Posts Tagged ‘willem dafoe’

This oughtta be simple enough — Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Okay, that’s it, my job’s done — Happy New Year, everybody.

But wait just a second —

You wanna know why. I swear, everybody always wants to know why. And, hey, I can’t say as I blame you — movie tickets don’t come cheap these days and one is forced to choose wisely. I was sold on seeing this from the outset (even if it took me awhile to get my ass to the theater), being a huge fans of Baker’s 2015 shot-on-an-iPhone effort Tangerine, and this time around I was curious to see what he could/would do with some real actors, actual cameras, and a whopping two million dollar budget. Would he “sell out”? Or would he stay true to himself even though the ever-elusive “big time” was clearly beckoning?

The social and economic margins are still where Baker butters his bread, though, and frankly I’m not sure anyone in the movie biz does a better job of chronicling the day-to-day lives of those who exist there than he does — so even though he’s traded in Hollywood Boulevard transgender sex workers for Orlando motel dwellers, his naturalistic style, non-judgmental view, and aesthetic immediacy still serve him very well indeed. Single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite in a breakout performance) is all about the hustle : selling knock-off perfumes, scamming Disney World entry wristbands, waiting out back of the Waffle House for throwaways, anything to get through one more day. And yes, she’ll fuck for a buck too, if push comes to shove. Our auteur is still right in his element with her.

In tow for this decidedly hard-scrabble existence/subsistence is her precocious daughter, Moonee (speaking of breakout performances, Brooklynn Prince has one hell of a future ahead of her), who by all rights probably should be going to school more often, but seems to spend most of her time keeping on just this side of the juvenile authorities with her best friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who crashes with her mom at the fleabag next door. The kids have fun, though, and lots of company — there’s too many of ’em, in fact, for beleaguered “super” Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to keep up with.

But how long can a set-up like this last? One of Moonee’s young friends is a little firebug. Halley still likes her booze n’ drugs. The motel’s owner isn’t to keen on permanent residents. And Bobby, well, he’s got a heart of gold, but he can’t be everywhere at once, and there’s only so much you can do to keep kids protected from leering chickenhawks, state CPS agents, and their own parents’ bad decisions. Everyone’s barely holding it all together by the skin of their teeth.

The Florida Project pulls your heart in all fucking kinds of directions. On the one hand, you know Moonee wants to stay with her mom and you want her to be happy. On the other, Halley clearly can’t keep herself above water and has no business raising a kid. On a third, taking care of that kid is basically the only thing preventing her from completely teetering over into the abyss. On a fourth, raising any child under these circumstances is clearly limiting said child’s opportunities pretty drastically.

Problem is, you’ve only got two hands. And now you know how the characters in this film all probably feel.

Really, I can’t say enough good things. Baker and his co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, don’t concern themselves with anything like a strict “plot” per se so much as just allowing events to unfold and follow the course that they’re gonna follow — kinda like how real life works. And “real life” is exactly what’s on display here — in point of fact, a side of it most of us (fortunately) never even have to think about too often. This flick will leave you counting your blessings, no doubt about it, and wondering about how “the other half” even manages to get by. How long they can hold out. How long until it all falls apart.

When it does, it hurts. Even if it’s ultimately for the best. And that’s no guarantee. Baker is too honest a filmmaker to give you any of those.

I pride myself on not impressing easily, and The Florida Project impressed me mightily. Maybe not as much as Tangerine, in the overall scheme of things, but it came pretty close, and is a far more accessible film for John and Jane Q. Public to wrap their heads around. Sean Baker is bringing his uniquely “no-frills” take on the lives of the marginalized right where it needs to be — into the hearts and minds of the people who would rather pretend they don’t exist. No more resting easy. Shit just got real.


"Daybreakers" Movie Poster

I know, I know — I need to try a little harder, don’t I? Not just to post more often (my apologies for the absence the last few weeks, busy times here at TFG “headquarters”), but to come up with some better titles when I do get around to it. Putting “bloody” in the title of a review about a vampire movie is just too damn obvious. Why, you might even say it’s too bloody obvious. In which case, you’re just as guilty of stark unoriginality as I am, and I suddenly feel a whole lot better. Even if the “you” in this case is wholly metaphorical and I am, in reality, having an imaginary conversation with myself here. In which case I shouldn’t be worrying about my lack of creativity, but rather my sanity, which some — like the imaginary “you” I’m talking to here — might argue is a much more serious concern. But I don’t think so. Being unoriginal requires no effort, while insanity — well, folks, that takes real work. And wouldn’t you — whether “you” are real or imagined — rather be crazy than dull?

