Lord of the Rings: One Day Trilogy Event

As a fan of the American Cinematique and the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, I look forward to big movies presented on the big screen on a regular basis. New exclusives like “The Irishman” or old favorites like “Lawrence of Arabia” make sense on the extra large screen at this theater. Yesterday however was pushing it to the extremes a little bit. All three Lord of the Rings films, in the extended editions on 35mm is really big, and frankly intimidating. This is at least a twelve hour commitment so you better not have any other plans this weekend.

It was way back in 2011 that I did posts on the extended editions and their theatrical release. Those screenings were basically extended commercials for the upcoming blu-ray release of the films. Unlike the most recent experience however, the films screened one at a time over the course of three different Tuesday nights. This was all three films in an indulgent day of film going. I was not at all shocked to see that the event was sold out and that it was heavily attended bu cosplaying fans of the series. We had to strategize a bit to work out being able to do this and survive. Fortunately, the programmers planned a thirty minute break between each film so we could run out and get something to eat or simply some fresh air before the next stage of our Middle Earth journey began.

Of the three films, my personal favorite has always been the first chapter “The Fellowship of the Ring“. Peter Jackson’s world building is so well set up in this film that all of the grand moments in the second and third chapters feel more natural as a result. I recognize that the whole trilogy was largely shot at the same time and we are getting three segments of one film with each entry, but you have to start somewhere and the Shire is a great start. Hobbiton and Bag’s End are exactly how I envisioned them when I read the books as a kid. The one thing that took a couple of minutes to get used to was the look of the hobbits. Their depiction is a lot more subtle than my imagination but it only took a short while to adjust. This is also the simplest of narratives since the story focuses on one group for the most part and two sections of the journey. The second and third acts distribute the characters into multiple locations and time lines so they are not as elegantly straightforward as the first chapter.

The Two Towers” seems to be a popular favorite with many on-line fans citing it as the best episode of the three. Like many second acts, the character development in this material is more substantial. There is more background on Aragorn and Merry and Pippin become characters that are more than simply the comic relief. The introduction of Gollum/Smeagol is a technical advancement and an unexpectedly poignant performance from Andy Serkis. I also think that Brad Dourif as Grimma/Wormtongue has the right amount of villainous flourish to make the film sparkle among the often grim characters. Everyone probably has a favorite character in the series, I am particularly fond of Theoden and the portrayal by Bernard Hill starts in this film and gets even better in the follow up.

We had succeeded in seeing the first two films in a 35mm format, but about a half hour into the third film, the management realized that the print they were given by the studio was the original theatrical version rather than the extended edition. After a survey of the audience, they switched to the extended edition that they had available on blu-ray. This presented two issues for the patient but tired audience. The bigger issue was that they started the film over, so that meant we sat thru the first 30 minutes a second time. This resulted in a finish for the day, well after 2 am. The other issue is that the blu ray actually has the film split on two disks, so there will be a delay break in the middle of a battle scene to make this switch. Being the owner of more than a thousand laser discs, this did not bother me at all, but you could tell that many in the audience were disconcerted about the technology.

While it is frequently lampooned for it’s multiple endings, “The Return of the King” needs all of those beats to make the wrap up as satisfying as it is.  Everyone who has a part to play in the film gets some moments on the screen to shine. Boromir comes back for a flashback in the extended edition and it retroactively enriches his character in the first film. The battle scenes are the impressive feat of this chapter of the series and they are spectacular. Just as Andy Serkis was neglected at awards time, it is a shame that Sean Astin was left out of the supporting actor race, his interpretation of Sam Gamgee is definitive in my opinion and it could have been over the top but instead it was just right.

The wisdom of a thirteen plus hour commitment to a film day might be questionable but the emotional satisfaction more than compensates. I hope to catch up on a little sleep later today, but I don’t regret doing this and if you love these films as well, take a chance when you get the opportunity to indulge.

Breaking Away 40th Anniversary Screening Egyptian Theater American Cinematique

It has been nine years since my original post on this film from the Summer of 1979. I’m sure that I have revisited this movie at least once in that time but not in a theater so it was not included in any post that I have done in the intervening decade. Since the original post was included in my “Movie A Day” project, it is heavy with personal remembrances and observations about the events in my life when I first saw the film. “Breaking Away” was a movie that was released at a pivotal time in my life and that is one reason I cherish it.

