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The Florida Project: This Year’s Moonlight?

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Almost a year ago to the day, upstart indie A24 released Moonlight to rave reviews and promising box-office returns, but there was no reason to believe it would move beyond a niche hit and become an Oscar winner for Best Picture. Maybe that’s why no one blinked when La La Land was mistakenly announced as the victor. Could history repeat itself ? Not with the envelope snafu — the Academy had better be sure of that. But A24 recently released another “little” movie that could make a big noise: The Florida Project. Here are four reasons why it could be this year’s Moonlight.

It tells a story from a fresh perspective. Just as Moonlight saw the world through the eyes of a young, gay African-American man, The Florida Project shows us the universe as viewed by a six-year-old girl, Moonee (the luminous, remarkable Brooklynn Kimberly Prince), who lives at a low-rent motel in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom of Walt Disney World. Somehow she transforms her meager surroundings into the Happiest Place on Earth as she runs wild with little supervision from her mother (Bria Vinaite), who’s scraping to pay for their room by any means necessary.

It marks the emergence of a major filmmaker. Barry Jenkins had only made a few little-seen movies before Moonlight, and the same holds true for The Florida Project‘s Sean Baker. His last film, 2015’s Tangerine, was shot entirely on an iPhone, and he takes a huge step forward here. Made for $2 million, Florida projects a dazzling visual style with candy-coated color schemes and kid’s-eye POVs.

It features an endearing unlikely father figure. Mahershala Ali deservedly won Best Supporting Actor as the drug dealer who proves a surprisingly strong male role model to young Chiron in Moonlight. Similarly, Willem Dafoe does heartbreakingly subtle work as the motel manager who keeps a close watch on Moonee. The profoundly versatile Dafoe (the guy has played everyone from Jesus to the Green Goblin!) has been Oscar-nominated twice before, for Platoon and Shadow of the Vampire, and he’s long-overdue for a win.

It’s a movie whose time has come. Moonlight gave insight into the struggles of being young, African-American, gay and poor — basically everything Donald Trump is not. The Florida Project shines a light on the day-to-day grind of America’s working-class, single-parent households and its effect on the most innocent members of our society: kids. God bless Barry Jenkins and Sean Baker: They’re making American movies great again.

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Could Adam Sandler Really Win an Oscar?

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The words Adam Sandler and Academy Award have rarely appeared in the same sentence together, unless the sentence is “Adam Sandler will never win an Academy Award.” That could change after his heartbreaking performance in The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected), writer-director Noah Baumbach’s latest family dramedy — and his best work since 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. Still, I have a feeling that the words Adam Sandler may appear in the same sentence as Academy Awards next year, but it will also include the word snub. Here’s why:

1) His character is too passive. If the question is, “Should Adam Sandler really win an Oscar?” the answer may be yes, based on the weak field of Best Actor competitors so far this year. I haven’t seen such potential contenders as Gary Oldman in Darkest Hour or Christian Bale in Hostiles yet, but I did catch an early screening of Jason Clarke as Teddy Kennedy in Chappaquiddick — said to be a strong candidate — and his performance left me cold. The problem is lead actors usually win Oscars for playing strong characters (although last year’s recipient, Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck, is an exception), and Sandler’s pianist-turned-sad stay-at-home dad Danny Meyerowitz isn’t exactly Abe Lincoln or Idi Amin.

2) He’ll probably be entered in the wrong category. I’m assuming Sandler will compete for Best Actor, since his Meyerowitz father, Dustin Hoffman, should be a lock for a Best Supporting Actor nomination, and the studio won’t want to split the vote. But given the episodic structure of Stories, Sandler doesn’t dominate the movie the way you’d expect for an ostensible lead. When he’s on-screen, you can’t take your eyes off him, but when the focus shifts to other characters, he recedes or disappears.

3) His movie is coming out on Netflix. Although Meyerowitz is being released in a few theaters, it will premiere on the streaming service simultaneously — a strategy that hurt such seeming slam-dunk nominees as Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation. If Netflix would wait to debut it online (like Amazon did with Manchester), Academy voters might consider this as something more than a glorified made-for-TV movie.

