Thursday, October 19, 2017

A heartbreaking ode to childhood

I can't think of a movie that better captures the evanescent joy and freedom of childhood than The Florida Project, a movie set in a run-down motel in Orland, Fla., the kind of place where residents always are one small step away from homelessness. Joy and freedom, yes, but no matter how much fun these kids have, we know they're hanging on by a thread.

Not coincidentally, the movie takes place near Disney World, an attraction dedicated to an entirely different view of childhood and family than the one the movie so keenly observes. Also not coincidentally -- but definitely ironically -- the motel in which much of the story takes place is called The Magic Castle. Nothing about The Magic Castle, a dump coated with purple paint, seems either magical or noble.

If you're interested in knowing how certain effects in movies are achieved, a bit of on-line research usually can lead you to answers. But I don't know if it's possible to explain how director Sean Baker (Tangerine) obtained the performances that make The Florida Project so convincing and special, particularly from the kids who populate his movie.

Six-year-old Moonee, rendered in an irrepressibly energetic performance by Brooklynn Prince, provides the movie with its centerpiece. Moonee seems to be enjoying a summer away from school with two friends: Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto). Cotta's Jancey lives with her grandmother in the nearby and equally bereft Futureland Inn.

These are not kids who are sent to summer camps, chauffeured from one enriching activity to another or otherwise sheltered from the harsh realities of a junk-food life in a place where most of the residents have little chance for brighter futures.

It's not surprising that at one point, the kids badly damage an abandoned property or that each of them becomes vulnerable to dangers that Baker doesn't always follow to the most harrowing extremes. What would be the point? Things are bad enough for these kids without piling on.

Moonee lives with her mother (a terrific Bria Vinaite), a young woman who tries to cobble together a life. Vinaite's Halley perpetually runs out of money and we fear that she'll never get a grip on how to be a responsible adult, much less a mother. But -- and here's where the movie shines -- it's equally clear that no matter how unprepared for motherhood Halley is at 22, she loves Moonee. She can be a playmate and a friend to her daughter, but she can't be the adult in the room, probably because in one way or another her early life mirrored Moonee's.

A world-weary custodian named Bobby (an excellent Willem Dafoe) presides over the motel. Bobby collects rent, enforces rules and tries to maintain a semblance of order. Dafoe portrays a sympathetic man who has seen almost every manner of hardship befall the denizens of this shabby world, often more than once. When he tries to help, he knows that he's bucking a tide of bad luck and despair.

The achievement of cinematographer Alexis Zabe must be acknowledged; his images can be lustrous and beautiful without shortchanging the seedy environment in which Moonee and Halley spend their time, occasionally trying to get a taste of the good life. When Moonee has a chance her to eat a real meal, her face practically erupts with delight.

Sometimes, there's less need to rattle on about exceptional movies than when we deal those that are mediocre. That may be the case with The Florida Project, a movie that concludes with a scene catapults Moonee into a world of promise and fantasy.

I won't say anything more about the movie's final shot, but everything that precedes it tells us that Baker knows better. Rude awakenings loom in Moonee's world of dreams. And that's what accounts for the sadness beneath every moment of euphoria in The Florida Project: Fantasies may buoy our spirits, but they also can curdle into the most devastating of lies.

He refused to be bed ridden

Robin Cavendish spent 36 years of his life paralyzed from polio, a disease he contracted while working in Kenya in the 1950s. Breathe, a new movie starring Andrew Garfield and marking the directorial debut of actor Andy Serkis, turns Cavendish's story into a life-affirming celebration. It may sound odd for a movie about a paralyzed man, but Serkis (The Lord of the Rings and the Planet of the Apes movies), has made a sometimes giddy, feel-good movie -- and, as a result, Breathe never feels entirely credible. Early on, the movie focuses on Cavendish's relationship with Diana (Claire Foy), the love of his life. The two meet, marry and head to Kenya. When the stricken Cavendish is brought back to England, he initially wishes for nothing more than to die. He has no desire to spend his life attached to a breathing machine. For an active adventurous man, life had lost its meaning. Diana, who by this time is pregnant, eventually brings her husband out of his funk and the rest of the movie charts the ways in which Cavendish struggles to lead a meaningful life. With the help of an inventor (Hugh Bonneville), Cavendish labors to escape his bedroom, an ambition that led to the invention of a mobile wheelchair with a built-in breathing machine. For those who are unable to breathe on their own, life becomes a new kind of adventure, one dependent on a continuous flow of electricity and, ultimately, on others. Displaying a preternatural helping of good humor, Garfield gives a spirited performance as Cavendish, no small feat considering he's limited to working with his face and voice. Serkis delivers moments of interest, but the movie eventually becomes mawkish with a conclusion that proves touching -- if not heartbreaking. If Breathe advances a view that's anything close to the truth, Cavendish probably wouldn't have wanted it any other way, but Breathe might have benefited from a little less burnish and a lot more soul searching.

