Princess of the Row


A splendid springtime father/daughter stroll down the promenade.

(2019) Drama (Big Boss Creative) Tayler Buck, Edi Gathegi, Ana Ortiz, Martin Sheen, Jacob Vargas, Blake Michael, Jenny Gago, Tim Abell, Tabitha Brown, Anthony Jansen, Karim Diane, William Guirola, Braxton Davis, Danielle Dotson, Destiny Toliver, Sarah-Jayne Bedford, Monique Chachere, Pam Levin, Tori Griffith, Kelly Hancock. Directed by Van Maximilian Carlson

There is, unfortunately, no shortage of homeless people in this country today. Most of them are people who have fallen through the cracks, unable to support themselves due to mental illness, drug abuse or just plain bad luck. A staggering percentage of those living on the streets are children.

One such is Alisha (Buck), a street-savvy 12-year-old girl whose dad refers to her as Princess – that is, when he remembers who she is. For the most part, Iraq war vet Sgt. Beaumont “Bo” Willis (Gathegi) is caught up in a waking nightmare of mental illness, reliving terrible moments from his time in country. Willis was injured by a roadside bomb and his periods of lucidity are getting fewer and farther between. Alisha’s mother has long since split, a victim of her own nightmares generated by drug abuse. Father and daughter survive on the streets of L.A.’s Skid Row.

Alisha doesn’t have to live on the street. She has a caring social worker named Magdalene (Ortiz) who genuinely wants to see her safe and sound but time and time again, she refuses or runs away, preferring to be with her dad who has nobody to take care of him but Alisha. Her dad’s paranoid delusions preclude him from accepting any sort of help. Most of the time he is docile, going wherever Alisha leads him but occasionally something triggers him and he gets violent.

Alisha has become entirely suspicious of the motives of most adults, Magdalene’s obvious example aside she has dealt with far too many people who don’t have her best interests at heart. Even Magdalene doesn’t seem to understand how devoted she is to her dad nor is Magdalene able to act on it even if she did. Even genuinely good people like prospective foster parent John Austin (Sheen) who, like Alisha, is a talented writer is met with stony silence and suspicion.

Things begin to spiral from bad to worse as Alisha falls into the clutches of a human trafficker and briefly considers selling herself to get her dad and her out of L.A. and away to somewhere where they can both be safe. However, her dad’s demons surface at the most inopportune time and Alisha is left facing a nearly impossible decision.

In many ways this is a very powerful film and much of the reason for that is the performances. Buck does an impossibly mature job playing young Alisha and bears the burden of carrying the film on her back with dignity and grace. From time to time a child actor comes along that you know instinctively has enormous talent, talent enough to move on and become a big star in his or her own right. Buck is just such an actress; there isn’t one false note in her entire performance here and she pulls it off in a way that would make a whole lot of adult actresses green with envy.

Gathegi also gives a standout performance. Yes, I know he mostly has to stare straight ahead with a blank expression but you try doing that for a long length of time and see how difficult it is to do. In rare moments of lucidity, Bo is fully aware that he is an anchor dragging his daughter down into his own private hell and he whispers to her gently that it is all right for her to let him go. We never know if he heard him until the very end of the film. The chemistry between Buck and Gathegi is natural and alive; the two work seamlessly off one another. The performances aren’t the problem here.

In many ways this is a very cliché film and Carlson like many indie filmmakers seems loathe to make the kind of deep cuts during the editing process (Carlson is an editor by trade and the hardest thing in that line of work to do is to edit your own footage objectively) that the film needed. As a result, it feels at times that the plot is running in place and not getting anywhere. Not only is the movie on the long side, the plot has a whole lot of clichés; the well-meaning social worker with an overwhelming case load and constraints laid on her by an unfeeling bureaucracy; a war veteran with psychological (or in this case physical issues causing the psychological) issues, a seemingly nice guy offering salvation but delivering damnation.

It’s a shame because I think there are a lot of good ideas here. In the interest of transparency however, I should point out that of my circle of friends who have seen the film, I am very much in the minority – Da Queen in fact has proclaimed this as her favorite film of the Festival so far. I can see where she would like it – the father-daughter relationship is very powerful here and I think a lot of people are going to be swept up by it and that’s not a bad thing. Still, those who look beyond the best feature of the film might see a few imperfections in the overall work.

