Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Florida Project

Directed and co-written by Sean Baker, this new drama could be called docu-fiction. It's a scripted film about real people starring many non-actors living in a cheap motel along a strip just outside Disney World. Filmed at the real "Magic Castle" motel, the film centers on Moonee, a precocious six year old living with her young, single mom, Halley. Moonee, play by first time actor, Brooklynn Kimberley Prince spends her days playing with her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) among the motels and seedy gift shops on the outskirts of the Magic Kingdom. They get into their share of trouble but are usually bailed out by the tough but kind hearted motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe) .

Mr. Dafoe and Caleb Landry Jones (who plays his son Jack) are the only"real" actors in the film. Moonee's mom Halley is played by Bria Vinitre, also in her first role. Mr. Baker takes us inside the world of a pocket of society, poor and living on the fringe, just trying to survive one day at a time. In many ways, the film feels like an urban version of "Beasts of The Southern Wild", another film starring a six year girl living in poverty in the Louisiana Bayou.

Ms. Prince is just terrific, wise beyond her years, filling her role with wonderful one-liners. She leads her band of motel kids like a modern version of "Our Gang" with Moonee the new "Spanky". Ms. Vinitre is raw and wild but underneath, a loving and caring mother. Mr. Dafoe gives one of his best performances as just a nice "normal" guy who does his best to keep things together at the motel, for himself and his residents.

The film is anchored by Ms. Prince's wonderful performance that is a delight to watch but also heartbreaking as it shines a light on an population living on the poverty line in America that is far too real. The irony of the final moments is not lost on the audience.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Blade Runner 2049


           It takes a lot of guts to attempt a sequel to the original "Blade Runner". Director Denis Villeneuve takes his best shot and creates a gorgeous feast for the eyes and ears, but ultimately is too in love with his own filmmaking and the finished product is a pretentious, overblown, and boring letdown.  

            The film runs almost three hours due for the most part for dialog spoken in slow motion with pregnant pauses before and during every conversation. Also, endless shots of the futuristic landscape, while amazing, lose their "wow" factor as the film goes on. The film stars Ryan Gosling as Detective K, a "Blade Runner" hunting older rogue replicant models. Mr.  Gosling is well cast for his character but acts like he's slogging through quicksand. 

             The other big draw here is Harrison Ford, reprising his original role as Rick Deckard, however, he doesn't enter the film until the second half. Thankfully he does eventually show up as he injects a energy into both his co-star and the film that both were sorely lacking. The film also co-stars Ana de Armas as "Joi", a very unique character, Sylvia Hoeks as "Luv" (Ms. Hoeks has a great future ahead as a Bond villain), Robin Wright as K's boss, and Jared Leto as the head of the Wallace Corporation, the company creating replicants.

             From a basic plot perspective, there's nothing new here. Take one weary detective, have him assigned by his "tough as nails" boss  to find a missing person and throw in an evil corporation with a nasty henchman (or in this case henchwoman) to block his way. Mr. Villeneuve and his writers dress it up in self important Sci-fi pretension and pass it off as a masterful work of art. As with his last film "Arrival" (which I thought was highly overrated), this film is far from a science fiction masterpiece although in a visual sense, it is breathtaking. Credit Mr. Villeneuve and his team for creating a brilliant landscape for his actors.

            As with the original film, there are a few good twists crucial to the plot and fans will appreciate some welcome cameos. Having the unexpected opportunity to view it both in IMAX and in 3-D (don't ask), I can say with confidence, avoid the horrific 3-D at all costs. The IMAX is far superior in look and sound although bring earplugs because it is LOUD.

Saturday, October 07, 2017

American Made

     Directed by Doug Liman, with his usual kinetic flourish, this "based on a true story" crime drama stars Tom Cruise in a very un-Tom Cruise like role. Mr. Cruise plays Barry Seal, a former TWA pilot, who in the late '70's and '80's became a drug smuggler for the Columbian Cartel as well as a double agent for the CIA and DEA.

      Mr. Seal's story is so colorful and crazy, it's a wonder it took this long to end up on screen. Mr. Cruise actually makes a solid effort to disappear into the role, which for an actor of his stature, is not easy to do. The story itself is a great secret history lesson during the Ronald Reagan presidency. The drug wars in Central America, the Sandinistas and Contras, Pablo Escobar and General Noriega are all central to the plot. 

        It really is an amazing story and Mr. Cruise is a perfect choice to play Barry. The look and feel of the film is designed beautifully to represent the period (even from the opening credits) and Mr. Cruise's winning smile is the best special effect in the film.  The man to count on to get the job done, he is constantly flashing that smile as he tries to satisfy many masters but mostly himself.  His co-stars include Domhnall Gleason as Barry's CIA recruiter and handler and Sarah Wright as Barry's wife, Lucy.

        The film does run a bit too long with excessive scenes of planes flying back and forth from the US to Central Amercia but it's refreshing to watch Mr. Cruise play a real character in a film with a real story and not just a Hollywood cardboard "blockbuster". And what a crazy story it is....

