THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017) – Authentic Movie-Making at its Best

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Willem Dafoe and young Brooklyn Prince in THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017).

If I were to tell you that THE FLORIDA PROJECT (2017) was about life at a Florida motel that housed low-income and out of work families and immigrants, as seen through the eyes of a six year-old girl and her friends, you probably wouldn’t be rushing out the door to your local theater to see this one.

And if I told you it was rated R and starred Willem Dafoe, you’d probably be scratching your head saying, “Whaaat?” because that’s exactly what I did when I first heard about this movie.

But what I heard was all good, and being a fan of Willem Dafoe, I decided to check this one out, and I’m glad I did.

THE FLORIDA PROJECT takes place at The Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee, Florida, just outside of Orlando, and it caters both to tourists visiting Disney World and to low-income families.  Six year-old Moonnee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at the motel with her mom Halley (Bria Vinaite), who’s on welfare. They and other families in similar situations are allowed to live there because the motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe) knows they have nowhere else to live, and he has a soft spot for them, especially the children.

The film takes place over one summer where we mostly follow Moonnee and her friends doing what most kids do over the summer, hanging out and getting into mischief, but it’s also the story of Moonnee’s mom Halley, who due to her work situation will never win a mother of the year award, yet she is certainly a caring mother, just not in the traditional sense.  It’s also the story of motel manager Bobby, who really looks out for these folks, and we catch a glimpse as to why he’s so soft-hearted towards the kids, as his adult son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones) helps out around the motel and through their conversations we learn that Bobby’s family life has long since ended, and it’s just these occasional moments with his son that he has left.

But the driving force behind THE FLORIDA PROJECT is Moonnee and her young friends. The film truly captures the essence of childhood, from innocence to devilish endeavors, like when the children are giving people the finger and spitting on cars.  There are a lot of precious moments in this movie, like when Moonnee is giving her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) a tour of the motel and tells her, “These are the rooms we’re not supposed to go in. Let’s go in any ways!”

And when she’s trying to get free ice cream and approaches a woman outside the ice cream stand and says, “Excuse me, could you give us some change? The doctor said we have asthma and have to eat ice cream right away!”

Writer/director Sean Baker, who co-wrote the script with Chris Bergoch, imbues this movie with authenticity.  With up-close hand-held camera work, the movie has the feel of a documentary.  Baker also does a phenomenal job with the child actors, as they are amazing and pretty much steal this movie. He also captures the feel of Florida, as you can almost feel the humid heat and smell the acrid air.  More importantly, he’s masterful at telling these folks’ stories.

Again, the children steal this movie, led by Brooklyn Prince as Moonnee. Her exchanges with the understanding yet increasingly frustrated Bobby are worth the price of admission alone. You wouldn’t know their lives were difficult, because they have so much fun in and around the motel.  Kids being kids, and there are some truly hilarious moments, like when they shut the power off at the motel, much to Bobby’s chagrin.

There are also serious moments, like when they are playing in some nearby abandoned homes and start a fire which burns them down. They are also in one very brief yet poignant scene which serves as a metaphor for the entire story.  Moonnee and Jancey are sitting by a tree, and Moonnee says, “You know why this is my favorite tree? ‘Cause it’s tipped over and it’s still growing.” And then we see a shot of the fallen tree, indeed on its side but still alive, a metaphor for the broken lives of the folks in this movie.  They’re fallen, too, but they continue to live, grow, and endure.

Young Valeria Cotto as Moonnee’s friend Jancey is also a joy to watch, and it’s fun to see the two become closer friends as the summer goes on.  And Cotto’s best scene may be her last one, when she sees Moonnee breaking down for the first time.  No spoilers here, but the film ends on a strong note.

As much as I enjoyed the kids here, I thought Bria Vinaite was phenomenal as Moonnee’s mom Halley.  Again, the word “authentic” comes to mind.  Vinaite completely loses herself in this part and becomes Halley.  It’s a spot-on performance. And she really is a caring mother.  Everything we see her do in this movie is for her daughter, even if most of it is flat-out sketchy and oftentimes illegal.  But desperate people do desperate things, and she has a six year-old daughter, and she’s got no job and no money.  You do what you have to do.

I also really enjoyed Willem Dafoe as Bobby.  It was fun to see him cast against type, as he plays a sensitive caring guy who is always there for these people in his quiet unassuming way.  One of his best scenes is when he spies a weird man talking to the kids when they’re playing across from the parking lot, and so he approaches the man and— well, it’s another scene that is worth the price of admission.

Dafoe recently had a small role in Kenneth Branagh’s MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017), a film that largely wasted Dafoe and the rest of the cast of A-list actors.  If you want to see a top-notch actor like Dafoe strut his stuff in a movie, THE FLORIDA PROJECT is the movie for you.  Like everything else about this movie, Dafoe’s performance as Bobby the motel manager comes off as wonderfully authentic.

You might not be hearing much about THE FLORIDA PROJECT, but it’s a film that you definitely do not want to miss, especially in the here and now, where it’s no secret that in the United States the chasm between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen at a tragically alarming rate.

