Category Archives: 2017

The Florida Project (2017, Sean Baker)

The Florida Project turns out to be a lot about perspective. Director Baker establishes three different perspectives–six-year-old Brooklynn Prince, her mom (Bria Vinaite), and the manager of the motel where they live (William Dafoe). The film takes place over a summer, as Prince makes new friends and loses old ones. The kids have numerous adventures, occasionally sweet, sometimes rude, sometimes dangerous, often funny. Vinaite has recently lost her job as a stripper when the movie starts, something which Baker only addresses from Prince’s perspective. Because it doesn’t seem important to Prince’s story.

And for most of the film, it isn’t. Most of Florida Project is split between Prince and company’s adventures and how much trouble they cause for Dafoe. But it’s not too much trouble because Dafoe’s really a big softy. He’s caring and compassionate and trapped in a cage of his own making. He’s trying to do what’s right.

Each of Prince’s friends has a somewhat different living situation as far as parents or guardians go, but they all live in the same motel or nearby. Baker and co-writer Chris Bergoch do great with getting in the exposition about how it works, living in motels (i.e. occupancy laws, dining, rent). There’s a lot of visual emphasis on the green paradise of a setting. Baker and photographer Alexis Zabe set these characters, with their often dangerous problems, against this idyllic backdrop.

It’s gorgeous but leads to another problem of perspective; do they characters acknowledge the beauty around them? For a while it seems like Dafoe might. Unfortunately, as the film enters its second half and focuses more on Vinaite and Prince together, its treatment of Dafoe changes. It’s no longer watching him–from Prince’s perspective–but giving him a scene here or there, just to keep him present. He even gets an utterly uncooked subplot involving Caleb Landry Jones. For two scenes. With no pay-off. Or even affect on Dafoe’s arc.

The second half turns out to be rife with character revelations, as Vinaite’s friendship with fellow mom Mela Murder turns out to be a bait and switch as far as plot progression expectations. It’s too bad, as Murder made Vinaite a lot less obnoxious (not in a bad way though) in her plotline. Instead, Vinaite and Prince’s plotlines pretty much join–Prince’s adventures, while more visually glorious, becoming subplot–and it’s mostly a reveal of Vinaite. Turns out by sticking with Prince, Baker was really skirting away from a lot of truth about mom Vinaite. Prince never figures it out, which then changes the narrative distance as far as she and the friends go. And it turns out Dafoe’s unreliable too.

None of it’s bad. Baker isn’t sneaky or tricky in the filmmaking. The scenes are always right on. They just maybe aren’t the right scenes for where the movie ends up going. A lack of information is built into how the movie works–it’s from a six-year-old’s perspective, sometimes including height–and the composition, the photography, the editing, and Lorne Balfe’s music captivate throughout. Baker just doesn’t mix in the the captivating and epical action well. Especially not since he has this final intellectual reveal he really could’ve worked in sooner and gotten greater effect.

Because, of course, it turns out even though the movie sticks with Prince, she’s got her own relevation offscreen things going on.

So Florida Project is lyrical until it’s epical. It does better with the lyrical because it hasn’t been doing the work to be epical. Beautiful filmmaking can only cover so much.

Lots of great acting. Dafoe’s phenomenal, even if he never gets a pay-off. Though no one gets a pay-off; maybe Vinaite. But even hers is problematic. She’s good. She’d probably be better if Baker defined the character better in the first act. Instead of having development, she has character revelation. A minor tweak of focus would’ve helped a bunch.

The kids are awesome. Prince, Christopher Rivera, Valeria Cotto, Aiden Malik. Rivera plays Murder’s son and is best friend #1. Cotto becomes best friend #2. Malik is sort of background. Baker knows how to direct the kids to get some amazing moments. Even when they’re just goofing off.

In the supporting roles, Murder is good but eventually undercooked. She’s not reliable either. Josie Olivo is great in a smaller part as Cotto’s grandmother and maybe the closest thing to a good role model Vinaite encounters.

