Wednesday, November 22, 2017

[Review] The Florida Project


After making waves with the iPhone-shot indie Tangerine, buzzing director Sean Baker returns with The Florida Project, a spirited and empathetic juxtaposition of childhood wonderment against the backdrop of working-poor struggles within the fractured cracks of America.

The story revolves around the exuberant Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her mischievous young friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they spend their summer break (with minimal parental guidance) splitting time between two rundown motels -- ironically named The Magic Kingdom and Futureland. The film follows their adventures in mundanity -- spitting on cars, spying on guests, sharing ice cream cones, exploring 'Do Not Enter' rooms, making fart noises...

It's all winsomely captured with an observant, almost documentary-like eye -- the garish pastel colors pop through the Kissimmee humidity and the characters beam with realism, personality, energy, nuance, and life amid their very much lived-in environment. The kids are absolutely terrific here (especially Prince, who becomes the main focus). In fact, their performances are so natural that it doesn't seem like you're watching actors (maybe they aren't, at times). Willem Dafoe is at his very best as the property's cantankerous manager with a tough-loving, caring heart of gold beneath his raspy exterior. Also impressive is Bria Vinaite, who plays Moonee's messy and temperamental mother who just can't quite get it together. Her character isn't meant to be the most likable, and she definitely frustrates at times, but she feels so real -- like someone you might know.

Naturally, this transient film isn't built on structured plot. It constantly meanders, drifts, and shifts attention -- just like the kids at the center, but it remains thoroughly absorbing. It's as enchanting as it is harsh, and it takes a couple of deeply affectionate and heart-wrenching dives in the latter half. The last 10 minutes, in particular, breathtakingly set off fireworks of swirling emotion.

By the end of our stay at The Florida Project, it feels like we know the place pretty well.

* 9/10 *


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Monday, November 20, 2017

[Review] Justice League


You know when a bunch of popular musicians come together to form a band or a project, and the results are almost always disappointing? Uninspired. That's basically what happens in the much-hyped Justice League film. The Justice League unites Batman (Ben Affleck), Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Flash (Ezra Miller), Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Cyborg (Ray Fisher). But despite the fresh collaboration of versatile all-stars, this supergroup ultimately underwhelms as a whole.

It isn't until over halfway through the film when the heros eventually (and reluctantly) team up to save the world from an invading army of extraterrestrial flutterbugs (they kinda look like vampire mothmen), led by the story's heavy and horned main villain Steppenwolf (CiarĂ¡n Hinds).

For a while, it feels like you're watching chunks from several different movies spliced together. Director Zack Snyder stages the action sequences with a murky backdrop and a jarring overload of CGI -- so much so that the picture seriously looks like cutscenes from a video game. And if things weren't already overstuffed enough, we still have to deal with a few humdrum scenes of Amy Adams wasting away in the nothing-to-do role as Lois Lane, while we wait for the inevitable resurrection of Superman (Henry Cavill), which is handled in a tremendously clumsy manner, by the way.

As for the good, Gal Gadot's Wonder Woman carries over the awesomeness and optimistic humanity from this year's earlier, fantastic Wonder Woman movie. Jason Momoa's Aquaman lends a general badassness and cool seafaring aesthetic to the crew. And Ezra Miller (who's been great in everything I've seen him in) as Flash is the film's electric source of comic relief, delivering the script's best lines and zapping a spark of levity and wide-eyed enthusiasm into the brooding tone of the film. Unfortunately, the neglected newcomer Cyborg is as one-dimensional and robotic as his armor.

And given the way these characters are thrusted into battle together, there's never a sense of camaraderie or chemistry between them. It doesn't help that their mission is plagued with clunky pacing. For a film brimming with so many dynamic powers, it's glaringly void of any true momentum. Then there's the bad villain. And I don't mean "bad" in the evil way -- he's just bad. Faceless. Personality-less. Generic. Stock. He might as well have been a walking statue with a temper-tantrum. In turn, when the climactic showdown arrives, it isn't as exhilarating as it should be, and it feels incredibly low on stakes. At least BvS had a maniacal and memorable Jesse Eisenberg calling the shots.

Justice League does possess some redeemable elements and displays glimmers of hope for future DCEU films. But while it might be a step in the right direction, it definitely isn't a leap.

( 5.5/10 )


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Thursday, November 16, 2017

[Review] Murder on the Orient Express


It's no secret that Hollywood is a prime culprit for producing remakes. But even the decision to revisit something like the whodunnit puzzle Murder on the Orient Express is a curious one from the get-go, especially considering that Agatha Christie's famous novel already experienced a pretty great on-screen adaptation with its 1974 version. But here we are...