The children in THE FLORIDA PROJECT remind us why it is so important that this trend be reversed.

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WONDER (2017) – Sincere Story of Middle School Acceptance a Crowd-Pleaser

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Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, and Julia Roberts in WONDER (2017).

 

I read the novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Its message of tolerance and inclusion at the middle school level was spot-on, its characters so fleshed out it was easy to forget it was a work of a fiction, and the way it told its story was fresh and insightful.

Now comes the movie WONDER (2017) and it too does a terrific job with its subject matter. The best part about the movie is it stands on its own. Whether you’ve read the novel or not, it doesn’t matter. It will still move you.

WONDER is the story of 10-year-old Auggie Pullman (Jacob Tremblay) who was born with a genetic defect that left him severely disfigured. He wears a space helmet when he’s in public.  Up until now he has been home-schooled by his mom Isabel (Julia Roberts), but he’s about to enter fifth grade and start middle school, so Isabel thinks it’s is time for Auggie to attend a real school. His dad Nate (Owen Wilson) doesn’t necessarily agree, but as he so often does, he defers to his wife’s wishes.

When they leave Auggie for his first day of school, Isabel mutters, “Please let them be nice to him,” and with that Auggie enters the world of middle school. For any student, the middle school experience can be daunting and difficult. For Auggie, for obvious reasons, it’s more so. And while Auggie has supportive teachers and a very understanding principal Mr. Tushman (Mandy Patinkin), the students are a different matter, at least at first. The road ahead for young Auggie is a challenging one, as it is for those around him, and that in a nutshell is the story WONDER tells.

And that’s certainly the biggest strength of WONDER: its story. Like the novel, the movie tells its story through the eyes of different characters, and while it’s mostly the story of Auggie, and we really learn what it’s like to be in his shoes, we get to be in the shoes of a lot of other characters as well.

For instance, there’s Auggie’s sister Via (Izabela Vidovic).  From Auggie’s perspective, she seems like the perfect sister, but as we learn when we see things through her eyes, she feels increasingly forgotten by her parents who pour all their energies into caring for Auggie.

Likewise, parts of the story are told from the perspective of Auggie’s friends, which really helps to flesh out the characters and tell this story. The audience is treated to all sides, not just Auggie’s. And while the novel did a better job of this than the movie, where entire chapters were written from the perspectives of the different characters, the film makes a good faith effort and achieves similar results.

WONDER is not a dark drama full of middle school horrors, teen angst, and parental disillusionment. On the contrary, it is a story of hope. The characters in this tale regardless of the adversity they face, keep it together, never losing sight of what matters. Auggie’s sister, for example, doesn’t lash out at her family because she feels neglected. Rather, she goes on with her life, making her own way, knowing how she feels, but not letting it become something that she cannot control.

What keeps these characters together is in fact Auggie. He’s such a likable kid, and for those who get to know him, they realize that he’s not defined by his deformity, which in fact is the message of the movie. That Auggie can have this effect on people is what makes him a wonder.

There are plenty of emotional moments here. You might want to keep the tissues handy. When Auggie breaks down, unable to take the way the other students are treating him, he laments to his mother, “Will it always be like this?” To which she honestly replies, “I don’t know.”

When his dad tells Auggie that his space helmet is not lost, that he had been hiding it in his office, Auggie is shocked, but his dad tells him that he did it because Auggie had taken to wearing the helmet all the time, and he never saw his face. He tells Auggie, “I want to see your face. It’s my son’s face. I want to see my son’s face.”

There are lots of creative touches here as well, like when Auggie imagines that if Chewbacca from STAR WARS were to enter his school, everyone would be staring at him too, and as such since he’s in Auggie’s mind, the eight foot tall Wookie makes several appearances in the movie.

Jacob Tremblay is a talented young actor, and he’s truly wonderful here as Auggie. He’s convincing as the frightened yet sweet boy who just wants to be a normal kid. While I enjoyed his performance more in ROOM (2015), he still creates a very memorable Auggie.

One thing I wasn’t so hot on here was the make-up on Auggie.  The novel described him in an almost horrific way, whereas in the film, it’s not really all that shocking.  I thought the make-up job was a bit tepid.

The other child actors are also very good.  Noah Jupe who plays Jack Will, the young boy who eventually becomes Auggie’s best friend, does a nice job with the two sides of his character. At first, he befriends Auggie only because he’s asked to by the school and his mom, but he grows to like Auggie and their friendship becomes genuine.

Similarly, Millie Davis is also very good as Auggie’s other friend Summer.

Even better is Izabela Vidovic who plays Auggie’s sister, Via.  I liked her a lot, and it was nice to see a teen character with problems who didn’t become a movie cliché and drive her parents batty just because she was an angst-filled teenage girl.