Other than my personal reflections however, there are a huge number of reasons to love this movie and they were all on display last night at the Egyptian Theater. The American Cinematique had wrangled up a large portion of the cast to come and talk to us about the film, and the stories they shared about their casting, acting and behind the scenes moments were fascinating. First however, a few notes about the movie itself.

For those of you who are not familiar with the film, let me give you a quick thumbnail infocluster to bring you up to speed. “Breaking Away” is a combination of “Rocky” and “Stand by Me”, with a slightly older cast, no serious threat of violence, and bicycles instead of boxing gloves. It is a positive twist on the coming of age story, one where the family is strengthened by the events of the film rather than damaged by them. Dave, the enthusiastic cyclist played by Dennis Christopher, is a young man in search of himself, but somewhat blinded by his friendships with the high school buddies he hangs out with. His father despairs of him ever doing something with his life and is even more frustrated by the personae his son has adopted, as an Italian immigrant. Dave is not delusional or deranged, he is merely caught up in his idol worship of the Italian Cycling team from Cinzano. The fantasy feeds his own skills and determination when training and it offers a refuge from the uncertainty of the future.

Although his friends are a major component of the film, and they are listed as the lead characters of the movie, the real relationships that are the basis of what happens are those that Dave has with his parents. Oscar Nominated Barbara Barrie, is a supportive, patient and soothing rock that Dave can always feel as the foundation of his existence. We learned last night, that the critical scene where she shows Dave her Passport and dreams of the things it might represent to her and others, was largely improvised by the two actors. Her smile and demeanor, and the way she holds the passport up for him to see as she subtly suggests he take advantages of all the opportunities before him, is probably the moment that cinched her recognition by the Academy.

As great as Barbara Barrie is in the film, she is matched moment by moment by the actor Paul Dooley playing Dave’s exasperated father. Mr. Dooley was present last night for the screening. He sat in the row behind me and was there for half an hour at least before the movie began. One fan approached him in search of an autograph which he graciously provided. I am a long time resident of Southern California. Celebrity sightings are not uncommon and I have always tried to be polite and non-intrusive, but I have to admit his presence got the best of me last night. Instead of remaining detached and respectful of his space, I did approach him as I headed up to the lobby before the show, I offered my hand and a brief admiration of his performance. As I’m sure he has heard a thousand times before, I shared how his performance reminded me of my own father and he smiled and said that he modeled his role on his father. He mentioned that fact again in the conversation after the film with the whole audience, but for that moment, it felt like we were sharing a thought just between the two of us. I have always maintained that he was overlooked that year for acting honors and I hope that the good wishes of fans like me can compensate a bit for that oversight. In the movie he is gruff, romantic, sarcastic and ultimately the kind of father that all of us would love to have.

Mike, Cyril, and Moocher are the three friends that Dave has tied his fate to at the moment. The screenplay, which won the Academy Award that year, treats each of these characters in a complete way. Not all of their problems are solved at the end of the movie, but we know them better and they are on a clearer path than before the story unfolded. Dennis Quaid is the embittered Mike, a high school football star doomed to watch other young men achieve athletic success at the University while he fades away. Mike is not a sympathetic character for much of the film. He acts like a local bully as a way of retaining some sense of worth, and he demeans his friends when they suggest that they need to move on. Of the four young men, he needs to do the most maturing if his life is to get better.

Cyril and Moocher are less critical to the main events but they are essential to understand the relational dynamics going on. Cyril is the put upon, sad faced joker of the group. He is the Eeyore to Dave’s Pooh. Daniel Stern, who has had a terrific career starring in comedies that most of us know well, was also present last night. He talked about his own casting, and how he really was not sure that he’d gotten the part. This was his first film and his enthusiasm was infectious. He and Dennis Christopher had to keep prompting one another on memories of shooting the film. Before he sat down, he proudly displayed the Cutters t-shirt he was wearing under his jacket. While there is certainly progress in the growing up of the kids in the story, as I said before, not everything is resolved. In the group celebration shot near the end of the movie, everyone has someone to celebrate with except Cyril, who still looks lost despite the accomplishment of the group. A good acting and directing choice. Moocher has a young wife and unbridled optimism at the future. Jackie Earle Haley was not present last night but all the cast members were very enthusiastic about what he brought to the film, and they recalled at the time, he was the biggest name in the cast having recently done the Bad News Bears movies.