4) The Oscars are historically biased against comedians, even in serious roles. Think Jim Carrey in The Truman Show. Or Jim Carrey in Man in the Moon. Or Jim Carrey in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And no, the Academy doesn’t just hate Jim Carrey. Steve Martin in Roxanne, Albert Brooks in Drive, and Bill Murray in Rushmore all deserved some Oscar love and instead got snubbed.

5) He’s Adam Sandler, dammit. Fifteen years ago, he delivered impressively mature work in Punch-Drunk Love, but Sandler has mostly stuck to juvenile comedies like Groan Ups… er, Grown UpsPixels, and Netflix duds like The Ridiculous Six. It’s a long way from Happy Gilmore to Oscar glory, and voters may not be able to erase the image of Sandler in Jack and Jill drag long enough to cast their ballots for him. Sorry, Adam, but to paraphrase Rob Schneider in too many of your films, “You can’t do it!”

The Best Film of 2017 (So Far) Is…

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The best film of 2017 (so far) is… not going to be released until 2018. But I caught a screening of it at the 55th New York Film Festival, and I’m here to testify that First Reformed is a cinematic miracle. “This is the movie I’ve avoided making my entire career,” writer-director Paul Schrader said at a post-screening Q&A. I beg to differ. It’s the movie he’s been trying to make his entire career, and he’s finally perfected it.

As I wrote in a comprehensive review of Schrader’s career for RogerEbert.com in 2012, he often makes films fixated on an “unholy Trinity of blood, boobs and the Bible.” Raised in the Christian Reformed Church, a Dutch Calvinist sect in Michigan, he grew obsessed with the forbidden fruits of sex and violence, and has washed himself in blood and other bodily fluids in his screenplays for Martin Scorsese films like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Last Temptation of Christ as well as his own movies such as Hardcore, American Gigolo and Auto Focus.

All of these films center around a solitary man on a mission — “God’s lonely man,” as Travis Bickle calls himself — who seek redemption through a sexually attractive woman, with varying degrees of success. In the case of First Reformed, Schrader cuts straight to the heart of his story. Ethan Hawke, who’s been on a remarkable roll lately in films like Boyhood, The Phenom and Maudie, delivers a deeply transfixing performance as Toller, the pastor at the First Reformed Calvinist church. It’s an historic institution that has become little more than a tourist-trap offshoot of a megachurch presided over by a corporate-friendly minister played, in an inspired bit of casting, by The Soul Man‘s Cedric the Entertainer, working under his real name, Cedric Kyles.

A former military chaplain wracked with guilt over sending his son off to die in a meaningless war in Iraq, Toller is suffering a spiritual crisis, unable to pray as he rots literally from the inside out and he drinks himself to near-death. Enter the potential savior, a pregnant woman (a career-best Amanda Seyfried) whose environimental-activist husband (Brawl in Cell Block 99‘s Phillip Ettinger) has grown despondent about bringing a child into our rapidly deteriorating world.

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I won’t spoil any of the plot twists, but suffice it to say Schrader puts you inside the mind and soul of a man wrestling with himself to find a single drop of hope amid a profoundly polluted sea of despair. The imagery isn’t difficult to decipher — “there are going to be a lot of term papers written about this movie,” he cracked — but that doesn’t make the film any less powerful. Even as it veers into surrealism, First Reformed remains rooted in a rare emotional verisimilitude.

Schrader uses techniques of cinematic restraint like minimal music and controlled camera moves to draw you into the heart of his story. Decrying blockbusters that bombard you with their “neediness for approval,” as he put it, he has created a masterpiece that challenges viewers to question the main character’s morality and ultimately, their own faith, or lack thereof. When was the last time a movie did that?

 

How Long Will Blade Runner 2049 Run?

