Category Archives: drama film

“The Florida Project” a portrait of lives too often hidden

Writer-director Sean Baker has always focused on the smaller stories of the smaller people, the underprivileged and often noticed of American society. In “The Florida Project”, his subjects are set against the backdrop of the happiest place on Earth, further illustrating the discrepancies between the haves and the have-nots.

Set over one summer, “The Florida Project” follows six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) as she courts mischief with her ragtag playmates and bonds with her rebellious but caring mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite). They live in a decrepit motel under the management of Bobby (Willem Dafoe), who tries to protect his tenants as best he can.

The film does a good job of building through little moments, illustrating how Moonee copes with a mother who is not fit to care for her. The viewer goes through a swing of emotions wondering if Halley should be allowed to raise her given her anger-fueled, psychotic rants. She clearly cares for Moonee, but is that enough?

Willem Dafoe shines in his Oscar-nominated role as Bobby. He is both caring and stern, almost a Dickensian character for the miscreants in his motel.

It’s often easy to forget or ignore the people like Halley and Moonee, especially in a tourist destination like Orlando. Films like “The Florida Project” do a good job of reminding us that life is far from peachy for many.

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“I, Tonya” a searing portrait of “truth”

Tonya Harding is one of the most infamous characters of the 1990s, but what is the real story about her and the attack on Nancy Kerrigan? Was Harding involved? Is she a villain or a victim? “I, Tonya” tells the story from Harding’s perspective, but with a wink about the nature of truth.

Directed by Craig Gillespie from a script written by Steven Rogers, the film starts with a young Tonya (Margot Robbie) as she grows up under the fierce tutelage of her mother, LaVona (Allison Janney), who verbally and emotionally abuses her. She marries the violent Jeff (Sebastian Stan), who keeps pushing her to excel on the national and international stage. Her connection to him leads to a bizarre series of events that culminates with a crying Nancy Kerrigan, a public evisceration and years of scandal.

The film is organized around a “Goodfellas” style of voiceover, intermittent interviews and talking to camera. By framing the story around the words of those who were directly involved in the events, the issue of what is truth takes center stage. Tonya tells one story, her mom tells another, her ex-husband tells yet another. And then they change their minds about what happened. And on top of that, the media quickly comes to their own interpretation and defines the story regardless of the facts. It’s an interesting examination similar to “Rashomon”, but with a distinctly American feel. The film dares you to examine your own preconceived notions about the crime and examine if you what you believe is still what you believe.

All of the actors, particularly Robbie and Oscar-winner Janney, excel and the script motors along at a brisk, never-boring pace. You really feel for Harding as she is portrayed as a victim of circumstance rather than a villain. Whether or not that is true is up for debate, even by the film. But this is Harding’s story by Harding. Whether we take it as vindication for her past is up to us.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is fine but lacks gravitas

Directed and starring Kenneth Branagh, “Murder on the Orient Express” tells the story of Hercule Poirot (Branagh) in one of his most famous cases. When Mr. Ratchet (Johnny Depp) is murdered in the dead of night aboard the Orient Express, everyone in the coach is a suspect. Could it be Miss Debenham (Daisy Ridley)? Or Dr. Arbutnot (Leslie Odom Jr.)? Or perhaps the butler, Edward Masterman (Derek Jacobi)?

The film is a fun, if ultimately forgettable, jaunt into an old time mystery. The movie plays it up hokey at times and it could have done so even more. Keeping things light and campy would have really accentuated the classic sense of the film and harken back to an oldtime era. As it is, the reason behind the movie is more of a mystery. It tries to incorporate modern technique into an old story but comes across as too beholden to the past. Perhaps it is just a vanity project as it is directed, starred in and produced by Branagh.

The cinematography is great and the acting is solid. It’s an enjoyable ride that just glides along the surface. The original 1973 version seems so much more memorable though. It really took time to delve into the characters and the story and focused on the mystery as the driving plot. This film is adequate but lacks muster.

“Paterson” a beautiful story

Very few films are made about everyday life. Most movies are about “super” people: spies, politicians, doctors, heroes and the like. But writer and director Jim Jarmusch has always been interested in the “lesser” told stories about everyday folks and “Paterson” is such a simple yet unordinary story.

“Paterson” is about a bus driver, Paterson (Adam Driver), who writes poetry. He takes an active interest in the conversations and lives of those who ride his bus and the people he meets on the streets. His girlfriend, Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), is an eccentric who keeps trying to find herself through various hobbies such as baking and artistry.

The film doesn’t have a concrete plot and seems to wander from encounter to encounter, all done with a purpose but seemingly as random as the flashes of a rolling river shown onscreen. All the characters are trying to find their way in life and Paterson sees their struggles mirror his own in a way, but his outlet of poetry helps him find meaning in a life that on the surface doesn’t seem to be too interesting.

The film is a beautiful tale of seeking an avenue of expression in a world full of stories. We just need to take the time to listen and observe those around us to find meaning in our own lives and realize our full potential of love.