But back to our actual order of business here. I went out and caught “Daybreakers” today, which I actually meant to get around to last weekend, but didn’t get the chance.  Incidentally,  did you know that there are movies other than “Avatar” playing right now? I swear to God there are, it’s just that no one is seeing them.  And less than nobody is seeing “Daybreakers,” apparently. It’s absolutely tanked at the box office. Which is a shame, because it’s really pretty damn good.

First off, I should confess to an editorial bias here — I’m tired of all these romanticized portrayals of vampires we’ve been getting ever since the heyday of Ann Rice. She really set the table for that genre, but crap like the “Twilight” series and HBO’s “True Blood” have piled it up on us like a Vegas buffet. I’m not sure what makes so many people think somebody who wants to kill you and drink all your blood is sexy, but it definitely fits in with my overall view that society as a whole has a serious goddamn death wish. Sorry, but vampires were better when they were scary. Just ask Bela Lugosi. And they were way better when they didn’t live in the South. Louisiana and Alabama really aren’t good for much of anything at all, much less as settings for vampire stories. Sorry, but that’s just a fact.

To be fair, there have been a handful of movies in recent years that have tried to combat this sorry trend and give us a new angle on genuinely scary vampires. John Carpenter’s “Vampires” and 2008’s “30 Days Of Night” spring immediately to mind. But to date this reviewer thinks “Daybreakers” does the best job of reintroducing the audience to the classic, frightening vampire in a new and unexpected context.

The year is 2019. A plague of vampirism has consumed almost the entire human race. Sure, people you always suspected were vampires anyway — cops, bosses, politicians — have succumbed, but most everyone else has, too.    What few humans do remain are hunted and stored to be drained of their blood, which has become the most precious commodity on Earth (okay, so basically what we’ve got here for a premise is “28 Days Later” with vampires instead of zombies, but hey, it works). Unfortunately, all us regular folks have been reduced to near-extinct levels, and that spells trouble for both the few of us who do remain as well as our vampire overlords, being that they, you know, need us to survive and all that.

Wait. Vampires are undead. So can we really call what they do “survival?” I guess so, we just can’t call it “living.” But I digress.

Anyway, the powers that be figure that inventing a synthetic blood substitute is the best way to keep on (un)living, so to that end research scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is busy trying to come up with just such a concoction for his boss, ultra-wealthy vampire industrialist Charles Bromley (Sam Neill).

Which brings us, rather directly, at least in a thematic if not linear fashion(can something be both direct and nonlinear at the same time?), to the film’s one glaring weak point : while things start off in a very promising fashion, with the opening scene portraying a young girl of about 10 or 12 years old who has decided to commit suicide by going out and facing the sunrise, thus ensuring that she burns to a crisp, after that the movie resorts to some pretty bulky and clumsy expository info-dump dialogue, not too terribly dissimilar to the kind of plot recap you just read above, in order to fill in as many of the “blank spots” in terms of its backstory as possible.But since we’re not quite done with the plot recapping yet —

Dalton isn’t all that thrilled about his vampirism and falls in with a human resistance group due to an accidental set of circumstances that results in him meeting one of the few remaining regular people out there, one Audrey Bennett (played by Claudia Karvan). Soon the two of them are on the run from the entire vampire military-industrial complex, and along the way pick up another human rebel,  Lionel “Elvis” Cormac (Willem Dafoe, essentially playing the exact same type of character he did in David Cronenberg’s “eXistenZ”), who it turns out actually used to be a vampire but was able to regain his humanity through a set of circumstances I really shouldn’t (and therefore won’t) give away, and the three of them hook up with the rest of Audrey’s little “insurgent cell,” who have holed up at what used to be her parents’ winery.

