitimacy of Gelso’s application for the show.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the film. It’s certainly not for everyone. The movie’s pacing is a slow walk, almost a plod. You get a sense of what Gelsomina’s life would be like. She’s barely a teenager, and is responsible for a lot of things, including minding her sisters, as well as her beekeeping duties. She almost never has time alone, as one would expect. She doesn’t even know what she wants, and is incapable of expressing that. She just knows it’s more, or something else.

The end of the film is intentionally vague, leaving open several possibilities. It’s not clear to me what will happen, but I’m certain that was the point.

Rock the Kasbah

Rock The Kasbah is the latest movie from Barry Levinson. It stars Bill Murray, and is most definitely NOT a comedy, as the trailers may have you believe. It is very loosely based on the documentary Afghan Star, but in concept only.

Murray stars as Richie Lanz, a guy who’s on the lowest end of the show business food chain. Working out of a motel in Van Nuys, California, he’s acting as a talent scout and manager. It’s clear he’s scamming the people that come to him. Even his assistant Ronnie (Zooey Deschanel) is looking to him to get her career off the ground, but he has her singing Karaoke at a bar, performing standard songs instead of her own. He bumps into a friend, who says there’s money to be had bringing singers to Afghanistan, to tour with the USO.

Somehow, he convinces Ronnie it’ll be a sweet and profitable gig. He says goodbye to his estranged daughter (who reminds him that there isn’t a Kasbah in Afghanistan), and we cut to he and Ronnie on a plane landing in Kandahar, and she is very much airsick. She just wants to leave, but Richie prevails over her as they check into their cheap hotel, as the good, safe one is overbooked. They’re in the bar, and bump into Bombay Brian (Bruce Willis), who’s a security contractor just out on bail for roughing up some of the Afghanis. She heads upstairs for a nap before her first show and he stays at the bar. When it’s time to leave, he’s found that Ronnie has left, taking all his money and his passport, leaving him stranded.

The US consulate won’t immediately help, so he’s stuck. He ends up with two other Americans, played by Danny McBride and Scott Caan. They’re both arms merchants/war profiteers, who set up Richie as a negotiator for an arms sale. After a lot of money is literally tossed his way, he takes the job. He’s escorted by a team, lead by Bombay, and begins to realize this isn’t the cakewalk he was promised. He does manage to seal the deal, and is a guest of the Pashto village’s leader Tariq (Fahim Fazli) for the night.

Late at night, he manages to hear a woman singing. Her voice is perfect, and he discovers Salima (Leem Lubany) in a cave, where she’s got a TV and some magazines stashed. Naturally, she’s the daughter of the village leader, and when Richie asks to be her manager, he’s warned that women are forbidden from singing, so he’s asked to leave. Unbeknownst to him, Salima has hidden in the trunk, so he has effectively kidnapped her. Richie realizes that his only chance is to get her onto the show Afghan Star, no matter the cost.

Oh yeah, somewhere in here, Richie meets Merci (Kate Hudson), the hooker with a heart of gold who steps in at opportune moments. Yes, in Afghanistan, and yes, it’s a bit contrived.

I suspect that this was intended to be a comedic film. However, it’s not. Much like other Barry Levinson movies (Toys, Man of the Year), the film stars a comedic actor in a not-so-funny story, and in theory, the humor is supposed to fall from that. It generally doesn’t. Murray makes some wisecracks, which were smirk-worthy, but it was clear that the comedy falls to the wayside. If you’re expecting a lot of laughs, you will be disappointed. There is a point when you finally see what the movie will become, and it’s not a comedy. It’s sad, because Murray starred in last year’s St. Vincent, and the comedy worked, much better there than it did here.

Sadly, I don’t think a lot of people will like this film. I’m not entirely sure I do, either.


Brooklyn is the latest film from the Arthouse Film Festival Fall season. It is a screen adaptation of the novel of the same name, written by Colm Tóibín.

In the 1950s, Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is the younger of two daughters living with their mother in Ireland. She has a part time job in a shop, and her job prospects are poor. Her sister Rose (Fiona Glascott) has arranged with a priest, Father Flood (Jim Broadbent), to sponsor her in the United States, in, as you guessed it, Brooklyn. Eilis makes the journey, and is set up at a boarding house, run by Mrs. Kehoe (Julie Walters), with several other Irish girls. Eilis gets a job as a Department Store ‘shop girl’, and is overseen by Miss Fortini (Jessica Paré), a somewhat cold, but encouraging manager. She emerges from her mousey self, and becomes quite good at her job. She and Rose exchange frequent letters, but is clear she’s homesick. Father Flood reaches out to her, and has Eilis help at a church function or two to overcome her fears. He also gets her to Enroll in Brooklyn College, where she studies bookkeeping, feeling that she can follow in her sister’s footsteps, although in America.

Eilis settles into a routine. On Fridays, she ends up at church dances, and manages to meet a guy, Tony (Emory Cohen), who is Italian, but has managed to get in to what is presumably an Irish-only event. She’s reluctant at first, but warms to him over time. The other boarders coach her on how to behave, and how to deal with someone from an Italian background. She meets his family, which is more traditionally Italian (Irish and Italians rarely interacted in those days).

