Review Round-Up: Coco, Lady Bird, and The Florida Project

Posted: December 11, 2017 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

Written by Daniel Simpson

Coco

coco poster

I don’t think anyone holds Pixar in the unassailable tier they were once held in, but the studio still tends to be pretty consistent and rarely puts out a real stinker. Case in point; Coco, a film which will never be considered among Pixar’s best, but is a pleasing adventure film all the same. What mostly hold the film back is a lack of originality. The story is the basic tale of a young person who wants to be a musician and his challenged by his more practically minded family. The kid sets off on his own to follow his dreams and is beset by all manner of challenge. Even the film’s take on the afterlife does borrow certain elements from A Matter of Life and Death and Beetlejuice, in spite of the creative and colourful visuals. The adventure storyline which emerges is fun and the characters are certainly likable, but the structure does adhere to the Pixar formula, including adding in a last minute villain and chase-style climax.

What the film does have going for it is style. Coco is not only beautifully animated, but features a plethora of fun designs, distinct character models, and gorgeous environments. Exploring this world is generally pretty enjoyable. The fact that the film draws so heavily from Mexican culture certainly helps give it a unique flavour and that does a lot to elevate the film.

At the end of the day, Coco is nothing to right home about, but it is a fun movie which executes on the formula pretty well and is generally a solid piece of entertaining. It’s a shame the movie had to come out during a pretty packed awards season, and it also isn’t really the best option for escapist spectacle with Thor: Ragnarok still in theaters. Still, Coco is a solid bit of family entertainment and if you catch it a few months down the line at home I imagine you’ll be pleased.

B-

 

Lady Birdlady bird

I tend to complain a lot about coming of age movies, but that’s usually because they tend to feel like inauthentic nonsense fueled by nostalgia or they’re brought down by false sentimentality. When coming of age movies can overcome and avoid these pitfalls they can often become something pretty special. Case in point, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird, a film I don’t love quite as much as most of the film community seems to, but is nonetheless a delightful movie worthy of praise.

Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a senior high school student living in Sacramento in 2002. Lady Bird pines to move beyond Sacramento and of going to school in New York, much to the chagrin of her mother (Laurie Metcalf), who worries they will not be able to afford tuition to an out of state college. Secretly, Lady Bird applies to several New York colleges and the film follows her senior year through her friendships, romances, and her relationship to her parents.

At it’s core, Lady Bird does very little to reinvent the wheel. This more or less follows the trajectory you might expect it to and hits on the defining moments which often encompass coming of age movies. However the film still manages to stand apart thanks largely to the skillful execution. Put simply, writer/director Greta Gerwig seems to have a much keener insight into adolescence than other filmmakers show in comparable projects. Lady Bird isn’t explicitly auto-biographical, but the film is clearly rooted in Gerwig’s own experiences as a teen. The result is a film which simply feels a lot more honest about the teenage experience. Lady Bird’s interactions, whether with friends, boyfriends, or her parents all ring true and the result is a film which becomes highly engaging emotionally.

Crucial to this engagement are the performances, which are excellent. Saoirse Ronan is the clear stand-out, giving what might be her best performance yet. She makes Lady Bird such a vibrant, likable character, but she also doesn’t shy away from the character’s faults. At the end of the day she is still a teenager after all and is prone to a lot of the poor choices most teens make. More than anything though, Ronan just exudes an infectious charm and watching her character navigate through her final high school year is endlessly enjoyable as a result. Laurie Metcalf gives the other key performance as Lady Bird’s mother, who clearly loves her daughter and wants the best for her, but is also a source of tension who is often a little too hard on Lady Bird. This relationship is really the core of the film and both actresses play it perfectly, creating characters who clearly care for one and other while often clashing as parent-teen relationships tend to.

