“The Florida Project”

See this Sean’s Baker film to experience terrific acting by an entire cast. Willem Dafoe dazzles as Bobby, a motel manager whose lavender enterprise shelters three floors of by-the-week renters who are just trying to exist.

The children tenants have an easier time of it. The Magic Castle motel plays to Orlando’s Disney World theme for them. Junk food, fireworks, haunted houses with “ghost poop”, and a swimming pool and hiding places galore are givens. Dafoe’s Bobby watches over all: he eliminates begbugged mattresses and keeps the washing machines and the electricity working according to code. He chases away child molesters and prostitutes and dealers. His younger brother often helps and there is a security guard hired to help keep the peace. He is like a beloved mayor, discerning, patient, and above board.

The neighborhood is rife with Floridian color. Orange World and the soft-serve ice cream “Twistee Treat” keep our gang of six-year-olds playfully full. Styrofoam containers are the  plates du jour for most of the film. Room 323 is a healthy food desert. Halley ( Bria Vinaite ) sends her young daughter to a church van to pick out loaves of free bread weekly. Jelly bread looks like manna from heaven through children’s eyes. In fact, what this film is wonderful at is making a “slummish motel” look like a child’s magic kingdom.

Urchin Moonee ( Brooklyn Prince ) is the ringleader. She whistles into fans, chants “we need more ice”, spits through railings to slime car window shields below, and has fun spraying Windex in cleaning up. Bouncing balls of energy, the gang Scott ( Christopher Rivera) and Jancey ( Valeria Cotto) remind us what it was like to play hide and seek, jump on beds, and seek adventure in abandoned buildings, and on dirt paths. Moonee tells us that if she had a pet alligator, she would call it “Ann”.

Every social worker, counselor, principal, and teacher would benefit from seeing this film. The adventures of childhood with its dangers and joys are splayed on the screening almost as episodically as Hal Roach’s  “Our Gang”. The little rascals here are just as endearing, but in much more danger.  Stolen grocery carts and shopping cart rides across a busy highway is an apt image.

Dafoe is less patient and more like his harsher roles when he casts out a menacing child molester. He tries to keep reign on Halley as she slips into prostitution, scamming, and petty theft. Her hawking of wholesale perfume in front of more upscale hotels leaves her in altercations with the security officer for unwanted soliciting. The perfume is confiscated, and the downward spiral begins.

Halley is a tough and angry survivalist. She pummels friends, and acts out with toddler-like antics like emptying      a soda on a lobby floor, littering a parking lot with carry-outs, and most egregiously sticking a used maxi-pad on the glass door of a motel that has rejected her and Moonee. She strikes back like a viper, tongue thrust out, and we fear Moonee will learn to do the same to no avail. Moonee’s “ your not the boss of me” tells us we may not be celebrating good times in the future.

My favorite line comes prophetically from Moonee. She points out her favorite tree and tells her friends and us the reason: “cause it is tipped over and it is still growing”. We  could say the same of these children’s lives. I just wish I could be more hopeful that all will reach the sky.

“The Mountain Between Us”

A private pilot with no flight plan would make most frequent flyers a tad uneasy, but when you have to make your own wedding or perform a life-saving surgery on a small boy, qualms get pushed to the back seat. This survival romance film is enjoyable even with the narrative details flying in the wind. Not a film for realists, “The Mountain Between Us” oozes a morality rarely seen in modern film. Selfish and reckless are replaced by intense responsibility for others. Fiancés don’t plot revenge on their competition, and dogs don’t seem to thin with lack of sustenance. Lovers don’t call if you are married. Sex is just as romantic sans bathing for weeks on end. Yet, the visuals are breathtakingly beautiful above and below the tree line, and above and below streams and frozen pools.

Kate Winslet is Alex. She is not a person who waits patiently, and she trusts her instincts to problem solve. A photo-journalist by profession, Alex shoots a cougar with a flare gun as easily as she snaps a picture. She has determination to spare as she treks through snow mounds with an injured leg. The handsome Idris Elba is the new Ben Casey, neurosurgeon hunk. He is Ben Bass to squelch any confusion. Ben is logical, has endured personal tragedy, and believes the first rule of survival is “stick together”. This is the trust walk of all trust walks. His instinct tells him that they are going to die on the mountain. Ben and Kate save each other numerous times. Grief and survival mix with a found cabin stocked with two cans of soup. Somehow we know that they will make it, but we worry about the golden lab.