All aboard the lavish train is the all-star cast of Daisy Ridley (in her first major role outside of The Force Awakens), Leslie Odom Jr., Penelope Cruz, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Sergei Polunin, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Olivia Coleman, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp (using another unidentifiable accent), and Michelle Pfeiffer. Things get tense when a passenger suddenly turns up stabbed to death, and all the characters in the coach are enlisted as suspects. On the case is Hercule Poirot (played by Kenneth Branagh), who proclaims himself as "Probably the greatest detective in the world." I like how he says "probably." It keeps him honest. Anyway, what unravels is a shifty-eyed murder mystery.

Branagh serves as director too, and to the film's credit, it's winsomely shot and it confidently achieves the old-fashioned mood and aesthetic its heading for. But narrative-wise, it has a difficult time building up much suspense or arriving at a compelling payoff, especially for those that have seen the original. It's an inherent problem, really. And the revamped cast is definitely a proven one, but with so many players involved, they all just kind of get shuffled into the mix, like cards in a deck vying for their moments at the top. Aside from Branagh (and his glorious mustache) standing out by default, Michelle Pfeiffer (who was also fantastic in mother! this year) impresses in the only other memorable role.

2017's Murder on the Orient Express is a faithful and fateful film... maybe a little too much. It's a competent remake, and exactly that. Nothing more. Personally, I wouldn't have minded if this thing had decided to deviate off the tracks.

( 6.5/10 )


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Tuesday, November 14, 2017

[Review] A Bad Moms Christmas


The Bad Moms are ringing again, and this time it's Christmas! Thankfully, this film's fun cast presents just enough spirit to decorate this middling comedy sequel with some joy.

Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn return as the threesome of bad moms, and they're ready to
take on the stress of the season and pull off the perfect Christmas for their kids, and maybe even enjoy a little bit of it themselves. "Take Christmas back!" they say. "Put the 'ass' back in Christm-ass..." But things get even crazier when their own bad moms roll into town for the holidays, including the uptight and hard-to-please prude (played by Christine Baranski), the oversharing and overbearing care bear (Cherly Hines), and the freewheeling gambler (Susan Sarandon).

The cast is fully game, and they all bring a lot of life to to the festivities, even if their characters are a bit one-note. The film is stuffed with raunchy, brash, awkward, and self-deprecating humor. Not all of it will kiss your mistletoe, but it definitely has its moments, like the tension-filled dodgeball match at Skyzone, or the amusing scene at Hahn's character's spa when Justin Hartley (also known as Kevin from NBC's hit "This Is Us") comes in for a wax, and things get...close. Very close.

Not to anyone's surprise, but there isn't a whole lot of weight or focus to this thing. Most of the time, A Bad Moms Christmas feels like you're watching a montage-driven sitcom. And it's so overtly formulaic and the territory is so well-worn -- that if you've ever seen a Christmas movie or one about parental drama -- you can practically pin down every single story beat before it even arrives -- like, swifter than Santa.

( 5.5/10 )


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Monday, November 13, 2017

[Review] The Killing of a Sacred Deer


After 2016's bizarro The Lobster, provocative director Yorgos Lanthimos recruits Colin Farrell once again, along with Nicole Kidman (these two also starred together in this year's The Beguiled) for another beastily-titled film called The Killing of a Sacred Deer. It's a darkly comedic and disturbingly dour psychological drama that leaves a punishing, infectious mark.

Farrell plays Dr. Steven Murphy, an esteemed cardiovascular surgeon and family man who lives with his wife (Kidman), daughter (Raffey Cassidy), and son (Sunny Suljic). Everything is fairly normal until the boy of a former patient (played by Barry Keoghan, Dunkirk) begins to infiltrate Murphy's life in obsessively strange ways. And to go any further than that would be spoiler territory.

From the film's opening close-up of open-heart surgery, you know you're in for a doozy. A not for everyone type of flick. But even though it's challenging, it isn't the kind of thing to cause walk-outs. Personally, I was fully intrigued. The narrative perplexes and stuns, practically catching the audience like an actual deer in headlights. The unhinged tone is enough to make your own heart race, especially as the story steadily gets weirder and weirder, and weirder. The picture is shot with a sterile elegance -- the camerawork slowly glides and zooms with Kubrickian-like style, while the unnervingly high-pitched musical score cuts deep like a scalpel. The cast is solid all-around. Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman skillfully lock into a coldly deadpan mode, but it's Barry Keoghan who stands out in one of the most clinically creepy on-screen performances in recent memory.

But as The Killing of a Sacred Deer approached its end, I got the impression that there wasn't much meaning to any of it. While The Lobster was a symbolic and substantial examination of dystopian romance, this film is more of a hollow head-scratcher. But whether it's pointless or not -- it still gets under your skin.

( 7.5/10 )


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