Danielle Rose Russell is effective as Via’s best friend Miranda, and she’s yet another example of a teen character who is not a cliché. When we first meet her, she’s cold to Via, and for the first time their relationship is strained.  When they both audition for the same role in the school play, a lesser story would have gone down the road of teen jealousy and petty revenge, but this isn’t a lesser movie. When we see the story through Miranda’s eyes, we understand her behavior.  Rounding out the young cast is Nadji Jeter as Via’s boyfriend Justin, who’s another well-written fleshed out character.

The adults mostly remain in the background here. Julia Roberts is convincing at Auggie’s mother Isabel. She is the driving force in the family, and she is the one who keeps pushing Auggie forward. As he says later in the movie, she never gives up on him.

Owen Wilson is fun as Auggie’s soft-spoken dad who provides most of the humor for his family. It’s a fun role for Wilson, who hasn’t had a hit movie in a while. Mandy Patinkin is perfect as the understanding and calming principal Mr. Tushman, who has no problem poking fun at his own name.  Likewise, Daveed Diggs is energetic and affable as Auggie’s teacher Mr. Browne.

Steve Conrad, Jack Thorne, and director Stephen Chbosky wrote the screenplay based on the novel by R.J. Palacio. It pretty much succeeds on all fronts, giving Auggie’s story as much resonance and sincerity as it had in the novel.

Director Stephen Chbosky has made a likable, unpretentious film about a young disfigured boy who enters the scary world of middle school and finds what parents of middle schoolers want them to find: friends and acceptance by his peers.

One could make the argument that the story WONDER tells is not realistic, that its positive message is too happy and unchallenged.  Perhaps.  But the film is not syrupy-sweet, it doesn’t pull at your heartstrings in an artificial forced way, and it doesn’t manipulate its audience. It’s sincere and convincing.

It tells its story from all sides, presenting characters who are admirable and likable, who refuse to take the low road, no matter how dark things get.

Most of all, WONDER is the story of Auggie, a young boy who has a lot of heart, who shows us what we all should already know, that in terms of character it’s what’s inside us that matters, not how we look.

Spend some time with Auggie, and you too will understand that he is indeed a wonder.

—END—-

GOOD TIME (2017) – A Thrill Ride You Do Not Want to Miss

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GOOD TIME (2017) is a strange title for a movie about a bank robbery gone wrong and its aftermath, but don’t let that stop you from seeing this one because GOOD TIME is one of the more intense, energetic, and insane thrillers to come out this year.

It’s a movie you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME (2017) is the story of two brothers, Connie (Robert Pattinson) and Nick (Benny Safdie).  Nick is mentally challenged, and Connie is very protective of his brother, but that doesn’t stop him from involving Nick in an armed bank robbery. During their escape, Connie eludes the police, but Nick is arrested.

Connie approaches a bail bondsman to pay for his brother’s release from jail, but he is $10,000 short, so he turns to his friend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and asks her to put up the money for him.  Corey is somewhat unhinged and easily manipulated, and it doesn’t take Connie long to convince her to charge the $10,000 on her mother’s credit card, promising her that it’s a loan, and that she’ll get the money right back.  But Corey’s elderly mother quickly cancels the card, causing an emotional scene at the bail bondsman’s office.  Connie learns the money doesn’t matter because his brother has been transferred to a hospital and cannot be eligible for bail until his health his cleared.

Connie finds out which hospital his brother is being held in and plans to break him out. What follows is a roller coaster ride of a night as Connie faces one obstacle after another in his attempts to free his brother, and the film treats its audience to one twist after another.

GOOD TIME doesn’t stop.  It’s one of the more frenetic movies of the year, and certainly one of the most satisfying.  It’s a ride you definitely do not want to miss.

GOOD TIME was directed by brothers Benny Safdie and Josh Safdie.  Perhaps the fact that these two guys are brothers is why they captured so expertly the brotherly bond between Connie and Nick.  Or perhaps it’s just that they are two talented guys, and they are talented, very much so.

Benny not only co-directed this movie, but he also plays Nick, the mentally challenged brother, and it’s a phenomenal performance.  There’s nothing artificial about it.  He makes Nick seem like the real deal.

And Josh not only co-directed this one, but co-wrote it with Ronald Bronstein.  It’s an excellent script with realistic dialogue and vibrant, living characters.  Nearly every character who appears in this movie is interesting, a testament both to the acting and to the superior writing.

The best part of GOOD TIME though is just how creative it is.  It opens with a long dialogue-driven scene between Nick and his psychiatrist, and it has the feel of a documentary, and so you’re sitting there early on thinking, what is the deal here?  I thought this was supposed to be a thriller? And then Connie shows up, chews out the doctor for the way he’s treating his brother, and the film is off and running.  It takes off like a rocket and never looks back.

The camerawork is phenomenal and really brings you into Connie’s world and what it’s like to be him.  The camera gets in close, as there’s some nifty hand-held camerawork. And there are a lot of cool memorable scenes in this one.  The robbery early on and the chase afterwards is as intense a sequence as you’ll find, as are Connie’s efforts to break Nick out of the hospital.  There’s a sequence at an amusement park that is equally as good.

The ending is also suspenseful.

