Tag Archives: movies

“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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“Julieta” another solid Almodóvar film

Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar has crafted quite a collection of films that primarily examine the modern female psyche in Spanish culture. “Julieta” is another pristine film that is heartfelt, multi-layered and unique yet familiar.

Julieta (Emma Suárez) is preparing to move to Portugal with her boyfriend, Lorenzo (Darío Grandinetti) when a chance encounter with Bea (Michelle Jenner), her estranged daughter’s best friend, upends her life. Delving into the past, young Julieta (Adriana Ugarte) meets Xoan (Daniel Grao) and their love leads her down a strange path of random chance and heartache.

Almodóvar deftly blends together themes of regret, depression, hope and maturity into Julieta’s story. The plot uses backstory, flashbacks and clear progression to illustrate Julietta’s emotional state as she goes from naive youth to young mother to sorrowful widow to distant matriarch, and we recognize the transfer of her story to her daughter, Antia. The passing of a similar story from mother to daughter (and we assume eventually to her daughters as well) brings universality to the narrative.

Almodóvar has never been an especially flashy filmmaker, especially in later years, but then again, he doesn’t need to be. His camera focuses on actors and their interactions and reactions to tell the story. This guiding principle keeps the drama focused on the characters and really allows his actors to inhabit their roles. It makes for a very personal experience.

“Timbuktu” a portrait of modern times

For many Americans, the problems of the outside world seem so distant, especially those of different cultures. One of the best avenues for seeing the lives and plight of other peoples is cinema, and “Timbuktu” illuminates the lives of some Malian citizen in modern times, illustrating the struggle of communities under the grips of ISIS forces.

In Timbuktu, proud cattle herder Kidane (Ibrahim Ahmed aka Pino) lives peacefully in the dunes with his wife Satima (Toulou Kiki), his daughter Toya (Layla Walet Mohamed), and Issan (Mehdi Ag Mohamed), their twelve-year-old shepherd. When ISIS gains ground in their war, the family’s lives are upended by a new reign of restrictive laws and personal vendettas.

“Timbuktu” does a good job of showing a wide range of life throughout the town. Kidane and his family are the focus of the story, but various subplots involving other people are explored which contribute to the theme of personal liberty being curtailed by religious dogma. It’s very much like a Robert Altman film in a way.

Writer-director Abderrahmane Sissako was born in Kiffa, Mauritania and lived in Mali as a child, adding credence and authenticity to the film. This is a portrait of Malian life through the eyes of a Malian, not the vision of a white filmmaker on how he interprets Timbuktu and ISIS. The film feels real. You can almost run your hand in the sands of the town as you watch it.

Seeing Timbuktu come under the control of radicals is heartbreaking and we gain a connection to Kidane’s family. Though we may be separated by oceans, culture, language and even faith, we are similar in so many ways and seeing their freedom stripped from them gives an American audience greater empathy with world events. At the same time, “Timbuktu” tells an interesting story that’s not defined solely by political outreach or themes. Kidane, Satima,Toya and Issan are interesting characters with interesting character arcs. The film is a historical artifact in a way, giving a glimpse into a story most of us only see snippets of on CNN.

“The Death of Stalin” hits some marks while missing relevance

Watching “The Death of Stalin” is quite enjoyable. Characters trying not to be assassinated, scheming to get the upper hand on their peers, trying to profess the most love for a malevolent dictator that no one liked. But as soon as the film ends, you realize that the story lacks staying power and nothing really new was presented.

Josef Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) has the Soviet Union in the throes of his dictatorship. Everyone is terrified of him. People are routinely rounded up and executed. His cabinet do their best to stay in his good graces, but when Stalin keels over from a brain hemorrhage, the entire empire is up for grabs. Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), Nikita Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) and Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) all try to outwit each other in a game of cat and mouse to change the Soviet Union and usurp power and control for themselves to hilarious effect in this new power vacuum.

The film does a great job of creating jokes at the Soviet system’s expense. The lengths to stay alive and seem devoted to Stalin are extreme (and mirror our current times and fascist-leaning “leader”). And there are quite a few laughs (mostly quips) from the family dynamic of a bunch of wayward sons losing their patriarch whom none of them really liked. It’s an interesting story and a good filter of history.

It is a bit strange to see non-Russians playing such important Russian characters (Steve Buscemi looks absolutely nothing like Khurschev), but that is forgivable.

The biggest problem is that the film does not present anything new. For anyone remotely informed about Soviet history, the fact that the Communists routinely executed their citizens and must have pledged loyalty to the one in charge is not ground breaking information. The film doesn’t have much to say about the Soviets than is already known. And the ending, where such an opportunity is given to present a moral argument or show characters change, is just more of the same.

