Tag Archives: Review

‘The Florida Project’ Review: A joyous, visually stunning playground of wonder and humanity

The Florida Project may follow six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her gang of friends at The Magic Castle, the cheap hotel they live at, but it’s truly one of the more hauntingly emotional films of the year.

And it’s a strange concoction that results in that. The film doesn’t shy away from or take shame in childhood, fully delving into the freedom, bliss and almost aimless wandering of young children to a point where the film becomes a free flowing journey that defies standard narrative conventions. Rather than try to make scenes with Prince and the other young actors adult friendly, the film truly comes at it from the perspective of Moonee, and realizes that there’s so much beauty in the eyes of children — that the world, even a run down motel, can become a grand playground, and not necessarily in stereotypically childlike ways. Shot with transfixing, mesmerizing, constant motion by cinematographer Alexis Zabe, who lingers like Lubezki and tracks like Deakins, but almost always places us on a low angle next to the kids, The Florida Project is a visual wonder that embraces its greatest source of imagination.

Yet, co-writer, editor and director Sean Baker realizes that, despite there being a certain sense of innocence within them, children are never free of the difficulties of the world, especially those born in particularly difficult circumstances. Baker expertly layers the growing story of family struggle, always shown from the eyes of Moonee. We see scenes of loving connection, of joyful play — but as Moonee starts to confront more and more, while she may not realize it in full, there comes a point when we understand what’s been happening all along as most that view this film have the adult luxury of inference. It’s a harrowing approach, one that humanizes and empathizes with Moonee and her mother Halley, portrayed with bracing strength by Bria Vinaite. And that’s what elevates The Florida Project — empathy. The film never exploits its characters’ lives, but simply understands them and, in turn, portrays them both sensitively and candidly.

Playing the manager of The Magic Castle, Willem Dafoe is a massive source of empathy. He moves from stiff strictness to overwhelmed frustration to soft, deep care in a way that’s somehow so subtle, yet something we can still feel throughout.

But surprisingly, Dafoe’s performance, despite warranting all the awards talk that he’s getting, is not the biggest one of note in The Florida Project. It’s Brooklynn Prince’s. It’s understandably difficult for young actors to fully envelop themselves in roles, but Prince gives every ounce of herself over to this film. It’s from her that we get the sense of wonder and joy in childhood — her energy infectious and singular and so real. It’s from her that we confront sobering truths. In the final minutes, Prince delivers a scene of emotion that is quite genuinely arresting, that takes the weight of the entire story and lays it bare with an overwhelming vulnerability. Baker composes his climactic moment with such expert, dynamic editing. But Prince is the one who causes this scene’s humanity to reverberate from the screen and dig into our bones. It’s an accomplishment that can’t properly be described, and something even more jaw-dropping when realizing that this is a seven-year-old actress we’re watching.

The Florida Project may be film’s pinnacle representation of childhood. It presents both its most wonderful qualities, without indulging, and its most genuine truths, without exploiting. It’s unlike anything we’ve seen.

Grade: A

 

Featured image via A24.

‘Battle of the Sexes’ Review: Emma Stone and Steve Carell are dynamic in this empowering sports duel

Battle of the Sexes isn’t necessarily about the central tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs. Moreso, it’s about the battle that women of the time took up against overarching oppression, and the match is one of the pinnacle representations of that.

That’s what directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris (Little Miss Sunshine) lay out beneath the surface of the picture, and rightly so. To simply focus on the match would be a disservice not only to Billie Jean King’s efforts, but also to what women encounter on a systemic scope. In this light, we see Bobby Riggs not as the main antagonist, but as an example of masculine fragility that enforces and takes advantage of such a system. Toward the end of the film, King breaks down sobbing, and it’s not because of what just happened in the moment, but because of what it means moving forward. And in that moment, writer Simon Beaufoy inserts a nod to the fight for LGBTQ+ rights that is still ahead of them.

While the angle of a grander image of feminism lends Battle of the Sexes a larger weight and greater stakes, the film is sadly a bit un-engaging. There are so many moving parts — a brand new tennis association forming in the fight for women’s rights, Billie Jean King exploring her sexuality, marital issues stemming from her exploration, Bobby Riggs dealing with gambling issues and post-fame withdrawal, Riggs manipulating the system in order to face off against King and how all of that represents the system at work and its impacts — and the film begins to buckle as it struggles to work each layer into a dynamic, unified progression.