Now, the very ending is a different story.  After such a thrill ride, the movie is just begging for a high-octane conclusion , but that’s not what happens.  However, somehow, it still works, especially when you think back to the first scene in the movie.  The story comes full circle, and the ending, while not explosive, makes sense.

As I said, co-director Benny Safdie also stars as Nick, and he turns in a very strong performance.

But the performance of the movie belongs to Robert Pattinson as Connie.  Regardless of what you think about the TWILIGHT movies, it’s best to simply pocket them away and move on, because Pattinson is proving to be a very good actor.

This is his best performance yet, and he gives Connie a depth not often found in a character like this.  He definitely cares for his brother, and yet he still puts his brother in harm’s way. Connie is a man who thinks he’s better than everybody else and has the gumption to try to prove it, but as most people who think this way eventually find out, that’s not really the case.

Earlier this year, Pattinson had a supporting role as a reporter in THE LOST CITY OF Z, a film which I thought was just okay.  He delivered a very good performance, and he’s even better here in GOOD TIME.

Jennifer Jason Leigh knocks it out of the park in a brief bit as Connie’s friend Corey, an unstable woman who is driven to help Connie because he promised to take a vacation with her.  Likewise, Taliah Webster enjoys some remarkable moments as 16 year-old Crystal whose grandmother takes in Connie temporarily, setting up some situations between Connie and Crystal that are both refreshing and disturbing.

Barkhad Abdi, nominated for an Oscar for his role in CAPTAIN PHILLIPS (2013) has a memorable bit as a security guard.  And Hiphop artist Necro shows up as a drug selling heavy.

There’s also an absolutely frenzied and very effective music score by Daniel Lopatin that really adds a lot to the movie.  It reminded me of something John Carpenter would have written.

Without doubt, GOOD TIME is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.  Its relentless pace will have you on the edge of your seat throughout, the acting will have you caring about the characters, and the screenplay and creative direction will keep it all real and believable.

The title GOOD TIME has little to do with what actually happens on-screen.  It does, however, describe what the audience will have while watching it.

—END—

 

 

 

 

DETROIT (2017) – Powerful Portrait of 1967 Detroit Race Riots

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The best part about DETROIT (2017), director Kathryn Bigelow’s powerful portrait of race riots in 1967 Detroit, is that it doesn’t play like a movie at all.  It comes off as raw live footage, transporting its audience to 1967 Detroit as witnesses to the horror which occurred during that time.  It’s based on a true event which happened at the Algiers Motel in Detroit.

In DETROIT, you won’t find traditional characterizations, main characters with background stories and depth, a plot with a neat and tidy story arc, or anything else that makes you think you are watching a movie.  You will find horror and revulsion.

The centerpiece of the movie is a brutal and misguided police interrogation inside a hotel which leads to the deaths of three black men.  This wince-inducing sequence takes up a sizable chunk of the movie.  It’ll leave you squirming in your seat, wishing it would just end, but it doesn’t end.  It goes on, and as such, it’s one of the more riveting sequences in a movie I’ve seen in a long while.  Not only are the Detroit police tactics disturbing, but the fact that everyone else on the scene— the State Police, the National Guard soldiers— look the other way is equally sickening.

DETROIT opens at the outset of the 1967 race riots in Detroit, and then follows a group of characters whose fate becomes connected when they cross paths at the Algiers Motel. When someone shoots a toy gun in the vicinity of the National Guard soldiers on the street, it’s mistaken for sniper fire.  The Detroit police descend upon the hotel with the soldiers, and the police interrogation begins.

Top-billed John Boyega plays a young black man named Dismukes who’s working multiple jobs to make ends meet.  One of the jobs he holds is as a security officer in a building across the street from the Algiers Motel.  Dismukes has a good head on his shoulders, and early on he brings coffee to the National Guard soldiers, alerting them that he’s across the street guarding the building, letting them know that if things go down, he’s on their side, which is exactly what happens when the “sniper fire” draws the authorities to the Algiers Motel.

Dismukes is on the scene as well.  He views it as his duty to keep as many people alive as possible, and so he goes out of his way to play level-headed peacemaker, which in this case, since he also allows the police violence to continue, may not have been the best idea.  Dismukes is accused later by his black brethren of being an “Uncle Tom.”

Since there aren’t any lead roles here, fans of John Boyega might be disappointed that he’s not in this one more, but it’s still a much meatier role than when we saw Boyega last, in THE CIRCLE (2017), which really wasted Boyega’s talent.  He does a nice job here as Dismukes.  I found Boyega’s performance reminiscent of a young Denzel Washington.

The other big name in the cast is Anthony Mackie, who plays a former soldier recently home from Vietnam named Greene who finds himself among the interrogated.  It’s a good performance by Mackie, and the scene where he decides he won’t lay down for the police is a potent moment.  It’s also jarring to watch this character, someone who fought in Vietnam and survived, beaten back home in the United States by officers of the Detroit police department.

