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
NEXT:
Novitiate

Advertisements

Sandy Wexler


Sandy Wexler is pleased.

(2017) Comedy (Netflix) Adam Sandler, Jennifer Hudson, Kevin James, Colin Quinn, Nick Swardson, Jackie Sandler, Terry Crews, Rob Schneider, Lamorne Morris, Aaron Neville, Jane Seymour, Luis Guzman, Arsenio Hall, Quincy Jones, “Weird Al” Yankovic, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Mason “Ma$e” Betha, Rob Reiner, Chris Elliott, Eugenio Derbez, Milo Ventimiglia, Jessica Lowe. Directed by Steven Brill

 

We all know the big names in front of the camera. Some of the more dedicated movie buffs also know the big movers and shakers behind the camera Then there are the guys on the periphery, the outsiders. The guys like Sandy Wexler.

Wexler (A. Sandler) worked as a talent agent in the mid-90s in Los Angeles and to say he had A-list clients would be the kind of lie that he was well-known for saying; Sandy is almost pathologically incapable of telling the truth. He is also as pathologically loyal to his clients who are among the dregs of show business; a daredevil (Swardson) who has issues colliding with birds, a ventriloquist (James) who dreams of stardom on UPN and Bedtime Bobby Barnes (Crews) who’s a wrestler with a unique ring persona.

None of them have much of a future and quite frankly Wexler isn’t much of a manager either, promising gigs that never materialize or are much different than he represented on the phone. He drives his clients crazy but he’s also there for them when they need him most. One afternoon, he is taking the daughters of a client to a local theme park and there he hears the voice of an angel. It belongs to Courtney Clarke (Hudson) and Wexler knows that for the first time in his career, he has a legitimate talent right in front of him. After convincing her convict dad (Neville) that he can take her career to pop stardom, Courtney signs up with Wexler.

It doesn’t hurt that Sandy has a bit of an awkward crush on her, although she doesn’t seem to notice. Still, he manages to use his connections to get her in front of people the likes of Babyface and Quincy Jones. He also runs into a few sharks and it becomes pretty obvious that he’s way out of his depth but if there is one thing that is true about Sandy Wexler is that he believes in his clients and he believes that he can actually do them good. And maybe, in this one shining example, he might just find the warm glow of the big time within reach.

Sandler’s last three movies (including this one) have all been direct-to-Netflix and together with the last few theatrical features have been on a downward slide pretty much since Funny People. It’s nice to be able to say that this one is actually better than most of his recent films. There is a charm and warmth here that have been missing from his movies for awhile. There are few actors who can pass for amiable as well as Sandler – basically because that’s how he is away from the cameras by all accounts. He is at the top of his game in that regard here.

The story is mainly told in flashback, with dozens of celebrity cameos (including Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, Penn Jillette, Rob Reiner, Pauly Shore, Jimmy Kimmel, Jon Lovitz, Dana Carvey, Janeane Garofalo, Louie Anderson, Jay Leno, Richard Lewis and Kevin Nealon, just to name a few) giving testimonials in some sort of celebration (we don’t find out what’s being celebrated until the very end of the picture). The celebrity testimonials are fun, one of the highlights of the movie. Some of them are genuinely funny.

The jokes for the most part are groaners, although not all of them are. It’s shtick for certain, but it is Grade A shtick nonetheless. The movie runs well over two hours long which may exceed your particular tolerance for an Adam Sandler movie, but for some may find that to be not a factor. I’ll admit I was checking my watch near the end.

This also has a definite feel for a lot of Sandler’s other films, particularly of the last decade or so which may be a deal breaker for some. It also may be for others a deal maker so it really depends on how you feel about Sandler and his type of humor in general. You will get the full Sandler shmear; shuffling hunched posture, funny voices, product placement and the usual cast of Happy Madison regulars (Happy Madison is Sandler’s production company).

Still, whether you love him or hate him, Sandler does have a knack for making one feel good as one watches the closing credits roll. This doesn’t stand among his best work but it is certainly the best movie that he has made for Netflix to date. Sandy Wexler stands as a heartfelt tribute to the outsiders on the fringe of the entertainment business, the ones who have more heart than talent whose eccentricities are endearing rather than annoying – mostly. There’s definitely room for a movie like that in the hearts of those who have a fondness for that kind of subject.

REASONS TO GO: The celebrity cameos are a lot of fun. The viewer is left with a pleasant feeling.
REASONS TO STAY: The jokes are really cornball. A little too much like Sandler’s other recent films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some sexuality as well as rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The character of Sandy Wexler is based on Sandler’s real-life manager Sandy Wernick who also makes a cameo in the film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 28% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Broadway Danny Rose
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales

House on Haunted Hill (1999)


House on Haunted Hill

All sorts of photo ops in the House on Haunted Hill.