Once (semi-) safely ensconced there, Dalton, now knowing that vampirism can be reversed,  sets about the task of not only curing his own condition, but mass-replicating said cure for the public at large. It won’t be an easy task, though, not with thousands of troops, lead by his own brother, heading for them like — well, like thousands of troops tend to.

So we’ve got pretty solid tension, an interesting enough plot premise, certainly solid if unspectacular performances from the leads (although Sam Neill stands out as the evil vampire version of Daddy Warbucks), and really some pretty cool visual effects throughout, as well. The movie was directed by Australia’s Spierig Brothers (and filmed Down Under, as well, even though the setting is obviously supposed to be the US), who last gave us 2003’s criminally underappreciated zombie flick “Undead,” and seem to be doing their level best to resurrect the Ozploitation genre, all wrapped up visually arresting muted hues.

"We're the guys with the crossbows."

If that’s all not enough, we’ve got crossbows penetrating vampires through the heart and making them explode. We’ve got humans being devoured raw. We’ve got lots of gore and viscera and, most importantly, lots and lots — and lots — of blood. And we’ve got vampires who are in no way sexy, dangerous rogues, and are, instead, bloodthirsty monsters. As they fucking well should be.

Sure, “Daybreakers” has its flaws in terms of some clumsy, wooden, overly-expository dialogue, and the pace lags in some spots where it shouldn’t, so while it doesn’t rise to the level of a  new genre masterpiece, it definitely helps balance the scales with all the lovey-dovey, misty-eyes portrayals of vampirism that are polluting the cinematic landscape, and it’s an effectively atmospheric, damn solid little piece of work.

Oh, and I almost forgot — it’s a hell of a lot better than “Avatar,” too.


"Antichrist" Movie Poster

Apparently, on at least one occasion during the publicity blitz for his latest film, “Antichrist,” Lars von Trier has referred to himself as the world’s greatest living director. Really. Not only is this a mistaken opinion, it’s just plain factually inaccurate, and “Antichrist” is ample proof of this, because the world’s greatest living director would, presumably, have at least something to say, and von Trier quite clearly does not.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have some things going for it. It’s almost painfully beautiful to look at at times, and almost each and every shot is worth framing as a museum piece. Unfortunately, it’s exquisite craftsmanship in service of nothing, as the “deep” and “meaningful” themes that von Trier spends the entire film announcing at top volume that he’s purportedly exploring are, in fact, nowhere to be found. von Trier has pretentiously dedicated this film to Tarkovsky, but has apparently only absorbed the techniques of surface visual majesty mastered by the Russian great while learning nothing from him of the art of truly exploring dark and harrowing subject matter. It’s rather like tracing an outline of the Mona Lisa and having the temerity to “dedicate” the finished “product” to da Vinci.

The most consistent criticism of von Trier’s previous work is that he’s used shock value to cover for the fact that his material is actually painfully superficial and half-understood, and while that’s an accurate enough summation of the inherent weaknesses of films like “Dancer in the Dark” and “Breaking the Waves,” it’s double, triply, quadruply true for the masturbatory, self-indulgent mess that is “Antichrist.” Never, in this reviewer’s memory,  has so little been insistently and vociferously packaged as being so much. von Trier’s stilted and hackneyed dialogue, so wretched it makes Ed Wood’s worst excesses seem naturalistic,  literally screams “Look at me! I’m important!” from start to finish, but announcing one’s importance and actually having any are far from being the same thing, a lesson that von Trier has, painfully and obviously, not yet learned.

And truth be told, that’s the damned thing not only about film, but about all art in this fallen world of ours — yes, cinema, novels, poetry, painting, all forms of artistic self-expression are important — unfortunately, in this day and age, the overwhelming majority of people with the free time, financial resources, and wherewithal to produce it aren’t. It’s wonderful that folks have something to say and a well-nigh endless variety of mediums in which to say it, but that doesn’t mean that most of those who are doing so are worth listening to. Self-absorbed, self-indulgent, overwrought pretentiousness is crap no matter how skillfully it’s communicated or how boisterously it declares its own perceived greatness. von Trier has a definite gift at the art of visual communication, but to date the messages he’s conveyed have bordered on complete worthlessness, and with “Antichrist” he finally crosses that border without trepidation. It’s a giant headfirst leap into complete and utter pointlessness, a madman laughing with abandon as he pisses in his audience’s face for no other reason than he can,  and then has the temerity to tell them they’re not worthy to drink it.