One of the better performances in the movie belongs to Algee Smith as Larry, a young singer whose group’s performance was cancelled by the riots.  The group becomes separated, and Larry and his friend Fred (Jacob Latimore) find themselves at the motel. Smith nails the emotions, from fear to disillusionment to eventually anger.  Likewise, Jacob Latimore is very good as Fred, who like the rest of the black men forced against the wall during the interrogation, becomes more and more terrified as the night goes on.

But the most memorable performance in the film just might belong to Will Poulter as the racist Detroit police officer Krauss. You can’t take your eyes off this guy.  He’s that despicable.  This might be a break-out role for Poulter, who starred in THE MAZE RUNNER (2014) and was in THE REVENANT (2015), but I remember Poulter most for his role as Jennifer Aniston’s and Jason Sudekis’ son in the comedy WE’RE THE MILLERS (2013).  Poulter’s work here is about as far removed from his comic work in WE’RE THE MILLERS as you can get.

Likewise, Ben O’Toole is nearly as chilling as Krauss’ partner Flynn.  They’re the epitome of racist police officers.

And while DETROIT doesn’t paint a positive picture of the Detroit police, it does show that these two officers did not represent the entire department.  During the movie, we see other white officers helping black people, and we see other white officers chastising Krauss’ motivations.  The problem is, and this is where the film remains true to life, that while most did not share Krauss’ views towards blacks, no one felt strong enough to do anything about it.  This film is every bit as much about those who turned a blind eye on the proceedings as those like Krauss who instigated them.

There are also two strong performances by Hannah Murray and Kaitlyn Dever as two white women, Julie and Karen, staying at the motel.  When they are found with the black men, they are accused by the police as being whores.  They endure both verbal abuse and in Julie’s case physical abuse, as the police strip her top from her.

The screenplay by Mark Boal is first-rate, which is no surprise, since Boal also wrote the screenplays to the two other critically acclaimed movies directed by Kathryn Bigelow, THE HURT LOCKER (2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).  The dialogue is superb, the situations tense, and the characters while not fleshed out in the traditional way are all very real.

Director Kathryn Bigelow makes full use of her camera, from painful close-ups to terse hand-held camera work during chase scenes.  She also captures the race riot streets of 1967 Detroit.  I really felt as if I had been transported back to this volatile time.

I would imagine Bigelow will receive some backlash regarding this movie, as it’s a rather one-sided interpretation, and the police are not on the bright side of this one.  But the reality is, racism still exists, and until it doesn’t, stories like this need to be told.

DETROIT is a superior movie, a powerful movie, and one that is even more disturbing because it takes place in a country that is known for its freedom and its rights, but as shown in this movie, those freedom and rights don’t extend to everybody.

—END—

DUNKIRK (2017) – Innovative Movie Brings Miraculous World War II Rescue to Life

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Forget everything you know about traditional storytelling.

DUNKIRK (2017), the new World War II movie by writer/director Christopher Nolan, changes the rules and then some.

As he has been known to do in the past, Christopher Nolan tells this story in a nonlinear fashion, and he does it with a minimum of dialogue and character development.  Yet, the film doesn’t suffer for it.  Nolan has called DUNKIRK his most experimental film, and I would have to agree.

In an interview, Nolan described the soldiers’ experiences at Dunkirk in three parts: those on the beach were there a week, the rescue on the water took a day, and the planes in the air had fuel for one hour.  To tell this story,  Nolan separates it into these three parts- the week on the beach, the day at sea, and the crucial hour in the air, but he does this in a nonlinear fashion, meaning all three events are shown happening concurrently and interspersed with each other.  Surprisingly, the result isn’t confusing. Instead, this bold use of time generates heightened tension and maximum suspense.

DUNKIRK tells the amazing story of the rescue of 338,000 British soldiers from the French port town of Dunkirk in events which transpired from May 26 – June 4, 1940.  The soldiers were surrounded by German forces and the only escape was by sea, which was covered by German planes.  In effect, there was no escape.

However, in what turned out to be a stroke of genius, instead of sending the navy, the British authorities sent out a call for civilian ships to go to Dunkirk, which they did and they miraculously rescued the soldiers.  The smaller civilian ships had the advantage of being able to navigate the shallow waters off the beaches of Dunkirk.  And while militarily speaking Dunkirk was a massive failure, one big surrender and escape mission, in terms of morale, it became a major turning point in the war.  Had the British soldiers been captured, Germany would have advanced, most likely on their way to a successful invasion of Great Britain.  But the soldiers escaped to fight another day, and Churchill turned the event on its head, claiming a moral victory and using it to espouse the spirit of resistance.

On land, the movie follows a young soldier Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) on the beaches of Dunkirk as he attempts with his fellow soldiers to survive long enough to be rescued.  On the sea, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance) and his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and Peter’s friend George (Barry Keoghan) set off in their small ship to Dunkirk to assist with the rescue.  And in the air, Farrier (Tom Hardy) and Collins (Jack Lowden) do their best to fend off the German planes long enough for the rescue to be a success.

It’s a dramatic yet simple story told in an innovative way by Christopher Nolan. While my favorite Christopher Nolan film remains THE DARK KNIGHT (2008) with INTERSTELLAR (2014) a close second, his work here on DUNKIRK rivals both these movies.