Perhaps if the film wanted to tie into current tyrants more or make a point about how power always corrupts or show how squabbles result in the doom of everyone, the film would have more resonance, but the movie just sort of ends with no character change or revelation. It’s a bit disappointing for so rich a tale otherwise.

Nevertheless, “The Death of Stalin” offers some funny moments and some commentary on historical inaccuracies. It’s a fun watch.

“A Ghost Story” a haunting look at existence

Those looking for scares or spooks from writer-director David Lowery’s “A Ghost Story” will be sorely disappointed. What Lowery has crafted is an interesting examination of what life must look like from a ghost’s perspective and how questions about existence must plague such beings. It’s one of the more surreal films of the year.

C (Casey Affleck) dies in a car accident. He becomes a ghost, a literal white sheet that walks the Earth. He returns to his house and watches over his wife, M (Rooney Mara). When she leaves, he looks into the lives of the people who continue to live in the house and even delves into the past. What is he searching for? What will happen to him?

The film is a very ethereal, metaphysical examination of life. C waits for his wife until he can’t anymore. Will he ever find her? What is his path forward? Can he move on?

He wanders through so many planes of existence that it’s difficult to see where the story is headed. There is a somewhat heavy-handed, drunken tirade by one of the house occupants who states that life is pointless and constantly moving. Is that what the film is about? Does C find peace? What is peace?

Everything is very internal so the film leaves plenty of room for interpretation. It is slow, deliberate and haunting. Apart from the one tirade listed above, there’s little at fault in the film because it is practically an open canvas, open for people to find their own meaning in it.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is the ultimate showdown the MCU deserves

With near 40 characters, dozens of sideplots and a ten-year buildup spanning over a 15 films, it seemed as though Marvel’s “Infinity War” would be a colossal mess. It’s amazing therefore that not only is “Infinity War” not a disaster, it tells a great story that deftly weaves together everything special about the Marvel Cinematic Universe and sets up a killer finale.

The film focuses on Thanos (Josh Brolin), a warlord who seeks to wipe out half the universe with the use of the Infinity gauntlet which he can wield when he discovers all 6 Infinity stones which have appeared sporadically throughout the Marvel Universe up to now. As each Marvel character from Iron Man to Dr. Strange to the Guardians of the Galaxy to Thor to Black Panther comes to grips with his plan, various scenarios emerge to try and stop him before he harnesses the ultimate weapon in pursuit of a psychotic quest. Even that may not be enough.

Thanos serves as the protagonist. He becomes one of Marvel’s best villains to date, joining Loki and Killmonger as fully realized characters with sympathetic agendas and interesting personalities. The fact that he is not a simple evil monster bent on world domination, but has an interesting take on how to save the universe, gives him an interesting ethical quest. He’s empathetic and terrifying.

Anthony and Joe Russo deserve a great deal of credit for finding a way to balance all of the characters while making sure that no one feels thrown in. Each storyline builds in progression to the climax, creating a tapestry of plots around the theme of sacrifice. What will it take to save the world? Your life? Your lover’s life? Your soul? It’s a dark, emotional story, something far deeper than anything the MCU has ever done before. We’re now passed the simple good guy vs. bad guy plot. We’re delving into deep human nature.

In a way, it’s similar to a “Lord of the Rings” film or “Game of Thrones” as Marvel has pushed each of their characters to the final breaking point. It feels like an ending of sorts and that gives the film added heft. This feels like the send off we deserve.

*SPOILERS BELOW* DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM

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Many will state that this is only half a film, but it is not. The protagonist is Thanos, and he goes from having a goal to achieving a goal, end of story. We all know another film is coming, but the Avengers finally have their “Empire Strikes Back” down ending necessary to really test their mettle. The next film should be connected but feel distinct as it’s own entry.

There are a few storylines that need to conclude, specifically the Tony Stark and Steve Rogers plot. These two have been at it over different ideologies since the first “Avengers” film. “Civil War” officially broke them apart and now the need to destroy Thanos will bring them together. Tony has been trying to avert cataclysm since the beginning, always looking for a way out. Might that mean he and Steve need to recognize the need for self-sacrifice together? Tony and Pepper Potts as well are nearing the end of their drama. Will they get to have a happy ending with a family or will Tony sacrifice himself for Pepper’s future?

Also needing a conclusion are Bruce Banner and Black Widow. Their romance has lost steam over the years, but now they must determine whether or not they can make it work.

Thor seems to have most of his character arc wrapped up after “Ragnarok” by inheriting the responsibility of becoming king, but perhaps he will explore the nature of revenge in the final film. Rocket surviving hints that he will continue to be a foil for the god of thunder.

And of course, the next film will be a continuation of Thanos’ story. After proclaiming he has lost everything, he has still achieved his goal. Whether he is happy or not with the result will determine his future actions. Logic dictates that he will safeguard the Infinity gauntlet at all costs, meaning that the Avengers will be dictating the action. But with reality itself malleable, perhaps madness may overcome the titan, testing his will. Things could, and should, get mighty trippy.

