movie reviews Nov. 2017

suburbiconThor: Ragnarokthe florida project

Ratings range from "0" (watch TV instead) to "5" (a must-see).

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The Florida Project
Reviewed by Beck Ireland

In writer/director Sean Baker's latest film, six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) runs riot at the Magic Castle, a garish lavender monstrosity subsisting in the shadow of Disney World. The place is kept from total squalor through the grudging but persistent labors of manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). A few tourists, who call it "a welfare slum motel," check in by mistake, but there's really just one reason anyone, including Bobby, ends up there – they have nowhere else to go.

The last time a kid had the run of a hotel in a movie was in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, and he was terrorized by visions both real and paranormal. In Baker's script, which he co-wrote with frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, Moonee and her gang, made up of a sensitive kid called Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), the new girl from a neighboring motel, are the terrors. This ragtag crew plays at a lot of the usual kid stuff: hide-and-seek, cartoons. But they also trespass in foreclosed houses and start fires.

Moonee’s mom, Halley (Bria Vinaite), is supposed to be watching over the kids while Scooty's mom waitresses at a nearby diner (she sneaks waffles out the back door for their lunch). Halley's not absent but she's not engaged either. Viewers quickly learn she's the source of Moonee's brazenness as well as her mature vocabulary. Anytime either of them feels threatened, they unleash a stream of angry vulgarity, sometimes warranted but never helpful to their cause. Still, you can't help but root for them.

It's a testament to his acting skills that to see Dafoe appear on screen means not knowing right away whether he'll be playing savior or menace. But with this project, Baker and Bergoch have handed the veteran actor the role of a lifetime. Much like any sympathetic member of the audience, Bobby is allowed to remain conflicted.

Baker shot the entirety of his previous feature film Tangerine using only iPhone cameras. Far from a gimmick, the photography created a sense of intimacy and an insider's familiarity with place as the camera closely followed the two transgender friends as they hustled – figuratively and literally – around L.A.

The action in Florida takes place in a more confined area; Halley and Moonee never venture farther away from the motel, located near Seven Dwarfs Lane (the street sign is one of the few actual references to their proximity to the Magic Kingdom) than they can walk. Cinematographer Alexis Zabé shoots the local off-brand landmarks in colorful widescreen, as if to not just reveal the tackiness of the strip mall but to elevate it.

The fruit market in the shape of an orange, a gift shop lorded over by a giant wizard and the cone-shaped soft-serve ice cream stand, where Moonee and friends beg for money for ice cream and when they can't get that they beg for the ice cream, exemplify the once delightfully novel now discarded. It's revealing the hidden realm of the déclassé, and Moonee is its queen. (R) Rating: 5 (Posted on 11/12/17)

Thor: Ragnarok
Reviewed by Mike Ireland

Over the last decade, in response to ever-darkening portrayals of big-screen super heroes, Marvel has leavened their cinematic installments with healthy doses of self-aware and self-deprecating humor. Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, and Deadpool proved that a healthy dose of humor wouldn't necessarily undermine the gravity of its storytelling (Of course, Spidey had made that point in the comics decades ago).

With Thor: Ragnarok, however, the Marvel Cinematic Universe's use of comedy may have reached a breaking point. Credit goes to Marvel for trusting another big-league property to an up-and-coming indie director, but the comedic sensibility that made successes of New Zealand comedian/actor/director Taika Waititi's vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows and comedy-adventure Hunt for the Wilderpeople here undermines any chance for true suspense or a genuine emotional response from viewers.

Granted, no superhero in any universe could use loosening up more than Thor. But even for an ageless god given to archaic locutions, a bit of self-deprecation goes a long way. Rather than humanize its hero, the Ragnarok screenplay by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost makes Thor into an Iron Man-lite goofball, bumbling his way from narrow escape to narrow escape with grade school banter such as that in his opening encounter with the fire demon Sutur (voiced by Clancy Brown). When Sutur hails his captive, "Thor, son of Odin," our quippy hero replies, "Sutur, son of . . . a bitch!"

If that is your idea of wit, this Thor's for you. Later, a wormhole necessary for escape is repeatedly referred to as "the Devil's Anus," presumably for the sniggering effect of uttering the a-word to a theater filled with pre-adolescents.

As far as story goes, Ragnarok is no great shakes, adding little to our understanding of its central characters beyond the appearance of a heretofore unknown elder sister of Thor and Loki: Hela, played by Cate Blanchett as a strutting raccoon-eyed dominatrix whose long black tresses have a habit of twisting themselves into huge black antlers when she is perturbed.

Of course, Hela has arrived in Asgard (portrayed yet again as a generic Heavy Metal magazine-inspired backdrop for a lot of green-screening) determined to unleash Ragnarok, or "the end of days," just as Thor drops from space onto a landfill planet ruled by a sort of global game-show host, the Grandmaster (a mascara-ed, prancing, hilariously over-the-top Jeff Goldblum), who keeps his subjects docile with a steady diet of bread and circuses in the form of Thunderdome-style gladiatorial contests. Captured and sold into gladiator service, Thor finds himself facing off against the planet's long-time champion and people's favorite, the Hulk.