Of course, the film that set the bar for war movies remains Steven Spielberg’s SAVING PRIVATE RYAN (1998).  Is DUNKIRK as disturbing as SAVING PRIVATE RYAN?  No, but it doesn’t have to be.  It’s an effective movie in its own right.

And while the opening moments of DUNKIRK are not as in-your-face horrific as the opening in SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, it’s still intense and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.  Young Tommy’s early escapes from death are riveting and tense.  The film is rated PG-13 and as such you won’t see much bloodshed, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  R-rated movies these days use CGI blood which often looks fake. There’s nothing fake looking about DUNKIRK.  It all looks very real.

Christopher Nolan purposely chose unknown actors to portray the soldiers on the beach, and there is a minimal of dialogue.  We learn nothing about Tommy’s background, and he and his fellow soldiers do little more than looked dazed, exhausted, and frightened, which is exactly how they are supposed to look.  In most other movies, this lack of character development and lack of dialogue would be troubling, but not so here.  Here in DUNKIRK it comes off as authentic and real.

As such, Fionn Whitehead is effective and believable as Tommy, a character we know little about but we still want him to survive.  All we need to know is he’s on that beach and needs to get home.  In this situation, that’s enough to make his character work.

Aneurin Barnard is equally as good as Gibson, a French soldier Tommy befriends as they try to escape.  Since Gibson is French and speaks no English, he speaks in the movie even less than Tommy.  One Direction band member Harry Styles plays Alex, a soldier Tommy and Gibson rescue.  Styles gives Alex more personality than any other soldier in the film, and he makes Alex a cynical young man who gives away Gibson’s secret, that he is a French soldier impersonating a British one in order to be rescued by the British.

The folks on the boat probably deliver the best performances in the movie.  Mark Rylance is excellent as Mr. Dawson, the man who we learn later lost a son to the war and seems to embrace this mission as a way to save all his other “sons.”  Tom Glynn-Carney as Dawson’s son Peter and Barry Keoghan as Peter’s friend George also have some fine moments.

And Cillian Murphy is very good as the first soldier rescued by Dawson.  Shell-shocked, he resists their attempt to go to Dunkirk to rescue more soldiers.  He does not want to go back, as he is convinced they will die.

Once again, Tom Hardy is playing a role with a minimum of dialogue and with his face covered.  I’m starting to get used to Hardy playing roles where we can’t see his face, from Bane in THE DARK KNIGHT RISES (2012) to Mad Max in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD (2015). As pilot Farrier he only has a handful of lines here.  But that doesn’t stop Hardy from delivering a memorable performance.

Jack Lowden is also very good as Farrier’s fellow pilot Collins.

And while he’s not in the movie a whole lot, Kenneth Branagh also makes his mark as the well-respected Commander Bolton.

In another buck of traditional storytelling, there isn’t a major woman character to be found, but again, it doesn’t hurt this powerhouse movie.

There are a lot of riveting sequences. Tommy’s initial escape from German soldiers gets the film off to a tense start. The sequence where Tommy, Gibson and Alex hide out in an abandoned ship stranded on the beach during low tide just before it is used as target practice by the German soldiers is as suspenseful as it gets.

Scenes of ships being bombed and sunk are harrowing and cinematic.  And the editing during the climactic sequence is second to none.  It’s one of the more suspenseful last acts to a movie I’ve seen in a while.

Nolan also makes full use of sound.  When the planes attack, the sound effects are loud and harsh.  They make you want to cover your ears.  In short, during the battle scenes in DUNKIRK, the audience truly feels as if they are part of the battle.  You’ll want to duck for cover.

Sure, I could have used a bit more dialogue and character development.  Perhaps that would have made this movie perfect for me.  But as it stands, it’s still a pretty remarkable film.

DUNKIRK is a harrowing adventure, a rousing look at a pivotal moment in history, a rescue that had it not happened, would have changed the future of western civilization because the Nazis most likely would have conquered England and France, and who knows what would have happened after that.

But that’s not what happened, thanks to the herculean efforts of hundreds of civilians and their small ships, who against all odds rescued 338,000 trapped British soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk.

DUNKIRK tells this improbable story in mind-bending fashion, thanks to the innovative efforts of Christopher Nolan, one of the most talented writer/directors working today.

It’s history brought to life by a gifted filmmaker and storyteller.

—END—

THE BEGUILED (2017) – Showcases Talented Female Cast

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Director Sofia Coppolla and the cast of THE BEGUILED (2017).

THE BEGUILED (2017) is a remake of a 1971 Clint Eastwood movie of the same name, directed by Don Siegel.

The Eastwood film, which is something of a cult favorite among Eastwood fans, is certainly one of the more offbeat and haunting movies Eastwood ever made.  It was a box office failure at the time, due to a poor ad campaign which marketed it as another Clint Eastwood action film, which it isn’t, and also because audiences in 1971 weren’t quite sure what to make of this dark tale of a Union soldier recuperating at an all-girl Confederate school.  Directed by Don Siegel, the film is steeped in atmosphere and style.

