As picturesque Disneyworld looms just out of reach over a Florida welfare assisted motel, so too does the prospect of any normal upbringing for some of it’s pint sized residents. Sean Baker’s The Florida Project exists in a world of pristine pastel promises and lacquered, castle shaped buildings, a colourful, cotton candy paradise that is as tragic as it is eye catching. For six year old Mooney (Brooklyn Prince instills joy and heartbreak in every mannerism) and her friends, this is a kingdom where they run wild, oblivious to the squalor around them and perceiving their surroundings through the idyllic, abstract lens of childhood. Mooney’s mother Haley (Bria Vinaite in a scarily realistic depiction of unabashed ratchetness) is a wayward, self destructive girl whose slack, near non existent parenting leaves the girl mostly up to her own devices. Haley loves her, that much is clear, she just isn’t built to take care of herself, let alone a daughter. None of this strife matters to the children though, and that’s where Baker’s film gets its light from, amongst such troubling themes. All of it is seen through their eyes, youngsters who are still half connected to the subconscious and therefore are affected differently by everything. Peter Travers has called this ‘the best film about childhood ever’, and he may just be right. Much of what we see shows them simply playing, running about and being kids in a naturalistic, unforced way that is enchanting and makes me endlessly fascinated about Baker’s methods of direction, as I imagine children are harder to control on set than animals. To say that music is used sparingly here would be an understatement; ninety percent of the film is soundtrack free except an ironic opening credit sequence set to ‘Celebrate Good Times’, and one jarring musical cue near the end that I won’t spoil except to say it’s so effective I let out an audible exhale of surprise. The film is episodic too, and although contains visible arcs, is told in a hazy, spare and hypnotic ‘fade in, fade out’ fashion, drummed into us until we feel the day to day rhythm of this curious and beguiling part of America. Now let’s talk acting, which, as you all know is the centrepiece of my cinematic musings. Willem Dafoe is a tower of power as stern but compassionate Bobby, motel manager and guardian angel to this group of lost souls. Dafoe is a seasoned pro and knows never to overplay it, and when things get rough for him to bear witness, his moments of quiet devastation are incredible. He’s also the comic relief in bits and the steward of a very irregular township, it’s a delicious role for any actor to get, and he’s about long overdue for an Oscar, so… hint, hint. Prince is an unbelievable find, showing uncanny control and focus on camera for someone her age, and when it’s time for the third act emotional beat-down, she hits every note pitch perfect. Vinaite seems to have no acting experience before this, a choice which Baker also went with in his fiery debut Tangerine from a couple years back. She’s great too, turning a role that could have been one note into something way more complicated and sad, like a tragic fallen angel. I’d also toss cinematographer Alexis Zabe’s name into the Oscar race, as she beautifully captures this really strange looking area in surreal, eye popping colour and always from angles the seem like a child’s POV a la Terry Gilliam. Between his debut and now this, Baker is gathering momentum in leaps and bounds, and he’s quietly released the best film of the year so far, no easy task in the same year as a certain SciFi masterpiece. Florida Project is intimate, focused, loosely spun yet gravely affecting, important, playful, both cinematic and anti cinematic, and something of a small miracle. Seek it out in theatres, even if you have to drive out to the local art house venue.
Werner Herzog’s My Son My Son What Have Ye Done, although not quite congruent with what you’d call my cup of tea, is an impressively bizarre little foray into… well, something. Michael Shannon plays a disturbed stage actor who, in an offscreen fit of violence, slays his mother (the great Grace Zabriskie) with a sword. Now, whether by mental illness, strange Peruvian spirits that piggy-backed on his psyche after a trip down there or reasons unknown, he slowly unravels throughout the rather short yet obstinately molasses paced film, until the final act solidifies his exodus into the realm of total bonkers lunacy. Shannon is an expert at all things in the circle of mental unrest in his work, and even when playing innocuous supporting characters or stalwart leads, there’s always a glint of menace in the whites of his eyes. It’s an impenetrable character study though, giving us not much to go on other than obtuse clues and the weird, wacky troupe of people in his life, portrayed by an appropriately zany bunch of cult actors. He has an uncle (Brad Dourif, a Herzog regular) with an ostrich farm and some, shall we say, interesting views on life. His quiet girlfriend (Chloe Sevigny) looks on in unsettlement, and his mellowed out drama instructor (Udo Kier) tries to make heads or tails of everyone else’s strange behaviour. You know you’re in the twilight zone when Udo Kier is the most well adjusted character in your film, but such is the territory. As Shannon descends into whatever internal eye of the storm privy only to him, he takes his mother and her two friends hostage, and the obligatory salty detective (Willem Dafoe) and his rookie partner (Michael Pena) show up to add to the clutter. David Lynch has an executive producer credit on this, and although the extent of his involvement is hazy to me, simply having his moniker post-title in the credits adds a whole dimension of bizarro to go along with Herzog’s already apparent eccentricities. It’s well filmed, acted and looks terrific onscreen, and I’m all for ambiguous, round the bush storytelling as a rule, but this just wasn’t a dose that sat well with me or tuned into my frequency as a viewer. Worth it in spades for that cast though, and their individual, episodic shenanigans.
