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Big Trains, Bad Dads and Kids in Trouble at the Movies

Hope Madden Hope Madden Big Trains, Bad Dads and Kids in Trouble at the MoviesStill from "The Florida Project," via IMDb.
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Couldn’t get enough of lazy, gender-specific Christmas comedy after last week’s Bad Mom’s Christmas? Well, daddies are at it this week, but they’ll have to fight Kenneth Branagh for attention—and that’s a man who likes attention. His Murder on the Orient Express joins Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck as two gloriously filmed, beautifully retro disappointments. But the festival darling Florida Project is upon us, with its gaudy colors and dangerous freedom. That’s the one you want to see.

The Florida Project

Full of the raucous rhythm of an unsupervised childhood, The Florida Project finds power in details and tells an unadorned but potent story.

Co-writer/director Sean Baker follows up his ambitious 2015 film Tangerine with another tale set gleefully along the fringes of society. Where Tangerine used weaves, stilettos and spangles to color the Christmas antics of Hollywood hustlers, here Baker fills the screen with bold colors and enormous, cartoonish images to create a grotesquely oversized playground.

Six-year-old Moonee (an astonishing Brooklynn Prince) wastes her summer days wandering the Orlando strip surrounding her home, a vivid purple bargain motel catering less to Disney World tourists than to tenants who can’t afford the security deposit world of traditional housing.

It’s the concept of childhood and adulthood that preoccupies Baker and his story, set in this absurd, low-rent amusement park of a world. As Mooney’s mother, Bria Vinaite offers a fierce mixture of childishness all her own as well as street-savviness. Mom keeps the ugliness of the world away with her own whimsy, and Vinaite’s onscreen chemistry with Prince is authentic and full of tenderness.

As much as Tinsel Town was the perfect backdrop for the struggling glamour of Tangerine, the shadow of Disney World is almost too perfect a setting for the grinding poverty and perverted innocence of Florida Project.

Grade: A-

Murder on the Orient Express

Kenneth Branagh likes a big room.

The thespian and Shakespearean master often feels ill-suited to film, as if he cannot help but play to the back row. Whether Branagh is in front of or behind the camera, subtlety and subtext don’t appear to come easily.

For Murder on the Orient Express, Branagh plays crime novelist Agatha Christie’s brusque genius, Belgian Inspector Hercule Poirot.

Branagh the director is so preoccupied with Branagh the actor that his talent-laden ensemble (Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench and more and more) is offered little more to do than to quickly hash out one-dimension. The waste of talent is the real crime afoot.

In keeping with Branagh’s love of spectacle, Murder on the Orient Express is a gorgeous, larger-than-life adventure. He shot on 65mm, and whether 20th Century Fox decides to release a 70mm print or not, the result is a glorious display, particularly in Act 1.

By the second act, we’re trapped in the train with a murderer. At that point, Branagh’s film starts to smell musty, and no quirky fun performances (Pfeiffer is particularly memorable) or delicately framed dining car treats can freshen things up.

Grade: B-

Daddy’s Home 2

Since we left them, macho Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) and sensitive Brad (Will Ferrell) have settled into a comfortable “co-Daddy” arrangement with their blended families, so much so that they’re planning one big, blendy Christmas this year.

Enter Dusty’s mas macho dad (Mel Gibson) and Brad’s uber-sensitive pop (John Lithgow), and we’re all headed through the woods to a luxurious mountain cabin for a madcap snow-covered holiday boasting rampant ridiculousness and only scattershot payoffs.

Writer/director Sean Anders returns from the first film with the standard playbook for lazy comedies: a series of zany skits loosely connected with little regard for logic or continuity. We are prodded to laugh at Brad’s suitcase being left at home, and then again when Brad has to wear a women’s bathrobe since he has no clothes of his own!

Moving on, Brad has an endless supply of wardrobe changes the remainder of the film.

With the additions of Gibson and John Cena (as the ex of Dusty’s girlfriend), the sequel ups the ante on the crises of masculinity that anchored the first film. The female characters are still afterthoughts, and some of Gibson’s antics (considering his rep and the current revelations coming out of Hollywood) seem awkwardly ill-timed.

By the time a completely over the top production of “Do They Know It’s Christmas” (“I love that song! I play that song in August!”) is happening, Daddy’s Home 2 seems content to aim no higher than the guilty pleasure aisle.
Grade: C-

Wonderstruck

If Wonderstruck—the latest from indie god Todd Haynes—feels a bit like Scorsese’s 2011 wonder Hugo, there’s a reason for that. Both films are based on juvenile fiction created by Brian Selznick.

But if Selznick’s unabashedly whimsical, sentimental material felt out of character for Scorsese, it’s no more characteristic for Haynes. His films tend to tackle ideas far more subversive, and by lighting those ideas with beauty and humanity, Haynes illustrates universal ideas, often of longing and the desire to belong.

His newest film also explores the human need to belong, although there’s very little to find subversive in Wonderstruck. It’s a family film that’s likely too slow moving for most youngsters and too lightweight for most Haynes fans.

The tale follows two deaf children, each on a similar journey 50 years apart.

Wonderstruck is a gorgeous movie. The Seventies period detail is as delightful and the 20s elegance is lovely. All performances—particularly those of the two young leads (Millicent Simmonds and Oakes Fegley) —compel attention. Underlying themes of loneliness and the longing for acceptance resonate in the same way they echo through all of Haynes’s work.

Unfortunately, the narrative feels more full of contrivance and convenience than wonder. In the end you’re left thinking, wow, that was really pretty. Too bad it all collapsed on itself at the end.

Grade: B-

Also opening in Columbus:
Bitch (NR)
Brimstone and Glory (NR)
Dealt (NR)
Mayhem (NR)
My Friend Dahmer (NR)
Price (NR)
The Work (NR)

Reviews with help from George Wolf.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF, and listen to her podcasts FRIGHT CLUB and THE SCREENING ROOM.

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