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Films I Neglected To Review: Brooklynn Rising
by Peter Sobczynski

Please enjoy short reviews of "The Florida Project," "Happy Death Day" and "Professor Marston and the Wonder Women"

The central location for ''The Florida Project'' is The Magic Castle, a past-its-prime budget motel on the outskirts of Orlando that seems to cater mostly to out-of-towners who mistakenly assume that it is somehow connected with Disney World and people who seemingly have nowhere else to go. Although managed by the no-nonsense Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the one who truly rules the roost is Moonee (newcomer Brooklynn Prince), a six-year-old spitfire who sees the motel and the surrounding array of outlet stores, ice cream parlors and abandoned housing developments as the personal playground for her and her friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera). As the film opens, the two are busted for spitting on a random woman's car and when they are made to clean it off as punishment, they not only make it into an additional source of fun but recruit the woman's daughter, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), into their ring. Over the course of the summer chronicled in the film, the three screw around and when one of their outings spirals out of control, it sets off a chain of events that will eventually have unexpected consequences for both Moonee and her mother, Hailey (Bria Vinaite), a hell-raiser herself who is not exactly Mother of the Year material but who nevertheless fiercely loves her daughter and will do anything for her and to keep them together.

On paper, ''The Florida Project'' may sound like one of those indigestible melodramas that are more exploitative than eye-opening that allow art house crowds to see how the other half lives in the most superficial ways imaginable. Happily, that is not the case with this thoroughly delightful and touching film from Sean Baker, the follow-up to his cell phone-shot breakthrough feature ''Tangerines.'' Somehow, he manages to find a way to balance the heedless happiness of Moonee and her friends as they goof off with the dark realities of her situation that we in the audience keenly register but which occur just out of her literal and metaphorical range of vision--even the giddiest moments are underscored with a quiet edge that illustrates how things can just go completely south in an instant when you are forced to live on the edges of society. The film is also blessed with three astounding performances at its core. Willem Dafoe turns in one of the best performances of his entire career as Bobby, who tries to come across as a hard-ass but proves to be quietly but fiercely protective of Moonee when the time comes--check out the way that he distracts her when Child Protection officers come to see her mother. As the mother in question, newcomer Bria Vinaite is a startling and volatile breath of fresh air--she lets us see that even though Hailey may come across like an entire month of trash TV crammed into one person, she really and sincerely loves her daughter and genuinely wants what is best for her, even if she does not seem to have any clue as to what achieving that might realistically entail. However, the film belongs to Brooklynn Prince and while it must have been a tremendous gamble on Baker's to hinge an entire film on the shoulders of an unknown little kid, it is one that pays off beautifully from beginning to end. It is tempting to say that she is just playing herself but there is clearly a lot more going on with her performance than just that. She has the infectious energy of a child at play, of course, but also has lots of raw acting talent at her disposal as well, as she clearly demonstrates during the scenes where she goes up against an actor as strong as Dafoe and more than holds up her end of the screen. Look at it this way--if you go to see ''The Florida Project,'' you will not only get to see one of the best movies of the year, you will get the chance to see a star being born before your eyes.

''Happy Death Day'' is basically ''Groundhog Day'' with a higher body count--well, maybe not that much higher, depending on how one reads the situation, I suppose. As the film opens, snotty sorority bitch Tree (Jessica Rothe) wakes up on her birthday in the dorm room of some nice dope (Israel Broussard) that she immediately mistreats, kicking off a long day of acting selfishly, ignoring her father's calls, being nasty to her goody-goody roommate (Ruby Modine) and banging her married professor that ends with her being brutally (though not brutally enough to jeopardize the PG-13 rating) stabbed to death by someone in a creepy baby mask. In her case, however, death is not the end and she finds herself reliving the same day over and over, each time coming to another grisly demise before waking up to start over from square one. With the help of the dope who she keeps waking up to, Tree begins to get a handle on the situation and becomes determined to solve her own murder before it actually happens so that she can get on with her life, literally as well as metaphorically.

As powerfully unoriginal as it may seem on the surface, the idea of applying the ''Groundhog Day'' conceit to a mad slasher movie is not that bad of an idea--most films of that type already play fast and loose with the laws of mortality and are willing to reset the clock whenever it becomes economically feasible (forget the killers--how many times has Jamie Lee Curtis died and come back to life in the ''Halloween'' films at this point?) so one skewering (among other things) that tradition could have led to an amusingly meta slasher riff in the ''Scream'' mold. The problem is that Scott Lobdell's screenplay only uses the gimmick as a gimmick instead of as a leaping-off point and the whole thing quickly gets kind of repetitive after a while and not in the intended manner. Beyond that, the script also falters because it cannot decide whether it was to be a comedy or a legitimate horror film, ultimately floundering at both, and it fails at providing either any kind of internal logic for the various goings-on, any real emotional growth for Tree (who of course learns to be a better person, though this lesson is as arbitrary as anything else on display here) before arriving at a conclusion that drops as dead as Tree so frequently does but doesn't manage to get back up again nearly as successfully. Speaking of Tree, Rothe, who appears to be part of a secret government project designed to clone Blake Lively, is actually pretty good and helps save the film from complete disposability. If only someone had taken as many whacks at the screenplay as it does with her, ''Happy Death Day'' might have been the cult favorite it wants to be instead of the anonymous time-waster that it ultimately is.

The real-life story of William Moulton Marston--a man who worked as a Harvard professor and psychologist, helped to invent the modern-day lie detector, became involved in a polyamorous relationship involving his wife, Elizabeth, a psychologist in her own right denied tenure by Harvard because of her gender, and former student Olive Byrne and used elements of all of those things, not to mention a few kinky bits as well, to create the comic book character Wonder Woman--is such a jaw-dropper that it seems impossible that anyone could figure out a way to make a boring movie out of it. Alas, with ''Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,'' writer-director Angela Robinson (her first film since ''Herbie: Fully Loaded'') somehow manages to achieve the impossible. A story this odd and unconventional almost requires a similarly audacious approach to the material--something akin to the treatment that such offbeat biopics as ''Ed Wood,'' ''The People vs. Larry Flynt'' and ''Auto Focus'' afforded their subjects--but the screenplay inexplicably contrives to take a story as unique as this and wrenches it into a conventionally bland biopic template that favors simplistic melodrama over genuine emotional truths and further messes things up with an utterly unnecessary framing device that sees Marston defending his comic creation against a group of censors while flashing back to pertinent episodes from his life. As for the kinkier aspects of the narrative, they have pretty much been flattened out to the point where the ''Fifty Shades of Grey'' movies actually seem more erotic and transgressive by comparison. As Marston, Luke Evans just fails to carry any of the immense personal charisma that the real guy must have had and it becomes difficult to see what Elizabeth and Olive see in him. As his better halves, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcote both come off a little more fully drawn but you get the sense that they are just waiting for the scenes to end so that they can go to their dressing rooms and continue reading ''The Secret History of Wonder Woman,'' Jill Lepore's best-selling 2014 take on the Marston saga (which has no other connection to this film) that shows that the facts can be molded into the kind of gripping and fascinating narrative that it truly deserves.

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originally posted: 10/13/17 13:52:18
last updated: 10/14/17 06:07:18
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