A farewell to Harry Dean Stanton

If you're interested in deep questions about life and death, you probably can do better than Lucky, a movie that's devoted to watching a man in his 90s -- played by the late Harry Dean Stanton -- consider the fate that awaits him. An atheist who doesn't believe either in the soul or heavenly immortality, Stanton's Lucky is left to smoke cigarettes, drink his daily Bloody Mary and peer into the terrifying void that awaits him. Lucky perfectly fits a parched New Mexican setting in which Stanton's collapsing face seems as natural as an aging cactus -- and just as prickly. Lucky doesn't seem to care much about anything, although he's able to summon enough anger to deliver a diatribe against a local lawyer who's helping another senior citizen (David Lynch) with his estate planning. In one of the script's awkwardly quirky touches, Lynch's character says he wants to leave everything to his best pal, a tortoise that recently escaped into the desert. Members of the supporting cast (Tom Skerritt and Ed Begley Jr, for example) have their moments, but this is Stanton's show. His Lucky comes off as a World War II vet who still recalls the horrors of conflict and who, as his doctor (Begley) says, qualifies as something of a miracle, having never moderated any of his health-threatening habits. Lucky should satisfy those who crave one last go-round with Stanton, who died in September at the age of 91. Directed by actor John Carroll Lynch, Lucky serves as an ode to Harry Dean, an actor who made a career out of playing men who never seemed to give a damn what anyone thought of them, a trait that made the actor admirable to audiences grown weary of ingratiating performances and celebrity polish.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Thurgood Marshall, young attorney

Not a bio-pic, Marshall concentrates on a single, racially charged case.

Chadwick Boseman has made a specialty out of playing historical figures. He began with Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), followed with James Brown in Get On Up (2014), and now tries his hand at Thurgood Marshall in Marshall.

A cautionary note: Marshall isn't really a bio-pic about the man who became the country's first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Rather than taking a sweeping look at Marshall's amazing life and career, the movie focuses on a single case that took place in the early 1940s when Marshall worked as the NAACP's only lawyer.

Law books in tow, Marshall traveled the country defending African Americans whom the NAACP believed to be innocent, men who were on trial only because of their race.

Directed by Reginald Hudlin and written by civil rights attorney Michael Koskoff with his son Jacob, Marshall deals with a racially tainted judicial system -- not in the Jim Crow South but in Bridgeport, Conn.

The case in point involves sex. An African-American limo driver (Sterling K. Brown) is accused of having raped and attempted to murder his employer's socialite wife (Kate Hudson).

As an out-of-town lawyer dispatched by the NAACP, Marshall needs a local attorney to act as the "official" counsel for the defendant. Enter Josh Gad as Sam Friedman, an insurance lawyer who's suddenly thrust into the limelight in a case for which he's ill-prepared.

The trial judge (James Cromwell) rules that only Friedman can speak during the trail. The 33-year-old Marshall acts as Friedman's coach and strategist, often scrawling notes as he sits next to the silent defendant. Friedman never before has argued a criminal case.

Hudlin relies heavily on the evolving relationship between Marshall and Friedman to supplement the judicial proceedings. Self-assured, brilliant and even a bit arrogant, Marshall always seems to know exactly what he's doing as he represents those accused of crimes, knowing that every move he makes also subjects the NAACP to possible scorn.

Friedman slowly comes to share Marshall's convictions, initially fearing that association with a racially explosive case -- which he's more or less dragged into -- will ruin his business and tarnish his reputation.

The movie eventually takes the familiar form of a courtroom drama, which Hudlin handles in a straightforward fashion that would be right at home on a TV series; he interrupts the proceedings with recreations of the accounts of those who offer key testimony, notably Hudson's Mrs. Strubing and Brown's Joseph Spell, two people with widely divergent versions of what really happened.

Hudlin seasons the movie with snippets from Marshall's non-courtroom life. He travels so much that he spends only limited amounts of time his wife (Keesha Sharp). The couple desperately wants to have a child. In what amounts to dramatic name dropping, Marshall meets with poet Langston Hughes (Jussie Smollett) and novelist Zora Neale Hurston (Rozonda "Chili" Thomas) in a Harlem night club.

