Film Review: The Florida Project (2017)

Release Date: May 22nd, 2017 (Cannes)
Directed by: Sean Baker
Written by: Sean Baker, Chris Bergoch
Music by: Lorne Balfe
Cast: Willem Dafoe, Brooklyn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones

Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, Cinereach, June Pictures, A24, 115 Minutes

Review:

“Excuse me. Could you give us some change, please? The doctor said we have asthma and we have to eat ice cream right away. ” – Moonee

The Florida Project was a motion picture that I wanted to see since I first saw a trailer several months back, around the time it was playing at Cannes. Growing up in Florida, it was something that definitely felt relatable. Plus, Willem Dafoe’s performance was being heralded as his best ever. Considering Dafoe’s long list of amazing films, that’s a pretty bold statement.

To put it as bluntly as possible, this is the best film that I have seen so far in 2017. From my standpoint, I have more of an invested interest in it, as it correlates with not only taking place where I grew up but also with some personal stuff in my own life.

I’ve grown up around people like this. I have people like this in my family. Hell, the hotel where these people live is like every hotel I bought and did drugs in when I was in my teens and twenties. I’ve known girls like Halley. I’ve dated girls like Halley. I actually have a cousin who is similar to her, just switch out the prostitution part for drugs. Her son now lives with his grandmother, as my cousin is in and out of jail, rehab and back and forth between drugs and sobriety. But every step of the way, I have seen these scenarios pan out, time and time again.

If a film can be too real, this is it. Sean Baker wrote and directed a masterpiece in regards to its subject matter. This feels authentic and seeing everything pan out the way that it does, mostly from a child’s point-of-view, is heartbreaking. The fact that a lot of what you see is spontaneous and often times off script, gives The Florida Project a documentary feel, especially in regards to the kids and their banter.

I’ll get to Dafoe’s performance in a minute but the real show stealer here is the six year-old Moonee, played by Brooklynn Prince, who most assuredly deserves an Oscar nomination for her performance here. I have not seen a child resonate on screen like Prince in a very long time. She delivers her lines like a veteran and has a presence that transcends the 35mm celluloid that she was captured on. Her final moments are like an emotional punch to the gut. She is the glue that holds everything else in this picture together, as well as the heart and soul of the story.

Willem Dafoe was perfect as Bobby, the manager of the hotel that most of the characters live in. Dafoe is perfect in everything though but here, he truly represents us, the audience. He is the compassionate eyes and ears, a good person that has to seemingly carry the weight of the world on his shoulders but puts himself out in front because his heart aches for these characters, specifically Halley and Moonee. He’s an everyday blue collar guy that can’t help himself from trying to put a Band-aid on the world where he can. Dafoe doesn’t even have to say much because we know that he’s thinking what we are thinking and he’s able to convey it through his subtle facial expressions and body language. He’s the underappreciated hero of the film but has to deal with the weight that he can’t save these people at the end of the day.

Bria Vinaite has never acted before this. She really was Halley, though. Everything about her performance felt completely genuine. She constantly made poor decisions but you couldn’t not feel for her. Like Bobby, you wanted to help lift her up and show her that there is a better way to live. But helplessness and hopelessness are incredibly hard things to overcome. And the situation in which these people find themselves in, is not an easy one. When you’re pushed against a wall, it’s hard not to slip or to do bad things to make a quick buck. For Halley, the gravity of her situation prevented her from seeing the bigger picture. Vinaite took what could have easily become an unlikable and despicable character and gave her a real sense of humanity and an energetic spirit. After all, she’s just an incredibly young girl, lost in the world and borderline homeless, trying to raise a daughter.

The Florida Project is also impeccably shot. To me, it feels like a beautiful homage to the state I grew up in and have lived in my entire life. It highlights a lot of the bizarre places, shops and other things that you will find around Disney World. It really shows everything that is just outside of the Magic Kingdom, in the real world, that most people outside of Florida don’t even know about. It’s amazing to me how this film captures the darker side of things that are hiding in plain sight, obscured by the shadow of Cinderella’s Castle.

In a certain regard, the picture parallels how Sean Baker used Hollywood in his 2015 film Tangerine. The environment really becomes a character in the film and its uniqueness gives it an otherworldly fantastical feel that sort of offsets the harsh realism of what’s really happening to Baker’s characters. This isn’t an easy film to sit through, emotionally speaking, but the film’s atmosphere and its young characters give you a sense of optimism and joy.

Sean Baker really knows how to write and film people. This film is truly a treasure and showcases this talented director’s skill and his great sense and understanding of humanity. I haven’t seen a new film this good in quite awhile. I hope that when award season rolls around, this is getting some serious buzz.

