‘The Florida Project’: Lack of focus wastes talented cast

Dafoe’s earnest performance can’t save misguided film.

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The Florida Project has good intentions, a fine cast, but ends up saying very little that we didn’t already know.

Sean Baker co-wrote and directed this feature about a young Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) growing up in the slummier regions of Florida at The Magic Castle hotel, right next to the magical confines of Disney World. A play on the Philadelphia photographer Jacob Riis’ classic quote: “Where there is church, the devil lives next door.”

For Moonee, the world is a giant playground and full of opportunities to create mischief with her friends (Valeria Cotto’s Jancey and Christopher Riveria’s Scooty) while bonding with her troublesome mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite, the true breakout star of the film). Then there’s the stern yet kindhearted hotel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

Right off the bat, Baker establishes that the kids in this film aren’t your normal darling angels, when they spit on a stranger’s car repeatedly for ten minutes. This pales in comparison to the other things these kids do in the film, which includes setting a fire in an abandoned hotel and messing with the Wifi in the hotel, much to the chagrin of Bobby. Calling them rebellious is selling them short. These kids make Dennis the Menace look like a harmless do-gooder.

Have I hooked you yet? No. Well, that’s because not much happens in this movie. There is no central plot point or general lever to swing down on in the two hour film. It’s a couple weeks in the life of the other side of the human population: the broke yet good time seeking freeloaders who scrap for every penny and hope for a handout since they spent their cash on hair dye and cigarettes.

There is no real plot. A subplot with Bobby’s son (late addition Caleb Landry Jones) goes nowhere and is dumped midway through the film. Small scenes involving a pedophile and a rift between friends carry ferocity, but they don’t propel the film enough. They are tiny specs in a movie full of setup, but no follow-through.

The Florida Project would have made for a great 8-10 hour mini-series on HBO or Showtime, so perhaps the story could expand and breathe into something unique and complete. Instead, the end just slams the door on you without any sense of closure.

Sure, there’s something about the isolation that goes on in a kid’s mind, especially when their parents make poor choices. A kid has little idea what is right or wrong until their parent sets the perimeters, but a thousand films have showed us that and layered it into a better story.

The only thing that makes this film recommendable is the acting. Dafoe is strong as usual, imbuing Bobby with a quiet dignity and grace that unleashes the hunger for his backstory instead of merely existing as a stand-in character. Vinaite is a force to reckon with and gives Halley something extra. Prince challenges your patience with Moonee, but creates a dual-sided character instead of a typical bratty kid. The cast is authentic, but they are running around a remote landscape with no real plan.

I’d save your ten bucks for something more complete and true, like Blade Runner 2049 or Lucky. Catch The Florida Project on Blu Ray as a parental advisory: how NOT to raise your kids. Continue reading “‘The Florida Project’: Lack of focus wastes talented cast”

‘Gifted’ aims for the heart, but leaves you with a stomach ache

This movie manipulates the viewer like a bottle of pancake syrup and plays it too safe in the end.

Gifted is like pancake syrup-it looks warm and loving, and tastes sweet while serving as a catalyst for a fine meal, but in the end, it manipulates your taste buds into making a bad choice for your stomach, which then creates an ache. Allow me to explain.

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Frank Adler (Chris Evans) just wants to lay low, raise his niece Mary (McKenna Grace), and create a small quaint life in the peaceful suburbs of Florida. There’s only one problem: Mary is a mathematical genius and stands head and shoulders above the rest of her first grade class and isn’t fitting in. When Frank refuses to send Mary to a prestigious school for gifted kids, certain measures are taken to ensue the young girl is given the “proper” education. But what exactly is “proper” for Mary and does it fit with Frank and the grandmother, Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who may have ulterior motives. Continue reading “‘Gifted’ aims for the heart, but leaves you with a stomach ache”

Johnny Depp is the devil in “Black Mass”

The reason to see Black Mass is simple. Johnny Depp kills it as Whitey Bulger, one of the most notorious gangsters to ever walk the earth.

