“The Florida Project”

LOUISA: 4.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

The fiercely independent “The Florida Project” seems like the most unlikely of places to begin a heartbreaking journey of jumbled emotions. Throughout this two hour visual verite feast, you’ll be hit with moments of joy and sadness, inspiration and despondency, and a cinematic romanticism so goddamn riveting that you just can’t tear yourself away.

The film follows mischievous Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and her immature and irresponsible mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) over the course of a sweltering Florida summer. The two call the candy-colored highway motel The Magic Castle their home (for $35 a night). Despite her bleak surroundings and life of poverty, Moonee celebrates every day unaware with a fervor for life, although her untamed wild streak often lands her in trouble with the stern yet compassionate motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Moonee goes on imaginative adventures with her playmates (Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera) in tow, traversing the urban tourist jungle of Orlando where she exists, nearly invisible, alongside manufactured Disney-fied happiness.

The film draws inspiration from independent films like “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “American Honey,” with director Sean Baker‘s camera quietly observing and refraining from telling us what to think or feel or even telling us where to look. We are a casual observer, often seeing the world from the point of view of six year old Moonee but with the astuteness of an adult’s eye. We watch as confused and unhappy tourists come and go, as Bobby struggles to keep the property up to the bare minimum standards, as the motel’s fly-by-night residents pack up and leave for good, as random perverts stop by to harass the children — or worse. The limited perspective is effective, like when you finally realize why Baker is giving us so many shots of the young child in a bathtub.

This is fully experiential filmmaking that confronts our discomfort by thrusting us straight into the heart of a forgotten segment of America that many of us would like to ignore. These are the people, the transient families, that most of us don’t want to see; they’re the folks that inspire us to avert our eyes as we pass by. This film forces us to look at them, to take notice, to care.

As with Baker’s previous film “Tangerine” (which was remarkably shot entirely on an iPhone), the film is beautifully crafted, a sweeping, fluid achievement that cements Baker’s role as a cinematic artist. This time around he’s fortunate to be working with a much better camera but his eye for creative framing and intricate attention to detail remains unchanged. He’s tuned in to the wonder and innocence of childhood, bringing a pure and unbridled view of the world to his style (the film often darts back and forth to mirror the short attention span of a pack of feral kids, for instance). You can say the film is a contradiction of sorts, an emotionally devastating yet handsomely polished look at poverty and neglect among those living on the outskirts of accepted society.

This is a beautiful and heartbreaking exploration of modern life in America, a realistic peek at poverty that is not romanticized nor glamorized. The sad truth is that people really do live this way. Children are grossly unsupervised and single parents are doing the best they can to make ends meet. Halley is unquestionably an unaccountable and unfit mother and Moonee is a completely untamed, out of control little girl. But how can Moonee ever learn right from wrong when she has so little parental involvement in her life?

Bobby does what he can to be a caretaker to both the property and to his residents. I can’t stress enough that this is a career best performance from Dafoe. His role as an empathetic motel manager / surrogate parent is touching and understated in a way that deeply affected me. Dafoe is so good — so good — that here’s hoping he will sweep the supporting acting categories at every single awards ceremony this year.

On the opposite spectrum, it’s important to note that Baker loves to cast unknowns in his films — a decision that sometimes means their acting skills leave a lot to be desired. There’s some obvious non-acting from Vinaite, but it only serves to reinforce her authenticity (she was discovered on Instagram). Prince, who at times comes across as irritating and annoying, is going to be the breakout star of this one.

Now let’s talk about that divisive ending.

I’ll avoid any overt spoilers, but I think the ending hits it out of the park. The finale perfectly captures the dreamlike manifestation of a child’s imagination and blind optimism in the face of insignificance. Since the film is often seen through the eyes of a 6 year old poverty-stricken little girl, the finale not only makes perfect sense, but it’s one of the most memorable of the year.

This is a film about childhood and youthful optimism, a film about making the most of what little you have in life. Moonee is blissfully unaware about how dire her situation actually is until the film’s final minutes. And where can a child to go escape when reality finally smacks them in the face? An imaginary playland of optimism and hope.

“Jigsaw”

MATT: 2 STARS


MATT SAYS:

After a several-year hiatus, John Kramer (Tobin Bell), a/k/a the Jigsaw Killer (from the “Saw” series), is back. Or is he?

“Jigsaw” opens with a brand new “game,” one that bears all of the hallmarks of a classic Jigsaw killing, being played. It’s up to Detectives Halloran (Callum Keith Rennie) and Hunt (Clé Bennett) to figure out who is behind the most recent series of deaths – is it Kramer, who has been dead 10 years, or is it a copycat?