Boseman, who'll next star in the Marvel Comics adventure Black Panther, brings steady conviction and sly humor to the role of Marshall. Although his character functions as the lead attorney for the defendant, Gad mostly defers to Boseman. Gad plays a middle-class Jew who slowly sees the civil rights light.

The writers may have felt that the case -- which involves race relations and sex -- would be entirely compelling, but Marshall sometimes seems bound by period-piece trappings and routine genre tropes that make the movie feel less exceptional than its title character might lead you to expect.

Still, Marshall's story -- even part of it -- remains a worthy subject: The influence of race on American criminal justice remains a hot-button issue and Marshall understands that the way some cases unfold has more to do with white perceptions, particularly about black men having sex with white women, than with facts, a condition that's still very much a part of our national tragedy.

Jackie Chan hits a somber note

The Foreigner pits Chan's character against a former IRA man played by Pierce Brosnan.
No one has made martial arts feel more joyous than Jackie Chan. Throughout his long movie career, Chan has been involved in some of the most intricately brilliant fight scenes ever filmed, many of them choreographed in ways that tip over into physical comedy.

One assumes that the always likable Chan, now 63 and perhaps past the point where he wants to risk more injuries, may not be able to continue at the bruising pace he once set. So it's hardly surprising to see Chan taking another tack in director Martin Campbell's The Foreigner, an adaptation of an insensitively named 1995 Stephen Leather novel called The Chinaman.

In The Foreigner, Chan's work takes a somber, determined turn as he plays a London father whose daughter is killed during a bombing by a group that identifies itself as a new incarnation of the IRA. Having given up his career as a hitman, Chan's Quan Ngoc Minh resumes action, setting out to avenge his daughter. Quan's mission of revenge brings him into the orbit of a former IRA man now serving in the government, Pierce Brosnan's Liam Hennessy.

Quan believes that Brosnan's character knows who's responsible for the London bombing. Having gotten nowhere with British counterintelligence agents, Quan insists that Hennessy name names. If the law won't provide justice, Quan will get it for himself.

It takes time for Chan to reveal his character's lethal side. Quan bows when he meets people and generally presents himself as an obscure restaurateur who runs a London takeaway joint. Few know that Quan was raised in Vietnam, where he was trained by US special forces. As a result, Quan knows how to build bombs and kick butt. He can commit to a mission with unrelenting persistence.

Quan heads to Belfast, following Hennessy to his country estate. There, Quan steadily raises the ante by setting off a series of increasingly powerful explosions. Meanwhile, Hennessy must deal with his angry wife (Orla Brady), the British government bureaucracy and a variety of other problems, including the ire of an IRA man who believes Hennessy has sold out men who once were his bothers in arms.

Chan vanishes for long stretches as Hennessy's intrigue-laden story moves toward center stage.

Campbell treats the material more as a political thriller than a martial arts display, and the whole package winds up as a hard-boiled entertainment that's not afraid to strike at point-blank range even if it doesn't quite manage to earn credit as more than another darkly hued movie shot through with the customary bitter undercurrents.

The man who was Deep Throat

Mark Felt takes us inside the world of the FBI during the days of Watergate.

Although an FBI investigation into matters involving White House personnel can be related to today's headlines, Mark Felt: the Man Who Brought Down the White House feels a bit dated and remote. In telling the story of Mark Felt, the man better known as Watergate's Deep Throat, the movie attempts to take us inside the FBI during the time when Felt began talking to Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

Working from Felt's 2006 memoir, director Peter Landesman wraps his story in so much seriousness he might as well be preparing to enshrine it in a museum. For all its portent and heaviness, Landesman's movie about the messy work of saving the republic feels more like a weighty footnote than a main event.

As the title suggests, Felt -- whose identity was kept secret until 2005 -- occupies the movie's center. Felt, we learn, was passed over for the top FBI job when Herbert Hoover died. Despite the slight, associate director Felt insisted that he remained loyal to the agency.

As the movie tells it, he became a whistleblower because he refused to see the FBI compromised as investigations into the Watergate burglary began to heat up. He wanted to defend the integrity of an agency that wasn't supposed to be tarnished by political considerations. And maybe he was also furious and hurt about not getting the job for which he spent much of his adult life preparing.

Looking gaunt and severe, Liam Neeson plays Felt as a lawman accustomed to maintaining a stony front. A father estranged from a daughter who has been won over by the counterculture, Felt quietly endures his wife's (an underused Diane Lane) drinking and dissatisfactions, and he soon finds himself at odds with interim FBI director L. Patrick Gray (Martin Csokas).