Beau Bridges and Dermot Melroney make up the supporting cast. They are equally fine actors. Bridges as the Vietnam vet charter pilot who dies mid-air of a stroke is perfect charm and surprise. Melroney is Mark, the fiancé who knows how to let his love go. Director Haney Abu-Assad does a marvelous job with the plane crash, the perilous ice slides, and the frozen lake plunges. The ice cave and hillside shelters, the low lying clouds, and the sunsets are all romantic balances to the harsh pains of starvation.

The ending may take me to the Charles Martin novel. I can’t imagine anyone getting away with a running sidewalk scene outside of LaLa land.

“Teacher”

Shot in Bracoslovia and set in 1983 when Czechoslovakia was under communist rule, “Ucitelka” or “Teacher” is a moving satire on political subversion and its effects on education and family. Supposedly based on a real teacher, who curried domestic favors from children and their parents for grades and comfort from public humiliation, the film centers on Comrade Maria Drazdechova (Zuzana Maurery).

Screenwriter Pete Jarchovsky and Director Jan Hrebejk build Maria’s character from a petty,silver-shod despot to someone capable of precipitating teen suicide and job loss. At the front of the room with her notebook in hand, Maria demands that her students introduce themselves by citing their parents’ line of work. We see her record an array of professions: mason, taxi-driver, accountant, judge, greengrocer, nurse, car mechanic,lab assistant, beautician etc…Favors for herself will be gleaned from this list. She gives a heads-up to students whose parents cut her hair, fix her broken lamp and washing machine, smuggle a cake to her sister in Russia. Trivial as this manipulation may seem, Marie’s manipulation expands to the “romantic”,as she uses her access to information to ferret out marital break-ups.

There are complaints, and Maria’s colleagues would like to see her go. Much of the film takes place in meetings where parents and lead teachers try to come to a consensus. Credible witnesses are needed to prove blackmail. Parents of students who are doing well academically are leery of rocking the boat. Maria is also the Chair of the Communist Party at the school. We know how retribution works. A new student’s astrophysicist father has been reduced to cleaning windows. Maria plays one parent against another, humiliates students publicly,and tells only the favored what will be tested.

One lovely dance student is mocked after Marie lies that she has the lowest IQ in the school. ”Idiots go last” yelled in the cafe by a bullying table of boys send Dana to breathe in gas fumes from her family’s oven.

Child abuse and lack of loyalty for authority figures are polarized in the many parent meetings. A student is called a common brute: the teacher is called a bitch. When the lead teacher intervenes and says, “This is a school,please!”,one of the parents yells out my favorite line: ”Well, it feels like a business!”

Piano music moves the narrative forward. What a movie mate of mine calls “Communist Marameko” covers the private dwellings’s walls in mostly brown, geometric wallpaper. Maria appears at new student Karol’s home with a cake and borscht to entice his divorced father into meeting her needs. Maria attempts intimacy by telling intimate details like her past miscarriage and crying for sympathy. She then offers him a janitorial job at the school.

Young Karol is much dismayed by his hated teacher’s visit. Their phone has been tapped by the Party, and when the Karol in an act of prank/revenge calls Maria to shoot a starter pistol into the receiver, the wire-tapper wets his pants. Maria questions if the caller is Václav Havel, the first President of the Czech Republic in 1993.

The next frame we see is Marie at the front of yet another class doing her thing for herself, for she knows how to stay connected. The irony is supreme, especially since she will be teaching ethics and religion, along with English.

“Teacher” works like an allegory. A corrupt system must be monitored and balanced. The whole of society must be taken into account, not just one individual’s beneficial gain. A society, a school system, or any public institution that votes only for their own policy benefits harms egalitarian mores. Marie changed with the tides politically to only remain the same self-serving autocrat. Base human nature deserves to be understood as base and laughed at may be the message here.