Fortunately, though, Emma Stone and Steve Carell are both absolutely dynamic as King and Riggs, respectively. While Stone is mostly just good during moments of outward expression, it’s in King’s vulnerability where her acting chops shine — similar to her moments of strength in La La Land. However, it’s Carell who steals the show. We can see threads of the boisterousness of Michael Scott, but there’s something much more egotistically charismatic about Carell’s performance here. His energy is infectious and, with a slightly altered look in hair and teeth, there’s a physicality through which that energy manifests. And, in terms of that masculine fragility, Carell sells the dramatic moments when Riggs’ shell starts to break and his confidence is humbled. It’s certainly one of his best performances.

Those performances push us through the slower moments, rendering Battle of the Sexes worthwhile for what it hopes to achieve with its larger message.

Grade: B

 

Featured image via Fox Searchlight.

‘The LEGO Ninjago Movie’ Review: Zany jokes can’t justify cultural appropriation, soulless plot

In The LEGO Ninjago Movie, whose title suggests Japanese history and culture, one of Jackie Chan’s first lines is “对不起,” the Chinese phrase for “sorry.” Though it’s presented as a cute exchange between an antiques dealer and a kid who wanders into his shop, this single line of dialogue can be read as an apology for the film’s quest to lump distinct Asian cultures into one vague, cinematic PF Chang’s, held together by performances that are literally yellow-face. But forget for a second that the film wants you to believe that Dave Franco is a ninja. Even if Japanese actors were approached to be in The LEGO Ninjago Movie, it’s easy to see why they would avoid this film like you would a rogue 2×4 LEGO brick on your carpet.

This film attempts to copy the aesthetic of The LEGO Movie and The LEGO Batman Movie, but captures none of the heart of those previous films. This film is predicated on the father-son dynamic of the warlord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his estranged son, the ninja Lloyd (Franco), but there’s no particular reason why we should care for their reunion. Garmadon doesn’t have any redeeming qualities, and Lloyd is doing fine without him. Sure, it’s cute when Garmadon teaches Lloyd how to play catch, but one feels more attachment to one’s bag of popcorn — the consumption of which, may be the only upside of watching this film.

Okay, maybe not the only upside, since this film has a few good jokes in it, though they’re not as funny as live-action Will Ferrell showing up in the third act, or Lego Batman roasting 50 years of cinematic Batmen. Yet, a character named Meowthra, some bonkers live-action montages and a Locke joke are wacky enough to keep adult audience members from sneaking into a neighboring screening of It — a film I’d rather take my hypothetical child to. Sure, Pennywise would traumatize Harry Jr., but at least he wouldn’t have to sit through yet another example of Hollywood whitewashing and a plot that gestures toward emotion without ever eliciting it.

Grade: 3.5/10

 

Featured image via Warner Bros.

‘mother!’ Review: Jennifer Lawrence captivates in this gonzo descent into hell

“Howl to the moon” was the phrase Darren Aronofsky used to opaquely describe his feelings behind mother!, an impeccably mounted, nearly impossible-to-digest-on-one-viewing allegory for the folly of mankind. And truly, love it or absolutely f*cking hate it, mother! can really only be described in that phrase.

To speak much about the story of mother! is a spoiler. What can be said, however, is that mother! is an equivalent to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, but without the hope for life that Malick’s film glowed with. Rather, Darren Aronofsky’s film presents itself as a damning critique of many things, including, but not limited to religion, celebrity and marriage.

The brazenness of it all comes from the fact that mother! is obvious in its ambitions, but refuses to hold viewers’ hands, forcing them to confront its precipitous descent into humanity’s darkest depths.

Much admiration must be lobbed toward the stunning work of Aronofsky regular Matthew Libatique, whose cinematography is tightly framed here, and the incredible sound mixing crew, who, without any score, build a palpable sense of dread from everything that happens off-screen.

Most impressively, though, is Academy Award-winning Jennifer Lawrence’s ability to command the screen so effortlessly. The willingness of Lawrence to literally and figuratively bare it all, physically and emotionally, in this film is absolutely commendable, but that framing nearly verges toward exploitative. However, the film’s dirtiness and its treatment of her character is what the film asks viewers to ponder as they leave the theater.

Is mankind worth saving, or are we all doomed to destroy the things we should be loving and taking care of the most? Aronofsky refuses to give an answer, even if he suggests a pessimistic view. For cinephiles who like their films that way, mother! may stand as a landmark for years to come.

Grade: 9.4/10

Our full review of mother!

Featured image via Paramount.

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