(1999) Supernatural Horror (Warner Brothers) Geoffrey Rush, Famke Janssen, Taye Diggs, Peter Gallagher, Chris Kattan, Ali Larter, Bridgette Wilson, Max Perlich, Jeffrey Combes, Dick Beebe, Lisa Loeb, James Marsters, Peter Graves. Directed by William Malone

 

When done correctly, the haunted-house movie can be nearly ideal entertainment; claustrophobic, scary and sometimes spectacular, depending on the visual bent of the director.

Unfortunately, it’s very rarely done well, despite many attempts; my favorite remains The Legend of Hell House, which scores regular appearances on late-night television and is readily available on home video.. The House on Haunted Hill is a remake of a William Castle B-movie classic, updated for the ’90s with a stellar cast and crackerjack effects.

It begins at an insane asylum as the demented inmates riot against a sadistic staff, leading to a tragedy that kills all but five. Flash forward to the present, when theme park maven Stephen Price (Rush) – a sly tribute to the original movie’s star Vincent Price – has just finished debuting his newest roller coaster (actually the Incredible Hulk coaster at Orlando’s very own Islands of Adventure theme park, an experience I highly recommend if you haven’t already been) and is preparing to throw a birthday party for his less-than-loving wife (Janssen). He plans an unforgettable shindig.

However, the guest list is mysteriously altered, leaving only five complete strangers to try Price’s challenge; he’s put up a million dollars per guest (that’s five million dollars total) to be awarded to anyone who spends an entire night without leaving the notorious property known as the most haunted place in Los Angeles. This is, if you haven’t already guessed, the former asylum. Of course, you have to survive in order to collect. Who will it be – the mild mannered physician (Gallagher), the heroic leading man (Diggs), the plucky comic relief (Kattan) or the beautiful, sexy and intrepid woman (Larter)?

As is the case with many haunted house flicks, the house itself proves to have its own lethal intelligence. What was a mean-spirited prank turns into a fight for survival among stereotypes…err, I mean, characters. The writers throw in a misleading and totally unnecessary subplot involving Price’s marital woes and attempts by both parties to frame the other for murder, but it doesn’t wash for a moment.

The cast is led by Rush as Price, a showman along the lines of P.T. Barnum — or even, gulp, William Castle, the B-movie impresario who once wired theaters playing one of his movies to deliver mild electric shocks to patrons during key moments of the film. Rush is always outstanding and he manages to rise above the material here.

Taye Diggs makes for an excellent hero; he has a future as a widescreen leading man. Kattan provides comic relief as a caretaker who knows all too well what the house is capable of and proves to be one of the bright spots of the movie, something I never thought I’d say about the guy.

The effects are dazzling at times; the appearances of various ghosts and ghouls are genuinely creepy. The specter of Dr. Vannecutt (Jeffrey Combs) is particularly disturbing; it still weirds me out whenever I’m reminded of his appearance on a surveillance camera. The climactic portion of the movie revealing the monster at the heart of the haunting is a computer-generated Lovecraftian nightmare, but takes up far too much screen time; it would have made for better scares to show us less of the thing and more of the actors reactions to it.

In fact, as good as the effects are, they occasionally overpower what could have been a better movie if the filmmakers had focused more on genuine suspense and atmosphere instead of overpowering the senses. This got some notoriety as being the first film to be released from Dark Castle, the production company headed by Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Gil Adler and Terry Castle, the daughter of the legendary producer. While they have since branched out from remakes of classic Castle films, they remain one of the finest regular producers of horror films in Hollywood.

“Less is More” is a truism that Hollywood moviemakers espouse onscreen but rarely follow behind the camera. House on Haunted Hill could have benefited from a budget slashed even more effectively than the designated female victim (see if you can guess who she’ll be at the beginning of the movie) who goes brainlessly and inevitably to her fate, wandering around in a dangerous house with a video camera – by herself. Kinda sums up the whole movie if you ask me.

WHY RENT THIS: Nice eye candy. Rush and Kattan give nice performances. Larter and Janssen are easy on the eyes.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Overreliance on special effects. Would have done better creating more atmosphere and showing the monster less.

FAMILY MATTERS: Graphic horror violence, gore, some sexual images and lots of bad language; not for the squeamish.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The first person to get killed in the movie, a male nurse, is played by the writer of the screenplay Dick Beebe.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are trailers for both the 1999 and 1959 versions of the film, as well as a 20-minute feature comparing the two.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $40.9M (North American box office figures only) on a $37M production budget; factor in worldwide box office and chances are this made money.

FINAL RATING: 5.5/10

NEXT: The Tempest