The supporting cast is also filled out nicely. Tracy Letts gives a nicely understated performance as Lady Bird’s father, who often has to play peacekeeper in the family, and young actors like Lucas Hedges, Timothée Chalamet, and Beanie Feldstein also do good work. If Lady Bird stumbles anywhere, it’s in its ending. I won’t go into spoilers, but I do think the film goes on longer than it needs to and its final moments don’t quite feel as authentic as everything that preceded it. I do wish the film could have ended stronger, but even so Lady Bird remains a delight. The film is smart, funny, and perceptive in a way coming of age movies often aren’t. I may not love it as much as everybody else seems to, but I can’t deny that Lady Bird is an absolute joy.

A-

 

The Florida Projectthe florida project

Set in a dumpy motel called The Magic Castle in Kissimmee, Florida, The Florida Project is centered around Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) a six-year old girl living with her young mother Haylee (Bria Vinaite). Haylee, like most of the residents of The Magic Castle, exists at the margins of society, struggling to survive economically. Haylee is currently unemployed and gets by through various low-level scams but doesn’t seem to have any long-term plans. Another crucial character is Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the manager of The Magic Castle who often has to contend with Haylee as well as the various other issues which arise in his work.

The film is essentially a slice of life as we follow Moonee throughout the summer as she plays with her friends, hangs out with her mom, gets ice cream, and adventures throughout the area. Moonee herself is not really aware of the precarious conditions she lives in and the film mostly embraces her point of view. Though we as an audience are more fully aware of the scummy nature of her setting, it’s all too easy to become enamored by Moonee’s perspective. Indeed, though the film does have a lot of drama (particularly in the final twenty minutes or so), but the primary feeling one gets from The Florida Project is a pure wonder and joy at Moonee’s adventures. Director Sean Baker and cinematographer Alexis Zabe shoot the film with a lot of energy which help elevate Moonee and her friends’ activities into more than just kids playing. Brooklynn Prince also gives a hell of a performance in the lead role, injecting a high degree of personality and feeling very authentic on-screen.

Bria Vinaite is also quite the find as Moonee’s young mother. In many ways, Haylee feels like the embodiment of young white trash and while Vinaite fully embraces the character’s many negative qualities, she nonetheless still feels like a real person. Her relationship with Moonee does feel very genuine and while Haylee has many failings as a mother, there is still a clear love between the two. The film also has a major star in Willem Dafoe and the man is doing some really great work here. Dafoe being the only star is appropriate given that Bobby is meant to be a higher class than his tenants, but beyond that Dafoe just gives a great performance. Bobby is a character who clearly does have a moral compass and is trying to do the right thing, but it isn’t always clear what the right thing is and the guy also has his own personal baggage to deal with. A key scene sees the motel’s owner come by and relay orders to Bobby, which effectively dictates Bobby’s precarious place. He may have more power than his tenants, but he is also fairly low on the totem pole himself. Dafoe brings a real sense of struggle to the screen. You can see the fatigue on Bobby’s face and the frustration, but beneath everything there does seem to be a genuinely caring person even if he doesn’t always make the right choices.

It’s crucial that Baker and his co-writer Chris Bergoch are not interested in didactic moralizing. No characters are portrayed as complete heroes or villains, but instead just as people trying to make their way through life. Additionally, while the exploration of these people and their situation may seem passive, there is a clear plot that the film is building to which becomes remarkably career in hindsight. Baker also shows a lot of creativity from a visual perspective. The film is largely told through Moonee’s point of view, and this is reflected in the film’s cinematography, which is also often at a child’s level in terms of placement. This never feels gimmicky, but instead perfectly aids the storytelling. Baker also does a great job capturing his colourful setting and the fluid camera movements add a lot of energy.

The Florida Project is not the kind of movie which constantly bowls you over with its greatness. Rather, the film’s power comes from the way it slowly immerses the viewer in its world through its visual storytelling, in-depth characters, sharp writing, and keen perception. The film consistently finds wonder and joy in situations where one wouldn’t expect and builds to an unexpected but powerful ending. The film as a whole is one of the most unique, creative, and all around best movies I’ve seen all year, with moments, people, and images which linger long after leaving the theater.

A

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