MSPIFF Review ~ Dreamin’ Wild


Dreamin’ Wild

Director: Bill Pohlad
Cast: Casey Affleck, Noah Jupe, Zooey Deschanel, Chris Messina, Jack Dylan Grazer, Walton Goggins, Beau Bridges
Synopsis: What if a childhood dream suddenly came true–-but thirty years later? That’s what happened to singer/songwriter Donnie Emerson. His dream of success suddenly–and unexpectedly–came true but only as he approached 50 years old. And while it brought hopes of second chances, it also brought ghosts of the past and long-buried emotions as Donnie, his brother Joe and their entire family came to terms with their newly found fame.
Thoughts: By the end of writer/director Bill Pohlad’s Dreamin’ Wild (the opening night selection of the 42nd Minneapolis International Film Festival), many of my personal boxes had been checked. Quiet indie vibe? Check. Music biopic with a tender heart? Check Check. Frustrated grown men with unresolved dad issues and brothers that don’t communicate but need to talk about all their feelings? A hat trick of checks. What keeps Dreamin’ Wild with its head so firmly above water is that same moving spirit that propelled Pohlad’s 2014 Brian Wilson biography Love & Mercy to become such an unexpected critical and word-of-mouth hit. Now Pohlad returns for another musical tale, bringing to the screen the true story of musician Donnie Emerson and his brother Jeff, who found a second chance at fame when both least expected it. The circumstances in which it occurred sound like a concoction worked up for movie schmaltz, but the film is based on a New York Times feature by Steven Kurutz published in 2012.

As Donnie, Casey Affleck has his vocals dubbed, but everything else about his performance is raw and real. There are hints of his Oscar-winning role in Manchester by the Sea at times, but perhaps here there’s an even more world-weariness at the opportunities he expected that never came to be. We understand early on Donnie was a genius talent who, like many, existed in obscurity until a random twist of fate caught him and his family in the spotlight. That renewed interest brings back good and bad memories; inevitable tensions solidify with older brother Joe (a superb Walton Goggins), and Donnie’s guilt over his father going into debt to finance his young career is reignited. Scenes between Affleck and Beau Bridges as his dad are achingly real – it’s the best Bridges has been in ages. 

Noah Jupe fills out the cast as young Donnie, with Jack Dylan Grazer as young Joe. I couldn’t quite see Jupe growing up to be Affleck (much like I couldn’t see Paul Dano’s Brian Wilson growing up to be John Cusack’s Wilson in Love and Mercy), but both actors find overlap in each other’s performance that helped the viewer see them both as the same person. In a post-screening QA, Pohlad spoke of his use of ‘magical realism’ to push some of the narrative boundaries; Affleck and Jupe benefit from this technique in one highly effective scene together.

If one person gets short shrift, it’s Zooey Deschanel as Donnie’s wife, Nancy. Though Deschanel has the opportunity to sing several times (like Jupe, she does her own singing) and has a few standout scenes, she’s often absent. Come to think of it, the children Donnie and Nancy share are also out of the picture after the first ten minutes. Pohlad may not be great about tying up all the loose ends or connecting each dot. Still, he’s wise enough for much of Dreamin’ Wild to fill the connective tissue between reactionary beats with material that rewards the emotional maturity of his audience.

Movie Review ~ Mafia Mamma

The Facts:

Synopsis: An American mom inherits her grandfather’s mafia empire in Italy. Guided by the firm’s consigliere, she hilariously defies everyone’s expectations as the new head of the family business.
Stars: Toni Collette, Monica Bellucci, Sophia Nomvete, Giulio Corso, Francesco Mastroianni, Alfonso Perugini, Eduardo Scarpetta, Tim Daish, Tommy Rodger
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Rated: R
Running Length: 101 minutes
TMMM Score: (1/10)
Review: Some movies sit on the shelf for years, victims of studios that go bankrupt or directors that butt heads with executives over the final cut of their project. The excellent work of actors and technicians can see countless delays on the journey to a release date. Even then, all that bad publicity likely has already sunk any hope of the film finding fair judgment when audiences (and critics) get their eyes on it. Rarely do success stories emerge from this cruel cycle that is part of the Hollywood machine.