“American Made”

American made and it is shitty, at least the tale the film “American Made” has to tell is. In a tone reminiscent of much of the Coen Brothers’ work, writer Gary Spinelli spins a morally bereft rendition of money and thrill motivating Americans and American wannabees.

While some may argue that this is the world we live in, I refuse to bury a higher ideal with the filthy loot. Depressing, more than humorous, Director Doug Liman’s film is dedicated to his father, Arthur Liman, who was the chief counsel in the investigation of the Iran-Contra affair.

If the gist of this film is to show why America is a failing empire,the greed and mendacity in this flick points the way. Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is no hero. He is a cocky TWA pilot, who enjoys breaking laws shamelessly whether it be for the CIA, the Columbian drug cartel, or just for thrills.

His wife Lucy (Sarah Wright) is an interesting mix of “stand by your man” cheerleader and distrustful man-slapper. She and her brood of three are asked to give up a lot besides putting their lives in danger. Her full circle story sets a stereotype for KFC front-liners. Lucy’s story could be sung in country-syle by Dolly Parton.

The real crazy story is told to us in the voice-over tapes of Barry Seal. Labeled TWA ’78, CIA ’78, Mena ’80, Nicaragua ‘85, etc… U.S. Presidents from Reagan to Clinton to Bush are shown in dubious light. Truth and power are scrambled. Oliver North and his secret facilitations of weapons to Iran during an arms embargo also hopes to fund the contras in Nicaragua and train many in the U.S. with the Iranian money.

Cruise’s smirk plays well in this portrayal of a smart ass that says “anything is legal if you are doing it for the good guys”. Seal is not a real believer in collecting intelligence of “the enemies of democracy”. He is just pumped with glee over filthy lucre and a chance to fly into risk.

CIA desk agent, Schafer, played self-gratuitously by a talented Domhnall Gleeson, adds the greatest level of cynicism to the film. The plot is rife with depressing humor. Suitcases and duffel bags of money fall out of closets, air traffic control monitors mistake drug running planes for Shell Oil helicopters, gifts of alcohol and porn and sports tickets dampen allegiances.

Seal delivers like any mercenary. Columbia gets guns: Miami gets drugs. Barry Seal gets his own vault at his neighborhood bank. We sit in the theaters and re-live an era from “just say no to drugs”, to green gremlins, to community service punishments, and silly “mooning”.

“American Made” is fast-paced, energy-driven and an excellent portrayal of fearful, centralized, governmental power brokers in their most morally deplorable state: unbridled, unhinged, and capitalizing on human greed for the purpose of keeping or advancing their positions. A very scathing view of government, and the world in general,will hurt any idealist’s soul.

“Victoria and Abdul”

Judi Dench is Queen of England, Empress of India, and an actress who can make the most ardent Anglophobe feel compassion for the lot of a lonesome monarch. After watching the PBS mini-series “Victoria” (2017) and seeing the girl-queen circa 1837, it is interesting to see her fifty years later making a confidant out of a tall and  handsome youth from Agra, India. 1887 has her nine children later and prone to nod-off and snore even during celebratory events. Abdul ‘s attention gives her back that spark of life. In truth, no one can put that lustful pronunciation of ” my munshi ” quite like Dench. Film director Stephen Frears shows her Golden Jubilee as a comedy of manners.

Strong-willed, her husband dead at forty-two, Victoria sat sixty-three years on the throne. Author Shrabani Basu while writing a book on curry knew of the Queen’s penchant for the Indian dish. Basu mulled through millions of words in Victoria’s extant diaries and wondered about a formal portrait of a young Indian man painted as an aristocrat. ” Victoria and Abdul” was born. Screenwriter Lee Hall uses Basu’s research and book to show us the prejudices of the court and the mind-romancing of the queen for the handsome Abdul Karim (Ali Fazal ).

Episode after episode, we hear of rules: do not look at the queen, stand till the end of the meal, process together backward. The churlish queen is portrayed as tired of it all. The Hindi chide about the royal pudding being made with cow bone: the English regarded as barbaric eaters. The class divide is the divide. It is only as her teacher, or “munshi”, that we understand the thirteen-year relationship where Abdul instructs Victoria in Urdu and on the poetry of Rumi. He becomes a platonic  Mr. Brown.