Also attending the screening was actor Hart Bochner who played the Fraternity boy antagonist, Rod. Islands in the Stream“. Although Rod might be seen as the bad guy in the movie, he really has little malice in his part. Most of the time he is reacting to the townskids. When the college kids go to the quarry to swim, the Cutters give them the cold shoulder. He reacts like a jealous boyfriend when the girl he is dating gets flowers and serenaded by an “Italian” exchange student. The only time he really seems to be a douche is when he is hitting on another co-ed as he drives her around campus. Bochner has a very effective moment of empathy and self loathing when Mike bashes his head on the quarry wall while racing Rod. Bochner also had to prompt Dennis Christopher on a couple of his memories about training for the movie.

This was only his second movie, after a film I wrote about earlier this summer ”

One memory that Christopher did not need to be prompted on was the first day of shooting. He was extremely unhappy with the costumes and hairstyle that had been chosen for him. The implication was that he was a greaser rather than the naive young man embracing a fantasy identity. His self doubts were communicated to director Peter Yates and the actor and director altered to character to more closely reflect Dave as Dennis Christopher conceived him. It was a wise choice because Dave need to be the sympathetic center of the story and the other perspective would have undermined the audience reaction.

Both Stern and Christopher were moved by their participation in this film, early in their careers. Paul Dooley proudly stated that it was the best movie he ever appeared in and he thought it was his own best performance. I can’t think of a reason to second guess any of these men. They also spoke very highly of the work done by actress Robyn Douglass who played Kathy, the girl that Dave is pursuing in his fake persona. All of them were also effusive in citing director Peter Yates as having a strong influence of the film. One of them mentioned how interesting it was that it took a British director to find the truth in an American family. Yates also helped shepard what were two screenplays into one, which turned the story into a more complete picture.

It is evenings like this which make living in the Los Angeles area worthwhile and the American Cinematique, whatever financial or management issues it might be facing, still knows how to put on a show.

courtesy American Cinematique

Lawrence Of Arabia [Again] 2019 Visit

As is tradition on this site and in our house, when “Lawrence of Arabia” is available on the big screen, we are available to see it. Having sat through an earthquake the previous night to watch “Jaws”, nothing was likely to disturb us from spending time with David Lean’s masterpiece.

I have written about this film a number of times. There is a link here to a video blog for a screening in 2013. Here is a link to a screening at the Cinerama Dome. At this spot you can read about our visit two years ago, seeing the print that was run on Saturday. Finally, there was a post I did on the many versions of Lawrence that I own on home video and some other tidbits.

The term Fan is derived from the word fanatic, so maybe this is an apt description of us and our love for this movie. For this post, I thought I’d try a perspective suggested by the author of the beautiful coffee table book that came with the blu ray package. Jeremy Arnold was at our screening, and he was there previously when the American Cinematique introduced the 70mm print that they now own and lovingly care for. His introduction talked about the enigma of T.E. Lawrence but also of the film about him. He said that there are many ways to experience the movie and some people never get past the sensory. So what I will do here is approach three of those paths, and hopefully find some interesting things to highlight about the movie.

I think it is fitting to start with the sensory, since it is the major selling point of the film for most cinema fans. “Lawrence of Arabia” is one of the most visually spend id stories ever committed to celluloid.  The opening titles are shot from a static position overhead as Lawrence readies his motorbike for that last fateful trip. You might think a static shot of a mundane activity would be boring after a few seconds, but the lighting, the colors and the music make it compelling and the angle gives us enough to see what is happening but it still keeps the central figure as a mystery. Ultimately, the film is about the mystery of T.E. Lawrence and this simply foreshadows the whole point of the picture.

Everywhere you look in the rest of the movie are fascinating landscapes, revealing face profiles, and composition of shots that even an amateur like me can recognize as spectacular. The famous edit by Lean and Anne V. Coates, moving from a lighted match to a sunrise over a harsh desert, continues to inspire no matter how many times you see it. Omar Sharif’s slow reveal as a distant figure in a landscape is also iconic. Even watching Lawrence brood over a problem, under the night sky while silently being trailed by the two boys who become his servants for the crossing of the desert later, is compelling to watch. The sensory experience is added to by the music at every point. The score by Maurice Jarre is like an earworm that is soft at times and thundering in the right spot. Listening to the tentpoles in King Faisal’s tent,creak as the winds of the desert cause the tent to shift slightly, illustrate the way that sound adds to the sensory experience in subtle ways as well as the obvious explosions and thundering hoofs.

