Movie Review: The Florida Project

The kids aren’t alright in their postcard-perfect paradise in an insightful new dramatic film.  Sean Baker’s The Florida Project (B+) depicts  an often underrepresented underbelly of America with a timely, tragic, twisty Technicolor tale. A seriocomic summer idyll from a child’s POV ultimately blurs into an illuminating fantasia on the new working class of America. Set in Kissimmee, Florida in a community of extended-stay motel guests, the film is anchored by brilliant child star Brooklyn Prince who portrays a 6-year-old girl who lives in a castle: the Magic Castle motel, that is. Despite the tyke’s perennially upbeat disposition, she and her juvenile friends hold court over a strip mall and souvenir store laden landscape with scruples not too far off from the thuggish droogs of A Clockwork Orange. It’s clear that her role model in casual crimes is an aimless single mother, poignantly played by Bria Vinaite, helpless to know how to guide her daughter while continuously devising the next scam to procure the next meal for themselves. Willem Dafoe has never been better as the saintly manager of the dystopian paradise where he endeavors to hold the place together with the paltry powers he possesses while facing incredible odds. Despite some issues with plot and pacing, this is an extraordinarily important and unforgettable film. A supporting off-screen character is the famed “Florida Project” itself – Walt Disney World Resort – a vestige of privilege and fantasy, which seems to be surrounded by a sinking swampland. The little girl clutching her orange plush doll is the film’s sweet songbird trapped in a cage within the maddening marsh. Baker demonstrates a magnificent mastery of human observation and imbues his characters with incredible empathy. His Almodovaresque color palette and the resilient spirit of his featured denizens disguise the unexpected potency of his morality playhouse.

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Posted in 2017

Early Movie Review: Hello Again (2017)

The search for elusive love is literally operatic in Tom Gustafson’s sexy, dreamlike musical adaptation Hello Again (B+), a film that traces ten romantic vignettes across the ten decades of the twentieth century. A percussive longing possesses all the movie’s melodic segments, as does a poetic score by Michael John LaChiusa. The twin language of the film is singing and sexuality, and it is filmed in a kaleidoscope of bold colors and lovely period pastiche. The sprawling cast is uniformly brave and brazen, with standouts including Rumer Willis as a smoldering mistress who christens bathtubs and movie palaces with her prowess and T.R. Knight as a seducer extraordinaire aboard the Titanic who won’t let an iceberg stand in the way of his happy ending. Cheyenne Jackson and Audra McDonald enchant in an extended duet of the flesh as a music exec and his muse, Jenna Ushkowitz delights in a sassy naughty nurse number and Martha Plimpton holds her own amidst the array of trained vocalists in a puzzling futuristic bookend to the interlocking stories. The film is austere and may frustrate some as it riffs down rabbit holes through time periods and twisty themes to wrestle with physical love, betrayal and obsession in all of its many splendid forms. It’s an unconventional curiosity box of sights and sounds worth discovering.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Blade Runner 2049

Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 (B-) continues the slow-burn neo-noir dystopian atmosphere of Ridley Scott’s 1982 predecessor and flips the script on some of the motifs about androids (“replicants”) being able to approximate human emotions. Handsomely produced with mesmerizing imagery and endowed with a good-looking cast of characters sorting out future L.A. life a few decades after the events of the original, the film succeeds in moments of discovery and drags when presenting indulgent sequences of exposition. This time Ryan Gosling is the “blade runner” (rogue robot hunter), and the way his character is written doesn’t do him many favors. Harrison Ford is back in what amounts to a brief cameo and doesn’t bring much either. There’s a subplot about family secrets, a nice bit about how embedded memories are made and some twisty surprises that up the ante, but the film definitely short circuits in the final act. The first film was an efficient mystery and action thriller. It was ponderous too but delivered the goods on action, which this installment does all too infrequently during its near three-hour running time. This sequel looks spectacular on the big screen. I just wished it dreamed with a little more electricity.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Victoria & Abdul