REASONS TO SEE: Buck delivers a strong performance and has good chemistry with Gathegi.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie wanders a bit and could have been a little shorter.
FAMILY VALUES: The is a fair amount of profanity, some violence and a scene of sexuality and child peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Carlson is best known for his 2011 award-winning documentary Bhopali.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Imperial Dreams
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
The Most Dangerous Year

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Hunter (2018)


Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage.

(2018) Horror (Random Media) Jason Kellerman, Rachel Cerda, Leigh Foster, Ryan Heindl, Nick Searcy, Beau Forbes, Adria Dawn, Bill Bannon, Susan Monts-Bologna, Andrew Gebhart, Lynda Shadrake, Ann Joseph, Leah Uteg, Kiley Moore, Darren Stephens, Ryan Kitley, Renee Sebby, Riley Sebby, Shon McGregory, Claudine Tambuatco. Directed by David Tarleton

 

Chicago has been a violent place since the Jazz Age. These days it’s a poster child for urban gang violence and murder. Still, the Windy City has a special quality all its own, if you don’t look too closely into the shadows.

Hunter (Kellerman) was at one time a feared MMA fighter. He was absolutely devoted to his mother (Shadrake) and little sister (Uteg). All that is shattered when they are killed in a home invasion. Only Hunter survives and he carries with him images of horror from that night that haunt him non-stop.

He is reduced to living on the streets of Chicago in the dead of winter. Starving and cold, he hears about a shelter from his only friend, Crazy Sybil (Dawn) and in near desperation he goes to find a warm bed, hot food and maybe even a shower. However, the price for staying is that he must talk to a therapist, in this case named Danni (Cerda). The problem is, Hunter isn’t interested in talking. He’s just interested in surviving and so Cerda has to find a way to break down his walls.

Those walls are up for a reason. It turns out that the gang that killed his sister and mother are still out there and still murdering. Hunter knows their secret and may be the only person who can stop them, but Hunter isn’t sure whether they are real or figments of his imagination. Spoiler alert: they are very real. In the meantime Danni and Hunter have crossed a line into romance which now makes her a target.

This actually has a pretty nifty concept, one I can’t discuss completely without spoiling the film. Suffice to say that revealing Hunter’s last name would be a very big clue. It also should be noted that the way in which Chicago is utilized as a setting lends itself to the type of movie this actually is, although in a much different way than fans of the genre are unused to. What genre? I can only say it’s a subset of the horror genre and leave it there.

Kellerman doesn’t look like your average horror or action hero, nor does he look like the average MMA champion. When he hasn’t been “homeless-ed” up with a raggedy beard, scruffy clothes and weathered skin, he resembles more the happy-go-lucky Jewish boy next door in a romantic comedy albeit one with Hebrew calligraphy tattooed to his chest. Nonetheless he does a pretty strong job in the lead and has a big future ahead of him given the right breaks.

Unfortunately, Tarleton opted to use a myriad of jump cuts perhaps in an effort to give us an idea of Hunter’s confusion and torment. If that was the purpose (and I have no definite idea that it was only that it’s the only explanation that makes sense) he was unsuccessful. After watching these cuts for only 20 minutes I began to get a headache and had to shut the movie off for a bit. That’s never a good sign.

Tarleton is more successful at building up to the climax, and he does so masterfully. We get a sense that Hunter is unreliable as a narrator, doubting even his own senses. That works really well in the course of the film giving us an is-he-crazy-or-is-he-not subtext to work with. In many ways the movie has a lot of inventive qualities and if the editing had been less frenetic this actually could have been a superior film. I give the filmmakers props for giving us a movie that has a lot of potential and viewers who are able to handle a lot of rapid-fire images perhaps better than I could may actually end up enjoying this immensely. Those who are more sensitive (like myself apparently) may find this to be more of an ordeal than a pleasant experience though. If that’s the case and you really are intrigued, I suggest having plenty of aspirin on hand.