Everyone can experience these things for themselves and if you pay enough attention you will find hundreds more of those moments in the movie. The emotional reaction to the film is a second path by which to experience it, and Lawrence provides a banquet of emotional moments to satisfy all palates. Humor is everywhere in the movie, although no one would describe it as a comedy. Lawrence is introduced to us in the British Military headquarters in Cairo, referring to each of his fellow soldiers by both their first and last names, spoken in a deliberate manner meant to exaggerate his mannerisms. It is not a joke but it is a funny way to learn how he speaks and thinks without having to have exposition. There is an abundance of visual humor in the film as well. We all laugh when we realize that the reason he is admiring the knife that is part of his new regalia, is not simply that it is new and unique, it is that he can see himself in the reflection and his vanity is revealed accidentally.

Lawrence’s proximity to death is all the more tragic because of the three deaths he is most closely associated with in the film. In the screening on Saturday, Jeremy Arnold surveyed the packed house to see how many we experiencing Lawrence for the first time. Amazingly, nearly half the audience raised their hand to indicate that this was their maiden experience with the movie. I know they were not lying because when it is revealed who it is that Lawrence must execute to keep the tribes from warring with each other rather than the Turks, there was a loud collective gasp from the audience. When Daud is lost to the desert sands, there were some sobs that were audible, and when Lawrence has to end the life of his other associate after an explosives accident, the silence of shock and dread hangs in the air.

Emotional jubilation is also present in the film, as Lawrence rescues Gasim from the desert, or as a bunch of grapes from Damascus are delivered and we know that success is in his grasp. Of course all of these points have a counterpoint and the movie is never short on finding ways to emotionally evoke a response from us. We will feel disgust as the clammy hands of the Turkish Bey examine the fair skin of Lawrence when he is about to be tortured. Anger and hatred  will also come to our hearts when we see the village left behind a retreating Turkish column, or the grin in the face of the man holding Lawrence’s hands down as the beating begins. There is such an overload of emotional moments in the film that I’m sure a whole book could be composed to cover it, and you would still only scratch the surface.

The last trail suggested by Mr. Arnold’s introduction, is the intellectual/spiritual path that the film takes in telling Lawrence’s story. He was a passionate man who also knew to control that passion in pursuit of his vision of an independent Arabia. We can’t tell if he is motivated by his admiration of the Arab people or his disdain for some elements of their culture. He embraced the life of the Bedouin and rejected it simultaneously.  He was clever and boldly foolish. In other words, his life was a variety of dichotomies that make him even more enigmatic than before we have seen the film. His vision of a future for the Middle east was at variance with those of his country, but also with those whom he lead and loved.

He defied the conventional wisdom of the Arabs, “Nothing is written”, but also repeatedly proved that their fatalism was well earned. From the beginning, he was described by people at his funeral as the most extraordinary man they ever knew, but there was always a hedge statement that followed, which revealed that no one was quite certain how to classify him. The intellectual puzzle that he was is not really solved by this movie, but it’s attractiveness and magnetism is intensified by the film. Once again, I am in awe of the scope of this movie, not simply as a piece of cinema, but as an historical mediation on a figure that rode the whirlwind of history.

And let’s just add that the lead performance is responsible for much of the success that those three paths managed to get us through. Peter O’Toole makes all of it feel accurate, and real, regardless of where the truth lies.

Malcolm McDowell Double Feature

Last night was a wonderful opportunity to spend time with an old friend that I’ve never met. Malcolm McDowell has been an actor I have watched for decades now in a variety of parts. I was of course first introduced to him as were most Americans by his brilliant turn in the Stanley Kubrick film “A Clockwork Orange”.  This is a film that I love but that my wife loathed, but her dislike for the movie had nothing to do with McDowell. In fact, one of the two films playing last night was a favorite of hers and it may be one of the most romantic films we saw together as a couple.