You make a deal with the devil. The devils breaks that deal and when you ask him why, all he can do is smile at you. It’s very bad if the devil you are dealing with is short, has slicked back snow white blonde hair, bad teeth and looks as creepy as the Grim Reaper. That’s Johnny Depp in Black Mass. He gives you a glimpse of the devil.

FBI agent and South Boston native John Connolly(Joel Edgerton) opened Pandora’s box when he made an “alliance” with The Winter Hill gang member James “Whitey” Bulger(Johnny Depp). The original deal/plan was to rid Boston of the ruthless Italians but in the process Bulger used the protection of the FBI to fill his pockets and his tighten his grip on the city. He went from a low level hood to a crime lord in a few years. People ended up in jail, sworn confidants leaked info on Bulger and the alliance crumbled like a house of cards.

That is the basis of Scott Cooper’s take on Bulger, adapted from Black Mass, a book written by a group of Boston reporters on the shady brokerage between the FBI and a gangster. While effective and full of good acting and signature moments, Black Mass never ascends to greatness because it’s a pretty straight forward tale and familiar to film-addicts. Watching it unfold, you can tell what’s going to happen way before it happens. Since there have been at least 50 different gangster films made before it, fact or fiction, the details of Black Mass and Bulger’s rise and fall isn’t shocking, thrilling or incredibly fascinating. It plays out like a Greek tragedy, but lacks the oommpph of a polished Scorsese flick.

Here’s how it goes. Someone gets into a car with Bulger, and starts to explain and Bulger seems to understand. Suddenly, that person gets shot, stabbed or strangled. This happens four different times in the movies. It becomes redundant and makes the entire movie seem a bit less fresh. The overflow of Boston accents also distracts but that is less of a flaw than a by product of the story picked.

The real spark plug here is Depp, back where he belongs taking swings at heavyweight roles. Depp finally found his way back to the right side of the playground, next to the sharper rocks in the sandbox. Showing shades of his work from his two best dramatic adventures, Blow and Donnie Brasco, Depp easily slips into the skin of Whitey Bulger. The man may have had a heart, but it was half full of venom. Bulger was a man driven by power and a need to numb the tragedies of his personal life. Cooper goes out of his way to show us the man as well as the monster, and Depp makes them both work very well. Is it Oscar worthy work? Yes, because of how complete of a performance it is and how chilling Depp can make you feel watching him work. While it may not land in the top 5 performances when 2015 is all said and done, Depp’s Bulger demands your attention.

As much as Cooper aims this picture to be something special, it’s not Oscar worthy. The directing and script are decent if not stand alone worthy. The supporting cast is game if not memorable, with good work from Benedict Cumberbatch(as Whitey’s brother Billy) and Edgerton, as the doomed agent who can’t find a different between ally and user. The pacing of the film allows slower scenes like a dynamic dinner table scene where Depp freaks out an FBI agent over a recipe to be fully realized. The score is rightfully moody and the editing doesn’t allow the film to run away for too long.

Is Black Mass worth your hard earned money at the cinema? Yes, because you need to see Depp’s performance as Bulger to remind audiences what the actor is capable of when the right role comes along. Sometimes source material doesn’t translate as wickedly from the ground to the book to the screen. While Cooper’s movie is far from perfect, Depp’s performance is right on the money and therefore makes Black Mass a trip worth taking.

Blythe Danner is Oscar worthy in “I’ll See You In My Dreams”

Blythe Danner is Oscar worthy in I’ll See You in My Dreams.

For the first time in 2015, I can say I’ve seen an Oscar worthy performance. Sure, there have been fine performances and a few strong ones, but Blythe Danner’s work in the indie darling I’ll See You In My Dreams is something that will make you stop, think and recognize. You know her work well, flailing behind Robert DeNiro in Meet the Parents and its relentless sequels and many TV shows like Will and Grace, Huff and several other supporting roles. For the first time, at the ripe age of 72, Danner has a movie all to herself and it’s a beautiful sight.

