The Florida Project — 7/10

THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017, Sean Baker)

Now with six features under his belt (the last three of which I’ve seen), Baker has established himself as a workhorse keen on specificity and world-building. The difference with his latest is that the details of his world have a much larger resonance beyond the specifics on which he focuses. Whereas STARLET and TANGERINE had their fair share of humanism on display, they were introverted films too carefully examining their own bodies. Now the gaze is looking up from the navel and into the sky above, and that’s what lets the audience in. Finally, I was emotionally involved, and the individual feels connected to the universal.

The looming presence of Disney World shadows every scene, though we don’t get a glimpse of the actual kingdom until the final shot. We’re in a place that couldn’t be closer to family paradise, but also couldn’t be further away from it — there’s nothing here as squeaky clean, corporatized, or luxurious as a theme park. When the kids run past the sign for FutureLand, it says “Stay in the future — today.” But the future these children inhabit is one of economic depression and increased danger. Still, that ugly existence is shot with tender beauty by Baker and his production team, who manage to find the right pink Florida sunsets as a backdrop, and powerful wide shots for kids to drift their way through the frame. The world, and the future, is what you make of it.

Willem Dafoe (who has defied nature by managing to be exactly 46 years old for over three decades) plays his motel manager character as a caring protector, leader, and cheek-turner — as if he was reprising his Jesus role from Scorsese’s THE LAST TEMPTATION OF CHRIST. He usually reserves his anger for the worst threats to his domain: not the tenants, but creeps like the pedophile he scares off the property in his most heroic scene. When he has to clash with Bria Vinaite as the troubled young mother Halley (think a white-trash Sarah Polley), his threats are emptier — as annoyed as he gets, he won’t deprive her and her daughter Moonee of a home.  But he has a boss, too, and he still has to repair the ice machine.

Baker wisely avoids the poverty-porn trap that victimized BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD by refusing to condescend. A good balance of humor and objective distance helps the plot-free nature-doc aspects of it go down easy, and before you know it, a climactic close-up shot of Moonee crying is unshakably heart-breaking even though you know it’s manipulative. The pathos is earned, legitimately or not, just like every dollar Halley makes to pay her rent. And while a few of the vignette detours fail to resonate (the relationship with Scooty and his mom culminates in drama but not a payoff) and the directionless pace (trying too hard to match the directionless protagonists) kills some momentum, the distinct tone is what lingers. And all the complications, nuances, and moral grey areas keeping Baker’s shoes gum-stuck to the asphalt — they’re absolutely necessary.

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The Square — 8/10

THE SQUARE (2017, Ruben Östlund)

A sharp and sticky provocation that manages to transcend its didacticism and become something unshakable. Take, for example, the big voicemail scene towards the end. It sounds like Christian is spelling out the movie’s themes, and in a way he is. But then he goes on too long, well past the point you’d expect him to stop, and the speech takes on a different tone. Now it’s about character, not content.

It’s the sly, clever character development throughout that gives this lecture its flavor, most notably in the Elisabeth Moss scenes, which explore the stubbornness that Christian would need to handle every issue the way he handles it in the back half of the film. And his name — Christian — maybe not the most subtle clue, but this is really a movie about turning the other cheek, helping the poor, and doing unto others, etc. And while the first scene introduces the concept of what constitutes a work of art (is it its display, its intention, or something else?) it’s not until the show-stopping setpiece at the gala dinner where we visualize the incredibly blurred line between performance and reality; it’s a sequence that feels perfectly at one with the film’s tone, yet separated from the narrative in a beautifully theatrical manner.

Östlund is so gifted and confident in his direction that every scene (in what appears to be a disjointed narrative) ties in with the problematic art piece at its center. There’s the white square surrounding the cheerleading performance, the chimpanzee presaging the performance artist, and the use of off-screen space in the scene where Michael is babysitting the car and gets preyed upon. So many memorable shots: the overhead in the garbage dump, the shopping mall escalators, the extras on their phones, and even Dominic West in his pajamas. Viewers may be turned off by a filmmaker forcing you to endure his sociological study, but when it’s this invigorating, sign me up for next semester. I’ve got no problem being teacher’s pet.

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Blade Runner 2049 — 5/10

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

I bristle whenever the cool cinephile kids pick on Darren Aronofsky’s REQUIEM FOR A DREAM. It’s dismissed as dorm-room posing, style over substance, and the meathead’s version of art cinema. This baffles me, since I find it as emotionally devastating, profound, and effective as any movie this century. Ridley Scott’s 1982 BLADE RUNNER, on the other hand, I can see generating that kind of scoffing. When I tried watching it as a kid, I fell asleep. When I tried again in college, I fell asleep. When I finally got through it a few years ago, I was still bored and annoyed. Some nice shots, a lot of bad dialogue, and themes worthy of no better than freshman stoner babbling.