The film’s a technical marvel. Interiors, exteriors, long shots, close-ups, Zabe’s photography is always perfect. Same goes for Baker’s cutting. Balfe’s score is perfect.

The Florida Project is nearly great. Instead, it’s almost great. With some exceptional performances, direction, and technical aspects.

3

CREDITS

Edited and directed by Sean Baker; written by Baker and Chris Bergoch; director of photography, Alexis Zabe; music by Lorne Balfe; production designer, Stephonik Youth; produced by Baker, Bergoch, Kevin Chinoy, Andrew Duncan, Alex Saks, Francesca Silvestri, Shih-Ching Tsou; released by A24.

Starring Brooklynn Prince (Moonee), Bria Vinaite (Halley), Willem Dafoe (Bobby), Valeria Cotto (Jancey), Christopher Rivera (Scooty), Mela Murder (Ashley), Aiden Malik (Dicky), Caleb Landry Jones (Jack), Josie Olivo (Stacy).


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Loving Vincent (2017, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman)

Loving Vincent is the story of the man in the yellow suit (not to be confused with the Man in the Yellow Hat, which is sort of unfortunate because monkey) and his quest to deliver Vincent Van Gogh’s last letter.

The title comes from how Van Gogh signed letters to his brother–“your most loving brother.” The man in the yellow hat, played by Douglas Booth, has a letter for Theo. It’s a year after Van Gogh’s death. Little does Booth know his quest will reveal Theo’s died as well. Upon that discovery, Booth heads to Auvers-sur-Oise, where Van Gogh lived for the last two months of his life.

There, he finds himself in the middle of a mysterious suicide, which Booth turns into an unsolved murder. Loving Vincent, the film, is very wishy washy on having any kind of opinion on the matter. In fact, as Saoirse Ronan chastizes Booth, you’re not supposed to fixate on how Van Gogh died, but how he lived. Oddly, until that point (and even a little later), the film fixates on how Van Gogh dies. It’s constantly pivoting to avoid having to fixate on his living.

First and foremost, the flashback sequences are always narrated–Van Gogh appears all the time, played by Robert Gulaczyk–but he’s never the protagonist, always the subject. The film, I might have mentioned earlier, is the first entirely handpainted motion picture. Ninety-five minutes, 65,000 frames, all oil painted. The actors were filmed in front of green screens. Booth’s quest looks like a Van Gogh painting. In fact, his quest just introducecs him to the other subjects of actual Van Gogh paintings so it’s a Van Gogh painting subject team-up movie.

Except the flashbacks are entirely black and white. And very, very realistic. And directed in an entirely different manner than the present action of the film. There’s a lot of first-person camera work in the flashbacks, which makes things rather urgent, but never visually interesting. Visually competent to be sure, but never visually interesting. All the visual interesting stuff is in the present, for feckless Booth to encounter.

If Loving Vincent were more concerned with being educational–if it were purely educational–it’d be a lot more successful. Instead, the writers–co-directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman as well as Jacek Dehnel–settle on this didactic tone at the end, condescending to Booth for his interest. As well as the audience’s because if they’re not interested in what Booth’s interested in, there’s no narrative. The movie ends with a song–addressing Vincent Van Gogh–about how he’s now loved, even though he wasn’t when it mattered. Again, if it were an IMAX movie, if it were educational… sure.

But as historical fiction? It’s a bit much.

The direction is a lot of the problem. Kobiela and Welchman are dull in the present. They set up shots like paintings, which then look like paintings, but they’re dramatically inert. You watch Loving Vincent for the visuals (and the visual references), not much else. Except, of course, Chris O’Dowd showing up as a fifty year-old Frenchman with a huge beard (bigger than Van Gogh actually painted it) and O’Dowd’s charming Irish accent.

The accents–well, no one except Gulaczyk has what could might called an authentic accent. It’s a bunch of British actors playing French people with distinct British accents. Gulaczyk might not even being doing a Dutch accent, it might just be his Polish accent, but at least it’s not English.