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When I heard Blade Runner 2049 runs 164 minutes, my first instinct was to run away. Ridley Scott’s original 1982 film spanned less than two hours; why would the sequel need an extra 45 minutes? I worried 2049 might feel like the film’s running time, considering the slow pace of director Denis Villenueve’s previous sci-fi epic Arrival. Amy Adams’ 2016 hit lasted less than two hours but felt longer — and that’s not a complaint. The deliberate pace contributed to the film’s hypnotic appeal. And after seeing two other 2017 films that move at measured clips, to great effect, I’m more convinced than ever that slow shouldn’t be a four-letter word when it comes to movies.

Lucky opens, aptly enough, with a shot of a tortoise crawling across a desert. That’s a clue to the poky pace of the movie — and its namesake, a nonagenerian loner played to perfection by Harry Dean Stanton, who passed away at 91 shortly before the film was released. As we watch Lucky go through his mundane daily rituals (yoga in the morning, crossword puzzles over meals, game shows in the evening), the movie, directed with no great haste by actor John Carroll Lynch, creates a profoundly moving portrait of a man coming to terms with his imminent demise.

It’s even more powerful when you realize how closely Lucky’s life story mirrors Stanton’s own. Both are World War II Navy vets who worked as cooks aboard Landing Ship Tank (LST), or “Large Slow Target,” as Lucky calls it in a wonderful scene with Tom Skerritt as an ex-Marine, and never wed nor had kids.

Though it runs less than 90 minutes, Lucky overflows with lovely interactions between the protagonist and various figures in his life, including his baffled doctor, dryly played by Ed Begley, Jr., who co-starred with Stanton in one of his most underseen films, 1974’s Cockfighter. The tortoise, as it turns out, is President Roosevelt, a pet who’s run away from his owner (another frequent Stanton collaborator, David Lynch).

That’s about as much of a plot as the movie has, but Lynch treats his actors with such love that you don’t mind watching them do virtually nothing. That’s the same feeling I got watching a film that in many ways is Lucky‘s polar opposite: Brawl in Cell Block 99, writer-director S. Craig Zahler’s follow-up to his 2015 breakout cannibal Western Bone Tomahawk. Both of the autuer’s movies are genre exploitation pieces that you’d expect to be quick and dirty — 90 minutes tops — but both run over two hours and take their time telling their stories and letting you get to know the characters in the long pauses between action scenes.

In Brawl‘s case, Vince Vaughn’s Bradley (don’t call him Brad) Pierce doesn’t even arrive in the titular cell block until roughly two-thirds of the way through its 141-minute run. Up to that point, we’ve gotten to know him as a down-on-his-luck working-class man who takes a job as a drug runner to provide for his beloved but flawed wife (Dexter‘s Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter.

His own moral code causes him to be thrown in jail — and costs a meth magnate millions — and to clear his debt to the kingpin, he has to kill an inmate of the maximum-security (or “minimum-freedom,” as its sadistic warden, deliciously played by Don Johnson, calls it) facility that gives the movie its name.

Brawl is the definition of a slow burn, or rather a slow limb-snap and face-stomp. But because Zahler has taken the time to make you care about his main character, it’s much more than just a guilty-pleasure beatdown. He also allows room for indelible scenes with skilled character actors like Udo Kier  (as a henchman known only as Placid Man), Fred Melamed (as a prissy prison employee) and Clark Johnson (as a detective who could be an even world-wearier version of his Meldrick Lewis from Homicide: Life on the Street).

As Zahler put it in a post-screening Q&A at Fantastic Fest in Brooklyn, he leaves in the scenes that other directors cut out, and you may find yourself wondering why you’re watching Vaughn drive around as old soul music plays on the radio, for example. Yet the way his eyes dart around, taking in the details of his downtrodden neighborhood, tells everything you need to know about how he’s constantly alert and on-edge, qualities that serve him well once the mayhem begins.

Having savored the slow pleasures of Lucky and Brawl in Cell Block 99, I’m ready to hunker down for Blade Runner 2049. And if I’m still hungry for another slow-cooked cinematic meals, maybe I’ll check out Frederick Wiseman’s new documentary on the New York Public Library, Ex Libris. After all, it’s only 197 minutes.