For gorehounds and horror fans, the most interesting part of the “Saw” movies has always been the clever traps: the reverse bear trap, the pit of used, dirty syringes, the pendulum. I’m sorry to say that the new traps concocted by the killer in “Jigsaw”are more than a little lackluster, lacking in imagination. Are the diabolical minds behind the series tapped out, or was this newest attempt to revive a once-successful franchise doomed from the beginning? It’s hard to say. The actors do a respectable enough job of it, but even after the big reveal (the other trademark of the series), I found myself underwhelmed by the “been there, done that” ending.

One more thing: as the Geico commercial posits, characters in horror movies aren’t known for making good decisions. But these particular characters are among the very worst. Scene after scene, they make choices that defy explanation. So… very… frustrating.

If you love these movies, this one’s worth a rental. Otherwise, skip it.

“Stronger”

LOUISA: 2 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Writing about films like “Stronger,” which tells the true story of a man injured in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, is one of the toughest things to do. A less than positive review should in no way be taken as a knock on the biopic’s subject but in staying critically objective to the merits of the film versus the story, this one is a boring mess.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Jeff Bauman, a Boston man who was standing so close to the bombers that not only did he lose both of his legs, he was able to offer an eyewitness account of the culprits to the FBI from his hospital bed.

The screenplay is based on Bauman’s bestselling book and what’s interesting about this one is that instead of presenting a historical rehashing of the events of the bombing, director David Gordon Green instead chooses to focus on the aftermath and recovery as Jeff and his lovingly dysfunctional family cope with his life-changing injuries and new world reality. I appreciate the fresh new angle of this biopic; I just wish it wasn’t so overly long and I wish it didn’t move so slowly.

The entire cast puts in effective performances, from Tatiana Maslany as guilt-ridden and put upon girlfriend Erin, as well as Gyllenhall himself, an actor who is making a real name for himself by stepping into darker roles of tortured antiheros. It’s psychologically disturbing to watch as Jeff suffers silently with severe PTSD yet still approaches his new disability with a positive attitude.

Even better at conveying a genuine realism is the supporting cast (including Miranda Richardson, Lenny Clarke, and Nate Richman) who play Bauman’s family, a joking, outspoken, swearing group of Bostonians. They may be mild caricatures but they’re still raw and authentic, at times making me feel as though this was an actual documentary.

Jeff isn’t likeable nor that particularly interesting, and his story isn’t inspirational. That’s what makes this a strange subject for a biopic. I’m unsure what I’m supposed to be feeling after watching this movie, but it sure ain’t inspiration.

Many have claimed the film manages to avoid the clichéd platitudes that permeate hero stories such as this, but that’s an untruth. All the usual “rah rah” tearjerker elements are present, from a tearful thank you from a vet to a “surprise” pregnancy. It’s far better than a television movie of the week, but it’s no game changer in the world of cinematic biopics.

“Happy Death Day”

MATT: 3 STARS


MATT SAYS:

The new horror Meister, producer Jason Blum (“The Purge,” “Paranormal Activity”) is back with “Happy Death Day,” an absurdly simple but appealing concept-driven movie.

It’s mean sorority girl Tree Gelbman’s (Jessica Rothe) birthday. Before the day is over, she’s going to be murdered. And then she wakes up, and it’s the morning of the same day. And once again, the killer is going to come for her. And now she has to figure out who it is that’s killing her and stop the murderer before it’s too late. It’s “Edge of Tomorrow” (or “Live, Die, Repeat” depending on who you ask) again, except this time it’s set in the world of slasher films.

Tree makes stupid decisions. As an easy victim-turned final girl, she has time to learn from her mistakes. Not all of her bad choices can be explained away by horror tropes, however, and some plot points are just a little too hard for the audience to swallow, death after death. At times it’s frustrating and there’s not a whole lot to it, but as a horror concept, it works just well enough to warrant a mild recommendation.

“Suburbicon”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Suburbicon” is a politically charged dark satire that fails spectacularly. It longs to be subversive and important but with its heavy-handed helpings of racial commentary and social satire, the film quickly becomes an exercise in extreme frustration.

George Clooney co-writes and directs the story of an idyllic suburban community in the 1950s, complete with manicured lawns and picture-perfect homes. Set in the summer of 1959, we are introduced to the Lodge family. There’s husband and father Gardner (Matt Damon), his wheelchair-bound wife (Julianne Moore) and her twin sister (Moore), and their young boy Nicky (Noah Jupe). Other characters come and go, including uncle Mitch (Gary Basaraba) and a deliciously crooked insurance claims adjustor (Oscar Isaac). But as with most tales set in a picture-perfect landscape, there’s a dark and violent underbelly boiling beneath the surface.