While not quite in the pantheon of powerhouse that the filmmakers intended it to be, Scott Cooper’s Out Of The Furnace is still a bleak, devastating picture. This is a film about endings, and not resolute, satisfactory ones either. Set in a borderline derelict mining town somewhere in the rust belt, industry has come to a grinding halt, giving way to the inevitable rise of rural crime, spreading like a cancer across land that once flourished and prospered. Every character in the film meets their bitter end somehow, and what’s fascinating is that earlier in life they all could have been more whole, and come from some other, brighter genre film, but the lives they’ve led set them on the same course as their county, and one by one we see them reach the last bend in the road, and the light in their life unceremoniously flicker out, leaving a cold shell. If I’m making this sound depressing, I’m doing my job well. This is a soul crushing film, with no light at either end of the tunnel and all glimmers of hope already extinguished before the opening titles even show up, so just make sure you have Finding Nemo or Wallace & Gromit queued up next in line if you give it a go. Opening with a prologue that leaves a bad taste in your mouth, you know right off the bat what you’re in for, as we’re introduced to Woody Harrelson’s Harlan Groat, an absolute monster who runs everything from underground fight clubs to an intricate web of meth trade in the region. Groat is at odds with steelworker Russell Baze (An implosive Christian Bale), a hard man with anger issues just looking for an excuse to get fired up. Russell’s brother Rodney (Casey Affleck in the film’s best work) is a broken Iraqi war vet who got on the wrong side of Groat’s gang, and has since disappeared. Since the law won’t venture into the near mythic backwood hills where Groat skulks, Baze goes vigilante, waging personal war and raging against a light that has long since gone dead. This is a big cast we’re looking at here, and some of the subplots either distract from the main show or just seem like overkill, like Zoe Zaldana as Russell’s ex who has since shacked up with the local Sheriff (Forest Whitaker), or an underused Sam Shepherd as his uncle Red. Willem Dafoe has a nice bit as a seedy but sympathetic local gangster though, it’s always nice to see him, as well as Tom Bower as the salt of the earth bartender. It’s all about Woody and the danger he brings, he’s terrifying in the most mundane of exchanges, and lethal when he gets worked up. The feeling of economic decay follows him like a noxious cloud, his brittle ruthlessness a mascot for the hard times that many a town in the US has fallen on in recent years. One need only look at the poster to see the obvious and intentional shades of Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, and though the film wears its influences on its heavy flannel sleeve, it finds its own dark, despairing poetry, and leaves you gutted in the final, anticlimactic frame.
Scott Cooper’s sophomore film Out Of The Furnace follows Russell Baze (Christian Bale) through the empty, broken down streets of Braddock Pennsylvania like a lonesome ghost. He works in the local steel mill where his slowly dying father once worked, using what little money he makes to pay off his brother Rodney Jr.’s (Casey Affleck) gambling debts to sleazy local bookie John Petty (Willem Dafoe), all the while trying to maintain a relationship with his girlfriend Lena Taylor (Zoe Saldana). That all comes crashing down when Russell gets into trouble with the law and spends the next four years in prison, getting periodic visits from Rodney with updates on the state of their father’s health, Lena, and Rodney’s own exploits overseas in Iraq. Both men are broken and trying to keep it together for the sake of each other.
In due time Russell is released back into Braddock, the once thriving city on the verge of death with the mill soon to be closed. Things are different now for Russell, the times have changed, people have changed, and he has no other choice but to suck it up and trudge forward into the unforeseeable future. Rodney has picked up a deadly new habit, bare knuckle boxing, his way of violently paying off his debts to Petty before the stack gets too high. Russell tries talking him into a “normal” job to no avail; after multiple horrific tours of duty in Iraq, Rodney has been left shaken, twitchy, and is a mere shell of the man he once was. All that seems to be left is violence, anger, and undying love for Russell. Rodney begs John Petty to get him into bigger fights in backwoods New Jersey, dirtier, bloodier fights held under the watchful eye of local sociopathic hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson).
By this point in a standard issue revenge thriller, Rodney would have been long dead, but Cooper wisely makes the decision to give us time to settle into this world, and come to understand characters who feel like people, and not just cardboard cut outs. That the latter half of the movie devolves somewhat predictably into the same kind of movie it was previously avoiding replication of, is a disappointment. However, what does occur is given room to breathe. Cooper might be following the tropes of the genre, but he at least has the sense to let it unfold slowly and organically. Very little feels forced.