Acting-wise, Booth is okay. He gets better as the film goes along. The first act is rough as the film sets him out on this quest. John Sessions is fun. Aidan Turner’s all right. Jerome Flynn is all right. He’s not in it enough after all the emphasis the narrative puts on the character; he plays Van Gogh’s doctor for those last two months. He also suffers from the most egregious style shift. In the same scene, thanks to different painters (there were 125 painters who worked on the film), Flynn’s head changes size dramatically between shots.

In the bigger supporting roles–the above actors really only have one scene, except Booth, of course–there are Saorise Ronan as Flynn’s daughter and the object of Van Gogh’s affections, there’s Helen McCrory as Flynn’s disapproving housekeeper, and then Eleanor Tomlinson as the innkeeper’s daughter (where Van Gogh stayed those last two months). McCrory’s an evil harpy without a character. Her animation is also overly brusque, like she’s not worth the attention. Even though the film uses her multiple times as an expository tool.

Ronan’s not great. She’s okay. Eventually. Her animation gets a lot more attention, but none of it to rendering any kind of visual performance. There’s nothing to meet Ronan’s dialogue delivery.

Tomlinson’s great. She and Booth have actual chemistry, something Loving Vincent’s lacking the rest of the time. It’s because Tomlinson even gets a character. She’s got more depth than anyone else, including “protagonist” Booth. Booth gets some backstory and subplots, but nothing consequential. The movie’s not about the characters, it’s not about the crossover, it’s about how the audience cares too much about how Van Gogh died and not enough about how he lived.

So it’s weird the movie’s all about how he died.

The oil painted frames are the draw. Though the film never does anything with it CGI couldn’t do. And the decision to avoid trying to show Van Gogh in the world as he saw it (i.e. his paintings) is a major cop out. One the film tries to cover with a couple readings of his letters.

Again, as a purely educational film, it’d be awesome. But with the attempted narrative? A beautiful technical achievement. And not much else.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman; written by Kobiela, Welchman, and Jacek Dehnel; directors of photography, Tristan Oliver and Lukasz Zal; editors, Kobiela and Justyna Wierszynska; music by Clint Mansell; production designers, Matthew Button, Maria Duffek, and Andrzej Rafal Waltenberger; produced by Sean M. Bobbitt, Ivan Mactaggart, and Welchman; released by Altitude Film Distribution.

Starring Douglas Booth (Armand Roulin), Chris O’Dowd (Postman Joseph Roulin), Jerome Flynn (Paul Gachet), Saoirse Ronan (Marguerite Gachet), Eleanor Tomlinson (Adeline Ravoux), Helen McCrory (Louise Chevalier), John Sessions (Père Tanguy), Aidan Turner (boatman), and Robert Gulaczyk (Vincent van Gogh).


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Blade Runner 2049 (2017, Denis Villeneuve)

Whatever its faults, Blade Runner 2049 is breathtaking. Director Villeneuve’s composition, Roger Deakins’s photography, Dennis Gassner’s production design, all the CGI–the film is constantly gorgeous. It’s got nothing beautiful to show–the world of 2049 is a wasteland, all plant life is dead, the endless L.A. skyline is (while awesome) nasty, San Diego is a huge, inhabited dump. I mean, Jared Leto is a biochem industrialist who saves the world; like that world is going to be nice.

2049 spends a lot of time showcasing the achievements of that exterior setting. Interiors are sparer. Villeneuve’s direction is always good (or better), but the interior scenes lack something visually. Joe Walker’s editing can usually cover for it. Most of the interiors have lead Ryan Gosling wishing he was a real boy instead of a pretend one. He’s even got a pretend girlfriend (Ana de Armas as a holographic companion) who wishes she was a real one.

For a while, 2049 seems like it might be about Gosling and de Armas. But it’s not. Because even though Gosling is a Blade Runner, he’s not the blade runner 2049 cares about. Once Harrison Ford shows up, even when the movie’s from Gosling’s perspective, it’s not Gosling’s movie anymore. Maybe if the film had some great part for Ford, it would matter. But it doesn’t. It gives him a few minutes to get established, in a completely different context than his previous turn in the role, and then it keeps him around. Walker’s editing doesn’t cover for Ford like it does Gosling. Gosling sits around despondent in his affectless. Ford looks surprisingly genial and well-adjusted for a person who’s supposedly lived in complete isolation for the last thirty years.