REASONS TO SEE: The atmosphere is suitably Gothic, something Chicago lends itself to well.
REASONS TO AVOID: The filmmakers have an over reliance on jump cuts which tends to be headache-inducing after a while.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a fair amount of violence and gore, some profanity as well as a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:
Schatz won an Emmy for her work on the documentary Through a Child’s Eyes: September 11, 2001.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Radial
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/15/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Thirst
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
The Last Resort

Bikini Moon


The frank stare of madness is unblinking.

(2017) Mockumentary (Flix Premiere) Condola Rashad, Sarah Goldberg, Will Janowitz, Sathya Sridharan, Mykal-Michelle Harris, Chukwudi Iwuji, Scott Martin, Irungu Mutu, Lauren Lim Jackson, Alyssa Cheatham, Irma Estella La Guerre, Jeremy Rafal, Brian Sills, Roland Sands Cliff Moylan, Lisa Lakatos, Gemma Forbes, Jeannine Kaspar, Danielle Kelsey. Directed by Milcho Manchevski

 

Mockumetaries – fake documentaries which are actually scripted films – are one of those genres that are truly hit or miss. Sometimes they’re played for comedy, as in This is Spinal Tap while other times they’re played straight as in…well, most found footage films like the Paranormal Activity series. This movie is one of the latter.

A documentary crew led by ambitious but obsessive Trevor (Janowitz) and his mousy girlfriend Kate (Goldberg) are filming at a New York City housing office when they are struck by Bikini (Rashad), an Iraqi war veteran who clearly has some emotional and mental problems and decide to focus on her instead. Unable to secure government housing, the couple spends the night trying to find her an apartment that will get her off the streets. The landlord who agrees over the phone to take her in suddenly changes his mind when he sees the film crew but Bikini gives him oral sex and that seems to satisfy things…but as will become her modus operandi she will mess things up for herself when she stops taking her medication. You can usually tell shes having issues when she starts blathering on about the wonderful creatures that are the praying mantis. That figures into things fairly heavily late in the game.

With their subject back on the street, the couple brings Bikini into their own home that Kate inherited from her mom. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that things will end in tears and they literally do. In fact, pretty much everything does, from Bikini’s attempts to regain custody of her daughter Ashley (Harris) to her friendship with Kate and Trevor. And when the rest of the crew tries to finish the film in order to at least recoup some sort of payment for all their time and effort, things take a turn that nobody will see coming.

The first half of the film is enthralling, largely due to the efforts of Rashad who is absolutely brilliant. She has been seen in such things as the Showtime series Billions but she is clearly ready to take on major roles in important films. She never overplays the crazy until she needs to but her performance is raw and believable. The first half of the film is riveting and unforgettable.

Then comes the second half which not only goes off the rails, it proposes that there were never any rails to begin with. The more Bikini does to sabotage her situation, the more unbelievable everyone around her acts. Kate is the poster child for white guilt and Trevor is an absolute douchebag as we eventually discover but at some point someone would say “I’m not dealing with this crap anymore” and walk away.

One of the things the movie does successfully is look at the artificiality of some documentaries where scenes are staged and rehearsed rather than capturing the reality of the situation. We also see how the presence of a film crew can change the situation. It’s a bit of a Catch 22 – damned if you do, damned if you don’t – and while it’s not directly addressed Manchevski gives you the situation and lets you go from there. That shows a great deal of respect for his audience and had he continued down this route this could have been an absolutely amazing film.

Sadly, he chooses to go down the path of weirdness and as things spiral into an ending that the rest of the movie doesn’t hint at and to be frank doesn’t earn, the viewer will not only be taken straight out of the film which appeared to have something to say at first and likely, as I did, get incredibly angry at the filmmaker who went to the trouble of sending a message and then spoiling whatever good will he had developed with an absolute train wreck of an ending.

Basically there are two films here; one very good, the other a waste of time. I would recommend that you watch the first half and after Trevor and Kate go their separate ways just turn off the movie or walk out of the theater. Of course, the curious will want to see this all the way to the end but I’m here to tell you it’s not worth it. See the first half, skip the second. You’ve been warned.

REASONS TO GO: Rashad is a real talent with a bright future.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a little at the end with an out-of-left-field ending that it hasn’t earned.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a bunch of profanity, some violence, nudity, sexual content and disturbing content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Condola Rashad is the daughter of Phylicia and Ahmad Rashad.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/17/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Lobster
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Oath

An L.A. Minute


Your life can change in an L.A. minute.