Things quickly turn ugly for Rodney and Petty, and when both go missing, the local law led by sheriff Wesley Barnes, exhausts all possible means in an attempt to find the pair, but can only go far because law enforcement lives in fear of DeGroat’s brutal reign of the area, and the fact that it’s outside of Braddock police’s jurisdiction doesn’t help matters either. So Russell and his uncle Red (Sam Shepard) cautiously take matters into their own hands the only way they know how.
Christian Bale delivers his most believable performance to date, fully embodying the heart and soul of Russell Baze, right down to the slightest nuances and subtleties of the man. He’s a truly masterful actor, strutting his stuff in such low-key fashion that because of the deep naturalism, rawness, and intense realism he imbues, within the first few minutes it stops feeling like a performance. It becomes, real, as Russell battles his inner demons and carries the weight of the world on his lean shoulders right up until the final frames fade to black.
Woody Harrelson knocks it out of the ball park as Jersey backwoods hillbilly sociopath Harlan DeGroat, topping his wildly over-the-top performance as Mickey in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. If you thought Mickey was a bad dude, wait until you watch DeGroat force a hot dog down the throat of a woman at a drive-in movie theatre in the films unnerving opening sequence. Harrelson has an uncanny ability of inhabiting even the most repulsive of villains with some semblance of humanity, and toward the end of the film does so with nothing more than an all-knowing expression upon his face and burning in his eyes as he delivers a couple heartfelt lines.
With this performance, Casey Affleck shed the boyish light his previous performances have always been garnished with, trading it in for a toned body and volatile outbursts of pent-up rage. He gives the more energetic performance of the two brothers, effortlessly capturing Rodney’s broken down mannerisms. Forest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard each provide the right amount of nuance and naturalism to their perfomances that blend evenly with their bleak surroundings and the trio of astounding lead performances.
In a scene near the midsection of the film, Russell and Lena have a conversation on a bridge about their future after Russell has been released from prison. Despite Russell’s plea to make things right between them, Lena cannot commit to him anymore because she’s carrying Barnes’ child. In a moment that ought to shatter even the hardest of hearts into a million pieces, Russell congratulates Lena, assuring her she’ll be a good mom amidst tears from both of them. This scene assuredly carries the finest moments of acting we’ve seen from Bale and Saldana to date.
The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (The Grey) is impeccable, capturing beautifully and quite often starkly, the dreary and dirty grit of Braddock, the crispness of the violence, the cold bitterness of the dialogue dripping from the tongue of the people inhabiting the film. Scott Cooper directs this film with ease, honestly and authentically capturing the bleak essence of the dying town, the harsh realities of the effects the economy is having on the people, and the brutality that is the violence that twists their worlds upside down in the blink of an eye.
The reason John Wick works so well is a flawless mix of simplicity, earnestness and passion. The premise is a familiar one, and nearly identical to countless other slam bang action flicks out there, a simple and well travelled formula. It’s in the absolutely stylish, classy and distinct execution that it finds its uniqueness. The filmmakers (Chad Sahelski and Derek Kolstad) are stuntmen themselves, and therefore know what is needed to make a successful action film: well staged action. The terrific atmosphere that tagged along is a bonus and goes to further prove these guys have serious talent. They also care, want to have fun and want their film to exist within a memorable universe, and this all shows. An action film would be nothing without it’s star, and Keanu Reeves comes busting out of the gate in full rampaging glory as the titular ex-super hitman John Wick, an expert operative who can do things with guns that would make Neo nervous. John is grieving the death of his wife (the lovely Bridget Moynahan) and taking care of the puppy she left behind to console him, living the quiet life as it were, or at least as quiet as life can get for an ex mob assassin. Wick manages to chill out for a bit with the doggo, but that all ends when his path crosses with that of a spoiled mafia brat (Alfie Allen, played an even nastier snot rag than he did in Game Of Thrones) who steals his car and kills the poor pupper. This really lights Wick’s fuse, gives his brutal talents a new lease on life and throws him headlong back into the dangerous and often eccentric realm of covert contract killers. Allen was the son of a powerful, loose cannon Russian kingpin (Michael Nyqvist in a mirthful blend of funny, scary and just plain exasperated), and now John is at odds with hordes of his underlings and a few former associates who want his head. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot, but the film soars on the wings of propulsive, meticulously choreographed action and positively drips with cool, it’s main asset found in Reeves, who is an absolute boss in the role. Sporting a tailored suit, fiery attitude and lethal reflexes, John punches, kicks, stabs and shoots his way through endless unfortunate adversaries, seeming to be both fallible human and invincible archangel of destruction simultaneously. It’s the perfect role for him, a comeback of sorts and just a rip snortin action hero you can get riled up for. There’s attention to detail paid to his world too, the clandestine realm of killers given a mythology, currency and protocol all its own and perfectly original. Adding to the already impossible levels of class are a perfectly chosen roster of supporting talent too. John Leguizamo makes a peppy cameo as a cranky auto fence, Willem Dafoe plays a morally vague fellow hitman, watch for Lance Reddick, David Patrick Kelly, Daniel Bernhardt, Dean Winters, Adrienne Palicki and the always awesome Ian McShane as the suave proprietor of The Continental, a posh hotel that caters only to assassins. All characters encounter John Wick at some point and in some capacity, but Wick himself is the constant, the raw element which drives this film forward with the force of a stampeding bull, scarcely hesitating to breathe or seek medical attention on his quest for carnage. Reeves sells the character and then some, headlining one of the most flat out spectacular action films of the last decade.