Film Review: Murder On the Orient Express (2017)

Release Date: November 2nd, 2017 (Royal Albert Hall premiere)
Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Michael Green
Based on: Murder On the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Music by: Patrick Doyle
Cast: Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman

Kinberg Genre, The Mark Gordon Company, Scott Free Productions, 20th Century Fox, 114 Minutes

Review:

“My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world. ” – Hercule Poirot

Anytime that Kenneth Branagh is working on something, I am interested. Not everything he does is great but he puts his own spin and personal touch into every picture. So when I heard that he would be taking on the role of Hercule Poirot, I got enthused about this project. When I saw the rest of the cast that was attached to this, that enthusiasm became excitement.

I guess I was most excited about seeing Branagh come together with Johnny Depp but Depp plays Mr. Ratchett and is therefore, the murder victim. Depp does an amazing job, especially in his scene opposite Branagh, but he is in the picture and then leaves pretty quickly.

The cast is pretty star studded, boasting the talents of Willem Dafoe, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Colman, Penélope Cruz and others. Everyone pulls their weight well and this whodunit mystery is well played from every angle.

Being that the majority of this film takes place in pretty close confines and that it never gets visually stale is due to the luxuriousness of the sets and the surrounding outside geography. Ultimately, the real props go to the cinematographer and the director for capturing such an enchanting environment.

The story is pretty good and for the most part, follows the book with a few new embellishments. While I haven’t read the book, I did look into its plot and wanted to see if this film had the same ending. It mostly does. But having not read the book, I found the mystery fairly easy to figure out. And there just wasn’t anything all that surprising.

To be completely honest, I did like the movie. I really loved Branagh’s interpretation of Poirot. However, it was mostly just an entertaining mystery that was good to kill a few hours. It’s not too memorable, other than the cool ensemble. It’s also a much tamer picture than I felt it should be. Sure, a guy dies a horrible and violent death but the film sort of dismisses the actual brutality of it all.

The end of the film teases that Poirot is heading to the Nile, which is a reference to the Agatha Christie novel Death On the Nile, another Hercule Poirot tale and possibly a future sequel to this film. I would watch another one, for the record.

Film Review: Death Note (2017)

Release Date: August 25th, 2017
Directed by: Adam Wingard
Written by: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Based on: Death Note by Tsugumi Ohba, Takeshi Obata
Music by: Atticus Ross, Leopold Ross
Cast: Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Keith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Wingham, Willem Dafoe

Vertigo Entertainment, Witten Pictures, Lin Pictures, Viz Pictures, 100 Minutes

Review:

“You’re the one who flew into the sun, I’m just here to make sure you burn!” – L

This review is going to start with a bit of a rant.

When the trailer for this dropped, people seemed outraged over the “whitewashing” of this remake of a famous Japanese manga, anime and live action television show. I mean, if there is a Hollywood version of anything from another culture, isn’t whitewashing pretty much assumed?

The whole point of a Hollywood version of a famous foreign property is to make a version that appeals to American audiences, which, from Hollywood’s viewpoint, is young white people that are most familiar with young white people. Should that change? Yeah, maybe. And I think that change is already happening due to backlash from the drooling whiners in the American public.

Do these same people get offended when Bollywood rips off every American pop culture thing and makes a very Indian version of it? I’m not. I think a lot of that stuff is fantastic and I encourage their creativity, musical prowess and sweet dance moves.

For people who don’t like this Hollywood approach or are cripplingly offended by it, you can make the choice not to watch or support the film. Hell, just cancel your Netflix subscription and bury your face in your manga collection.

That being said, I am not offended by this and I expected it. If you didn’t, you’re an idiot.

With Death Note, I was a fan of the anime, I never read the manga and still haven’t seen the live action show, but I wanted to at least give this a chance. Sometimes these “whitewashed” Hollywood remakes can actually produce great results. Look at The Departed for instance, not that I am taking anything away from its source material, the Hong Kong crime epic Infernal Affairs.

Unfortunately, this film sucked in every way possible.

The main problem with the movie is that they tried to shoehorn in as much plot as possible. It was a big giant mess with absolutely no character development or emotion. You don’t care about a single person in this film and you are just kind of waiting for Willem Dafoe’s Ryuk to show up because he’s the only decent thing about the film.

Being on Netflix, this would have worked much better as a ten-to-twelve episode television season and even then, spread out over a few seasons. The whole movie feels like a 100 minute recap trailer.

Additionally, the cast didn’t really do much for me. The main kid was pretty awful. In fact, he screams like a hysterical girl to the point that he usurped Jesse from A Nightmare On Elm Street 2 as the most effeminate male protagonist in horror history that wasn’t intended to be gay or feminine. He made Jesse from Elm Street 2 look like Ron Swanson with a moose in a headlock. Total fucking pansy in the worst way possible. At least the girl in the film had some balls.

But really, that main actor’s terrifying screams in the beginning actually made me think that this film was intended to be a comedy. I really thought this because that’s how much of an overacting hysterical banshee this guy was.