An outsider to the ranks of law enforcement, Gray is put in the job to be a Nixon ally in the FBI after Hoover's death. Felt also finds himself at odds with FBI agent Bill Sullivan (Tom Sizemore), a guy who doesn't mind bending the rules and who becomes Gray's top assistant.

Scenes in which Felt interacts with fellow agents -- some of whom respected and feared him -- make us feel as if we're piercing FBI walls of secrecy, but that's not enough to elevate the movie to the level of importance to which it must have aspired.

Michael C. Hall has a nice turn as White House counsel John Dean, and Bruce Greenwood turns up as a journalist with whom Felt confided before he established a secret relationship with Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.

For the most part, Landesman places the film squarely on Neeson's shoulders, using the actor's statuesque presence as a key to setting a somber tone. Nothing wrong with that, but this gloomy earnestness seems to be Mark Felt's only tone. The movie sticks to it as doggedly as Felt adheres to his desire to protect the FBI from concerns that he insists are irrelevant to law enforcement.

Mark Felt leans heavily toward portraying Felt as an American hero -- perhaps with the mud of accommodation on his shoes, but a hero nonetheless.

The movie tells us that in addition to his Watergate efforts, Felt was involved in dubious FBI efforts to find members of the Weather Underground. Felt was found guilty, but eventually was pardoned by President Ronald Reagan. This part of Felt's story plays like an afterthought. Besides, Felt remains noble to the end, refusing to pass any blame to subordinates.

There's no question that Felt was at the heart of events that shook the nation -- but Mark Felt wears its solemnity of purpose like a straight jacket, something that can't be said about All the President's Men, still the best Watergate movie of all.

The incredible story of 'Wonder Woman'

A movie that tells the surprising story of how a comic book superhero was born.

In its early days, the comic-book version of Wonder Woman included homoerotic imagery, ample amounts of bondage, and other quasi-erotic suggestions that were later purged from the adventures of the world's most famous female superhero.

I confess to knowing little about Wonder Woman's origins, so I was doubly intrigued by Professor Marston & the Wonder Women, the story of how the Wonder Woman character originated in 1941. If you want to be totally surprised by the answer, stop reading now, but I'm confident you'll be interested to learn the odd path that brought this now-familiar character to realization.

In Professor Marston and the Wonder Women -- based on real events -- writer/director Angela Robinson tells the story of Wonder Woman with inclusions of lesbian and straight sex, a long-standing threesome, and a living situation that was provocatively unconventional during the '40s and '50s. Hell, it would be provocative even today.

Limited only by its small-movie look and straightforward style, Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman treats Wonder Woman creator Professor Marston -- actually Dr. William Moulton Marston -- and the two women in his life as a springboard from which to advance an argument about tolerance for those who choose to live outside the parameters of traditional marriage.

The movie also becomes an ode to the early days of contemporary feminism, but even at its most didactic, Professor Marston remains an intriguing look at the offbeat story behind Wonder Woman.

Early on, we meet Dr. Marston (Luke Evans), a respected psychologist. When the movie opens, Marston and his psychologist wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall) are trying to invent a lie detector. The year: 1928.

Hall's Elizabeth rails against a system that marginalizes her work as a psychologist because she's a woman. Obviously brilliant, the rueful Elizabeth hates being ignored by a male-dominated academic establishment.

The emotional complexity of the story begins to take shape when Marston, who teaches at Radcliffe College, enlists the help of a promising and attractive undergraduate (Bella Heathcote). At the time, Radcliffe functioned as the women's arm of the then all-male Harvard University.

In a startlingly frank exchange, Elizabeth tells Heathcote's Olive that she should stay out of bed (not the words she uses) with her husband. But eventually, it becomes clear that Olive's crush is not for the charismatic professor, who is attracted to Olive, but for Elizabeth.

And then things get even more complicated. Olive must acknowledge that she has sexual and love interests in both Marston and his wife, a situation that eventually leads to the formation of a bounds-breaking family.

Both Evans and Hall acquit themselves well, but Heathcote gives the most surprising performance. She takes Olive from a somewhat innocent student to a full and often eager participant in the socio-sexual experiment that, at least in Dr. Marston's view, constitutes a brave attempt to liberate women and teach men to respect them.

To be honest, I had difficulty determining whether the movie bought Marston's line or regarded it as something he invented to excuse his sexual cravings. Maybe both things are true, but Evans does a solid job of showing that Marston keeps up a principled front no matter what unfolds.