Their relationship is portrayed as endearing while troublesome for the heirs and Prime Minister. The Queen appoints Abdul as her personal guide to India. The Taj Mahal and the mango is juxtaposed against wet and windy Scotland and its whiskey. Aristocrats toadying for position and even her own children can not compete with Abdul’s charm and world view: we are here for the aid of others.

There is much give and take. The Queen presents Abdul with a locket enclosing her portrait. She whispers, ” Keep me safe”. She introduces him to Puccini and to Florence.  Viewers see the one villain in Bertie, her eldest son. He has Abdul’s home ransacked for any embarrassing memorabilia. Abdul’s wife manages to save the locket from the flames. Bertie considers having his mother certified as insane. Before the Queen’s death scene, she tells Abdul that it is time he return to India. ” The vultures are circling. How can I protect you?!” Melodramatic and fanciful, yes.

Her name defined the Victorian Age, and now we have another name to add: Abdul Karim, Commander of the Royal Victorian Order. Yes, he may have been currying favor and beating the sycophants at their own game; but in this film, he brought joy to a morose queen tired of jealous skullduggery and pomp.

“Viceroy House”

Seventy years ago the British made good on their  promise to transition India to independence if they would help them win a war. This film is not focused on the Indian Freedom Fighters or the Indian attorneys who tried to extricate the British from India’s affairs. The  benevolent British vs. the self-serving British is the thrust of this period piece. Lord Louis Mountbatten ( Huge Bonneville )  and Lady Edwina Mountbatten (  Gillian Anderson ) work through the transfer of power and learn that they have been played by Churchill’s government. The Mountbattens were not the only ones to fall into the background. Fracturing India left fourteen million people  displaced, the largest diaspora in history.

Director Gurinder Chadha tells the story of the partition of India using a backdrop of forbidden romance from her own family, as well as, from N. Singh Sarila’s  2006 book, “The Shadow of the Great Game: The Untold Story of India’s Partition”. British Colonial diplomatic history  is revisited with both its political intrigue  and its  focus on Russian determent over personal relationships.

In the opening scenes, viewers feast on hundreds of Hindi, Sikh and Muslim valets, gardeners, cooks, and secretaries. Turbaned sweepers fill the scene amid be-ribboned and be-medaled lords and ladies. Mountbatten tells all that he is to be the last Viceroy of India, the last raj.  Much pomp and circumstance ensues, and it is ordered that one half of all guests must be Indian. Lady Edwina and Lord Mountbatten wish to change things for the better. One staff member is fired and sent back to England for complaining of Indians standing too closely. Food is to be Indian and eaten with the hands. Symbolic concessions hold sway.

Smooth order is everything for the British. After three centuries of colonial rule, Mountbatten is the pawn of Churchill who orchestrates with ” We can not abandon 400 million primitives to their fate.” One Brit chimes that ” Dickie ( Mountbatten) can charm a vulture off a corpse.”

The staff of Viceroy House presents a microcosm of the country. Staff arguments and fisty-cuffs reflect the larger sectarian violence between Muslim, Hindi, and Sikh. Turmoil meshes with ceremony. This film lives on irony, and it is powerful.

Gandhi, Nehru, and Jinnah have their say about the need to fracture India. But it is the author Narendra Singh Sarila whose story is being told. He was the aide-de-camp to Mountbatten in 1947-48.

One man, who has never set foot in India, is given five weeks to fashion the borders of India’s Partition. It is this re-telling that frames our star-crossed lovers,  Jeet ( Manish Dayal ) and Alia ( Huma Qureshi ). Alia’s blind father, the last role of the late Om Puri, speaks of dignity not being taken away with his sight. There is much to ponder and feel in this epic film. It leaves you wishing to know more about the foci of power between Gandhi, Jinnah, and Nehru. The power of the Brits is made supremely  clear.

“Mother!”