One day, Eilis receives some unhappy news, and has to return to Ireland abruptly. When she returns home, everyone treats her well, far better than when she was growing up. She had only intended to be there for a short time, but circumstances force her to stay longer than planned. She’s pleased, but torn. Does she stay, or return to her love and the home she’s made in the US? Aye, there’s the rub.

It took me more than a while to determine what period this movie took place. There was no mention of World War 2, which threw me, until I remembered that Ireland was neutral, so it’s understandable that those events did not cast a shadow over what happened in the movie. The cast is full of fresh faces, one or two of which made me think they were someone else. The tone of the film is one of carrying on and endurance, in the face of solitude and internal reflection. There’s a scene in the film where Eilis is presented with a harsh reality, but is practically expressionless, however, Saoirse manages to emote without words. You’ll know it when you see it, as her face is one of many, but you are drawn to hers.

Our host, Chuck Rose, was implying Saoirse Ronan will receive an Oscar nod, but the competition will be tough.

I recommend this movie.

The Martian

The Martian is the latest film from Ridley Scott. It is adapted from the book of the same name, written by Andrew Weir in 2011.The cast is full of well-known actors, more than you’d expect in any feature film.

Earth has sent several manned missions to Mars. The Ares III crew is in an established basecamp, and are performing their duties. A strong sandstorm develops, and is causing trouble for their lander, so they are forced to abort their mission. As they collect themselves and make their way to the lander, some debris smashes into the team’s botanist, Mark Watney (Matt Damon), and his spacesuit’s signal has gone dead. The mission’s leader, Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain) tries to look for him, but time has run out, so they all abandon the station, and begin the trip back to Earth.

As fortune would have it, Watney survives. He wakes the next day, half buried in the sand. The equipment that struck him was the communications array, which destroyed the transponder in his suit and pierced his suit. By some miracle, he’s alive, and makes his way back to the habitat, where he does a little self-surgery, and realizes he’s on his own. Help may be coming, but the next planned mission is more than a year off, at least. He has to find a way to survive that long, so he goes about finding what he can do, on his own, with the limited resources he has.

Back on Earth, they mourn the loss of Watney. The Ares mission commander, Vincent Kapoor (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants to mount a search for what happened, but is rebuffed by NASA’s Chief Administrator Ted Sanders (Jeff Daniels). Ted says he wants NASA to focus on the next Ares mission instead of searching for bad news, which would be made public. Vincent ignores him and sets one of the overnight NASA mission control staff to take a few images of the camp. She discovers Watney’s alive, but NASA is powerless to do anything but observe from afar, until he can find a way to communicate with them.

Once Mark has overcome (more or less) the basic needs of food and air, he then focuses in on the long term goal of lasting until the next rocket arrives. How he accomplishes that is totally plausible, and is properly played out. It is scientifically believable, and within the realm of possibility, as are the events that follow. It’s quite an engaging experience, through and through.

I highly recommend this movie.

Ridley Scott has done his research, as did Weir, when writing the book. The visual presentation of the movie is flawless. Scott has captured the essence of being a scientist without being overly hamfisted or comical in portraying them. There isn’t one scientist who has all the answers, but instead the story clearly demonstrates that real science is a collaborative effort, with all the players doing their part. It’s rare to see it done properly on screen, and this is one of the few times it actually happens.

I do have a few quibbles with the film, because some events are missing from the movie. I suspect that more than a few of them were either planned or actually shot, but this movie is 144 minutes long, so they were not part of the main release of the film. I hope they’re provided and/or discussed when the movie is released on video, considering how thorough has been with his movies in the past.

Room (2015)

Room (2015) is a suspenseful drama I saw this evening via the Arthouse Film Festival. It is adapted from the novel of the same name, and, as luck would have it, the script was brought to the screen by the book’s author, Emma Donoghue, something that rarely happens. The filmmakers were committed to making the film according to the original vision, and it works.

The film starts with a young woman, Joy (Brie Larson), in a small room with her son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay). She teaches him things (reading, Writing, etc), and they play from time to time. It’s a meager existence. They are occasionally visited by a Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), who delivers goods to them, while Jack ‘hides’ in the wardrobe. We come to find that Ma has been in this room for 7 years, and is a captive of the man. She’s tried escaping once before, to no avail. Jack is turning 5, and is beginning to understand the difference between reality and make believe. The arrival of a mouse gets Jack thinking, trying to understand the concept of inside and outside of Room, which is his only frame of reference. Joy and Jack fight, as Ma starts concocting a plan for getting out. How well it succeeds I leave to you to discover.

This is only the first part of the film. As you would expect, the situation changes, but how? What of Joy and Jack? Do they survive? What happens ‘after’? How does Joy’s family respond, and what happened since her abduction? Many films would not explore these possibilities, and would end shortly after ‘discovery’, on a happy note, but this one spends half it’s run length exploring it. It’s an appealing and completely plausible investigation into how things could evolve after that one moment when it all changes.

I’m trying to avoid spoiling anything more than I’ve had to. Brie Larson gives a strong and convincing performance, and Jacob gives a performance befitting the situation. William H. Macy and Joan Allen play their parts well, too.

I do recommend the movie.