To tell its story, the film employs a framing device in which the head of the Child Study Association of America (Connie Britton) questions Marston about the corrupting influences of Wonder Woman on the nation's youth.

We also see the moment at which Wonder Woman was born. After Marston develops a relationship with Greenwich Village porn merchant (JJ Field), he tries to involve both women in bondage. During their initial session, Olive dons a tiara, a silver burlesque costume, and boots. Marston has an "ah-ha" moment. Suddenly, he sees Wonder Woman standing where just a few moments earlier only Olive could be found.

Marston, Elizabeth, and Olive lived together for some time and took responsibility for raising children born to both women. The movie deals with the difficulties that manifested both inside and outside such a relationship. Things didn't always go smoothly.

Although it can be taken as a somewhat subdued manifesto for sexual and female liberation, the main reason to see Professor Marston and the Wonder Women is simpler: It may not be a great film, but it sure has one hell of a story to tell.

Living inside van Gogh's paintings

Loving Vincent can't find a story equal to the artist who inspired the movie.
It's easy to see why festivals gobbled up Loving Vincent, an animated work that tells the story of artist Vincent van Gogh in the style of the master's paintings. Tactile and throbbing with energy, the movie's images seem intended to allow viewers to take a vicarious journey inside van Gogh's world.

The story of how the movie was made is impressive. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman hired 125 painters to take us into the surroundings of van Gogh's later years, if someone who died at the age of 37 can be said to have had later years. To obtain the motion that animates the story, some 64,450 oil paintings were created.

The directors first filmed live actors, using that footage as source material for the movie's many painters. I've read that every second of film required 12 hand-painted frames to bring us into the cafes and rooms van Gogh made famous.

Nothing if not ambitious, Loving Vincent uses actors to give voice to characters familiar to those who've seen van Gogh's work -- and who hasn't? Among the van Gogh subjects who have made it into the movie: postman Joseph Roulin (Chris O'Dowd), Doctor Gachet and his daughter Marguerite (Jerome Flynn and Saorise Ronan). Van Gogh, who appears sporadically, is voiced by Robert Gulaczyk.

Clearly a labor-intensive affair, making Loving Vincent required big-time dedication and the movie easily could have resulted in folly. Loving Vincent is no disaster, but it's not quite the triumph that its subject deserves.

Many reasons: To begin with, the movie's painting proves inconsistent, perhaps an inevitable result of using hundreds of artists.

That, however, wouldn't have mattered had the story lived up to the stature of the artist. Kobiela and Welchman try to wrap the story in mystery. After van Gogh's death, Armand Roulin (Douglas Booth) is dispatched from Arles by his postman father to deliver a letter Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in Paris, but never mailed.

As the story unfolds, the initially skeptical Armand becomes increasingly sympathetic to van Gogh; in particular, he wants to know more about van Gogh's death.

Questions about whether van Gogh killed himself or was murdered don't do enough to add intrigue to a movie that covers mostly familiar ground about one of the world's most recognizable artists.

As various characters recall their dealings with the artist, the movie switches to black-and-white renderings of episodes from the painter's life, some of which look more photographic than painted.

In sum, Loving Vincent might be deemed a noble failure that some will wish to see me merely because of love for van Gogh or because the endeavor certainly qualifies as daring. But it's equally true that little in Loving Vincent proves as illuminating as van Gogh's work itself.

Besides, isn't adding motion to van Gogh's painting a prime example of gilding the lily. Van Gogh's work already reflects a reeling, explosive sense of energy that hardly needed a booster shot from the movies.

Father and son tackle the wilderness

Walking Out revolves around a view of manhood that's steeped in the self-sufficiency of men who brave the rugged mountains of Montana, hunting for elk and living out an ethos built around a relationship to the mountains and its wildlife. The story: Fourteen-year-old David (Josh Wiggins), who lives in Texas with his mother, makes his annual visit to his father Cal (Matt Bomer) in Montana. Cal and David hike into the mountains so that David can snare his first elk, a metaphor for his coming-of-age. Working from a story by David Quammen, directors Alex and Andrew J. Smith deliver a metaphorical tale about fathers and sons and how their roles can shift as circumstances change. The relationship between Cal and his father (Bill Pullman) are seen in flashbacks that add a multi-generational touch. Not surprisingly, Cal and David run into trouble in the mountains and the movie becomes a stark survival tale -- albeit one that tries not to overplay its hand. The story's poignancy stems from the knowledge that fathers and sons never really know one another. In sum: a medium-impact survival story set against the grandeur of forbidding and beautiful surroundings.