One of the ways you can get a little spoiled by living in Southern California is by having these kinds of opportunities on a regular basis. In fact it was only six months ago that Malcolm and I previously spent time together. He was a host at a musical salute to Kubrick by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Most of the stories he told that day focused on his work with Kubrick and their subsequent relationship. Last night however, at the break between films, the subjects of his stories were primarily about the Director Lindsay Anderson, who plucked McDowell from theatrical work in Great Britain and plugged him into the film world that would become his main home.

There were dozens of stories he told to interviewer Alex Simon, but every time Simon tried to move on to Kubrick or Schrader, McDowell found a way to bring the discussion back to his long time friend and mentor. There was a terrific story about Lindsay Anderson visiting John Ford near the end of the western directors life. McDowell is quite the raconteur and was never at a loss for something interesting to share. He offered us the invitation to watch a film of the presentation he did about Lindsay Anderson at a Film festival a few years ago. I found the link he suggested and I am sharing it with you now. I look forward to watching the whole thing.

 

 

As for the features, well it has been a long time since I saw “Cat People”, the overly literal remake of the classic horror film from 1942. This film came out forty years later in a great cinema year but definitely a different time in Hollywood.

I had forgotten the long lead in sequence with backstory about the origins of the Cat People of the story. It actually looks like a long outtake from the new version of “Dune” that we are supposed to get next year. The desert sky is orange, the tree in the center of the sequence is dead and there is dust everywhere.

The real story picks up when Nastassja Kinski shows up in New Orleans to reconnect with her brother played by Malcolm McDowell. They were separated as children after their parents died and it is just as she is turning twenty or so that they are reunited. Mr. McDowell had nothing but great things to say about her beauty in the film and how happy he was to be working with her. In his introduction to the first movie, he did point out that he had to learn to act backwards because there is one sequence early on that is shot in reverse to give the actions of the character an more ethereal feel. He did seem to regret that he never needed this skill for any subsequent film.

In 1982, this film felt weird but not out of place with the times. There was a lot of experimentation with psycho sexual themes and mystery stories and even science fiction horror moments. I can’t quite put my finger on why 80s horror movies feel as ominous as they do, but also fresh and distinctive in spite of mining some of the same tropes over and over. Director Schrader does allow the slow build of some of the tension in the film, but cuts down so much on the narrative that at times it was hard to figure out the motivations of any of the characters. For instance, actress Annette O’Toole plays a character who seems at times to be romantically linked with leading man John Heard, but she also seems nonplussed at the growing romance between Heard and Kinski’s characters. In the end it doesn’t matter much because she ends up naked in the pool while being stalked, so the focus is all on her in that scene when in the original it was the exact opposite. The shadows and light were the focus of the pool scene in the 1942 film.

Probably because Schrader has a deep history with religious themes, McDowell is presnted as some sort of religious zealot, although that ends up having little to do with the story, except to create a sense of regret and guilt in his character. That would have been a worthy way to make this film more distinctive, rather than the more explicit sex and violence path that the movie ends up following. Another one of those weird elements that seems to fit in with the times is the presence of another character who may or may not know about the carnivorous sexual habits of her employer. Ruby Dee is enigmatic as the housekeeper that is also keeping secrets. Her facial expressions and have spoken warnings seem to fit with a lot of short hand characters from movies of that time, Scatman Crothers in “the Shining” is a similar character.

I did remember how the film ends and it is both laughable and tragically appropriate. Still the most memorable element of the movie is the score by Giorgio Moroder  and the theme song by David Bowie. The Bowie tune will be most familiar to modern audiences through it’s use in “Inglorious Basterds”.  Here is a link so you can enjoy the song as you continue reading.

After the first film is when Alex Simon and Malcolm McDowell engaged in their discussion and some Q and A with the audience. I’ve already described some of it to you and I’m sure the video on “Never Apologize” above will have some of the same things. I do want to briefly talk about his response to an audience member’s question about “Caligula”. McDowell was brutal in his assessment of Gore Vidal as a screen writer. Vidal had his name taken off the film and claimed that Bob Guccione, the producer and uncredited director of the film ruined it. McDowell says that Vidal’s screenplay was shit and nothing could have saved this turkey. He then told a great story about pranking Vidal with Truman Capote, a writing nemesis, over some laundry. It was quite amusing, as was McDowell’s comment that Vidal could take his name off the film, but Malcolm couldn’t.