With a few bloody twists and turns along the way, the film becomes a bit of a misfire. There’s just too much shoved at audiences in terms of racially charged storytelling mixed with good intentioned dark political sarcasm. Just when you think the in-your-face white privilege elements are too conspicuous, we get a scene of two boys tearing down fences that by design were intended to keep them apart. If you’re going to make a smart movie, then keep it that way and don’t insult your supposedly intelligent viewers.

The original script was penned by Joel and Ethan Coen in the 1980s and their trademark story elements are all here (murder, absurdity, hypocrisy, and American pulp noir) but when Clooney and Grant Heslov started tinkering with it, they added their own touch of political activism. This is where things started to go South. There are too many ideas at play and juggling them simply doesn’t work within the framework of the story. While individually the murder mystery, racial commentary, and social irony work, they never manage to come together as one.

The film suffers from a confusing identity crisis as it’s trying to do too much. I appreciate and respect the basic idea and the obvious intention, but the message is poorly executed. This isn’t a bad film, it just fails to live up to its potential.

“Thor: Ragnarok”

LOUISA: 3.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

“Thor: Ragnarock” is a good example of what every mainstream superhero movie should be. It’s fun and colorful, packed with wisecracking exuberance and flashy, exciting CGI effects. But most of all, it’s a lot of fun.

Chris Hemsworth is back as Thor, the hunky, long-haired, hammer-wielding hero. Here he’s joined by his troublemaker brother Loki (portrayed by the ‘I was born to play this characterTom Hiddleston), an old friend (Mark Ruffalo), and a former Asgard Valkyrie warrior (Tessa Thompson) to return to his home and fight to stop the total destruction of his people. Cate Blanchett joins the cast as the wicked sister Hela and she’s the perfect demonic villain who turns out to be quite the powerful nemesis.

At the hands of quirky director Taika Waititi, “Thor: Ragnarock” takes a true path of its own, veering away from more of a serious action film into a solid sarcastic comedy. Waititi’s deadpan, sarcastic fingerprints are all over this movie and it works. At times some of Thor’s smartass comments are a little too reminiscent of “Deadpool” and “Guardians of the Galaxy” and feel like an irritating imitation, but the humor is genuine and has a lot of heart. As a result of the cast feeling super comfortable in their characters, everything comes across as effortless, easy and fun.

What’s not so fun is that parts of the film seem to have been workshopped to death, in particular the inclusion of strong female characters. I love seeing women hold their own in superhero films, but at times their presence seems forced. (But Hela is an outstanding villain, one of the best in any Marvel movie). There are also some unfortunate forced crossovers with a few distracting superhero cameos that don’t add anything at all to the movie (I’m talking to you, Dr. Strange), and much of the banter between Thor and Hulk seems contrived. But you didn’t come here to see the plot or evaluate the script — you bought that ticket for the astonishing production values and colorful action scenes, and they won’t disappoint.

The film has an enjoyably rapid pace until the last 30 minutes, where it starts to lag and suffocate under the weight of the nonstop computer animated action sequences. It’s an eye-popping spectacle no doubt, but most viewers will start to wear down after a couple of repetitive minutes of the routine finale. The movie is big and loud, but at least it’s not dumb — and that makes all the difference.

“Geostorm”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS: 

I love a good disaster movie with a creative premise and to that end, “Geostorm” isn’t as god awful as you’d think. This ridiculous sci-fi action adventure also serves as a cautionary parable about global warming. It’s like “Sharknado” if it had been directed by Al Gore.

The not quite movie star / not quite legit action hero Gerard Butler, grossly miscast as an engineer and astronaut, is called on by the government to blast off into outer space to avert a worldwide catastrophe due to a malfunction of Earth’s climate control satellites. It’s bloated, over the top, and insanely silly, but it’s also quite a bit of fun if you simply suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

The visual effects are less than impressive, the paper thin characters barely live up their one dimensional existence, and the overall spectacle just isn’t there. What is here is an often funny and always exciting action movie about the weaponization of the weather.

It’s formulaic but when it comes to disaster movies, that’s not really a bad thing. There’s the misdirection as to which character is the real bad guy (if you’ve seen even one dumb blockbuster like this, you’ll recognize the evildoer the moment he shows up on screen), there are plenty of scenes of destruction (including tornadoes made of fire and killer hail), and cheap edge-of-your-seat moments for animal lovers (will that little boy be able to save his dog?). The film rapidly piles on more goofy absurdity (nevermind why the villain has a handgun on the space station), but its several near-endings, even with minimal character development, are surprisingly touching.

Even if the special effects are mostly lame, the ideas behind them are creative. When is the last time you saw people frozen in their tracks when a super cold tsunami hits? Unfortunately, there’s less emphasis on the spectacle and more focus on the dumbed-down dialogue and lazy exposition. It’s unintentionally hilarious at times, mostly when the golden-voiced space station computer begins to remind everyone how many minutes are left until self destruction — and an impending geostorm!