(2018) Comedy (Strand) Gabriel Byrne, Kiersey Clemons, Bob Balaban, Ed Marinaro, Lynn Renee, Ned Bellamy, Jane McNeill, Katherine Kendall, Craig Anton, Ash Adams, Kimberly Crandall, Brianna Baker, Brad Ashten, Patrick Donohue, J.R. Howell, Anastasiya Mitrunen, Jake Adams, Daniel Guttenberg, David Wood, Jasmine Flanders, Ashley Borders. Directed by Daniel Adams

 

Los Angeles is a dichotomy. Most people think about the glitz and the tinsel, the shining illusions of Hollywood that everyone in Los Angeles is either a gang-banger on the East side or a studio executive in Beverly Hills with a tendency more towards the latter than the former. What outsiders don’t realize is that Los Angeles is a sprawling megalopolis with as many faces as a city of tens of millions of people can muster. Los Angeles is in many ways inherently unknowable even by Angelenos. I grew up there and I can’t claim to know it; it changes aspects when you’re gone from town for a month let alone twenty years.

Ted Gold (Byrne) is a successful author which in L.A. terms means his books become movies. He lives in a Malibu mansion with his wife Susan (Renee) sleeping on the opposite side of a bed that could easily sleep ten and with a personal chef and maid who start off every morning by spitting in his breakfast. That gives you an idea of how highly Ted is regarded by those around him.

That would include his ditzy agent Shelly (Balaban), his beautiful publicist Tracy (Kendall) and his long-suffering wife Susan (Renee). Ted’s latest “masterpiece” is Kinky Cadavers which is about a homeless serial killer. He ventures out from his Malibu mansion to take meetings, do rounds of publicity on radio shows and talk shows, and have lunch with his agent.

When he accidentally loses a lucky medallion, he goes on a journey among the homeless of Los Angeles and discovers a young performance artist named Velocity (Clemons). He is entranced by her forthrightness, her intelligence and her passion. Under her tutelage he will undergo a journey that will transform his life – and hers.

According to the press notes, this script was written 20 years ago and it shows its age. The cliché of Los Angelinos being kale-chomping New Age douchenozzles is older than that still, and while there are a few who are like that it’s really not universally true. Most of the L.A. residents I know are actually pretty down-to-earth. These kinds of stereotypes and jokes aren’t going to resonate much with those who live in the City of Angels although they might give a few yucks to those who don’t.

Byrne is one of those actors who’s a consummate pro; he never turns in a subpar performance and while he’s appeared in a few clinkers in his time, he generally elevates any film he’s in but this is a rare exception and it’s mainly because it’s the way the character is written. There isn’t one sincere bone in Ted Gold’s body and even when he is confessing his urges to give up the crap he’s writing for something more meaningful, it feels fake and forced – some even see it as a ploy to get more books sold and I’d guess Ted is totally capable of it.

Clemons is actually the scene stealer here; as she was in such films as Hearts Beat Loud. What life there is in the movie mainly comes from Clemons character, who is a free spirit yes but who turns out to be not exactly what she appears to be. Even such cringe-inducing dialogue like “He lost his potency because he lost his purpose” is given a measure of respect in the way she says it which is no easy task, let me assure you.

There are some nice touches here, such as interludes between scenes set in the streets are young people dancing to rap songs, while those set in wealthy areas have sprightly pop music and scenes of SoCal splendor. They get points for filming in Skid Row with homeless extras, but they lose their points for doing that for essentially a woe-is-me rich person problems theme that deals with the problems of being famous. That’s pretty tone deaf if you ask me.

Essentially this movie is The Book of Job given a modern secular twist but as interesting an idea as that might be it relies too much on cliché humor, jokes that don’t hit the mark often and a kind of cynical view of “the industry” and those connected with it. There’s a lot of fertile material in taking on the star-making machine and our celebrity-obsessed society but the movie doesn’t reallyharvest any of it; instead the writers play it safe and that’s what we get here, a movie that feels like people (with the exception of Clemons and Byrne) are just going through the motions to collect a paycheck. This isn’t close to unwatchable but it is only barely recommendable

REASONS TO GO: Clemons is a breath of fresh air.
REASONS TO STAY: A little bit (actually, a lot) on the pretentious side and full of L.A. clichés.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity and a bit of sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Mariel Hemingway was originally cast but dropped out just prior to filming.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/27/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews: Metacritic: 15/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: L.A. Story
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Iron Brothers

Microhabitat (So-gong-nyeo)


Cleanliness is next to godliness.