There’s a cougar in a crown and a monswoon-worthy suitor for the year’s most unlikely love story. A handsomely produced historical dramedy set in England midway through the British rule of India, Stephen Frears’s Victoria & Abdul (A-) pairs a glorious Judi Dench as Queen Victoria and charming Ali Fazal as Indian servant Abdul Karim in a sequel of sorts to the 1997 film Mrs. Brown. Both films trace stories of confidantes to the monarch during her prolonged bereavement for husband Albert, and this one has unexpected bounce. Watching Dench play the plump and extremely aged royal as an entitled curmudgeon coming back to rapturous life is a joy to behold. Frears is well suited to the comedy of manners in this kind of material and undergirds the narrative with sustained sentimentality that never devolves into treacle. Anglophiles will revel in the costumes, art direction and pageantry as all viewers will be tickled by the wily wonders of a most eye-opening relationship. Dench’s monologue about why she isn’t crazy is alone worth the price of admission. The very talented Fazal makes a great foil for the Dame in her prime and helps surface some issues or race, religion and class apropos to today. This prestige piece is a little bit Driving Miss Vicky, but it’s one of the most thoroughly entertaining and moving tales of the year so far.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: After Louie

Vincent Gagliostro’s After Louie (B) is ostensibly a “May-September romance” between Alan Cumming as an artist and Zachary Booth as his muse. Through the lens of an engrossing intergenerational relationship, the film spotlights attitudes about the AIDS crisis reflected through those tethered to the heights of its tragedy and those buoyed by a renewed and sometimes more casual outlook on dealing with the disease. The film centers on Cumming’s character getting out of his own head as he clings desperately to the crusades he once championed. His young companion challenges many of his mores and expectations. Both men in the center of the film give sage performances. Don’t let Booth’s matinee idol looks eclipse what a well modulated performance he offers. Some subplots are better developed than others, with a sequence involving some creative painting as a highlight. Character driven with moments of poignancy, it’s a thinking person’s film with some imaginative flourishes.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: California Typewriter

A meditation told in a minor key on technology at a crossroads, mild obsessions with antiquity and the art of physical creation, cinematographer Doug Nichol’s debut documentary California Typewriter (B) is a thoughtful glimpse at the history of and current appropriation of a classic and seemingly obsolete invention: the typewriter. This quirky, QWERTY topic opens up a home row of great conversations with the likes of Tom Hanks, songwriter John Mayer and the late actor/playwright Sam Shepard, among an array of enthusiasts and iconoclasts who find a muse in the artifact with crunchy keys to peck, ink ribbons flowing black and red and a carriage return gliding with sheer powertrain force. A central narrative thread is the titular family-run business owned by patriarch Herbert Permillion, located in Berkeley, which is ostensibly a repair shop but also sometimes a blend of triage unit and curiosity cabinet for the bygone devices. Congregated less for requiem than celebration, these real people display a quiet fascination with a tactile tradition and carry the water for real-time output that pre-dated the computer era. John Mayer in particular provides some compelling commentary about lyric writing on a typewriter, free of squiggly digital lines admonishing misspellings and full of rich, pulpy texture that makes you feel amazingly alive as an analog being in a digital world. Among the series of obscure enthusiasts showcased, sculptor Jeremy Mayer (no relation to the singer) is one of the few whose obsession leaves the antique apparatus completely transformed. He breaks down his collection of contraptions into component parts to reconfigure them into anatomically correct human figures, many inspired by the aesthetic of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis; his is an intriguing take on the societal transition between the pre- and post-internet world and stands in contrast with many of the other fanboys (I guess if they’re older, they’d be fan-men) who troll museums, flea markets, swap shops and even foreign countries to purchase and preserve the classic machines. Others wax poetic with nostalgia, wit and downright fetishism about the dandy devices. Hanks prefers the Silent Smith Corona, while others rave about the virtues of a Hermes, Olympia or other company lines as if they were regaling in a car show in full glory. There have been more exciting movies featuring a typewriter at the helm (Misery, The Shining and Naked Lunch come to mind) but few make such a compelling case for a charged object at the center of a lowkey comeback. This movie about magnificent men and their typing machines makes this beast of iron giant again.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Mother! (2017)