The 2017 version was directed by Sofia Coppola and tells pretty much the same story.

In Virginia, in the waning days of the Civil War, a young girl Amy (Oona Laurence) discovers a wounded Union soldier, Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) in the woods while she is picking mushrooms.  She brings the soldier back to her school, and the head of the school, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), decides it would be un-Christian of them to turn the Corporal over to the Confederate army until he has a chance to recuperate.  And so they tend to his wounds and nurse him back to health, with the intention of handing him over to the Confederate army once his wounds have healed.

But John is a man, and the school is full of women and girls who simply haven’t been around men all that much.  As such, during his stay, the sexual tensions build.  Not only is Miss Martha attracted to John in her own reserved way, but teen student  Alicia (Elle Fanning) can’t keep herself from openly flirting with him.  Even young Amy is attracted to him.

And matters become more complicated when privately John declares his love for teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst), who he says is the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen. Edwina falls for John instantly, mostly because she is unhappy and sees John as her ticket out of her present life at the school. She would like to run away with him.

For his part, John remains quiet and polite, keeping things proper, except for his declaration of love to Edwina.  But one night he makes a fateful decision to enter a certain bedroom, and things change dramatically from that point on.

Director Sofia Coppolla, who also wrote the screenplay, gets the atmosphere right but struggles somewhat with the characterizations, specifically with Corporal John McBurney, who is too reserved to be effective.

THE BEGUILED is beautiful to look at.  Director Coppolla captures the essence of a school in the southern countryside, photographing the manor through abundant green trees and filtered sunlight.  There are also some nice shots of red sunlight reflecting off the front of the elegant structure.

But the majority of the film is shot in shadowy darkness, as the bulk of the action takes place inside the school, lit by low burning candles.  The look of this film drew me in immediately and kept me in its Civil War world throughout.

It is definitely slow-paced and plays out like the period piece Civil War drama that it is. This worked for me for the most part, but towards the end of the film when things get seriously darker, the film downplayed these heavy moments, which worked against the movie for me.  I expected things to get very ugly, but the horrible things that happen are only hinted at and not fully explored.  The film never really rises above its southern slice of life portrait.

As I said, Sofia Coppolla also wrote the screenplay, which is based on the screenplay to the 1971 film by Albert Maltz and Irene Kamp, itself based on the novel by Thomas Cullinan.   Coppolla does a nice job with the female characters, but Corporal John McBurney isn’t as defined as well as he needs to be.  In the 1971 film, you knew Clint Eastwood’s character was conning the women. Here, as played by Colin Farrell, the audience isn’t so sure.  Is he playing these women or not?  Since the screenplay isn’t clear, it makes what happens at the end of the film far less satisfying, because we don’t know how to react to John’s fate, since we really don’t know what kind of a person he truly is.

In terms of casting, you can’t ask for a better female cast.

Nicole Kidman plays Miss Martha as a strong and independent woman.  She is clearly in charge of everyone at the school.  But questions remain about her character as well. For instance, would she do what John accuses her of doing at the end of the movie?  Or did she do it for the reason she said, to save his life?  The film isn’t clear.

Kirsten Dunst is also very good as Edwina, the depressed school teacher who is only too willing to fall in love with John.  And Elle Fanning is sultry and seductive as the young woman who is intent on getting John into her bed.

But it’s the younger girls who make an even stronger impression here.  Oona Lawrence is exceptional as young Amy, the girl who first finds John and really likes him throughout the movie.  Angourie Rice, who played Ryan Gosling’s daughter in last year’s comedy THE NICE GUYS (2016) is memorable here as Jane, the one girl in the school who is offended by the idea of housing a Union soldier at the school.  And Addison Riecke also has some significant moments as Marie, the girl who makes the ominous suggestion at the end of the movie on how to stop John.

As John, Colin Farrell is okay, but I’ve seen him deliver far better performances.  He was too calm and relaxed throughout.  The character seemed to be begging for a nefarious side, which doesn’t come out at all.  Towards the end of the film, when bad things begin to happen, we finally see John act passionately, which gives us some insight into his character, but it’s too little too late.  He remains polite to the last, apologizing after his deplorable behavior and sounding sincere in his apology, which makes the ending of this one all the more tragic.  Then again, without a clear-cut defintion of John’s character, it’s difficult to know how to feel about him.

In spite of this, when the women make their bold decision at the end of the movie, the coldness with which they proceed is jarring and potent.  The shot of the women around the dinner table afterwards is one of the more memorable images in the film.

That being said, the film would have been stronger had it gone to these dark places more often instead of avoiding them.

THE BEGUILED is a moderately entertaining movie, a showcase for its talented female cast and its female writer/director, Sofia Coppolla, but with a vaguely defined male protagonist, the story they are telling is far less potent than it should have been.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) – A Morality Tale Without A Lesson

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BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) is a morality tale for the Trump era, the story of a woman who views the world in terms of healing.  Her core beliefs are challenged when she crosses paths with a Trump-like character at a dinner party one evening.