Monday, October 02, 2017

Battle of The Sexes

         Based on the true story of the highly publicized 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs, the film only really comes to life in the second half. Brilliant casting and terrific subject matter gets weighed down in the first hour, concentrating far too much on Billie Jean King's sexual awakening and not enough on the tennis match of the title.  Misleading in the previews, rather than just a dramedy of the events, the first hour seems solely focused on Ms. King's conflict over her sexual identity.

         To be fair, the film does divide its time between Ms. King's  growing relationship with Marilyn Barnett, her hairdresser and eventual lover and Mr. Riggs midlife crisis. Unfortunately the divide is uneven. As Ms. King, Emma Stone is absolutely wonderful but the first half is rather dull except for the scenes with Steve Carell as Bobby Riggs. Mr. Carell injects a welcome energy whenever he is on screen and when the film finally gets around to the actual tennis match, it is fun and exciting to watch.

             While Mr. Riggs may come off as a buffoon in the film, Mr. Carell beautifully balances the cartoonish behavior with an underlying sadness . Just watch his face as he realizes the publicity stunt he has created has turned into serious business. Ms. Stone captures the essence of Ms. King on and off the court in a very layered performance. The rest of the cast is excellent as well. Sarah Silverman as Gladys Heldman, the women's tennis promoter and founder of Tennis World magazine disappears into her role and Andrea Riseborough as Marilyn Barnett is equally good.  The film also features Bill Pullman as Jack Kramer, Alan Cumming as Ted Tinling, Kin's fashion designer, and Elisabeth Shue as Priscilla Wheelan, Mr. Rigg's wife.

              The writing and direction could definitely been crisper but the film is ultimately entertaining and representative of the period both in it's views of women and the still hidden fear of open homosexuality in sports and life in general.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Mother!



       As far as allegories go, writer/director Darren Aronofsky takes a risk with the  biggest there is, Creation to Apocalypse and back again as represented by a house in a meadow. The house is occupied by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem as an unnamed couple, who may or may not be God and Mother Earth (depending on your own interpretation).

       The entire story takes place inside the house, with a few outside POVs. What starts out seemingly as a domestic drama, soon explodes to biblical proportions. Mr Aronofsky drops plenty of clues throughout the film, some more subtle than others. Ed Harris, Michele Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson and Domhnall Gleeson co-star as unnamed characters that again, may or may not seem obviously familiar. Kristen Wiig also has a small cameo.

      The film is beautifully shot as Mr. Aronofsky makes wonderful use of light and space. He also infuses it with an interesting combination of humor and dread. It is not a simple entertainment. There is a complexity and intelligence here that has to be appreciated and as a viewer, you will find yourself constantly challenged.

       You may find yourself tempted to walk out early as the film may confound and anger you but there is something about it that is so compelling, it deserves your attention to go the distance. Love it or hate it, you will be talking about it.

Thursday, September 07, 2017

Gook


Written and directed by and starring Justin Chon, this new Indie drama examines multiple themes in a racially charged setting.

Mr. Chon sets his story in 1992 during the Rodney King riots in South Central L.A. and aims for a similar tension filled atmosphere as "Detroit" albeit on a much more intimate scale. 

This is the story of two Korean brothers  trying to make ends meet with the shoe store they inherited from their father. One is a hustler named Eli, played by Mr. Chon, trying hard to keep the business going while his older brother, Daniel, (played by David So) secretly longs to be an R&B singer. They share an odd friendship with an eleven year old African-American girl named Kamilla who hangs around the store everyday. Kamilla is played by Simone Baker and she is a revelation.

The microcosm of a growing confrontation centers in this one racially mixed neighborhood between the local African-American and Asian population. Connections between many of the characters are slowly revealed as the story plays out against the riots. 

As a first feature, there are some minor continuity and camera issues but they can be easily overlooked by the raw honesty of the script. Mr. Chon is heavily influenced by early Spike Lee, especially "She's Gotta Have it" with some "Do The Right Thing" thrown in. The influence is not in plot but rather style, as he opts for shooting in black & white, while using an eclectic jazz soundtrack and occasional slow motion to help drive his narrative. It's a strong first feature from a promising young talent.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Patti Cake$

       An Indie underdog story of a young girl in New Jersey with big dreams. Patti is a plus size white girl who aspires to make it big in the world of Rap. She lives at home with an alcoholic mother, whose own dreams were crushed once she got pregnant, and her loving "Nana", who is in failing health.

       Patti is played by Danielle MacDonald and she is just sensational. She is a big girl with a big personality and plenty of talent. You can't help but root for her. Her mother, Barb, is played by Bridget Everett, a regular on the downtown NY performance scene. Ms. Everett is also terrific and gets to showcase her own singing. "Nana" is played by Cathy Moriarty and she is, as is said, a hoot. The film also co-stars Siddharth Dhananjay as Patti's best friend Jheri and Mamoudou Athie as "Basterd", a mysterious outcast Patti befriends.

       Written and directed by Geremy Jasper, the film recalls "8 Mile" with a little "Rocky" thrown in the mix. The underdog story is a cliche but the film has enough originality and winning performances to overlook any flaws. While Mr. Jasper could have shown a little more restraint in the editing room, the film is a winner, anchored by a star turn performance by Ms. MacDonald.