The film score was done by Atticus Ross, who often times is a collaborator with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. The score was pretty striking and good but the choice of 80s pop music tunes was a bizarre one. Not that it didn’t utilize some great 80s tunes but their placement in certain scenes didn’t fit and became more of a distraction.

What else is there to talk about with this film? Not much. It was a rushed mess with bad acting a horrible script and nothing to emotionally attach to. But Willem Dafoe was cool. Willem Dafoe is always cool.

All this being said, Death Note must be run through the Cinespiria Shitometer. The results read, “Type 5 Stool: Soft blobs with clear-cut edges (passed easily).”

Film Review: Streets of Fire (1984)

Release Date: June 1st, 1984
Directed by: Walter Hill
Written by: Walter Hill, Larry Gross
Music by: Ry Cooder
Cast: Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis, Amy Madigan, Willem Dafoe, Deborah Van Valkenburgh, E.G. Daily, Richard Lawson, Bill Paxton, Lee Ving, Stoney Jackson, Robert Townsend, Grand Bush, Mykelti Williamson, Ed Begley Jr., John Dennis Johnston, Lynne Thigpen

Universal Pictures, 93 Minutes

Review:

“Well, it looks like I finally found someone who likes to play as rough as I do.” – Raven Shaddock

I have always looked at 1984’s Streets of Fire as a sort of spiritual successor to 1979’s The Warriors. They share the same director, some of the same themes, some of the same acting talent and take place in a vivid and surreal fantasy version of urban America.

While music often times drove the narrative and the action of The Warriors it takes over Streets of Fire and propels this picture forward as a perfect balance between the action and musical genres. Granted, this isn’t a traditional musical, it is mostly a string of live performances setting the tone, as the action flows around it. It is a movie full of energy and it is incredibly kinetic.

The film also has a neo-noir look, which was becoming popular in the 80s thanks to films like Blade Runner and slew of independent movies employing the visual style. While made in the 80s, the picture mostly looks like an homage to the 1950s and the rockabilly scene of that decade. The movie is a hybrid of 1950s and 1980s culture but the 50s were on a comeback in the 80s and this film really embraces that.

Streets of Fire also crosses over into the biker gang genre of film and Willem Dafoe’s Raven Shaddock seems to channel his character Vance from his debut film The Loveless, a biker gang picture that was also Kathryn Bigelow’s directorial debut.

The film also stars Michael Paré, Diane Lane, Rick Moranis and Amy Madigan.

Paré was a good hero and it is unfortunate that he didn’t do a whole lot after this movie. His acting was a bit better than average, at this point in his career, but he had a presence and just epitomized cool. Diane Lane was beautiful and did great with the musical numbers, even if it wasn’t her voice. Rick Moranis was incredibly unlikable but even then, who doesn’t like Moranis? This film was Amy Madigan’s coolest role and second only to her part in Field of Dreams. I wish she would have got more roles like her character McCoy.

There are a lot of cameos by up and coming actors, as well as Walter Hill regulars. We get to see a young Bill Paxton, as well as Ed Begley Jr., Deborah Van Valkenburgh, Lynne Thigpen, Lee Ving of the punk band Fear, as well as small roles played by Stoney Jackson and Robert Townsend, who were members of the band The Sorels.

For the most part, the acting is not exceptional and the script is often times cheesy and bare bones but for this picture, it works. This is exactly what it markets itself as, “A rock & roll fable.”

The film is exciting and fast paced and never has much downtime. Sure, the plot might not be as developed as many would like but this isn’t that sort of movie. It is a roller coaster ride of bad ass tunes and bad ass characters where two manly men duel in a fairly original fashion. Plus, Dafoe’s presence adds so much to the picture, despite his lack of experience when this was made.

Streets of Fire was a true throwback when it came out and it still fits that mold, over thirty years after its release. It doesn’t need to be set in a defined space and time. It is imaginative and well executed and it has gone on to become a cult favorite among film aficionados.

Film Review: Cry-Baby (1990)

Release Date: April 6th, 1990
Directed by: John Waters
Written by: John Waters
Music by: Patrick Williams
Cast: Johnny Depp, Amy Locane, Susan Tyrrell, Iggy Pop, Ricki Lake, Traci Lords, Polly Bergen, Kim McGuire, Darren E. Burrows, Mink Stole, Willem Dafoe

Imagine Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 85 Minutes

Review:

“I’m so tired of being good.” – Allison

I’ve been a big fan of John Waters since I was pretty young. Granted, I didn’t see his more vulgar offerings until I was in my late teens but I had a real appreciation for Cry-BabyHairspray (the original) and Serial Mom. I just loved the style of the films and the humor was my cup of tea.

