Paul Heinz

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The Florida Project

A month ago, I lamented about this year’s best picture Oscar nominees and listed the few movies I saw in 2017 that I thought deserved recognition, only one of which made the Oscar cut: Get Out.  I’d like to add one more movie released in 2017 that should have been recognized for more than just a best supporting actor nomination for Willem Dafoe: The Florida Project, a low-budget film released last fall to rave reviews, though if you blinked, you might have missed its theatrical release.

The Florida Project is one of those rare films that I gravitate toward – short on plot, long on characters and realistic slices of life.  It brings to mind some other films like Beginners, Nebraska, Lovely and Amazing, The Squid and the Whale, Boyhood and the Joe Swanberg films (Drinking Buddies, Digging for Fire, All the Light in the Sky, and the like), though its portrayal of the American poor through children’s eyes has almost nothing in common with those films.  In that sense, it’s like no other film I’ve seen.

Director Sean Baker’s portrait of poor families living in a rundown motel outside of Disney World is captivating, largely due to the amazing talents of child actors Brooklynn Prince, Christopher Rivera, Aiden Malik and Valeria Cotto.  Much of the film is shown through their perspective, as they stroll from motel to ice cream stand to waffle house to cow pasture to abandoned homes.  I marveled at some of the dialogue between the children and am curious about how much was scripted and how much was simply kids being kids, as they express wonderment of a fallen tree that’s kept growing or take delight in sharing an ice cream cone.

The adults are worthy of note too, and not just the incomparable Willem Dafoe – wonderful as the motel manager who, without sentiment, protects the lives of his poor tenants in ways large and small, a more important figure in their lives than the mobile food pantry volunteers who hand out bread in the motel parking lot.  Bria Vinaite, who plays mom to Prince’s Halley, is also a standout as an aimless adult doing whatever she needs to do to pay next week’s rent, including using her daughter to hawk wholesale perfume in a country club parking lot.  Yes, she’s a neglectful parent, but I found her also to be sympathetic, as her love for Halley shines through at times, though not always in the most conventional way.

The film shows a side of life that we don’t often get to see – the American poor, eking out a living, relying on each other for basic niceties, not having the luxury of caring about politics or the environment or the economy.  Surviving is all they have time for.  Like my experience watching the film Boyhood, I kept waiting for the Hollywood dramatic turn: a car crash, a molestation or a murder.  There were times when the kids were running through a parking lot or crossing a street, and I winced, expecting one of the children to land on the hood of a car.  But like Boyhood, The Florida Project doesn’t take the easy way out.  Many lives are crushingly difficult, not because of life-altering events, but because of the harsh, daily grind, when one day bleeds into the next, never exercising the difficulties of the day preceding it.

Often, I value a movie on how much I’d like to see it again, and I was taken with something Richard Roeper of the Chicago Sun Times wrote about the movie.  He was more harsh in his assessment of the characters the film portrays, but he still loved the film.  He writes: ”…you’ll most likely not want to see (it) twice, but seeing it once is an experience you’ll not soon forget.”

I think he and I agree on this point.  I’m not sure I’ll be eager to rent this movie again, even for all it’s attributes.  But if you haven’t seen it once, you’re missing out.

A Poor Batch of Oscar Nominees

Was it just a year ago that we were discussing the merits of Lion, Hell or High Water, Arrival, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land and Fences?  I crammed in a boat-load of movies between November and February last winter and was genuinely impressed with the lot.  Prior years weren’t too shabby either, with 2015 bringing us Spotlight, Bridge of Spies and The Big Short, and the preceding year offering Birdman, Grand Budapest Hotel and Boyhood.  In short, well-done movies – some of them groundbreaking – with interesting approaches, compelling characters, and important topics.

Not so this year.  I’ve seen eight out of the nine nominees for Best Picture this Oscar season, and only one of them rises to the level that one should expect from Academy Awards nominees.

Recognizing that I don’t see more than a few dozen films a year, here are my favorites for 2017:

Get Out

Wind River

All the Money in the World

I, Tonya

Sadly, only one made it in: the incomparable Get Out, a smart, creepy, important, entertaining and well-executed movie.  It would be a contender for the top prize any given year, but when compared to the other seven entries that I’ve seen, it’s the only one that actually should win.  Which means it probably won’t.