The second film on the schedule is far better and more memorable for a lot of reasons. To begin with, the script is a tightly plotted mystery thriller with an irresistible concept. H.G. Wells, the author actually has a time machine and Jack the Ripper uses it to escape to the future where Wells attempts to pursue him. It is a great mash up of science fiction, horror-thriller, procedural and romance in one. The director here was Nicholas Myer, making his directing debut. Myer had previously written the screenplay for the movie made from his novel, the “Seven Percent Solution” another pairing of historical characters, Sigmund Freud and Sherlock Holmes.

Time After Time” is actually the final film on my original blog project from 2010. There is not much I would add to my original comments about the film, I would urge you to go back and read them. I think the less you know of the plot mechanics the more satisfying the film is. There was one element that I will repeat here and it ties into my point about this film being a romantic masterpiece. When asked about the most memorable part of part in this film, without hesitation McDowell said meeting, falling in love with and marrying Mary Steenburgen. Their marriage lasted more than a decade and they have two children together and a very friendly relationship despite the break up. I claim that you can literally see them falling in love with one another in this movie.

Of course that is the story of the film but the idea of chemistry between actors has never been so obvious in my eyes. good actors can fake it even when they despise on another, but this is a case of reality intruding into the film itself.

I think I was a little critical of the special effects when I first wrote about this movie a decade ago. The photographic effects work pretty well for the kind of story we are being told here and they seemed to hold up better on the big screen last night then they did on home video when I last saw this film for a review.

I will just briefly mention that before the program started, I had gone up to the bathroom and I was a little put out by the fact that a group of people were conducting a conversation in the entryway of the theater, blocking my return to my seat. Imagine my surprise when it turned out that the two people involved were the interviewer and the special guest for the evening. I did eavesdrop a little on their conversation. Alex Simon was reminding McDowell that he had interviewed him almost fifteen years ago for a different project and they engaged in some more small talk. I went back to my seat, comfortable in the knowledge that the featured guest was here and in good form, and thankful that the cranky old man in me had not snapped at them for blocking the path.

Entry One in the 2018 Jaws Posts

As long time readers of this blog know, JAWS is the “Quint”essential Independence Day movie at this site. I’ve shared a number of posts on this greatest of adventure films, and there is always something to add each time. Last night gave us two distinct experiences to add to the memory file.

 

First of all, this was a film presentation, not a digital screening. This was a personal print provided by director Sacha Gervasi, a friend of the American Cinematique. It was worked out by an organization called  Cinematic Void,  which has been presenting a series of films on New England Nightmares. The print is from the 1978 re-release of the film and it has not been cleaned up or re-mastered. The host mentioned that it was extremely difficult to find film prints for Jaws, everything now being digital. They asked their personal friend Director Gervasi who accommodated them. Much like the print we saw last year of John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, there is a lot of red hue in the color palate as the film stock fades and bleeds over when projected. Never the less, it is always great to see a “film” and not just computer images masquerading as film. The grain and imperfections do diminish the look of the movie, but they also induce memories of seeing films from the time period, which do wear down after thousands of screenings.

Now second, the guys introducing the film, and many of the audience, made the mistake of describing “Jaws” as a horror film. People, this is an adventure film with horrific elements but it is hardly “horror”. While it uses some of the “B” movie tropes of horror films, like the opening scene or the jump scares when sharks and bodies appear, the vast majority of the movie is taken up by a struggle of a common man to face down political, cultural and natural obstacles in overcoming a problem. The second half of the movie is pure sea-faring adventure.

This movie is 43 years old, and yet, 600 plus people paid to see it in a sold out presentation last night.

The power of this film continues to draw in fans, as it has done for this family for forty years. This is my daughter Amanda’s favorite movie, and we dressed appropriately for the occasion.

Check out these kicks. The tie ends of her shoes are the barrels Quint uses to bring the shark to the surface. The inside sole of the shoe also has an image of the Beach Closed signs from the film. Saturday was her birthday, and she considers the movie to be a continuous gift that she receives every year. To feed that animal, check out the bed set that was one of my gifts to her .

 Sweet Dreams Kid.

(We have another Screening scheduled later in July at the Hollywood Bowl, see you there.)

The Florida Project [Q & A with Willem DaFoe]

This has been on my radar for a while, it opened back in October at the nearest art house theater, but I was unable to make it over in time to catch it before it went away. Fortunately, with some Oscar buzz and awards season all around us, the lucky opportunities crop up here in the L.A. area on a frequent basis. We got an email from the American Cinematique that they were holding a screening at the Egyptian and that Willem DaFoe would be on hand for a Q and A. Here is where I love technology, I bought tickets within three minutes on line and we were set.