The film briefly finds a footing as it develops the always-rocky relationship between Thor and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). In the two years he's reigned as champion, the Hulk has not transformed back to human form. Why? First, constant fighting keeps him angry, and second, he likes it here. Unlike his troubled experiences on Earth, here he is treated as a hero. It turns out that Thor's greatest battle isn't physical; it's his struggle to reach the human soul inside his raging green teammate and enlist him in the battle for Asgard.

Thor is helped in his mission by bounty hunter Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), whose traumatic history, briefly glimpsed in flashback, suggests the sort of rich mythological story that should be powering the entire movie. Left undeveloped along the way are Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), in a brief comic cameo, and Heimdall (Idris Elba) who is reduced to a glorified usher as he shepherds dislocated Asgardians from cave to cave. Worst of all is the demotion of Tom Hiddleston's Loki from a threat to Earth's very existence in Marvel's Avengers to mere comic sidekick.

The film's jokey tone, however, is ultimately its undoing, undermining any sense of suspense when viewers are asked to care about the thousands of Asgardians being attacked by Hela astride a colossal wolf. This final battle feels endless yet surprisingly rote and weightless. Even the widespread destruction left in its wake seems inconsequential.

The real question Ragnarok raises is how the MCU powers that be plan to rescue Thor from his comic makeover. Because when everything and everyone is a joke, nothing that happens really matters anymore. PG-13
Rating: 2.5 (Posted on 11/8/17)

Reviewed by Mike Ireland

George Clooney is one of a dwindling breed: the earnest Hollywood liberal. Directorial efforts such as Good Night, and Good Luck, The Ides of March, and The Monuments Men have placed Clooney consistently on the right side of history and morality, conveniently sidestepping, after the fact, such pesky stumbling blocks as historical and cultural ambiguity.

His latest, Suburbicon, seeks to expose the racism festering beneath the facade of manicured lawns and white picket fences in post-war suburban America. While certainly, and unfortunately, topical again in the wake of events such as those in Charlottesville, VA and Gainesville, FL, Clooney's film comes off as tone-deaf moralizing that is both obvious yet strangely dehumanizing of its black characters.

The film introduces its eponymous enclave as the quintessential mid-century engineered suburb filled with literal white picket fences and smiling neighborly faces. Within minutes, however, the smiles fade with the sudden appearance of a black family, the Mayers (Karimah Westbrook, Leith M. Burke and Tony Espinosa). The reactions of their new neighbors quickly escalate from murmurs to rancorous town meetings to angry mobs.

At which point, the story’s focus switches from the Mayers to the Lodges, a white family living on the other side of their backyard fence. And with this move, the film abruptly shifts genres — from allegory to noir comedy-thriller — only returning to the Mayers’ household for occasional ironic contrast.

At the Lodge house, a home invasion robbery has left wheelchair-bound Rose Lodge (Julianne Moore) dead, with husband Gardner (a jowly Matt Damon) and 10-year-old son Nicky (Noah Jupe) now being cared for by her all-to-willing twin sister Margaret (also Julianne Moore).

Why the conflicting plots?

The home-invasion story is an old script drafted by the Coen Brothers in the wake of 1984’s Blood Simple but abandoned in favor of producing Raising Arizona. Dredging up the Coens’ script, Clooney and longtime writing and producing partner Grant Heslov grafted on the Mayer family story (based on real-life events that occurred to the black Myers family in all-white Levittown, PA in 1957). Apparently for Clooney and Heslov, the time period and setting seemed to be in continuity enough to hold it all together.

Regular Clooney collaborators Production Designer James D. Bissell, Art Director Christa Munro, and Set Decorator Jan Pascale create an, if not convincing, then appropriately artificial and fetishistic version of mid-century luxury. Unfortunately, most of what transpires on screen feels just as contrived.

Matt Damon brings little to Gardner Lodge beyond a few extra pounds and a constant glower. Julianne Moore has more fun with her parallel roles (including a Vertigo-inspired makeover), and the Coen Brothers' casting director Ellen Chenoweth populates the rest of the town with the sort of broad character actor-types that have come to typify the Coens’ cinematic world, including Glenn Fleshler and Alex Hassell as two inept thugs who feel like a dry run for the Fargo home invasion perpetrators.

As an angry mob coalesces around the Mayer home, it becomes clear to young Nicky that his mother’s death may not be a random event, and that his father and aunt may be at the center of it all. And for a couple of inspired scenes, Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis) steals the film as a cynical and relentless insurance claim investigator, exactly the sort of charismatic reprobate that will populate future Coen Brothers’ films.

When Gardner’s attempts at self-preservation finally spin out of control, we are confronted with the stylized comic brutality for which the Coens’ are known juxtaposed against very real, very unnerving images of torches and Confederate flags at the Mayers’ home.

But where are the Mayers?

Strangely, the Mayers barely register. We learn nothing of their story or their internal lives. For Clooney and Co., they seem to exist solely as a concept — the long-suffering, dignified black — against which to contrast the uncivilized behaviors of the white folks all around them. Mrs. Mayer is limited to just a couple of scenes, and Mr. Mayer doesn’t utter a single line of dialogue, his role reduced entirely to looks of noble forbearance.

These may be a “positive“ portrayals, but they are ultimately just as dehumanizing, just as unrealistic and confining, as the negative stereotypes embraced by the residents of Suburbicon. (R) Rating: 1.5 (Posted on 11/8/17)


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