Wind River never stood a chance since it was released by the Weinstein Company in the midst of Harvey Weinstein’s sexual abuse scandal, and Ridley Scott’s reshooting of Kevin Spacey’s scenes in All the Money in the World apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters (perhaps the salary controversy surrounding Mark Wahlberg and Michelle Williams was a factor?)  Why I, Tonya wasn’t included as a nominee is perplexing, as it was a consistently entertaining story with sharp, snappy dialogue and a lead character who achieved the difficult feat of being both unlikable and sympathetic.

Unfortunately, when compared to those four films, most of this year’s nominees fall far short, at best likable morsels and at worst laborious and flawed.

The Darkest Hour was a great performance surrounded by a poor script with unnecessary scenes and characters and a plot that lacked a compelling arc.  I liken it to The King’s Speech, except there isn’t one monumental speech but three, deflating whatever emotion the final speech was supposed to elicit. 

Better was the film Dunkirk, though this too was flawed with a dearth of urgency despite the obvious importance of the subject matter.  I kept waiting to see an aerial shot of hundreds of boats approaching the shores of France, but was instead led to believe that a dozen vessels rescued over a quarter of a million soldiers.  A missed opportunity.

Similarly, Spielberg’s The Post lacked the suspense and exigency that the real-life drama encompassed.  Coined a political thriller, it contained the politics but not the thrill.  Worse, at no time during the film did I believe that it was taking place in the 1970s.  Instead, it looked like a movie made by present-day actors dressed in 1970s garb.  Why this is the case I can’t entirely say, except that the movie looked too clean, lacking the grit and sweat that other films – Argo comes to mind – have managed to capture.  When one considers how good a newspaper drama can be – Spotlight, All the President’s Men ­– The Post is a disappointment.

My wife, son and I all saw The Shape of Water on Christmas morning, and to a man, we thought it was among the stupidest films we’d ever seen.  I’ve talked to others who’ve really enjoyed it, and it certainly has received numerous critical accolades, so perhaps there’s something seriously flawed not with the movie but with the Heinz family!  Or, perhaps we simply couldn’t accept what was – in essence – a schlocky 1950s monster movie in Oscar-buzz clothing.

Call Me By Your Name benefitted from an excellent ending (I wish Michael Stuhlbarg had been nominated), but suffered from a first half that was coy and plodding. (By the way, Stuhlbarg acted in not one, not two, but three Best Picture nominees this year.  Not bad!)

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri began as such an irreverent and funny film with completely unbelievable characters that it was impossible for me to switch gears when the film expected me to take later scenes seriously.  In short, it was disjointed, though again, I’ve talked to some people who really liked it.

And then there’s Lady Bird, an enjoyable coming-of-age story with good performances, but it covers way too much territory and has some oddly extraneous scenes (Father Leviatch’s illness, for example).  I can accept this as an Ocscar nominee as long as it isn’t seriously considered.

Does Paul Thomas Anderon’s Phantom Thread rise to the level of legitimate Oscar contender?  I don’t know.  It’s the one nominated film that I haven’t seen.  I loved Anderson’s Magnolia and really disliked There Will Be Blood and The Master, so it could go either way.

But in the meantime, I will be pulling hard for Jordan Peele and Get Out.  Throw an Oscar in for actor Daniel Kaluuya and I’ll be a happy man (though one could hardly be upset to see Oldman take the prize).

Here’s hoping 2018 births a better batch of films.

Siskel and Ebert

A few days ago a friend of mine and I were discussing movies – what makes a good one and whether a well-executed movie that aims low is better than a poorly-executed movie that aims high – and I recalled a movie review of Siskel and Ebert. As I told it, Ebert was reviewing a Heather Locklear monster movie of some kind - Swamp-something-or-other – and Ebert gave it thumbs up, only to be challenged by Siskel for having given a thumbs down just a moment before for a drama that didn’t quite hit the mark.

And since time travel is possible through the magic of youtube, I can rest easy knowing that although I may not remember someone’s name a minute after he introduces himself, I can recall with stunning accuracy a twenty-eight year-old memory involving two people I never met discussing movies I’ve never seen.

Man, I miss these guys. Some of my most indelible memories are of their movie reviews. I vividly recall their reviews for “Once,” “The Accidental Tourist,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Who Framed Roger Rabbit,” and on and on. Very often what they said was as interesting or entertaining as the film itself. Sometimes more. 