Five Fun Facts About Crossing Delancey

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I must confess I didn’t think much of Crossing Delancey when I saw it upon its initial release in 1988, but its vivid depiction of Manhattan’s Lower East Side has often come back to me as I’ve spent time in that neighborhood and watched it change in the three decades since I moved to the area. So I was curious to revisit it when I saw that Film Forum had scheduled a screening of the rom-com, followed by a Q&A with director Joan Micklin Silver and stars Amy Irving and Peter Riegert. I enjoyed the film much more on second viewing and was especially entertained by the discussion afterwards. Here are five things I learned from it.

The studio thought it was too Jewish. Silver had difficulty raising money to make the film. One potential producer offered to finance the picture only if all of the Jewish characters were changed to Italians, which was considered a more marketable demographic in light of the success of Moonstruck a year earlier. Then Irving’s husband, Steven Spielberg, put in a call to his friends at Warner Bros., who immediately agreed to back it. But even after the film was completed, the studio didn’t go wide with it, fearing it was “too ethnic” and wouldn’t play well in the South. Still, it earned a tidy profit, grossing $16 million—four times its budget.

It turned “Pickle Man” Peter Riegert into an unlikely sex symbol. The now-70-year-old Animal House alum recounted with glee how many women approached him after his charmingly low-key performance as a pickle purveyor. One woman accosted him on the street in Manhattan and insisted on introducing him to her daughter, and another made him get on the phone with her boyfriend—a real life Pickle Man—and try to convince him to marry her. “So thank you, Joan, for that,” he deadpanned.

Amy Irving’s agent originally turned it down. When Silver initially sent the script to the actress’ representative, the agent told her that Irving, who had earned an Academy Award nomination a few years earlier for Yentl, didn’t do “little New York pictures.” So Silver ran an end-around and got the screenplay to Irving through a mutual friend, and she fell for it instantly. (No word on whether Irving fired her agent.)

Reizl Bozyk had only acted in one film before — and never in English! The Yiddish theatrical legend was nervous about making her English-speaking screen debut at the age of 74 as Irving’s lovably irascible Bubbe. (She had appeared briefly in 1950’s Catskills Honeymoon, which Film Forum programmer/moderator Bruce Goldstein said was “the worst Yiddish movie ever made”). But Riegert said as soon as he saw Bozyk, he knew she was going to steal every one of  her scenes. And she did.

Izzy and Sam the Pickle Man didn’t live happily ever after… or did they? Irving and Riegert confessed neither of them believes the odd couple was destined for lifelong bliss after the freeze frame that ends the film after Izzy finally agrees to go out on a date with Sam. (Silver said she’d never thought about it.) Riegert said he was too cynical to expect a happy ending, while Irving said she pictured the duo reconnecting years later via the Internet. Sounds like a good plotline for Crossing Delancey 2!

Five Reasons Why “mother!” Sucks

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And just when I thought I couldn’t be more disappointed in a movie than I was in Baby Driver… along comes mother! Like another of this year’s biggest cinematic letdowns, Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit, Darren Aronofsky’s latest fever dream punishes us for more than two hours by hitting the same note over… and over… and over… until we go insane. How did I hate mother!? Let me count the ways…

It makes no sense. I don’t mind a movie that’s open to interpretation, but this one falls into the category of “cryptic yet meaningless.” Here’s a quick plot summary: Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem play a married couple who receive an unexpected visit from some extremely strange strangers (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer). Now repeat that and multiply ad nauseam. It’s basically a horror movie about annoying houseguests who won’t leave. Saturday Night Live did it better with John Belushi, Jane Curtin and Bill Murray — in a minute and 15 seconds.

The cast is utterly wasted. Speaking of Saturday Night Live, one of its most gifted alums shows up late in the film — I won’t spoil who it is, though I don’t think you can spoil such a rotten movie — which makes mother! seem even more like a sick (and unfunny) joke. The four main characters have one personality trait apiece, and they’re given no backstories that might help us care about them. So we don’t.

Darren Aronofsky is one creepy mother! Not since David Lynch sexually tortured his real-life girlfriend Isabella Rossellini in Blue Velvet has a filmmaker so reveled in the degradation of his alleged off-screen love. J-Law is stripped nude by a vicious mob, beaten, brutalized and burned. Aronofsky’s ex Rachel Weisz seriously dodged a bullet (and upgraded by marrying Daniel Craig).

