(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) Owing to its Oscar nominations, I read a bit about The Florida Project and, frankly, wasn’t expecting to like it a lot. I’m not a big fan of downtrodden characters, poverty dramas or indie-budget wonders. And yet, despite expectations, I was gradually taken by the film and particularly the way it juxtaposes the dream sold at the nearby Disney Park with the misery shared by its protagonists. I strongly suspect that much of the film’s ultimate impact (and it does get intense toward the end) has a lot to do with being the father of a girl of the same age as one of the film’s protagonist. There’s something that I can’t quite handle at this moment about kids in danger (whether immediate of structural, the later of which The Florida Project acutely depicts) that short-circuits a lot of my critical instincts. Still, there’s no denying that writer/director Sean Baker knows what he’s going after: The depiction of desperately poor people shuffling from one hotel to another is gripping. Giving a father-figure role to Willem Dafoe is a great idea—after so many villainous roles, it’s simply a joy to see him as a purely good character, and he got nominated for an Oscar as well. Alas, the rest of The Florida Project plays on an entirely different (and worsening) register, pitting childlike innocence against adult doom until there’s nowhere else to go but in fantasy. Whew. It concludes with a devastating ending, and yet the only one appropriate for the film.
(Netflix Streaming, August 2018) There has been a lot of criticism aimed at Netflix’s Death Note movie from fans of the original anime, but the irony is that for viewers coming in fresh without knowledge of the film’s inspiration is that Death Note, taken by itself, is actually not bad—it feels like a throwback to the kind of high-concept horror movies circa 1995–2005. Something like Idle Hands, perhaps, or more specifically the first Final Destination. Consider this: A teenager gets possession of a book in which he can specify who will die and how. From that simple premise stem a few complications: a bloodthirsty demonic personification of the book coaching the protagonist or maybe trying to take over his soul; media attention toward a sudden slew of high-profile deaths (as, naturally, our hero scribbles all sorts of high-profile criminals in the book); a genius-level detective tracking down what he thinks is the source of those mysterious deaths; and the inevitable romantic complications of a high-schooler getting his hands on life-and-death power. I understand from the numerous complaints that the anime is better, smarter, stronger, faster and possibly tastier than the film adaptation, but as a first-time viewer I don’t have much to complain about: while Death Note does tie itself up in logical knots in trying to fit the premise in a two-hour movie, it’s intriguing throughout, and ends with a nice fillip that shows more imagination than the usual horror film confrontation. Nat Wolff is fine as the protagonist and Lakeith Stanfield is interesting as Detective L, but it’s Willem Dafoe who seems to be having the most fun voicing demon Ryuk. Director Adam Wingard leads the material competently, but he’s a bit stuck with the original material—even newcomers such as myself can see the compromises made in order to distill it to a movie and whitewashing it to American audiences, although my suggestion would have been to run even rather away from the source material in the hope of ending with something that doesn’t feel like a half-baked compromise between weird source material and the requirements of a self-contained movie. Until the sure-to-follow sequel presumably addresses some further plot threads, I’m relatively satisfied by the result—which is probably what Netflix aimed for when it backed its production.
(On Cable TV, November 2015) I’ve never been a big fan of Mr. Bean (Rowan Atkinson in Blackadder, sure, but not Mr. Bean) and the first film didn’t do much to mollify me. But there’s a strong streak of cleverness underneath the dumb physical humor and Mr. Bean’s Holidays clearly highlights the wit behind the pratfalls. There are, to be sure, pratfalls a plenty as Bean makes his way south, through France in order to attend the Cannes film festival. For what it’s worth, the film does bet better as it goes on: the first half-hour is pure Bean, but the last one gets satiric about cinema itself. Willem Dafoe shows up as an intensely pretentious actor/director, and that leads us to a very funny Cannes preview of an insufferable arthouse films. At another time, Bean shows up at the right time to screw up the shooting of a big WW2-themed commercial. Those gets laughs that aren’t usually the kind associated with the Mr. Bean character. The rest of the film is generally tolerable, with Atkinson’s mugging for the camera being supported by real comedy. Mr. Bean’s Holidays does seem to be a bit better than the first film, which lost itself in trying to package Bean for an American audience –this time, he looks to be more in his element, in a film tailored to the character’s strengths. Much of it starts to grate early, but there are a few gems in the film’s second half –enough to justify seeing the film even if your reaction to Bean is lukewarm at best.
(On Cable TV, December 2012) Alongside the kind of frantic urgency that characterizes much of the so-called “thriller” genre these days, it’s a refreshing change of pace to find a film like The Hunter, which trades hyperkinetic editing for meditative long-shots, and character study in lieu of shootouts. Willem Dafoe is a convincing presence as a professional mercenary hunting down a rare creature while dealing with various opponents: He says a lot without saying much, and seems perfectly suited to an introvert lead character. (Meanwhile, Sam Neill also makes an impression in a generally unsympathetic role.) Dafoe’s rugged features reflect that the real star of The Hunter is the Tasmanian countryside: stark and colorful, majestic and harsh. The plot isn’t particularly complicated, but viewers sympathetic to a slower pace will find much to like in the way the film unfolds slowly, gradually ratcheting the tension on its taciturn protagonist. There’s some unexpected philosophical content here, tackling upon environmentalism and the choices that we make in-between duty and emotion. There’s a surprising amount of silence in what is supposed to be a thriller and while the result may not thrill those looking for a bit more movement, the result excels at what it intends to do.