I don’t have to read the 194 poetic pages of Tarja Laine’s “Bodies In Pain” to feel  auteur director Darren Aronofsky’s pain and suffering. See ” Mother!” And you will experience being put through the ringer multiple times. Viewing this well-paced film is part Fellini hell and part romantic-horror farce. Throw in the allegories of the creation myth, Cain and Able, and various biblical devotional rites and your mind is spinning in symbol, and your psyche is torn between horror and laughter. Look at the entire emotional spin as a writer, self-absorbed and caught up in the flame of fame. He knows he has taken for granted his wife-muse. Is this film auto-biographical?! The intensity would leave one to believe so. But this tale gives us more than the easy creator/user trope.

Mother is our focus. Jennifer Lawrence is the young, devoted wife deeply into nesting. She hand tints and spackles walls, mounts marble sinks, and “breathes life back” into every lovely room of an amazing Victorian farmhouse. The farmhouse itself is toured as Lawrence searches for her bed-absent husband. The mid-hued color pallet and the  use of almost radiant light kept me interested. Her perky nipples and nubile silhouette were captured to keep others engaged.

Lawrence is on-screen for almost the entire movie. Her first spoken word is a question, ” Baby” ? Abandonment is a big theme for her. She wants to be alone with her artist husband. She can’t seem to understand that she is not enough. My favorite line of Lawrence’s is ” You never loved me. You just loved how much I loved you!” This girl suffers, is brutally pummeled by her husband’s fans, has her work destroyed, and in the most terrifying scene  loses her infant son as fan fodder to the faithful. Yikes! The Christian symbolism is much askew.

Director Darren Aronofsky is forty-eight and has an impressive list of films to his credit.  Both “The Black Swan” (2010)  and ” The Wrestler” ( 2008 ) I loved.  ” Mother!”  I give a mixed review. The setting has all the possibilities of beauty amid its creaks and acid-like bloody walls. Our heroine is devoted, possessive, and scared of losing her dream. She often quaffs an amber liquid from the medicine closet that has her unreliably seeing embryonic pulsing walls. Her husband ( Javier Bardem ) is distant, pre-occupied, self-deprecating at first. He is a poet who is having trouble writing.

His sanctuary is guarded by Mother. Here, in the room at the top of the stairs, he keeps a glowing piece of fused glass. Diamond-like and cherished, it is all that is left of a fire in which our poet lost everything. It is only at the film’s end that we understand the heart of this story. The Phoenix rising from ashes is meshed with Good Friday rites and ashed foreheads. We get to figure that out.

Sounds and irritating tuning fork pings keep the story vibrating. Strange, duplicitous guests arrive. There is tension between husband and wife over priorities. Our guests are Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer, and they present more doubts about mother-muse’s status in the house. Simple smoking, drinking, and laundry scenes fuel viewer angst. There is a creepy plugged toilet, hot skillet burns, and more seeping red stains. Jennifer Lawrence is adept at tossing lace panties and unwanted cigarette lighters behind furniture. If she can’t rid herself of the intruders, she will at least remove their symbolic addictions behind appliances and furniture.

Next, we have our intruding guests’ two sons crashing in the front door. Murder and mayhem gets wilder and wilder. No character has a name. The hordes of adoring fans keep coming, and the publisher kills off a room of soldier-clad invaders.

Over the shoulder shots and close-ups that dominated the early scenes now break open showing in an all-out-war within the house. Exploded light bulbs, toads, and secret passageways, and dialing 911 doesn’t pan out. The birth scene, and the poet’s ” they have come to see me”  all gel into a swarm of holy card pictures of our poet being pinned donkey-like to the walls. Chants and crawling over bodies mingle with quiet. “They bought us gifts” our poet beams. Adoration by the masses is his desire.  He even sits in the king’s chair.  Our poor mother-muse is pummeled while our poet says, ” we must find a way to forgive.” He rips her heart out, only to do it again~ literally. The lyrics, ” it’s the end of the world if you don’t love me anymore” brings us over the top. “Why does my heart go on beating” is camp through and thorough. The credits including ink pen scratchings are creative ,too.

Farce, horror, domestic drama,and allegory  are all combined. It is an imaginative first! The Greeks ( Jennifer Lawrence wears a toga- styled Grecian gown) say that seeing pain in art makes our own lives seem better. Well, I don’t know about that!