Movies like this are what you make of them, so lighten up and have a little fun.

DVD Roundup: November

Want to know which movies we recommend and which movies you should skip? Here’s a handy review recap of movies that will be released for home viewing. Simply click on the film’s title to read our original reviews and to see the star rating for each movie. All films below have scheduled DVD or streaming release dates from November 1 – November 30, 2017.

Highly Recommended

Worthy Rentals

You Can Do Better

Skip It

“Battle of the Sexes”

LOUISA: 3 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

You just can’t escape the timely relevance of the 1973 story that lies at the heart of “Battle of the Sexes,” a pro-feminism romp from filmmakers Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris. The true story of the historic tennis match between women’s #1 player Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and former men’s champion Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) is an inspiring yet sobering wake-up call for all women and girls currently dealing with sexism in our society. 

Riggs, a hustler and overt misogynist, created a heated rivalry between the talented King. Their on court tug-of-war was such a captivating spectacle that their match became one of the most watched televised sports events of all time (with over 90 million viewers tuning in from around the world).

Carell embodies Riggs with a confident asshattery that somehow comes effortlessly, and most supporting roles are nothing more than throwaway parts (with the exception of Sarah Silverman as a chain smoking manager and Andrea Riseborough as a flirty hair dresser). Make no mistake, this is Stone’s show through and through. She is strong and subtle as King, physically transforming into an athlete yet creating a sympathetic emotional side to her real life character.

King was a staunch champion for gender equality and is one of the most heralded figures of the modern day women’s movement, and the film touches on some of her more personal battles as she internally wrestles with her sexuality. The film shines when it becomes a beautiful lesbian love story that was forbidden at the time (it’s truly unbelievable that LGBT folks are still having to fight to defend their human rights).

The film becomes a time capsule of 1970s sociology, a time where women were openly mocked for being lesser than their male counterparts. There are a few lines of shocking dialogue that was taken from actual historic footage, and it’ll make your blood boil that not only were women talked down to in the past, but the parallels to present day are equally alarming. (Political nerds can’t help but draw comparisons to last year’s Clinton / Trump election season).

“Battle of the Sexes” is far from a grand slam, however. Folks expecting a triumphant sports nail-biter will be disappointed, and those close-minded viewers unaware of Billie Jean’s sexuality may be shocked by a fairly tame love scene (for a PG-13 rating, at least). The film becomes bogged down in its final moments, insistent on presenting a historically accurate, play-by-play representation of the famous match. Even if you know the outcome of the match, you may find yourself cheering internally every time King scores. In between all the tennis action is a bland screenplay that’s packed with dumbed-down explanatory dialogue and long, half-hearted speeches. And just when we get a clever shot like a particularly effective scene on an escalator, the old reliable clichés of hand held shaky-cam work and shadowy mirror reflections take center stage yet again.

Still, this is a film worth seeing if only to serve as a reminder that this is a battle women and LGBT folks are still fighting today. King worked hard to tear down inequality and sexism, and women all over the world (and especially those in the world of sports) owe her. Ladies, we’ve come so far — too far — to allow our rights and social victories to continue to be pushed backward. Consider this your rousing warning to step into action.

“The Babysitter”

LOUISA: 2.5 STARS


LOUISA SAYS:

Juvenile horror films can be wildly fun (see “Hell Baby,” “Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse”), but “The Babysitter” feels like a wannabe outsider that’s desperately trying so hard to be kitschy and edgy that it becomes a lame vehicle whose sole purpose is to outdo other (and far better) movies in the horror-comedy genre. The film longs to be satirical and relevant but instead scales the heights of immaturity so much so that the entire thing feels like it’s the result of the imagination of two horny sixteen year old boys who’ve downed a case of Red Bull.

This blood splattered coming of age story follows Cole (Judah Lewis), a nerdy kid who is madly in love with his foxy high school babysitter Bee (Samara Weaving). Bee is super cool and super awesome and the duo have a special bond. When his parents head out for a romantic weekend, everything seems normal — until Cole watches as Bee and her friends (Bella Thorne, Robbie Amell, Hana Mae Lee) perform a satanic ritual in his living room.

What follows is a near-slapstick violence and gorefest of bloody kill after kill in an apparent send up of modern genre horror classics as Cole resorts to deadly traps to escape his house (think of it as a grisly version of “Home Alone”). Director McG packs on repeated irritating attempts at stylized splatter spoofs, but it quickly comes across as something more silly and geeky than sincere. And that’s okay: not everything has to have a deeper meaning.

This wild romp is outrageously absurd, but should be enjoyed by horror fans looking to shut off their brain for a couple of hours.

“The Babysitter” is an original film now exclusively streaming on Netflix.

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