(In theatres, January 2010) Every genre fan comes to develop a fondness for “the B-movie that could”, the twice-a-decade film that comes along with a little budget and big brains to take the genre in a newish direction. While that’s a lot of praise to dump on Daybreakers all of a sudden, consider that it manages to combine horror and science-fiction to imagine a future society that has adapted to the fact that most people are vampires. Add a few action scenes, Willem Dafoe playing a redneck with a fondness for crossbows and muscle car, tons of special effects and a script that doesn’t devolve into total silliness and the result is an impressive piece of work, especially in the doldrums of January. It’s a savvy piece of work, one that privileges quantity of special effects, little details and genre-blending to deliver a mean and lean movie. The direction is pretty good, the thematic underpinnings are solid, the pacing always accelerates and we have the sense of watching something that hasn’t been done before (no, Ultraviolet doesn’t quite compare). It’s not a perfect piece of work: Ethan Hawke is a bit dull, some of the details make no sense, and the revelation on which the third act depends seems quite a bit… convenient. Nonetheless, Daybreakers is a vigorous, stylish, entertaining B-movie that will earn quite a few admirers. It’s probably my favourite vampire film since Blade II, and it pumps some blood back into what was becoming a tired monster. I’m not sure what the writer/director Spierig brothers will do next, but I’m already interested.
(On DVD, December 2009) After years of hearing about The Boondock Saints’s cult popularity on DVD (it never received a proper theatrical run, which explains why I missed it in the first place), I took the release of a sequel as a good reason to finally watch the film and see what the fuss was about. It turns out that the cult appeal of the film’s success is partly based on the material itself: the story of two catholic Boston brothers taking on the city’s organized crime, The Boondock Saints often feels like an extended apologia for vigilante justice and gunfight sequences. But writer/director Troy Duffy is a bit more self-aware than most: The ending (in which the villain is murdered) is reprehensible in the way most American action films are, but it assumes this blood-thirstiness. What’s a bit more disturbing is the way the film actually feels fun and cool: The pacing is right, the action beats are interesting, and the dialogue has good moments. Despite some puzzling moments (which you can either blame on a first script or a very low budget), the non-linear structure of the script works well and showcases its lead actors in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The standout performance here belongs to Willem Dafoe, who plays an ultra-competent FBI agent with gusto. (The sequences in which his mind meshes with the crime he’s investigating are as good as this film gets.) There’s also quite a bit of intriguing directing, with judicious use of hand-held and slow-motion cinematography. Otherwise, well, The Boondock Saints is a mixture of crime, comedy and violence and action that finds resonance in the works of John Woo and Quentin Tarantino, certainly not as fully mastered as them, but definitely aiming at the same targets. I’m a bit sorry I only saw it ten years after it came out. The DVD contains a sympathetic commentary by writer/director Duffy and another one by Billy Connolly.
(In theaters, May 2002) So everyone’s favorite web-slinging superhero swings in theaters, and even if I bemoan the quasi-absence of the classic TV show’s theme, I’m rather impressed with the rest of the film. Focusing as much on character than on action scenes, this is very nearly the ultimate comic-book film insofar as the “secret identity” passages aren’t deathly dull. Tobey Maguire transforms a potentially miscasting in one of the film’s greatest assets; Peter Parker, the geek-turned-superhero! Willem Dafoe is also excellent as the antagonist. (oh, that mirror scene… genius!) Kirsten Dunst, on the other hand, is blander than beige, giving us no reason why we should fall for her like our hero does. The few action scenes in the film really rock, thanks to the dynamite direction of Sam Raimi, who seemingly helms the film he’s been born to. Spider-Man appeals on several levels; if ever you’re bored, you can always watch for how it’s a curiously Catholic superhero film, as Spider-man is defined by guilt, celibacy and self-sacrifice. Good summer entertainment; I would have liked a few more action scenes, but now that the background’s been taken care of, maybe the inevitable sequel will be even faster-paced?
(Second viewing, On DVD, January 2003) This is pretty much the definition of a superhero movie for general audiences. Some adventure, some romance, some character development, some soap opera plotting, some special effects and some flashy colors. Sure, it made millions, but is it a film one can absolutely love? Eh. Shrug. The DVD is the incarnation of this eagerness to please everyone; two making-of are strictly pre-release promotional material (which isn’t appropriate material for the DVD, since we already paid for the damn thing; we don’t need to know how wonderful everyone was!) and the technical material is reduced to a strict minimum, safely tucked away in a “special feature” where only the die-hard geeks will look for it. The commentary track is okay, and so are the repetitive pop-ups. (Alas, the infamous first “World Trade Center trailer” is missing) Slick entertainment for the whole family, but a second look reveals the mechanical underpinnings of this lucrative enterprise.