von Trier’s trajectory is clear from the get-go, as first we get his name splashed across the screen (not “a film by Lars von Trier,” or “a Lars von Trier film,” just “Lars von Trier”), then we get the movie’s title card, then we get thrust into the “epilogue,” a scene of black-and-white operatic beauty as the lead characters, He and She (they’re never given names, and frankly don’t do anything in the film to deserve them, although both roles are tackled with consummate professionalism by Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg, respectively, who both deserve far better material than they’re given here), fuck in the shower while their toddler-age son, Nic, tumbles out an open window to his death. Yes, we see some quick full-on sexual penetration here, but the real “pornography” here is von Trier choosing to film a child’s death in slow-motion elegance. It’s the first of countless instances of him trying to be “shocking” and “transgressive” that completely miss the mark and end up being more cheap and exploitative than even Shaun Costello or Zebedy Colt on their worst days.

Quickly we learn that He is a therapist, though not a Ph.D., and She is, or was, a graduate student working (when she does) on her thesis, the topic of which is, I kid you not, “gynocide.” And like the filmmaker himself, their trajectory is also painfully plain to see from the outset, as they are trapped in a downward — hell, a doomward — spiral right out of the gate. She can’t cope with the loss of their son while He, at least on the surface, is coping all to well and seeks to “cure” her not only as her husband/lover (whether or not they’re actually married is never spelled out), but also as her therapist. They try to work through things at their posh artist loft-type home, but when that doesn’t work out, it’s off to the wilderness and isolation when they retreat to a cabin they presumably own in a deep, dense forest called — yawn — Eden.

Let’s be honest, we don’t need von Trier to hit us over the head with the idea that city folk who head out to the woods are fucked, it’s been a constant theme in horror cinema for years, and von Trier, for all his visual aplomb, doesn’t do the concept nearly as much as justice as, say, James Bryan did in “Don’t Go In The Woods,” to pick just one example out of literally hundreds.

Oh, but von Trier has so much more to say here than just that. Doesn’t he? Why, just ask him. And therein lies the problem. Underneath all the overstated psychodrama — is He really looking to help She, or is He seeking to draw her more deeply into his web of manipulation and control? Is She really imbalanced, or does She merely accurately sense the threat He poses to her freedom? Does He even really care about She, or is He merely seeking to gratify his own ego by “curing” her? Are both of them merely stand-ins for the silent tyranny that underscores all male-female interpersonal relationships? — there just isn’t much there. It’s as if von Trier thinks the act of stating that he’s “delving into” these larger themes is tantamount to actually doing so. Sorry, Lars, bot no amount of grandiloquence can disguise the fact that the median temperature of this film is ice cold and that the “passions” at its core are pure plastic.

He is never shown to be anything more than a two-dimensional manipulative bastard and She is a raw, emotionally imbalanced basket case who only feels alive when being fucked, being hurt, or both at once. He is pure calculation, She pure emotion, and both are out of control in their own respective fashion. Of course, She is the one we’re supposed to have some modicum of sympathy for, being that von Trier is an enlightened type of guy, and even when She’s screwing a 20-pound wight through the flesh and bond of He’s ankle in order to hold him down, the message is that She is fighting back, asserting her control and independence through the only avenue He has left her, namely by imprisoning him physically in the same manner he has imprisoned her psychically and emotionally. There’s this supposedly bold, anti- misogynist (wow, talk about going out on a limb — misogyny is bad? Why, I had no idea. What tough stand will he take next? Is genocide evil, too? Murder? Rape? Torture? Damn, talk about gutsy!) statement at the heart of the proceedings here, you see.