Last night my wife and I watched “Baby Boom,” which I had never seen before, and after it was over I gave her four reasons why I thought it was a bad film. She humored me, and then humored me more when I said, “We gotta see what Siskel and Ebert said about this.” Sure enough, there it was on the internet. Siskel surprisingly liked the film. Ebert did not. Score one for Roger on that one.

But there were many reviews of both Gene’s and Roger’s that I disagreed with. Ebert put “Minority Report” at the very top of his list of best movies of 2001 – I’m still scratching my head over that one. But that was half the fun. They had opinions, but more importantly, they had personalities behind the opinions, and I genuinely liked both of them whether or not I agreed with them.

By coincidence, I just finished reading Ebert’s memoir, Life Itself, and I highly recommend the read, if for no other reason than the short chapter in which he espouses the virtues of the eatery Steak and Shake. That alone is worth the price of admission. But what I’m really going to take away from the book is a list of art that I haven’t yet explored and that is sure to be thought-provoking: certain movies by Altman and Scorsese, any movie by Bergman or Fellini, and writings by Studs Terkel and Thomas Wolfe. These will keep me busy for a while, and when I need a little break I can go to http://siskelandebert.org/ and take in a few reviews. I could spend a whole week doing nothing but.

Movie Review: Captain Fantastic

With all the hoopla surrounding last Sunday's blunder at the Academy Awards, it’s easy to forget that the primary purpose of the ceremony isn’t to hand out prizes, but rather, to celebrate and promote movies. Tucked inside the glam of glistening dresses, monotonous speeches and coveted trophies is an opportunity to consider films that one might not have otherwise. For me, this year’s Best Picture nominees did just that, as I went out of my way to watch movies that normally wouldn’t have been on my radar (Moonlight and Hell or High Water, just to name two). But Jimmy Kimmel inspired me to take things further. During his monologue, he cracked the following joke aimed at actor Viggo Mortensen, the star of Captain Fantastic: “Too often the Academy only recognizes movies that people have seen.”

That inspired me to go beyond the Best Picture nominees, of which I’d seen eight of nine, and extend my viewing to other films that were up for awards. First for me was the aforementioned Captain Fantastic. In this film, Ben is raising his six children in the relative isolation of a Washington forest, where they grow and hunt food, learn self-defense as well as literature, science and math, and stick to a strict routine of exercise and chores. Ben is demanding, and his children are up for the challenge, exhibiting signs of impressive strength, intelligence and camaraderie. In short, the family is living a sort of Utopian existence in a wilderness paradise.

When the children’s mother kills herself after an extended mental illness and lengthy hospital stay, Ben takes his children into town to visit his sister’s family, and we get a unique opportunity to see the world through the eyes of kids who’ve been raised apart from our modern society. Suddenly, the endless stream of shopping malls, overweight people and fake food appear especially tragic, and teenage access to violent video games utterly preposterous. The message isn’t subtle, but it is illuminating.

Unfortunately, writer and director Matt Ross continues to paint in such broad brushstrokes that as enjoyable as the film may be, little of it is believable. Ben’s sister’s family is naturally a stereotype, with overly protective parents when it comes to real life tragedies (i.e., the suicide of Ben’s wife) but who allow ample access to violent video games and whose kids are bumbling idiots. Ben’s kids, of course, are the kind of angelic children any adult would be privileged to raise: strong, confident, intelligent, knowledgeable, loving, musical and kind, all brilliantly portrayed by talented young actors and all desperately two-dimensional, a modern day version of The Sound of Music’s Von Trapp family. But Captain Fantastic isn’t a musical. Our belief is suspended just enough to enjoy the film, but never enough to swallow it whole.

If Ben and his family show any dimensions at all, it appear to be in spite of Ross’s efforts, rather than because of them. Scenes apparently meant as comedic relief instead show an ugly side to Ben. He eschews his father-in-law’s wishes for them not to attend his daughter’s funeral. Fine. But they arrive late, making a grand entrance that would be disrespectful under any circumstances, and Ben wears a red suit that cries for attention, until he interrupts the pastor’s sermon and unilaterally demands attention. In this scene, and in another that has the family employing a ruse to steal food from a grocery store, the outcome isn’t comedic at all, but rather a glimpse into a very flawed human being.

Still, the movie shines when it concentrates on the family enjoying each other’s company. When Ben’s daughter describes a book she’s reading as “interesting,” he demands she try again, claiming the word has no meaning. She does, with success, and it reminds me of all the times I use words that come easily to me instead of searching for the correct ones. 