Take it with a grain of salt, then, that this 2017-sized version left me cold as ice. But that doesn’t mean it it’s totally worthless — it’s yet another argument for putting Roger Deakins in the DP Hall of Fame (if such a thing existed). And the production design, Hans Zimmer score, and costume design is all eye and ear candy. But for a film so big, so bloated, so heavy with its own desperate attempts at profundity, it disappears like smoke the second you leave the theater.

The best stuff involves Villeneuve’s visual ideas for exploring the themes of virtual vs. human, especially the drawn-out sex scene with a hologram clumsily latching onto a person. Then there are the elemental images of water (a grand fight, drowning), fire, dirt (the future Las Vegas), etc. But in being so humorlessly focused on the themes of what it means to be human and to have memories, it crawls too far inside itself and almost doesn’t care if you’re even there watching at all.

The plot falls apart upon further investigation, but Villeneuve doesn’t even really care about it much (nor does producer Scott, picking up where he casually left off 35 years ago). Still, why lean so hard on those interminable, devastatingly bad Jared Leto scenes (come on, Jared, you’re making it really hard for me to keep defending you) and the gotcha flashbacks during the third act twist? The resulting experience is an exhausting one — nearly three hours of sci-fi atmosphere, serious hand-wringing, and noble attempts at making visual something that’s intangible and philosophical. Never thought I’d say this, but it could have used one of Gosling’s musical numbers from LA LA LAND, just to lighten the fucking mood.

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Thor: Ragnarok — 7/10

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017, Taika Waititi)

I fear this is about as good as MCU movies are going to get these days. It’s become a genre in and of itself — there will always be mediocre villains, too much CG, and a few too many members of a ragtag group of heroes, stuffed inside a north-of-2-hours sci-fi noise-fest that doesn’t stop for one second to digest the consequences of its violence or contemplate the complexities of its storylines. So if that’s all we can expect, consider it a huge breath of fresh air that this episode is wildly entertaining due to being a full blown comedy. It’s the film James Gunn’s GUARDIANS entries so badly wanted to be.

After a laborious first act dumping painful amounts of exposition, the action centers on Sakaar, a WALL-E-inspired trash planet ruled by Grandmaster Jeff Goldblum (virtually stealing the whole show with a giggling performance of unchecked showmanship), and introduces Hulk and Valkyrie, two characters Thor desperately needs to bounce off of (figuratively and literally). We also get the secret MVP: Korg, played by the New Zealand-born Jewish director Waititi, whose sense of humor carries over from his hilarious WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS and makes this entry a cynical satire of itself, skewering clichés and taking the entire franchise about as seriously as anyone should — which is to say, not at all. It knows just how stupid it is that Oscar-winning thespian Mark Ruffalo has to deliver the line “We’re approaching the devil’s anus!” so it just has a childlike glee in the destruction of everything Thor — his hammer, his eye, and his planet. When your villain is Cate Blanchett in goth-club black eye makeup and Anthony Hopkins is standing around giving ghost-dad speeches, you might as well just mock until the credits are over, then keep it going an extra couple minutes.

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer — 6/10

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER (2017, Yorgos Lanthimos)

It’s either the best mediocre movie you’ve ever seen, or the worst masterpiece. Has Lanthimos’s reliably sharp eye for composition and movement, his unnerving ear for sound design, and that off-putting atmosphere of dread that manages to be unsettling and wildly gripping at the same time. Even more Kubrick-inspired than THE LOBSTER (this one is all THE SHINING and EYES WIDE SHUT), morbidly funny and deeply disturbing, and the cast is absolutely aces. Barry Keoghan, who I just discovered a few months ago in DUNKIRK, is fascinating — he and the eerily intelligent Raffey Cassidy are as good as Farrell and Kidman, both of whom know exactly what kind of movie they’re in and they serve it well.

But somehow the whole never equals the sum of its parts. What’s the point of this? THE LOBSTER had a clear goal, and some ripe social institutions it was dissecting. SACRED DEER starts off with a cut-open body during a surgery, but we don’t know what the organ is. Similarly, the film seems to be peering inside something, but it’s not clear what we should take from this dark, sick fable. Maybe I’m just too dumb to get it — but despite the upper class trappings, the parental warnings, the superficial/materialistic facades, and the impotent doctors, everything feels like a signpost of something; they aren’t organic themes lucidly explored. Kidman’s Anna has different motives in every scene, her character merely fitting whatever needs the plot requires at the time. Silverstone’s weird, desperate single mom has one good scene, but she’s a key that Farrell refuses to utilize when it seems really important. The humor is grisly and dry, but right after a sick joke there will be a scene that it takes utterly seriously, so you’re never sure how far inside its cheek this movie’s tongue is. You’ll be never less than glued to the screen, but you may be scratching your head when it’s over. And for a film with a more grounded, simplified world than THE LOBSTER, that’s surprising.

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The Meyerowitz Stories — 7/10

THE MEYEROWITZ STORIES (2017, Noah Baumbach)

In the first scene, Dustin Hoffman’s Harold Meyerowitz has red scrapes on his face from what he claims is an incident with a dog. (“You should see the other dog.”) By the third act, Ben Stiller’s Matthew has gone from clean cut to bloody-nose and face-scratched, standing next to his red-knuckled brother Danny (a terrific Adam Sandler). The wounds that start with the father end up on the sons. We survive the worst of it, but we’re all a little scarred (even if, like Jean, those scars are on the inside).

Feels a little like Baumbach starting to repeat himself a few too many times, but when the dialogue is this good and the neuroses this real, it still works. Plus, admit it — you always kinda wanted to see THE SQUID AND THE WHALE with the characters grown up 20 years later, right? Mix that in with some ROYAL TENENBAUMS and you can predict where this is going and how you’ll feel about it. You may not be ready for just how good Stiller is in the requisite emotional breakdown scene, but you also won’t be ready for just how bad Hoffman is. The biggest drawback here is the alarmingly distracting line readings from a confused Hoffman — he looks like he’s just hoping he remembered the dialogue, so he rushes to the end of the take before he screws up, without internalizing any of it. Baumbach’s script nails how family members talk past each other without connecting, but when Sandler or Stiller have to play off an actor unprepared for this style, the results are dispiriting. Halfway through, when Harold undergoes a major life change, Hoffman’s performance settles down a bit and he’s more in his element. But those first 40 minutes or so are rough going.

Still, the running joke of Baumbach cutting away from a scene mid-rant is both superficially hilarious and a wry comment on his own repetitiveness. This guy’s daddy issues make Spielberg look positively healthy. But the joy is on the fringes — Emma Thompson’s superb capturing of a hippie New York Jewish mom; the hungrily pretentious student films (TRAMPS’s Grace Van Patten cleverly avoids a lot of teen girl clichés here); the floundering gasps at humanity when dealing with hospital staff. This may only appeal to a select class and personality type, but it’s never dishonest.

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Brawl in Cell Block 99 – 7/10

BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 (2017, S. Craig Zahler)

In poker, a reliable tell is that acting quickly is a sign of weakness. If someone takes their time before shoving over your bet, it’s much scarier than if they snap-jam. This, experts say, is because when you’re lying you want to get it over with quickly. The truth — you can sit with that a little longer. It’s more comfortable. BRAWL IN CELL BLOCK 99 takes its time, and that exudes not only confidence and strength, but a certain degree of admirable honesty.

The film runs over two hours, but never feels slow. It also never feels hurried, much like its protagonist. Vince Vaughn’s hulking, quietly raging Bradley (don’t call him “Brad!”) thinks for a few seconds before responding to almost anything anyone says. You can tell he’s going over possible moves in his head, then settles on the most rational one. Bradley is smart, but he isn’t egotistical. He can box, but won’t brag about it. He never lays a hand on his cheating wife; he just destroys her phone and then breaks his hands punching her car into pieces. It’s a fascinating character study, and Zahler takes his time in the first hour making sure we do all the studying we need in order to follow Bradley’s measured descent into hell, step by step — and that we care so deeply about it.

Zahler’s directorial debut, BONE TOMAHAWK, was also lengthy, but equally rich with character study. By the end, an overwhelming emotional scene has you tearing up just minutes after you’ve seen a man split in half with a hatchet, his guts and entrails falling out onto a cave floor. For much of BRAWL’s runtime, I was sure I wouldn’t be as choked up during this, as I wasn’t feeling Kurt Russell-level depths of empathy. But then a phone call scene happens, and damn if Zahler didn’t do it again. Even more odd is that this scene, too, comes after some of the most unpleasant, hideously gory images you’re likely to see on the big screen in a reputable movie theater. Rarely has a filmmaker combined such a keen ability to generate pathos and nauseating exploitative gore in the same reel, let alone the same movie.

Part of what’s so striking about Zahler’s work is his all-encompassing existentialism. The best shot in TOMAHAWK is an ultra-wide set to the line “This is where we are,” underscoring the indifference of nature and the universe to the pathetic travails of man. Here, he gives Bradley a dose of Sisyphus during his prison stint. In one funny but unsettling scene, new inmates must wait in an interminable line to surrender their belongings. And once they reach the front, there’s a good chance the prick behind the window will send them back to the end again, forced to roll the rock up the hill one more time. Despite the giant cross tattoo on the back of Bradley’s bald skull, God doesn’t exist in Zahler’s universe. It’s up to the characters to create their own moral centers and act on behalf of them. It’s a cruel world, love is fleeting and ephemeral, and we must take action. Camus would be proud.

The visuals in BRAWL are a step ahead of TOMAHAWK, but I’m still not sold on Zahler as a visual storyteller. His dialogue is exceptional, and his control of actors is impressive (Carpenter, Johnson… all the small roles here are memorable and well-modulated), but I’m not sure a few cool angles and contrasty images signify great direction. Also, his obsession with gore is starting to feel unnecessary — if some viewers have to watch through closed fingers, what’s the point? The backbone of his storytelling is there; why rip it out and show it to us?

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