As each genre evolves, it has to find new and creative ways to stay alive and entertain it’s audience. The vampire genre has come a long way, from the grainy film stock showcasing a theatrical Bela Lugosi, to the slick, throat ripping Baltic nocturnal terrors of 30 Days Of Night. No other corner of horror (except perhaps the zombie arena) has worked so hard to reinvent, rework and revamp (hehe) it’s aesthetic than the bloodsuckers realm, and it’s in that area that Daybreakers is a huge success. Not necessarily the most groundbreaking or incredible outing as a film alone, it breaks impressive new ground in the vampire genre and had me wondering why no one had come up with such ideas sooner than 2009! In the year 2019, ninety five percent of the world’s population are now vampires, following an outbreak decades earlier. The remaining five percent of humans keep an understandably low profile and continue to dwindle in this harsh new world. There’s just one problem: vampires need blood to thrive, and once the last human is drained, they face a serious problem. In this lore, a vampire deprived of sustenance turns into a savage berserker that will attack anyone and everyone in pure feral mania. Vampire scientist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) searches endlessly for an artificial blood substitute, partly out of an instinct to preserve a race that was never his own, and partly out of compassion for the humans he once called kin. Corporation executive Charles Bromley (a downright creepy Sam Neill) hordes the scarce resources, and chaos threatens on the horizon if a solution is not found. A bombshell drops, however, when Dalton stumbles across a rebel band of humans who claim that they were once vamps, until some variable turned them back into fleshy human critters. Led by hotshot renegade McCormac (Willem Dafoe dialling up the grit) they see a glimmer of hope in Dalton, not to mention his scientific prowess. Bromley sees the end of days and gets dangerous with his power, Dalton and newfound friends work to overturn the Vampire order, and gore splatters all over the screen in a sleek, entertaining and supremely gory film that should have a little more infamy. The R rating is gloriously wrung out as gallons of blood are thrown, flung and dripped all about the place and a real sense of supernatural, apocalyptic danger is attained with the story. Neill is an inspired choice to play a vamp too; Even when he’s playing a gold hearted protagonist (remember how ominous he got with the raptor claw in Jurassic Park?), there’s a semi dormant aura of menace that always dances in those Aussie eyes. Dafoe is at his best when his playing around in the genre theme park, and he’s having a barroom blast here, getting to play the ultimate badass. There’s a reverence for humanity here too, attention paid to a last ditch effort to save our race from a predatory one that is just trying to survive as well. Terrific stuff.
DOG EAT DOG is akin to noir films of the 1950’s and 1940’s like KILLING THEM SOFTLY is akin to noir of the 1970’s and 1960’s. The kinship doesn’t stop there; DOG is a film that not only is absurdly funny and brutally violent, but it is also an examination of the economy, the justice system, and the blue collar working class.
Filmmaker Paul Schrader is at his best when he dabbles in quasi topical films. Matthew Wilder (who has a voice cameo on the phone during the opening scene) pens a sharply chaotic and humorous script adapted from Edward Bunker’s novel.
Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, and Christopher Matthew Cook headline the film as a trio of career criminals who for an extended period of time have been removed from society and spent time in prison and are now simultaneously readjusting to society while struggling to survive. Their plights are real, as they fight to live in a society that has cast them out and turned it’s back on them.
Cage and Dafoe are on fire. Cage has never been so good. A complete return to his zany and almost abstract form. Willem Dafoe is cinematic treasure. I can’t think of another actor who is a staple in the works of Lars von Trier, Paul Schrader, Abel Ferrara; yet is a viable mainstream draw, showing up in the upcoming JUSTICE LEAGUE.
Much like KILLING THEM SOFTLY; DOG EAT DOG is not a film for the masses (or critics for that matter). For as fun and as topical the film is, it is proud at how perversely humorous and transgressive it is as a whole. DOG EAT DOG is the cinematic answer to the turbulence and dilapidation of contemporary America.
DOG EAT DOG is available on VOD and is now playing theatrically in select cities.