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New films: Another strange week in the film industry

It’s another strange week in the film industry as two noteworthy films open on Netflix and a mixed bag of hits and misses open in theaters. The first Netflix title would likely once have been a darling on the diminishing art house circuit, with Dustin Hoffman, Ben Stiller, and Adam Sandler in Noah Baumbach’s “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected).” The second, “Wheelman,” might have had a successful run in multiplexes and stars Frank Grillo as a wronged getaway driver. But given the secrecy with which Netflix operates, we’ll likely never know how successfult either film is, in terms of dollars or eyeballs.

Perhaps the most interesting film of the week, “The Florida Project,” is also likely to be least entertaining for many viewers. It’s a slow but absorbing and detailed look at families living on the socio-economic edge in run-down motels adjacent to DisneyWorld. These are real locations and realistic circumstances. It’s worth noting that the motels in question once shared a symbiotic relationship with Disney, housing the tourists that the growing resorts and parks depended on. But as Orlando grew, with successive waves of newer hotels, and as Disney itself challenged those properties with a downward stretch of its own lodging property product line, they became increasingly overlooked and marginalized. Now they house folks who can (barely) manage a week’s rent at a time but not first month, last month, and a month’s worth of security deposit. For six year-old Mooney (Brooklyn Prince), it’s a daily adventure fueled by boredom, curiosity, and blissful ignorance of the extent of her mother’s financial insolvency. Willem Dafoe plays the seemingly stern but soft-hearted manager in this powerful film that’s likely to appeal to those who are comfortable with meandering slice of life depictions that have more character development than narrative plot.

Both “The Florida Project” and “Only the Brave” feel like the subject might just as well have been covered in documentaries, but for mainstream audience’s general disdain for that genre. “Only the Brave” recounts the events surrounding the formation of a new “hot shots” frontline wildfire firefighting crew in Arizona. It’s part tribute to a group of actual men who lost their lives and part testimonial to the overall lifestyle and career. It also focuses on the burden and fears of the spouses and families of those who disappear for days or weeks at a time to fight fires in other cities and states, sometimes never to come home again. But if people see previews for this and think they’re heading into a typical Hollywood action film, they will be surprised and/or disappointed as this is a true tale of tragedy. It also carries extra poignancy for those in Northern California have had recently lost loved ones or homes to the latest fires, or who are helping friends and family going through those experiences.

The Snowman” stars Michael Fassbender as a Norwegian detective looking for a good case to distract himself from the bottle. But it fails on so many levels that it might drive audiences back to distraction and it’s hard to decide which aspect is worst, or most clichéd in its awfulness. For starters, it’s yet another American film set in a foreign country in which most of the cast demonstrate their foreignness with affected English accents. It also focuses on another flawed detective who’s supposedly famous in his detecting skills but who seems to be on mental holiday given his inability to figure out what’s going on around him. And it tries to mask the killer’s identity but, in doing so, makes that identity seem unsubstantiated. On top of that, it wastes a series of barely-there cameos by such actors as Chloe Sevigny, Val Kilmer, and Toby Jones – a backline of sufficient magnitude to fill out a separate film, rather than populate the background of this mess.

Other recent films still in release:

Marshall” re-enacts a pivotal case from early in the career of Thurgood Marshall, the first African American United States Supreme Court Justice. However, the delivery and staging of the film is so weak that it causes one to think that there must have been far more interesting and meaningful chapters in such a remarkable life and career. At times, it feels like an early rehearsal for a stage play or a table reading of a screenplay, with little emotion in an otherwise emotionally charged case. Marshall was working for the NAACP, defending a black man charged with raping and attempting to kill his white employer’s white wife in whiter Connecticut. It was a case that would likely have gone unnoticed, and very differently, but for his involvement and instead garnered significant attention in the press, helping to establish Marshall as a force for civil rights. We know this more because we’re told it via title slides at the close of the film, rather than because the content of the film makes it clear.

Another real life drama tells the story and love life of the man behind the Wonder Woman character. In “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” Luke Evans plays the psychology professor who loses his job as he and his wife (Rebecca Hall) take in one of his students (Bella Heathcote) as a third partner in their marriage. The film focuses more on their professional and love interests than on the comic book stories, which seem like an afterthought as he realizes he can write for the masses about the topics that already interest him. But that leads to further problems as for every scene involving Wonder Woman’s truth-inducing lasso, which had origins in the threesome’s work in developing lie detector technology, there’s another scene referencing sexuality or bondage. If he had licensed the lie detector work in some way, he may never had been looking for other sources of income and Wonder Woman and her lasso might never have existed. The film itself is interesting as a backstory but is more domestic drama than comic book origin tale.

Jackie Chan has aged and slowed and improved his English enough to play a character living in London. In “The Foreigner,” he’s a small restaurant owner whose daughter is killed in a bomb blast – with scenes of terror all too familiar in that city. This time around it’s a splinter group of IRA sympathizers trying to stir up trouble and prompt the release of prisoners but they didn’t count on an angry and bereaved father who has elite military training and wants to see those responsible punished. What ensues is a “Taken” style vendetta as Chan’s character slowly takes apart the entire cell without any subtlety of intent or identity. There’s just enough physical action to hint at Chan’s past prowess but this is a film that has the smarts to be about smarts, not raw strength and agility. It’s a modestly fun ride on the smaller roller coaster that has no lines.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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