The movie isn’t disturbing, just disorienting. There’s a difference, Darren. Go back and re-watch your masterpiece, Requiem for a Dream, to remind yourself what it’s like to create a truly powerful psycho-drama. This is like Black Swan Lite — and Black Swan was pretty light to begin with, if you ask me. Keeping a camera tight on J-Law as she stumbles through a creepy old house is the definition of cheap thrills.

It leaves us wanting less. The ending is an embarrassing cop-out — it’s like something from a freshman English major’s really long short story. We’re left with unanswered questions about what it all means. Is this suffering a metaphor for fame? Parenthood? Religion? Who cares? Perhaps picking up on a line J-Law offhandedly delivers about the apocalypse, the closing credits feature Skeeter Davis singing, “Don’t they know it’s the end of the world?” If only we were so lucky.

 

It, AHS and the Creepy-Clown Trump Era

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With his cotton-candy coif, circus-peanut complexion and general buffoonishness, Donald Trump has often been compared to a clown. So maybe it’s no coincidence that less than a year into his laughable-if-it-weren’t-so-terrifying presidency, the Bozo-in-Chief has inspired a pair of scary-clown shockers: the big-screen adaptation of Stephen King’s It and FX’s American Horror Story: Cult. The question is: Is either more frightening than the real-life nightmare we’re experiencing as a nation?

The answer is: Yes, It is. In fact, It‘s so good, It‘s scary. (OK, I’ll cut It out with the It puns. Maybe.) Now before you start cyber-bullying me like that Twit in the White House, I know It was originally written by Stephen King in 1986, long before the idea of a Trump administration was anything more than a sick fantasy in his own head. Perhaps it was meant as a metaphor for the Bonzo-in-Chief who was occupying the Oval Office at the time. But you can’t deny the current cultural resonance of a story about an evil force who was once a joke — in It‘s case, Pennywise the Clown, brilliantly embodied by Bill Skarsgard — and now seeks to tear a community apart by striking terror into the hearts of its most vulnerable inhabitants.

Now I have no idea if director Andy Muschietti or screenwriters Cary Fukunaga, Chase Palmer and Gary Dauberman intended for It to play out as a metaphor for our contemporary predicament. The film is set in the late ’80s, when a gaggle of teenage outcasts (including a stutterer, an obese new-kid-in-town, a home-schooled African-American and a girl with a bad reputation) bands together to fight back against Pennywise. This joker quite literally feeds on the fears of children, and these self-proclaimed “Losers” (one of Trump’s favorite putdowns) believe the only way to triumph over this bully is to stand up and unite against him. Sound familiar?

If It‘s Trump connections remain buried deep in its subtext, American Horror Story: Cult hits you over the head with the parallels. Ryan Murphy repertory-company player Sarah Paulson stars as a lesbian with a deep-seated phobia of clowns, which is only one of the reasons she freaks out after the election of Ronald McDonald — er, the Donald. As her fears are stoked by various aggressive Trumpers, including a MAGA-cap-wearing supermarket cashier (Chaz Bono), a gay anti-Obama survivalist (Billy Eichner) and a blue-haired psycho racist (Evan Peters), she and her son start to be haunted by visions of evil clowns. Does Cult make American Horror Story great again? Not quite, although it is a refreshingly realistic and timely incarnation of a franchise that has grown increasingly grotesque and absurd with each season.

Why clowns have become the monster du jour (there have been sightings reported around the country) might have more to do with the marketing tricks of Warner Bros. and FX than any political commentary, intentional or not. It and AHS don’t exactly offer escapism from the nightly horror show of Fox News — like FX, an arm of Rupert Murdoch’s octopus-like media empire. But at least they can provide a kind of catharsis. Watching seemingly marginalized characters resist nefarious tyrants who seek to divide and conquer could prove inspirational and ensure that the real-life Scary Clowns around the world don’t get the last laugh.

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