Bringing me to talking about 2049 as a sequel to the original. Because there’s really nothing to it otherwise. There are a handful of sequel setups in 2049, but the way screenwriters Hampton Fancher (returning from the first film) and Michael Green find a story from the first movie? They just retcon obtusely, trusting Villeneuve to be able to pull it off. And he does. He’s able to keep 2049’s narrative detached from the screenplay’s minutiae (for most of the film); Gosling helps, until the movie stops wanting him to help. de Armas helps. Robin Wright (as Gosling’s boss, in an underwritten, underutilized role) helps. Ford’s likable, which really isn’t enough (and might be completely inappropriate, actually). Villain Sylvia Hoeks doesn’t help. She’s shockingly underdeveloped. And Villeneuve’s direction of the genetically enhanced replicant fight scenes is wanting. He can do it when it’s inconsequential, but he’s not able to make the fights dangerous for the characters.

Possibly because of Gosling’s complete detachment in the third act of the film, which is when there’s all the “first movie” revelations (but not, rather events soon following the first movie revelations) and sequel setup. Gosling starts on a hero’s quest, then finds himself just an observer of one. The prologue to one. Villeneuve and company cover as best they can–making the narrative events as unimportant an aspect to the film as possible–but they can’t. Villeneuve can’t share the movie between Ford and Gosling, neither can the script. Everyone just throws up their hands.

Probably because Ford doesn’t need to be there. But if Ford doesn’t need to be there, maybe the direct ties to the first movie don’t need to be there; take those two things away and there’s nothing to 2049 except the gorgeous dystopia. Gosling and de Armas’s subplot, which the film ends up using mostly pragmatically, is red herring.

The music, from Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, is lacking. But maybe because the film uses it so sparing. 2049 is bold where it can excel–the visuals–and cowardly where it needs to create. The villains are exceptionally thin. Gosling loses his movie. Ford gets to retread a part made different to allow for a way too careful sequel.

It’s too bad, but–deep down–no one should’ve thought a Blade Runner sequel would work. Especially not with Ford forced back into it. It’s like they got the money for a sequel but no one with a real idea for one. Villeneuve’s direction is visually stunning, his direction of actors is usually strong, but he’s got no handle on the story. 2049 is about avoidance.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to avoid a future where Jared Leto saved humanity.

CREDITS

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; screenplay by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, based on a story by Fancher, and characters created by Philip K. Dick, Fancher, and David Webb Peoples; director of photography, Roger Deakins; edited by Joe Walker; music by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer; production designer, Dennis Gassner; produced by Bud Yorkin, Broderick Johnson, Cynthia Sikes, and Andrew A. Kosgrove; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Ryan Gosling (K), Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), Ana de Armas (Joi), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Robin Wright (Madame), Dave Bautista (Sapper Morton), Mackenzie Davis (Mariette), and Carla Juri (Dr. Ana Stelline).


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Thor: Ragnarok (2017, Taika Waititi)

Why does Thor: Ragnarok open with Chris Hemsworth narrating only for him to stop once the title card sizzles? Literally, sizzles. Ragnarok is delightfully tongue-in-cheek and on-the-nose. Director Waititi refuses to take anything too seriously, which makes for an amusing two plus hours, but it doesn’t amount to much. If anything.

When Hemsworth stops narrating–after a big, well-executed action sequence–he heads back to mythic Asgard. There he pals around with a number of cameoing stars before heading down to Earth to pal around with cameoing Benedict Cumberbatch. Tom Hiddleston is around for much of these scenes, turning up as much charm as possible in a thin part. Sometimes if it weren’t for Hiddleston’s hair, he’d have no screen presence at all. Not because he’s bad–he’s fun–but because Ragnarok doesn’t really have anything for him to do.