(2017) Dramedy (CGV Arthouse) Esom, Jae-hong Ahn, Duk-moon Choi, Jin-ah Kang, Sung-wook Lee, Gook-hee Kim, Jae-hwa Kim. Directed by Jeon Go-Woon

The economics for those living on the bottom rung of the working class are fairly bleak. As inflation brings the price of goods and services up, the pay for workers isn’t keeping pace. The results are that we are working longer and harder for less. This is true pretty much on a global scale.

In Seoul, Miso (Esom) is a 31-year-old housecleaner who lives in a tiny one-room unheated apartment in a dodgy part of Seoul. She seems ok with her lot, so long as she has the three things that make her life bearable; cigarettes, whiskey and her boyfriend Hansol (Ahn), an aspiring manhwa artist. However, new taxes bring the price of cigarettes up to a level that makes her right, meticulously managed finances even tighter. On top of that when her apologetic landlord is forced to raise her rent, rather than give up smoking and drinking, Miso chooses rather to be temporarily homeless.

It is winter and Seoul can be a very cold place in winter. Miso must rely on her friends to put her up, but each one has their own lifestyle and their own set of circumstances. Once all somewhat bohemian college students (some of whom were bandmates of Miso back in the day), they have all exchanged their ideals for conformity and in some cases, creature comfort. Each apartment she visits has its own habitat and the dweller within their own needs. Miso tries to meet those needs as best she can. She is unfailingly cheerful and even as she listens to her friends rant about their problems never feels compelled to judge. Neither do her friends feel compelled to ask Miso about her circumstances.

In many ways Microhabitat feels like it takes its cues from American independent films with the sometimes eccentric characters, the low-key comedy and the subtle message delivered in the slice of life presented for consumption. If this film had been made in America, Greta Gerwig would undoubtedly have been cast as Miso and the movie would have been set in New York. The difference here to an American version is the Korean traditional values, some of which aren’t all that alien to American audiences; the marginalization of unmarried women (particularly at Miso’s age), the rendering to near-invisibility of those working service jobs, the importance placed on wealth and productivity. Well, maybe the American film would have been set in SoHo and have the Miso character hanging out in bars where indie rockers played desultory sets for young hipsters. None of that happens in this film.

But of course there is no American version – yet – and judging Microhabitat on its own merits is not really very hard. Miso is a somewhat difficult character to get a real handle on because writer-director Jeon Go-Woon has the character play things close to the emotional vest. Yes, Miso is cheerful and helpful and maybe a little bit stubborn but we rarely see anything resembling despair except near the end when her boyfriend, tired of living hand to mouth, decides to accept a job in Saudi Arabia that will take him away from Seoul for two years. Other than those moments, Miso is always accepting, always polite, always giving. She’s not a saint – saints don’t smoke as much as Miso – and she may not have really grown up since college in some ways but she has grown in ways her friends who have essentially “sold out” could never understand.

In a time when most people are just one paycheck away from economic disaster it can be a bit painful to watch the realities of Miso’s financial situation; for some, they may strike a little too close to home. The tone is on the bittersweet side and the comedy fairly subtle but I have to admit that the ending was really charming and did a lot to elevate the movie. While it possesses a few bad habits common in American indie films, Microhabitat is nevertheless charming throughout largely because Esom makes Miso such a delightful character that everyone will want to spend time with.