One thing that was lacking from “Infinity War” was a direct ideological confrontation against Thanos. The next film should firmly introduce what the Avengers stand for and how that vision is different than Thanos’ genocidal fanaticism. This will ultimately show what the Avengers stand for and serve as the overall moral of the entire saga. In tying with the previous films, it will likely involve the need to stand together as a team and the value of every person.

One can not help but think back to Vision and Ultron’s conversation at the end of “Age of Ultron.” Vision mused about mankind’s shortcomings and Ultron reminded him that they’re doomed. Vision agreed, but that there was grace in their shortcomings. That speaks to the ending of “Infinity War.” Now comes the need for Earth’s mightiest heroes to show that though they may be defeatable, their ideals aren’t.

At the end of the film, it is hinted that Captain Marvel may be part of the solution against Thanos, but this plot has some inherent danger attached to it. The Avengers can not win with a deus ex machina where a magical being comes in and saves them. The victory must come from them.

And we all know that death is not a certainty in superhero films. Spider-Man, Black Panther and the Guardians of the Galaxy are not really gone. They have further films still to do. We know they’ll be back. It’s just important that when they do come back, the effect of death is not minimized. Characters can not come and go without consequence or else the films will become a muddled mess without stakes. All future deaths will simply be viewed as empty because we’ll just wait for their return. It’ll be tricky for the Russos to navigate that return without cheapening the film’s power.

As the penultimate film of the first MCU iteration, “Infinity War” does a great job of setting up the final film. The saving of the universe is at stake as well as deep themes of personal loss, sacrifice and revenge. It’ll be a long wait till next year to see how it all turns out.

 

 

 

“The Greatest Showman” more glam than substance

“The Greatest Showman” tells the story of P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), a dad married to his wife, Charity (Michelle Williams), who embarks on a plan to create a circus sensation with the help of his partner, Philip Carlyle (Zac Effron). They enlist the help of various performers such as Anne Wheeler (Zendaya), a trapeze artist, and Lettie Lutz (Keala Settle), a bearded woman singer, in their struggle for legitimacy.

The film harkens back to the days of the grand old musical, full of sparkle, glitz and glam. There’s extravagant costumes and bright colors and kinetic energy. And underneath it all is practically nothing, a hollow shell of a story.

The music is great (just try to get “The Greatest Show” or “This Is Me” out of your head afterwards), and the film is visually well-made. It’s fun to watch, but ultimately fruitless without that essential beat of a story. No character really goes through personal trauma that tests them. There’s no buildup or plot twists. Everything glides over the surface and you forget the film (though not the music) as soon as the story is over.

This is not to say that the film’s morals are wrong, just its story. The story has themes of fitting in despite being different, never forgetting where you come from and accepting love wherever it may lie. It’s old Hollywood schmaltz at its finest. The plot structure however keeps these themes from being relevant parts of the story, and it’s only the soundtrack that makes them somewhat overt.

For those who have seen the film, imagine the following scenario instead:

Unloved outcast P.T. Barnum feels as though he doesn’t belong anywhere. He imagines all sorts of fantastical people who he befriends to help him get through the hard times.

He meets a woman whom he tells his stories to and sweeps her off her feet. He finds love and starts a family.

As the Great Depression wreaks havoc on families everywhere, Barnum, overcome with a desire to bring some happiness to others, decides to tell the stories of his youth to his daughters. Seeing their adoration of such fantastical tales, the daughters wish such things were real. Barnum knows that in fact they are. He decides to create the same experience for families all over the country, using love of family to spur his actions.

It’s a long, hard struggle to raise the funds. He travels the country to find people who match his vision, having to convince his performers to take the leap and expose their outer selves on stage. This results in a grand first performance (after much jitters) at the midpoint of the film.

The second half of the film then focuses on how success changes the relationship of Barnum to those he has befriended. Is he exploiting his friends for personal gain? Does he lose sight of why he undertook the endeavor? The relationships between his performers are also put to the test as romances begin and wane and friendships are tested by prominence and ego. They resolve these issues as they put on their biggest show yet at the film’s conclusion.

There are hints of this plot throughout the film, but glam overtakes substance throughout the narrative. The circus is put together far too quickly, and we never really get to know the characters. The fun should have come from seeing all the different performers interact, learn their backgrounds and how they are similar to us, and how they overcome their professional and personal demons. Instead, we don’t really have much of anything to latch onto.

Some will find issue with the abuse of facts about Barnum’s life, glorifying a man who was far from a saint, but it is evident that the filmmakers were going for schmaltz and offering plenty of winks to the audience about the old-time musical. The approach is fine. The execution is lacking.