The main plot–involving Hemsworth ending up on a far-off planet duking it out with CGI Hulk (Mark Ruffalo shows up eventually) to amuse Jeff Goldblum. Goldblum is playing an alien ruler, but really, he’s just playing mainstream blockbuster Jeff Goldblum. Though not mainstream blockbuster lead Jeff Goldblum; supporting mainstream blockbuster Jeff Goldblum. He’s got less responsibility but more enthusiasm.

One of Goldblum’s minions is Tessa Thompson. Turns out she’s also from Asgard. So Hemsworth tries to bond with her–oh, I forgot. In between the Cumberbatch cameo and Goldblum’s arrival–Hemsworth and Hiddleston meet up with dad Anthony Hopkins (in such a rousing performance you can hear the paycheck deposit) then discover previously unknown sister Cate Blanchett is laying waste to Asgard.

She’s god of death. Hemsworth is god of thunder. Hiddleston is god of mischief. The first two eventually become important. Like everything else involving Hiddleston in Ragnarok, turns out his god power isn’t important.

Karl Urban is Blanchett’s sidekick, though he gets astoundingly little to do. Much of the supporting cast gets bupkis–like Irdis Elba, who should have a big part since he’s leading a revolutionary force, but he doesn’t. Ragnorak churns. Neither its plot nor its characters develop. Thompson gets the closest thing to an arc and it’s super thin.

Instead, director Waititi relies on Hemsworth’s ability to be likable and mug his way through scenes. Hemsworth and Thompson flirt bickering, Hemsworth and Hiddleston brotherly bickering, Hemsworth and CGI Hulk monosyllabic bickering. The actors do end up creating distinct characters, the script just doesn’t need them to be distinct. So when the third act rolls around and it’s time for the showdown with Blanchett, all the personality gets dropped. There are like six people to follow through the battle sequence. There’s no time for personality.

Waititi’s direction is strong throughout. He’s better when setting things up and taking the time for the grandiose action. Once it gets to the alien planet, he’s lost interest in exploring how the viewer might best experience the scale. It’s fine without–the cast keeps it going–but when it comes time for Ragnorak to add everything up, it’s way too light. Especially since the whole finale hinges on something not really explored enough at the beginning.

Also. It’s unbelievable Hemsworth, Hiddleston, and Thompson are so unfamiliar with the concept of Ragnarok. I feel like at least one of them would’ve had to have read Edith Hamilton.

But it doesn’t matter, because it’s all fun. There’s fun music from Mark Mothersbaugh, there’s a fun performance from Blanchett (who rather impressively tempers herself, resisting all temptation to chew the hell out of the CGI scenery), there’s a lot of funny lines. A lot of good sight gags. Waititi knows how to get a laugh.

If only Ragnarok didn’t have drama. The screenwriters don’t do well with the drama, Waititi wants to avoid it, the cast has no enthusiasm for it. It often involves CGI backdrops with poorly lighted composites too. The film can handle being a goofy good time. It can’t handle the rest. It can’t even handle giving Ruffalo actually gravitas. He just mugs his way through scenes, which is fine, he’s good at it. But it does mean you don’t have a single returning principal in the film with any character development. Not the Thor players, not Ruffalo in his spin-off from The Avengers 2.

Thompson and Urban both get one, but they’re playing caricatures. They’re playing them well, sure. But they’re caricatures, thin for even Ragnarok.

Good special effects. Some striking visuals. Waititi does better at the fight scenes than the sci-fi action scenes. Good photography from Javier Aguirresarobe. The Mothersbaugh score is decent.

The plot just turns out to be inferior one. While pretending to be an ostentatious no-frills plot. Without the characters making up for those deficiencies, Ragnarok just can’t bring it home.

Awesome Led Zeppelin sequences or not.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Taika Waititi; screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, based on the Marvel comics by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Javier Aguirresarobe; edited by Zene Baker and Joel Negron; music by Mark Mothersbaugh; production designer, Dan Hennah and Ra Vincent; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Cate Blanchett (Hela), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Karl Urban (Skurge), Anthony Hopkins (Odin), Jeff Goldblum (Grandmaster), and Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange).


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