Danner’s Carol is alone. In every sense of the word. At the beginning of this film, Carol loses her dog and this follows the loss of her husband and her daughter lives on the East coast. She has a circle of friends(including Rhea Perlman, June Squibb and Mary Kay Place) to play cards with and a pool man(Martin Starr) who she can talk to, but she is starting to count the layers that make up her life and what it means. When told by her daughter that she’s lived a full life, Carol doesn’t seem to like to the pretense. She doesn’t want her life to be over or wrapping up. She’s got living to do and it starts with meeting Bill(Sam Elliott, as good as ever). When she starts to fall for and have some fun with this new man in her life, everything else starts to slide around in new directions. Of course everything doesn’t go as planned.

The great thing about independent films is they move at their own pace, like an extended guitar solo that isn’t being watched over by a production studio head. You can feel the freedom in co-writer/director Brett Haley’s storytelling, dialogue and pace. There’s no rush here in telling Carol’s story and it’s 0ne of the ways this film works so well.

Another is the acting. The supporting cast all provide good work here, especially Starr in a role that could have been easily forgotten if played a touch heavier or lighter. The most honest scenes in the film involved Danner and Starr talking about bookends of life, a young man trying to make an older woman feel a little better. Elliott is always a pleasure to watch work. The film world will be a lot less cool the day he decides to step away.

However, The film belongs to Danner(who shares a birthday with me). There are two scenes that will nearly move you to tears. An early scene involving Carol and her dog is heartbreaking, and the impact registers due to the lack of music and dialogue. The look on Danner’s face could speak novels of emotion and expressive acting. Another scene towards the end runs the gauntlet of emotions and Danner handles it like a pro. Every actor is born to play one signature role and while it took 100 films and 47 years, Danner has found her best performance.

I’ll See You In My Dreams doesn’t reinvent the way movies or told and may not be recognized for many awards, but it’s a heartfelt soulful look at how someone sums up a life and when is it okay to stop “living”. With Danner’s assured work at the heart of this story, this indie may have you looking at things a bit different than you did before it came on.

As the summer season transitions to the fall, get under a cozy blanket, whip up some tea and enjoy the confidence of a true indie gem.

Raw and Honest “Southpaw” told from inside out

Jake Gyllenhaal anchors Antoine Fuqua’s raw and intense boxing drama.

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(In case you missed it on KSDK)

Take everything away from us, and we are flesh, bone, blood and all that we have created. Antoine Fuqua’s gritty boxing flick is told from the inside out, and he accomplishes that by starting with the human frailty of the modern fighter. Southpaw may look familiar but it’s something different. The intense B-side track to Rocky.

Jake Gyllenhaal(the fearless actor can’t miss right now) is Billy Hope, and the fight opens with preparations for Hope’s 43rd fight. He’s unbeaten, but that doesn’t include facial scarring, potential brain damage and visceral shock to the upper body. His wife, the beautiful yet tough Moureen(Rachel McAdams, evolving as an actress with every role) can see the toll being stacked on top of her family, which includes the couple’s adolescent daughter. Hope wins the fight, takes a beating and may walk away before the brutal shock of life stuns him and takes everything away from him.  If you haven’t seen the trailer, good for you but this film will fake the left to the head and hit you in the kidneys with an uppercut you never saw coming.

Instead of just going all Rocky and showing us the comeback trail of Hope from the gutters to the ropes, Fuqua and screenwriter Kurt Sutter(the maestro of Sons of Anarchy) beat the soul of Hope senseless first. Stripped of everything, the fighter has to be reborn. Is this like Mark Wahlberg’s The Fighter? Is it a modern Rocky? Yes on both counts, but more brutal. Those fighters didn’t have it as tough as Hope and that sets Southpaw apart and gives this seemingly conventional drama fresh legs in the cinematic ring. Continue reading “Raw and Honest “Southpaw” told from inside out”