I then realized that it has been a long time since I’ve sat down and watched a Waters picture. So I wanted to go back to where it all started for me: 1990’s Cry-Baby.

This was also one of three films that made me a fan of Johnny Depp’s work. The other two films being Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood. Granted, I also love that he’s in the original A Nightmare On Elm Street.

Cry-Baby is a light musical. While I generally don’t like musicals, this one is pretty great in that it uses a 1950s rockabilly style and there isn’t an overabundance of musical numbers.

The story is about Cry-Baby (Depp) and a girl he meets, Allison (played by Amy Locane). They are from opposite sides of the tracks, Cry-Baby essentially being a Greaser and Allison being a Square, which are like the Socs in The Outsiders. The movie is a sort of Romeo and Juliet story with a cool rockabilly soundtrack and a 1950s style. The climax, which sees Cry-Baby and Allison’s Square ex-boyfriend play chicken while on top of the cars, is pretty well done and a really enjoyable finale.

The film also stars a bunch of interesting people. For one, you have Iggy Pop, who I love in everything and wish he had a bit more meat to chew on in this. You also have former underage porn star Traci Lords and Waters regular and future talk show host Ricki Lake. Willem Dafoe even cameos as a pretty hilarious but no nonsense prison guard. The cast also includes a lot of people who worked in several of Waters’ other films.

Cry-Baby is a short and fun movie. It doesn’t need to be more than it is. Ultimately, it is entertaining and not only drums up 80s and 90s nostalgia but it channels the 1950s, so its like a time capsule with triple the goodness.

While this isn’t Waters’ best film, it truly embodies what a Waters film is while being accessible to those that might not want to see a large drag queen eat dog poop.

Film Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

Release Date: February 6th, 2014 (Berlin premiere)
Directed by: Wes Anderson
Written by: Wes Anderson, Hugo Guinness
Music by: Alexandre Desplat
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, F. Murray Abraham, Mathieu Amalric, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Harvey Keitel, Jude Law, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Saoirse Ronan, Jason Schwartzman, Léa Seydoux, Tilda Swinton, Tom Wilkinson, Owen Wilson

American Empirical Pictures, Indian Paintbrush, Studio Babelsberg, Scott Rudin Productions, TSG Entertainment, Fox Searchlight Pictures, 100 Minutes

the_grand_budapest_hotelReview:

The Grand Budapest Hotel did the unthinkable, it became the highest rated film on IMDb of Wes Anderson’s career, despite the director making countless classics before it. It cracked the top 200 films of all-time and currently sits at 204 on IMDb’s well-known and highly referenced Top 250 list. That’s pretty impressive considering The Life Aquatic with Steve ZissouThe Royal TenenbaumsRushmoreMoonrise Kingdom and others came out before it.

Let me get into the fantastic cast, which is huge.

In somewhat of a small role, never has F. Murray Abraham been better. That is a big statement to make, as he has been an actor featured in countless films over the last several decades but his ability to pull the filmgoer in, as he did, is a gift bestowed upon very few. This also brought out amazing performances by the rest of the cast, which isn’t just a who’s who of those cemented in Wes Anderson lore, it is a who’s who of Hollywood’s most talented crop.

You get Bill Murray in a small but amusing role, Jeff Goldblum and Willem Dafoe in an amazing sequence, Adrien Brody as a fantastic asshole, not to mention Edward Norton, Owen Wilson, Tilda Swinton, Harvey Keitel, Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Mathieu Amalric and Tom Wilkinson.

The bulk of the acting duties are split between the pair of the spectacular Ralph Fiennes and his perfect sidekick Tony Revolori. Saoirse Ronan, who is becoming a favorite of mine, was near perfection as the apple of the young Revolori’s eye. Léa Seydoux also shows up and she is alluring as ever, even as a maid in the hotel.

As a director, Wes Anderson never disappoints, at least in my experiences with his work. This was another gem to add to his seemingly flawless resume but going beyond that, one could argue that this was Anderson’s magnum opus. The high accolades and ratings for this film probably reflect that.

With this picture, Anderson broke his own mold and took some chances that he never has before, which paid off tremendously. For instance, there was a level of violence in this film that one wouldn’t expect from him. Yet, such changes in Anderson’s narrative tone were only enhanced by his crisp and colorful style, thus bringing a new layer to his methodical visual technique that added some depth to his artistic repertoire.

Wes Anderson found a way to reinvent himself and still stay true to his craft and style, giving his few critics something new to chew on and dissect that should thwart the naysayers who relish in the countless parodies of Anderson’s work.

Not to say that I don’t enjoy the parodies myself but Anderson proved that his quirkiness and visual approach aren’t predictable and mundane but that they work exceptionally well and are still presented in new ways: refreshing and enjoyable as the first time one experienced his style. For a filmmaker with such a specific visual aesthetic, such a feat is unheard of after having this much longevity.