The haunted house movie, the expectant mom horror film, the pretentious self-aware arthouse offering and the annual fall travesty starring Jennifer Lawrence all sink to incredible new lows in the gobsmackingly bad new Darren Aronofsky film, Mother! (D). Rarely has a ham-fisted metaphor been more startlingly stretched over a motion picture’s running time. Ostensibly this often irritating film is about an author (Javier Bardem) and his wife (Lawrence), both written as extraordinarily passive, as they rebuild a secluded Victorian mansion and their life together after a tragic fire and try to stave off a series of invasions into their space. The preposterous and inexplicable events that occur as the story unfolds are simply stupefying and increasingly shrill. What starts with genuine menace and some real scares devolves quickly, and the payoff should really involve a refund. From the bizarre lack of chemistry between Lawrence and Bardem to unusual cameos involving two additional Oscar nominees, a former member of the SNL ensemble and a Force Awakens cast member, this cavalcade of hot mess surprises at every corner and not in a good way. Finding out some of the illusions are actually allusions provides only a modicum of solace after all the cacophony. The story and subplots are at the mercy of the symbolism, which renders character intention irrelevant. I did like Michelle Pfeiffer, who makes some fun and arch choices with her houseguest-from-hell character. Ultimately Aronofsky’s off-putting opus plumbs more biblical proportions than even his misbegotten Noah. By the end, the experiment was obvious, and it was performed on the audience. See this film only to discuss it.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: It (2017)

Being trapped in a funhouse of fears with precocious kids and a flesh-eating dancing clown may be the stuff of horror film aficionado fever dreams. But something is definitely missing in Andy Muschietti’s movie adaptation of Stephen King’s novel, It (C+), chapter one of a planned duology, a film that oozes with Spielbergian nostalgia but mostly floats in a preposterous purgatory. The director starts with promise and establishes a credible hero played by Jaeden Wesley Lieberher. The youngster leads a tepid tween team of protagonists who are a bit too Stand By Me-esque to feel like true originals. The first glimpse of Bill Skarsgård as the phantom pantaloon with a Cockney cannibal pie hole is menacing indeed. But too many kids, too many CGI shape-shifters and too many similar set-ups render the enterprise less than terrifying. After a while the answer to everything seems to be, “Cue the clown!” It’s ultimately a horror film without enough scares. Sophia Lillis is a standout as a young lady battling family dysfunction, but hers and all subplots are half-baked. These goonies aren’t good enough. By the end, it’s rather unclear why things unspool the way they do or why it might take a second chapter to tell this tale.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Beach Rats

Eliza Hittman’s Beach Rats (B-) is a dreamlike Brooklyn-set character study about an aimless young man who struggles with his sexuality as he tries to be macho for his seaside buddies and girlfriend while leading a furtive double life of Internet hook-ups and drug-crazed dalliances. Breakthrough actor Harris Dickinson is mesmerizing in the central role, and his character’s heartache is palpable as he makes a series of regrettable choices. The film offers frustratingly few tidy endings to the protagonist’s plight while posing an absorbing series of moral hurdles. The film is a sometimes graphic but also intimately picturesque love child of Moonlight, Shame and Crimes of Passion with a plot point or two and hyper-masculine pack mentality that recalls A Clockwork Orange; but like its central character, it sometimes gets stunted on its jarring journey. The film is nonetheless a sleeper discovery and will reward those looking for an arty alternative from recent multiplex fare.

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Posted in 2017

Movie Review: Inhumans (2017)

Fall is coming! The first two episodes of a new Marvel TV series, presented in IMAX prior to release on ABC, Inhumans (B) is a fairly formulaic but mostly well executed comic book adaptation of a royal espionage action drama, as realized by director Roel Reiné. As a baddie leading a coup on a secret city on earth’s moon, Iwan Rheon is a forceful presence and eclipses all other actors. Less successful is Anson Mount as his brother the king, ostensibly the protagonist. He manages a vacant performance of questionable facial expressions while mute. As his wife Medusa (so named for her supernatural serpentine locks), Serinda Swan is commanding. Most of the titular band of mutants are separated during this mega-episode, so it’s not completely clear how their camaraderie will click in the long term. But the creativity of the source material carries the day in a brisk and bright tale of intrigue. The cliffhanger sets a pretty good stage for events ahead.

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Posted in 2017

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