Beatriz (Salma Hayek) is a holistic medical practitioner and a massage therapist. When she makes a long drive out to a wealthy client’s California beach-front home to make a house call, her car breaks down. Her client, Cathy (Connie Britton) generously invites Beatriz to stay for dinner until the mechanic arrives to repair her car.

Cathy’s husband Grant (David Warshofsky) is lukewarm to the idea, since the dinner party is work-related, and they are entertaining the larger than life business giant Doug Strutt (John Lithgow), but Cathy insists. For one thing, she says, Beatriz is mourning the death of her pet goat, as her bully of a neighbor recently killed it in shocking fashion, and also, they owe a great debt of gratitude to Beatriz, since she was instrumental in helping their teenage daughter get through and ultimately survive her cancer treatments. So, Grant relents, and Beatriz joins the party.

Things are awkward throughout, as Beatriz simply doesn’t fit in with this class of people. At one point, Strutt mistakes her for one of the servers. But Cathy makes all the appropriate introductions, and the dinner proceeds as favorably as it can, until Beatriz hears Doug speak of things that truly disturb her, from the way he hunts animals in Africa, to the way he conducts his business deals.

Eventually, there is a confrontation, and Beatriz finds herself having to make a decision regarding her feelings towards Mr. Strutt.

I can’t say that I really liked BEATRIZ AT DINNER all that much. For a while, I was interested in what was going on, and I was very curious about where this story was going to go, but where it ultimately goes, I thought was a major disappointment.

Director Miguel Arteta succeeds in making a very uncomfortable movie.  The scenes at the dinner party, where at times Beatriz is completely ignored, and at other times when she speaks, it’s of things the rest have no interest in, are wince-inducing. Of course, this is exactly the point, and director Arteta captures the class differences perfectly.

There’s also the jarring juxtaposition of the elegant decor of the home and the dress and demeanor of the wealthy guests with the plain and simple Beatriz, who looks as out-of-place as a Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium. Sadder still, Beatriz doesn’t seem to realize how out of place she is.

These scenes work well, and I truly felt the rift between the two classes.

The trouble I had with BEATRIZ AT DINNER falls with the script by Mike White, a screenwriter who wrote a couple of Jack Black comedies, SCHOOL OF ROCK (2003) and NACHO LIBRE (2006). BEATRIZ AT DINNER is about as far removed from a comedy as you can get.

The set-up is perfect. The dinner is sufficiently awkward and painful. But the payoff isn’t up to snuff. Throughout the dinner, Beatriz says she thinks she knows Doug, and she also speaks about how people are reincarnated, and in their next lives they often settle debts with people they weren’t able to settle the first time around. At one point, she thinks Doug is a man who built a hotel in her home village which caused many in her village, her family included, to be forced to relocate. She quips that if he were that man, it would be fate that they met again, as she would have to kill him.

There are certainly sinister implications as to where this story might go.  Beatriz reaches certain realizations and conclusions, and then she must act on them. What she ultimately decides is a major letdown. It’s not exactly the most inspiring conclusion.

The acting is all very good.  Salma Hayek, of course, is excellent, in a very understated performance. She’s also photographed here as plain and as unflattering as possible, which contributes to her performance as the simple and straightforward Beatriz.

Likewise, John Lithgow is very good as Doug Strutt. And while he makes Strutt sufficiently annoying, he actually does a very good job instilling some sympathy into the character.  As such, in spite of what I had heard, Strutt didn’t really remind me all that much of Donald Trump, even though it’s clear that’s who the character is based on. But I found Lithgow’s interpretation of Strutt more well-rounded and sympathetic than the real-life Trump.

The cast of supporting characters is excellent. Connie Britton is effective as Cathy, a woman who goes out of her way to make Beatriz feel welcomed and comfortable, and who later feels personally wounded by Beatriz when things get ugly.  Even better than Britton is David Warshofsky as Cathy’s husband Grant. He really has no patience for Beatriz, and it shows.  I found him to be even less likeable than Doug Strutt.

Jay Duplass as Alex and Chloe Sevigny as his wife Shannon, and Amy Landecker as Doug’s wife Jeana round out the guest list and all do an admirable job.

There are also some memorable lines and sequences. When Jeana jabs at her husband and talks about how often he embarrasses her, Doug quips, “You’re well-compensated.” The grilling of Beatriz by Doug regarding her immigration status was a particularly disturbing scene. And when Beatriz speaks of her core beliefs, of how powerful and difficult healing is, how it is a much more challenging thing to do than to hunt and kill, as Doug had been boasting, it’s one of the most potent moments in the movie.

Yet, none of this goes anywhere. The film seems to be satisfied with showing a slice of life dinner party between two classes of people. The climax comes when Beatriz realizes she has a decision to make. Unfortunately, the one she makes, is unworthy of the rest of the movie.

BEATRIZ AT DINNER is exactly what its title implies: it’s a dinner party conversation. And like any get-together over a meal, it has its moments, but if you’re looking for big answers to some of today’s big questions, you won’t find them on the menu.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.