In what feels like a Cinema Verite film, “The Florida Project” follows the life of a child, living on the edge of poverty and being destitute. Moonee is six, it is summertime, and Disneyworld is almost next door. That sounds like heaven for a child but the truth of this story is that dreams are not always as close as we want them to be. Moonee’s Mom is Halley, a women who seems to have no plans or purpose. She seems to be getting by on some sort of assistance and an entrepreneurial use of wholesale perfume that she can purchase at a discount. They live in a budget motel that sits among the commercial pilot fish businesses surrounding the Magic Kingdom.  Far from being a downer however, “The Florida Project” is full of the exuberance of  childhood innocence. Moonee is not a particularly likable kid. Like her mother, she has little respect for those who don’t go her way and she has a mouth to match. That however does not make her bad, but it does show that she needs a lot more attention and a better role model than she is getting.

Actor Willem DaFoe plays Bobby, the manager of the hotel. He is the one professional actor in the cast, everyone else is just getting started or is playing a close version of themselves. They are all very good but DaFoe holds things together in spite of being a somewhat peripheral character to the main events. The ragtag community that seems to have developed in the motels in the area is greatly enhanced by Bobby’s tolerance of the characters, despite his frequently justified exasperation with them.

One of the things that came up in the discussion after the film last night was the script. The movie often feels improvised and as a result very realistic. DaFoe was adamant that there was indeed a script and that is largely what was shot, but he also said that the kids were encouraged to “play act” the way they thought the scenes would work. Kids do and say things spontaneously, and a lot of that ends up being kept in the film along with the original actions and dialogue.  It seems obvious that this is especially true of the scenes with the kids. There is no way they could have been memorizing those lines and performing the way they did while still coming off so naturally. Brooklynn Prince is a fireball of a personality and she clearly injects Moonee with personality plus.

The actor did mention that the sequence with the ice machine was developed after the film had been started. It is so subtle, you might not be aware that the second character is supposed to be Bobby’s son. It was a small touch to the film to help establish that the character of Bobby had a background that was not all that different from some of the tenants of the hotel.

Bria Vinaite plays the Mom who clearly loves her child but is not very well prepared to take care of her. She draws out the belligerence of the character while also imbuing her with a sense of love and caring for her daughter. Watching the story, it is likely that you will feel frustrated so often with these two. Moonee can be excused because she is a kid and doesn’t always understand the nature of her own actions. Halley though is an adult and she just can’t seem to put things into a perspective that seems adult like. DaFoe revealed that during some scenes, Director Sean Baker had Vinaite wearing an earpiece and gave her directions when the camera was far back from the scene. Many of the episodes where she is selling perfume to the tourists involved him directing her from across the street.

This movie shows friendships that are built and those that are destroyed and some that just abruptly end because of the circumstances. For the kids, it involves a little heartache and at the end of the movie, Moonee and her recently acquired best friend Jancey appear in a scene that may be real or may be fantasy. Someone directly asked that question of DaFoe last night and like a true artist he shrugged his shoulders and said “you tell me.”

Willem DaFoe is frequently mentioned as a contender for the Supporting Actor Award at this years Oscars, and certainly this was his reason for making the appearance. The show was sold out and while the movie received a warm reaction from the audience, it was the actor who the crowd seemed most responsive to. I’d say a good 80% of the time was spent on “the Florida Project” but several other roles and films were mentioned as well. I was most interested to learn that Wes Anderson’s approach to two of the films he made with the actor were completely different. “The Life Aquatic” was much looser and while not really improvisational, Anderson allowed the actors huge latitudes in how the dialogue and characterless played out. On the other hand, DaFoe described the animatics that Anderson had created for “The Grand Budapest Hotel”, including voices and dialogue done by Anderson himself. DaFoe laughed and said it could easily have been released in that form, the attention to detail was so thoroughly planned.

My overall impression of “The Florida Project” is positive with some reservations. It does meander a lot. There are elements that are very sad which sometimes seem to be glossed over. The actions of the Mom and Daughter seem to be real and reflect their point in life, but that does not make them forgivable, only understandable.