Conversely, terrible films like Mafia Mamma sail through production and misleading marketing into the laps of unsuspecting moviegoers. Only after they’ve shelled out their cash will audiences learn what a fantastically stunning miscalculation this alleged “comedy” is. If those that received a paycheck from the production had paused and taken a step back to look at the big picture, they’d surely have seen this script should have been W.O.A. (Whacked on Arrival) and then encased in cement at the bottom of the Hudson. The entire set-up is so old-fashioned and with a throwback vibe (seriously, throw this one back) that I half-expected to read in a trivia tidbit that it was initially written for Shelley Long in 1985. 

A call from Italy announcing the death of a grandfather she never knew comes at the rightest wrong time for empty nester Kristin (Toni Collette, Nightmare Alley), who has just walked in on her deadbeat husband and her son’s guidance counselor having an X-rated parent-teacher conference. Though she barely registers the adultery in the long list of reasons why her spouse is a loser, her best friend (Sophia Nomvete) encourages her to live it up in the tiny town outside of Rome where her grandfather’s funeral is being held. Jetting off to the country where she was born but moved from after her father’s death, she meets her grandad’s right-hand-woman Bianca (Monica Bellucci, Spectre) and his entourage that worked at his winery. 

Kristin hasn’t even had a proper gelato before she’s thrust into the center of a gunfight, eventually learning that her family is known for being more than master vintners. Now the responsibility of running the business (a crime syndicate using the winery as a front) has been passed to her. While Bianca and two goofy gangsters (Francesco Mastroianni & Alfonso Perugini) are there to protect her, she is mainly left to learn the ropes on her own. Finding a new romance with a handsome pasta maker (Giulio Corso) while evading the efforts of a rival family to take her out, she puts her spin on the business in hopes she can do less harm and more good with the power she’s inherited.

Based on an original story by Amanda Sthers, the screenplay from television sitcom writers J. Michael Feldman and Debbie Jhoon is bereft of any jokes whatsoever. Zero. It’s possible the material was meant to be hilarious, and director Catherine Hardwicke (Miss You Already) wrapped her film thinking she’d made a stylized Euro-comedy, but that’s not what’s happened. It’s almost as if every instinct toward finding a laugh has been deliberately resisted, giving each actor nothing to do but find themselves in one awkward exchange after another. The tone is all over the map, with the Europeans trying for arch physical comedy made of broad gestures and the Americans coming at it from a more mannered approach. Neither work in the least, so you know very early (within the first 10 minutes) that Mafia Mamma is a fat turkey of a flick.

Especially disappointing is Collette, in a rare bad performance, wildly churning around in a role she’s ill-fitted for. The actress isn’t known to miss often, even in the smallest of roles, but she’s miscast here and seems to know it based on the amount of desperate compensating she’s doing. Based strictly on the half-hearted choices being made, I don’t get the feeling she was invested in this one outside of a trip to Italy, and I wonder what her Connie & Carla co-star Nia Vardalos could have done with some of the hijinks the plot works with. Hardwicke doesn’t serve Collette or a stilted Belucci well at all, reaching a low point when the women cozy up in an uncomfortable out-of-left-field scene that culminates with a discussion over a prosthetic limb.

That brings me to the final point of Mafia Mamma, which helped it earn its disaster of a low rating. There’s a question of taste that has to be discussed. I don’t have trouble with violence being included in a movie, especially in edgy comedies like Mafia Mamma believes itself to be. However, that being said, Hardwicke (whom you’d honestly never guess had directed a movie, let alone several good ones, before this) is totally confused about where to draw the line between comic violence and gruesome gristle. Severed appendages, vomit, ground-up bodies, shootings, stabbings, and two ghastly eye-gougings appear. They look poorly executed and are out of place in the otherwise tame world Hardwicke has created.

Mamma Mia Mafia Mamma is bad. You’ve been warned, so don’t put a horsehead in my bed if you walk into this one knowing what I’ve told you.