REASONS TO GO: The tone overall is bittersweet but the ending is a bit of a grace note.
REASONS TO STAY: The economic hardships can be difficult to watch.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Go-Woon is part of a Seoul-based collective of independent female directors called Gwanghwamun Cinema; this is her feature debut.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/15/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Frances Ha
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Liverleaf

Shadowman


Me…and my shaaa-dow…

(2017) Documentary (Film Movement) Richard Hambleton, Paul DiRienzo, Richard Hell, Andy Valmorbida, Michael Carter, Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld, Keegan Hamilton, Nimo Librizzi, Robert Hawkins, Bob Murphy, Rick Librizzi, Robin Cimbalest, Mette Hansen, John Woodward, Michaael Okolokulak, Carlo McCormick, Anne Hanavan, Kristine Woodward, Phoebe Hobah. Directed by Oren Jacoby

 

An old boxing adage is the bigger they are, the harder they fall. In some ways, that also applies to art. The underground art scene of the 1980s in New York City was dominated by three figures; Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Richard Hambleton. Only one of them would live beyond the age of thirty.

Hambleton made a name for himself with the Image Mass Murderer series in a variety of cities including his native Vancouver – chalk outlines of human figures spattered with red paint looking disquietingly like blood. While the local gendarmes were less than thrilled by the street art (this before it was even called street art) the art world did stand up and take notice. Hambleton ended up in New York City where he became famous for his Shadowman series; human figures painted in black in unexpected places designed to startle people as much as possible. These paintings popped up everywhere through New York which at the time was in the midst of severe decay and neglect. Hambleton – young, leonine handsome and self-assured – and Downtown were made for each other.

But like most things it didn’t last and the fame and ready availability of drugs got to Hambleton. He would drop out of sight for twenty years, resurfacing in 2009 when a pair of gallery owners named Vladimir Restoin Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida teamed up with Giorgio Armani to present an exhibition of his work. We see the difficulty in working with the obstinate Hambleton, by now beset by scoliosis and skin cancer, his face deformed and living one step away from the streets, almost obsessive compulsively painting over and over again, unwilling to finish his works.

During his time away from the spotlight, Hambleton lived in squalid squats and rat-infested storage facilities, using money he received for whatever work he could eke out for heroin. The ravages of the drug use and excess are readily apparent from viewing his more recent interviews. While those few friends who stood by him admit that he was victimized often by unscrupulous art dealers, he was also his own worst enemy and we can see that in his interactions, often passive-aggressive with the two art gallery owners trying to help him return to where they felt he deserved to be.

Hambleton took an interest in seascapes, painting amazing works of waves crashing on the shore which were patently out of favor at the time he painted them. As he wryly put it, “I could have made Shadowman bobble-head dolls and made a million dollars” and he isn’t far wrong. As Wall Street discovered Downtown, branding began to creep into the art world as insidiously as it did everything else. In retrospect Hambleton was a modern day Quixote, tilting at windmills that often savagely tilted right back.

In many ways it’s a heartbreaking viewing. The footage of Hambleton in the 80s and now are night and day; the degree of how far he had fallen pitifully obvious. For one so talented and so innovative, it’s hard to watch in a lot of ways but one can take comfort in that he lived essentially the way he chose to, even if those choices were bad ones. Not all of us get to say that.

REASONS TO GO: The artwork is thought-provoking and beautiful.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie is a little bit dry and occasionally too full of itself.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity as well as copious drug use and smoking and also some disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Hambleton passed away October 29, 2017 as a result of skin cancer he refused to have treated. He lived long enough to see the film’s debut at Tribeca.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/1/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 77% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Loving Vincent
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Aida’s Secrets

The Florida Project


Get ready for your close-up, Orlando.

(2017) Drama (A24) Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Valeria Cotto, Bria Vinaite, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Karren Karagulian, Sandy Kane, Jim R. Coleman, Carl Bradfield, Mela Murder, Josie Olivo, Shalil Kamini Ramcharan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano, Kelly Fitzgerald, Betty Jeune, Aiden Malik, Krystal Gordon, Cecilia Quinan. Directed by Sean Baker

 

It’s no secret that life isn’t easy. Making ends meet, particularly for young single mothers, is a constant struggle. Sometimes that struggle can take place in sight of the happiest places on earth, lending a particular poignancy to things.

6-year-old Moonie (Prince) and her mom Haley (Vinaite) live in the Magic Castle Motel, a budget motel on the 192 corridor near Disney World in a suburb of Orlando. The motel is managed by Bobby (Dafoe) whose rough edges sometimes mask the good heart he has underneath it all. Haley is unemployed, a former stripper who barely is able to make ends meet and the weekly rent for the hotel room is nearly always late. Mooney has a coterie of friends, most notably Jancey (Cotto) from the neighboring Tomorrowland Motel and Scooty (Rivera) whose mom Gloria (Kane) works at the nearby Waffle House, supplying Moonie and Haley with free food and also happens to be Haley’s best friend.