The conflict in this movie is minimal, and I applaud Ross for not taking the easy way out in this regard. It brings to mind Chef, a film that could have gone down so many Hollywood tropes, but stuck the its central purpose – the relationship between a father and son. Similarly, Captain Fantastic succeeds most when it allows us to watch this unusual family interact with each other. I found the last scene, as understated as it may be, as touchingly brilliant.

The Artist vs. The Art Itself

Richard Brody makes an odd claim in this month’s issue of The New Yorker.  He posits that because Alfred Hitchcock’s directorial technique was a direct offshoot of his “own ugly fury,” that it should be less revered by current directors and critics, and that the admiration of Hitchcock’s craft is a dangerous affair.  He writes:

The cult of Hitchcock, which presses directors’ ideas and critics’ taste toward his hyperrational craft and conceals his tormented frenzy, tends to thrust some filmmakers’ impulses, and the critical response to some of the best modern films, to the sidelines.

A pretty bold – and completely unsubstantiated – assertion.

Regardless, it raises an interesting question: should an artist’s personal life influence the way we view the art itself? 

I like the art of Jasper Johns, but I know nothing about the artist.  Not a thing.  Perhaps I should, and perhaps I’d be better for it, but would anything I discover change the painting that I admire?  It would still be the same art, the same use of colors, the same shading.  My perception of the artist might change for the better or for the worse, but I would hope not my admiration for the art itself.

I heard Beethoven’s third symphony for the first time in 1986 and over time began to admire it greatly (as a young rock and roller, classical pieces sometimes took their time).  Later, I learned that it had originally been dedicated to Napoleon Bonaparte for his anti-monarchy idealism, only to be withdrawn.  Should this matter one iota to my admiration for the piece?

I think not.

Awards for art, movies and books should be viewed in a similar light.  Casablanca isn’t a better film for having won Best Picture, and Do the Right Thing isn’t a worse film for not having won the same award (or even nominated!).  They are both brilliant in their own right.

Then again, I can think of examples when my admiration for a song was actually enhanced once I learn the story behind it.  There’s no way you can tell me that Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” isn’t that much more beautiful, compelling and heartbreaking when you learn that it was written for his dead son, or that Lyle Lovett’s wonderful album, The Road to Ensenada, isn’t given a bittersweet tinge after learning that it largely chronicles his breakup with Julia Roberts.  One of my all-time favorite songs, Jackson Browne’s ”I’m Alive,” is even more compelling to me when I consider his breakup with Daryl Hannah. 

What can I say?  Pop music for me is sometimes a substitute for People Magazine!

On occasion I learn about the inspiration behind a song only to wish I hadn’t.  I recently read about the Ben Folds song, “Eddie Walker,” a wonderful tune for which I created my own story, and although the true inspiration for the lyrics isn’t in a completely different universe from my own interpretation, it still clouds the mental image I’d formed and will probably do so forever more.  For this reason, I admire artists who let songs be once they’re composed and refuse to offer insight into their origins.

And then there’s the ugly side.  Hitchcock’s purported sexual harassment, for instance. But many artists have an ugly side, and it would be silly for us to view their art through that lens. Roger Waters has said some pretty controversial and stupid things over the years, but I still think The Wall is still brilliant.  John Lennon used to hit his girlfriend.  I still love “A Day in a Life.”  I haven’t spent a penny on Elvis Costello since he told an audience at The Chicago Theater to “fuck off,” but I certainly can’t claim that I don’t still love his music.  Hell, you couldn’t pay me to see a Mel Gibson movie, but there’s no denying the fact that the guy can act and direct.

My father and I recently corresponded about this subject, and he wrote: “Does it matter what Brahms' psychotherapist thought was behind his compositions? Was Shostakovitch mentally ill or sexually repressed?  Who cares?  You love his 5th Symphony for what it is.  And Wagner: let's not even get into his politics.  Too much analysis and not enough appreciation and enjoyment.”

Too much analysis and not enough enjoyment.  There you are.  

Perhaps Richard Brody should do as I did two nights ago and rewatch Vertigo – perhaps with his daughter as I did – and enjoy it for what it is: a perfectly-executed telling of a creepy story.  If someone thinks it’s the best film of all-time, fair enough.

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved