THE FLORIDA PROJECT: attention must be paid

Willem Dafoe and Brooklynn Prince in THE FLORIDA PROJECT

The gripping and searingly authentic drama The Florida Project centers in the plight of six-year-olds living in a poverty motel in Orlando, Florida.  These are what we used to call “latchkey kids” – children unsupervised and essentially feral because their parents are focused on economic survival.

The parents, moored in multi-generational poverty and mostly classified as the working poor, understand that this situation is not ideal for the kids.  All the parents love their kids, and most take extra steps to protect them and to raise them with the right values.  These are people who are forced into unappealing choices – working multiple minimum wage jobs and leaving kids at home because they can’t access childcare, and even relocating and uprooting their kids from their friends and familiar environments.

These families are living literally in the shadow of Disney World, where tens of thousands of families are paying for $100 theme park tickets and $200 hotel rooms; the residents of the The Florida Project’s Magic Kingdom motel are paying $35 per night and can’t afford ice cream for their kids.

The kids are on their own to express their exuberance, curiosity and mischief.  Some of their misadventures are innocent and harmless, but some range to the very dangerous.  We see the kids’ moral compasses being forged, often not along the best axis.  Even the local Motel Row traffic is scary. The sketchy environs, with the anonymous transience of the tourists and with some of the locals in the criminal class, is even more foreboding.  For most of each day, the only responsible and caring adult is the beleaguered motel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe – great in this movie).  Here’s the effect on the audience – we enjoy the kids’ joy in play and exploration, but worry, along with Bobby, about their safety.

Brooklynn Prince (center) in THE FLORIDA PROJECT

The ringleader of the kid is the highly spirited Moonee.  Moonee is perfectly played by Brooklynn Prince, a very talented and charismatic child actor.

The smart and charming Moonee’s disadvantage is her Mom, Hallee (Bria Vinaite) – a tattooed and pierced woman in her early twenties.  Hallee is as immature as Moonee, and is basically a walking bundle of Bad Choices.  She has a terrible, irresponsible and entitled attitude, and always does things the easiest way in the short-term, regardless of legality or long-term consequence.  Hallee knows that she’s one more arrest from having Moonee taken away.   The term “unfit mother” has come to seem quaint – but not here, where the audience eventually starts begging for child welfare officials to rescue Moonee from her Mom.

The Florida Project was written, directed and edited by Sean Baker, who most recently made Tangerine, the movie he shot entirely on an iPhone (and you can’t tell).  In both The Florida Project and Tangerine, Baker uses first-time actors to tell a character-driven story about marginalized people.  Baker found Bria Vinaite, the non-actor who plays Hallee on Instagram.   It’s also the first screen credit for Mela Murder, who plays Ashley, a mom who is perceptive enough to ascertain that her son needs to disassociate from his best friend Moonee because of Hallee’s influence.

One of the minor beauties of The Florida Project is the whimsy of roadside vernacular architecture in Orlando, the tourist-hustling commercial buildings from the 1940s-1970s built as castles, ships, dogs and the like.

The Florida Project is close to a perfect movie, but not quite there.  Baker did edit his own movie, and one hour, 51 minutes is a little too long for this story.  And, two months after seeing the movie, I’m still not sure what I think about the controversial ending.  The movie has the feel of cinéma vérité until it doesn’t, when the audience is jarred by a sudden plunge into magical realism.  Unlike some viewers and critics, I thought that the ending did have a truthful consistency with the preceding story; but there’s no doubt that the abrupt change in tone pulls the audience out of being immersed in the story.

Still, The Florida Project is a Must See for its emotional power and its uncommonly authentic dive into an oft-ignored subculture.  As Willy Loman’s wife says in The Death of a Salesman, attention must be paid.

The Hunter: looks for the beast, finds a thriller

In this paranoid thriller, a sinister corporation sends a professional hunter (Willem Dafoe) to Tasmania to find the Tasmanian Tiger, thought extinct.  He is given a cover identity as a scientist, which immediately makes him a target of hostile loggers   He is renting a room in the primitive cabin of a scientist who searched for the Tasmanian Tiger and has been missing and is presumed dead by everyone except his traumatized family.  The scientist’s wife is so heavily sedated that she only briefly wakes into a stupor, the 6-year-old son has become mute and only the 10-year-old daughter is resilient enough to converse.  The suspense begins immediately.  Will he find the Tasmanian Tiger? What happened to the scientist? Is he being hunted himself?

The weirdly beautiful scenery and breathtaking vistas of Tasmania enhance the dramatic tension.  The forests are so primordial that you expect to see a creature from Jurassic park bursting out.

Dafoe’s hunter spends much of the movie alone in the wilderness with no one to talk to and, being on a secret mission, he can’t tell other people what he finds anyway.  So his discoveries have to be depicted by the director and their impacts reflected in Dafoe’s expressive eyes.

Overall, it’s a fine genre film, although the paranoia is over the top and some will find the ending too stark.  The scenes of Dafoe’s driven hunter, solitary in the wilderness, make up for the flaws.

My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

Michael Shannon in My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?

In My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, Werner Herzog explores why an actor would re-enact a theatrical scene for real and kill his mother with the sword that he had been using for a prop.  The short answer is because he was crazier than shit.  This is based on an actual event.  The generally intense and often creepy Michael Shannon plays the murderer, who has suffered a schizophrenic breakdown and is decompensating by the minute.  The audience wants to tell his fiance (Chloe Sevigny) to run, not walk, away from him.  His craziness is so immediately apparent, that there’s really no arc to the film, as we watch flashbacks from the prior year.

Shannon, who is now seen as the revenue agent in HBO’s fine Boardwalk Empire, is very scary.  Incidentally, the movie belongs to that very small subgenre of films where Williem Dafoe (here the cop) does not play the creepiest character.  Dafoe is also out-creeped by Brad Dourif, whose role apparently exists to show that entire family is crazy (like Arsenic and Old Lace).

I would rather recommend a great Michael Shannon performance in a much better film, Shotgun Stories.

The film had an extremely limited theatrical release early this year, but was not widely distributed.  Available now on DVD.

Farewell (L'affaire Farewell)

Emir Kusturica

Farewell (L’affaire Farewell) is mostly a riveting Cold War espionage film, with an unfortunately off kilter secondary story that doesn’t belong in the same movie. The main story is based on fact:  a senior KGB colonel becomes dissatisfied with the stagnant corruption of the Soviet Union and decides to bring about revolutionary change by leaking Soviet secrets to the West.  To avoid detection, he chooses to pass the secrets in plain sight to an amateur civilian, a midlevel French corporate manager in Moscow.

The Russian lead is played by Serbian director Emir Kusturica, who gave good acting performances in The Good Thief and The Widow of St. Pierre.  Kusturica is outstanding here as the canny and world-weary master spy, and he carries the film when he is on-screen.

The French lead is played by French director Guillaume Canet, who directed one of my recent favorites,  Tell No One, and played a villain in that movie.  Tell No One is on my list of 10 Great Movies You Missed in the 2000s.  Niels Arestrup  (from The Prophet, this week’s DVD choice) is excellent as the French security chief.

The spycraft, the complex Francophile character played by Kusturica (code-named “Farewell”), his struggling family life and the attempts by the amateur Frenchman to keep his head bobbing above water combine for a compelling story.

So far, so good.  But then the film tries to tell another story – the geopolitical impact of Farewell’s leaks.   And the tone of the film switches from the serious spy tale with serious consequences to its main characters to not-so-dark comedy.  Suddenly, we see Fred Ward broadly playing Ronald Reagan as if in a Saturday Night Live skit, Philippe Magnan as a somber, one-note Francois Mitterand and Willem Dafoe lacking any kind of gravitas as a CIA chieftain.   Fortunately, although this mini-farce distracts from a good film, Kusturica’s character and his performance maintain the movie’s worthiness to see.