Moonie pretty much has free rein to do whatever she likes, be it throw water balloons at tourists, venture out to the nearby farmland for a “safari,” and hurl profane epithets at sunbathing elderly women. Sometimes, she and Scooty pick up extra cash by carrying the luggage of tourists to their rooms. The reality of her situation is probably lost on Moonie; for all she knows this is how everybody lives. Still, she has an active imagination and if she is a bit on the wild side, it can be forgiven.

That wild behavior can be explained by Haley who is herself amoral, crude and immature. Haley spends her days reselling perfume and expensive resorts (illegally) and when that scheme goes sideways, selling her body while Moonie takes a bath in the adjoining bathroom. She also robs some of her clients from time to time reselling their Magic Bands at discount ticket places.

Haley always seems to be just barely keeping their heads above water but the tide is definitely coming in and it is only a matter of time before disaster strikes. What will happen to Moonie if it does?

Those of my acquaintance who have seen the movie are sharply divided regarding their opinions of it. Nearly everyone agrees – including the critics who seem to be pretty much in unison with their praise for the film – that the first 45 minutes and the last 20 minutes are some of the best moments in filmmaking you’ll see this year. The final scene however is where that divide comes in. Some say that it comes out of left field and completely ruins the movie. Others say that it is tonally perfect and makes a great film into a potential classic.

Count me in the latter camp. That’s pretty much all I’ll say about the ending, other than that it is consistent with the tone of the movie and if you understand that this movie isn’t about Haley as much as it is about Moonie you might be able to make peace with that final scene.. I know that for a few minutes I had many of the same complaints about that ending until I thought about it for a few minutes and then realized that it fits perfectly with the movie’s theme which has a lot to do with deliberately shielding yourself from the harsh realities of life.

The performances here are simply amazing. Prince is a revelation; this is simply put one of the best juvenile performances caught on film ever. Some of the language that comes out of her mouth is salty but it feels natural considering how the adults around her speak and how the circumstances around her warrant it. Be that as it may, Moonie is full of herself, more than a little wild and absolutely fearless – until very near the end when she reveals that under all the bravado she is still a little girl and that comes through during a poignant scene as things start to fall apart. Although I suspect Prince will have her choice of little girl roles if she wants them, she might be better advised to retire now. It’s hard to imagine her ever equaling this performance.

Dafoe is a veteran who has some memorable performances of his own to his credit and this is one of the most sympathetic portrayals of his career. He often plays characters with fairly hard edges; here those edges are still there but we see a lot more of the soft interior than we normally do with Dafoe. He watches the train wreck that is Haley and Moonie with appropriately sad eyes.

The performance that not as many critics are talking about belongs to Vinaite. She is flat-out brilliant. Whenever Haley takes her daughter off motel property, you instinctively wonder what fresh nightmare is about to unfold. It is cinema of the rubberneck variety, the phenomenon of drivers craning their necks to get a better look at an accident as they drive past. One has to remember that Haley is little more than a child herself, the tattoos and drugs and men a testament to the bad choices she’s made over the years. Critically, one doesn’t see or hear referred to any immediate family for Haley; other than Moonie, she’s on her own. It’s no shock then that her values are the values of the street, of survival.

It’s early in the awards season and there are plenty of highly regarded projects that still have yet to make it into the theaters but this has to be strongly in the running for at least a Best Picture nomination and maybe more. This is definitely a must-see if it is playing in an art house near you and if not, make every effort to see it when it comes out on VOD or home video. This is certainly one of the best pictures of the year.

REASONS TO GO: The performances here are wonderful, particularly by Prince, Dafoe and Vinaite. The cinematography is colorful and magical. This is the story of people literally living on the ragged edge.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending is sharply divisive.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some sexual content, adult themes and drug material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although most of the film was shot on 35mm, the final scene was shot on an iPhone without the knowledge or consent of those in charge of the location where it takes place.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/24/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 91//100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Motel Life
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
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Novitiate