“The Theory of Everything” misses the point

Another British film. Another leading actor who transforms himself for a role and is helped by a supportive female character without much depth. Another biopic. Another overcoming-physical-ailment plot. Another love story that ebbs and flows and plays fast and loose with the facts. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before because “The Theory of Everything” is exactly the type of film you’d expect it to be.

Written by Anthony McCarten and directed by James Marsh, the film examines young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and his relationship with his girlfriend and then wife, Jane (Felicity Jones). As Stephen’s ALS ravages his body, his bond with her is tested and outside influences change their relationship.

The film deals much more with the familial relationships in Hawking’s life rather than the physics which makes him world-famous. In a way, this is a detriment as it minimizes Hawking’s contribution to the world of scientific thought and instead looks at him as some sort of inspirational figure, plugging in a story that really isn’t there and is meant solely to pull at the heartstrings.

The film is a cookie-cutter, Oscar-bait narrative meant to tell a simple story, not offend anyone, and not to engage beyond purely surface detail. There’s as little thought here as in many a modern blockbuster.

The acting is good. Both Redmayne and Jones fill in the empty story with a degree of relatability and charm. You can always count on that with a film like this.

But “The Theory of Everything” should have been so much more than just another Oscar-bait narrative. You could imagine an exploration into Hawking’s theories and dramatic representations of them onscreen. You could see the mental fortitude needed to come up with his ideas while restricted to a wheelchair. Perhaps the film balances Hawking’s life with his theories and shows how one influences the other. There’s a moment near the end of the movie where the film plays back in reverse, highlighting one of Hawking’s theories about time, and we see how his life is played out back to a single instant. It’s just a glimpse into the kind of film we wish we had.

“War Horse” turns up the schmaltz to 11

Director Steven Spielberg has been known to oversentimentalize his movies, especially those that deal with important historical events or ethical causes. So with “War Horse”, a film about protecting animals and the horrors of World War 1, you can practically taste the sugar-coating over the film.

Albert (Jeremy Irvine) develops a strong relationship with his family’s horse, Joey. At the outbreak of World War 1, his horse is recruited into the war effort by Capt. Nicholls (Tom Hiddleston), and Albert is enlisted soon after. As the war rages on, Joey is exchanged between the British, the French and the Germans throughout the front, finding humanity in each of them despite the carnage of conflict.

The morals of the story are fine. The beauty of nature, man should be more kind to each other, respect divine laws, blah, blah, blah. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before which makes the film pretty redundant.

The production feels like an expensive version of “Black Stallion” meets “Little House on the Prairie”, so full of schmaltz and pomp and circumstance and tear-jerker moments. It’s a Hallmark greeting card propped up by millions of dollars. So while it’s a typically well-made Spielberg film, it’s nothing more than a glorified soap opera.

There’s a touching scene where a British soldier and German soldier work together to free Joey from barbwire. It’s one of the only interesting scenes in the film and pretty much could have served as just a short film and gotten across the same meaning. Layering everything else on is indulgent. Noble intentions aside, “War Horse” falls short.

New “Macbeth” bloody, beautiful, lacking purpose

Shakespeare has been adapted for the screen so often that the purpose for doing so is often simply because it’s been a few years since someone has done so. The problem then is in trying to do something with the material that hasn’t been before. For director Justin Kurzel, that solution is to deposit some modern-day war allegory into the plot and fill the frame with lush cinematography. Is that enough of a purpose?

“Macbeth” tells the familiar tale of the title character (Michael Fassbender) who is prophesied by three witches to be king. Edged on by his wife (Marion Cotillard), Macbeth murders King Duncan (David Thewlis) and usurps the throne. As madness overtakes the pair, opposing forces push in around them.

The film focuses on the war aspect of Macbeth’s background, showing how the terrors of conflict can drive a man to do reprehensible acts. In addition, the film features the Macbeths burying their young child, adding further fuel to Lady’s declaration to cleanse her femininity. Does Macbeth having PTSD factor into an interpretation of Shakespeare’s play? Does Lady Macbeth’s lack of childbearing contribute to her vengeful disposition? The underlying currents of such notions are certainly present in the story. It’s an interesting take.

The star of the film is certainly the cinematography. Whether it is bright blues and whites, dark reds and oranges or lush greens and browns, the film is a lived in, ethereal canvas. It paints the environment as an active participant in the story, intensifying the power of nature and fate. But it’s also distracting. The visuals are so detailed and so refined that they pull the viewer out of the story because they can tell that what the director is really after is the image at the expense of story in a way. The over-stylization at times also speaks to being more of a show-off than a storyteller. The story of Macbeth’s power lies not so much in the screen as much as the words of Shakespeare, his ability to infuse each line of dialogue with nuance and sublimation. In that sense, this version of the story offers little that’s new.

So even though 2015’s “Macbeth” lacks purpose, it is still definitively Shakespeare’s Macbeth. The forlorn, despotic tale lives in the narrative and for those unfamiliar with the original work, it is not a bad introduction to the story.