Or maybe you don’t. You could be forgiven for missing it, certainly, since the overall tone of the film is, in fact, relentlessly misogynistic and even downright sadistic. Not that your reviewer is necessarily averse to the idea that hitting an audience over the head with an idea, and indeed even incorporating the worst excesses of said idea, is often the best way to expose that idea and to subvert its power. On the contrary, one of my favorite films of all time is “Cannibal Holocaust,” which deftly and expertly incorporates the techniques of “mondo” or “shockumentary” filmmaking in order to to lay bare its grotesque excesses (incidentally, this is a movie that has only gained power and resonance over the years with the advent of “reality” television and DIY, “YouTube”/handheld-style filmmaking, but I digress), but Deodato was willing to throw caution to the wind and to cross the very lines he was condemning in order to communicate his point — to make himself a hypocrite in order to make his film both honest and genuinely harrowing. It’s shocking not only for what it shows but for the power with which it shows it, power that can only come from absolute authenticity.  von Trier hasn’t even got the guts to give his “deep and resonant” themes anything more than the most cursory glance. He gives us a story of two bourgeois characters “inflicted” with shallow bourgeois problems  and thinks he’s addressing universal themes when, in truth, we actively want both of these people to die, and the sooner the better, their “inner turmoil” be damned. And therein lies another missed opportunity — in order to give a fuck about these people’s problems, we’ve got to give a fuck about these people in the first place, and we’re never given a reason to do so. Two upper-class, self-absorbed slimebags have tragedy visited upon them? Too bad for the kid,absolutely, but given that von Trier himself chose to film his death in such an artistically prurient and, yes, pretentious manner, we never feel too much heartache or loss there — in fact, the child and his death are just a tool to be used for the filmmaker to get at the “meat” of the purported psychodrama that plays out between the couple themelves, a means to an end, nothing more.  But that end is nothing but the cinematic equivalent of a lifeless suburban cul-de-sac — traveled to in style, I’ll grant you that, but it still doesn’t mask the barren worthlessness of the destination itself.  Sure, von Trier’s knock-out punches connect on occasion ( the talking fox, for instance, actually works), but they’re delivered with weighted gloves — his actual fists themselves have no power.

And so “Antichrist” is testament to nothing more than the power of artifice. It’s pretense declared as meaning, gutlessness self-proclaimed as bravery, the US invading Grenada in order to declare the world “safe for democracy,” all delivered by a filmmaker who’s gotten in deep over his head without ever leaving the shallow end of the pool. The stated intent of “Antichrist” is to challenge the viewer every single fucking step of the way, but in the end the only challenge is to sit through the whole thing to the end.

There’s symbolism aplenty, delivered time and time again, in the form of a pregnant doe and the aforementioned talking fox and the fictional “three beggars” constellation, and acorns falling on the roof of the cabin, but in order to interpret it successfully, or even unsuccessfully, first you have to actually actively care about what it all might mean. “Antichrist” never gives you reason to. It’s just two solid hours of celluloid navel-gazing for its own sake. Apparently von Trier was emerging from a — yawn — long, deep depression (oh, the unique existential pain that must come from being a wealthy, self-obsessed “indie” filmmaker) when he conceived of this flick, and is attempting to engage some of the issues he dealt with while in said — yawn again — depression without crossing the line into full-blown on-screen therapeutic release. I dunnno, if I were him, I’d be a hell of a lot more depressed now, if I had faced the “long, dark night” of my soul and this was the best I could come up with.

There’s a scene in the film that could effectively stand in for the entirety of “Antichrist”  as a whole :  He, knocked unconscious by She, is lying on the floor with a monster erection, and She takes takes said hard-on in her hands and yanks on it until it ejaculates blood all over her. That’s all von Trier is doing here — jerking us all off, collectively, until we cum more as a means of registering our disgust than anything else.

Perversely, the inherently nihilstic undertones sledgehammered away at throughout “Antichrist” are proven to be true not by anything said by the film itself, but by its mere existence. Yes, we are a hopelessly fucked lot in general, and yes, all is lost, and yes, existence itself is quite likely pointless — any species that can produce even one member as shallowly self-absorbed as von Trier proves himself to be with “Antichrist” is well beyond any hope of redemption. All of our efforts at nobility, altruism, generosity,  and kindness aside, the fact that even one human being could come up with anything this wretchedly egotistical is, I’m afraid, enough to damn us all. So if there is indeed any higher power at work in the universe who sits in judgment over all of creation, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the entire human race for the fact that one of us made this film. I hope you won’t hold it against us as a whole, but really, if you decide to do so, I can’t say that I’d blame you.