Movie reviews: 'All the Money in the World,' 'Darkest Hour,' 'The Florida Project'
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"The Florida Project" stars Valeria Cotto and Brooklynn Prince.
Courtesy A24 Films

By Chip Chandler — Digital Content Producer

Check here for my thoughts on a trio of acclaimed films now screening in Amarillo.

 

All the Money in the World

Fortunately, the most interesting aspect of All the Money in the World is not the behind-the-scenes drama that threatened to upend it weeks before its release. At least, it's not the only fascinating part.

As most are probably aware, the film originally co-starred Kevin Spacey (under mounds of prosthetics) as the octogenarian gazillionaire J. Paul Getty, but shortly before the film was supposed to premiere at the AFI Fest, allegations about Spacey sexually assaulting young men and teens broke out as part of the #MeToo fallout. The movie was yanked from the festival, but director Ridley Scott convinced Sony to let him reshoot Spacey's scenes with the more age-appropriate Christopher Plummer in the role, and over Thanksgiving, he called back costars Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg, among others, to make it happen. 

It's pretty freaking astounding that Scott was able to pull it off, but he's been known for that kind of audaciousness throughout his career. And his brashness serves the film well, too. There's an urgency that lifts it above the typical ripped-from-the-headlines film.

In the movie (which is a compressed but generally accurate version of real-life events), 16-year-old Paul Getty (Charlie Plummer, no relation) is plucked from the streets of Rome by kidnapers who are convinced that they can extort $17 million from his grandfather. Nope. The elder Getty refuses, claiming that if he acceded to their demands, he would risk the lives of his 14 other grandchildren.

What the movie artfully and occasionally bluntly shows, though, is that Getty was so consumed with hoarding his money that $17 million, a pittance compared to the scope of his wealth, was far too great a price to pay. Even $4 million, a figure reached after some mind-boggling negotiations, was too much. Getty was an empty shell of a man who found value only in winning.

As Scott shows, that's another reason why he refused to fork over the ransom — because of a petty grudge against his former daughter-in-law (Williams), who had the temerity to stand up for herself and her children when divorcing Getty's son and namesake (Andrew Buchan).

He does assign his security specialist (Wahlberg) to help find his grandson, and Plummer's performance is so finely calibrated that despite Getty's general heinousness, we can still see a glimmer of humanity in him sometimes.

When Scott first announced his plan to erase Spacey's performance, I figured that the elder Getty probably wasn't a major presence in the film, but to my surprise, he's all over the movie. But to Scott and Plummer's mutual credit, the replacement is absolutely seamless.

But the film works as well as it does thanks to Williams' heartfelt and controlled performance as Gail Harris. She's brittle and tense, conveying her horror at the prospect of losing her son as well as the immense pressure of having to deal with Getty on top of everything else. Williams, who was nominated for a Golden Globe (along with Plummer and Scott), is more understated than you might expect, which only makes her performance that much more powerful. 

Wahlberg acquits himself nicely, as well, and Scott's propulsive direction (with editing by Claire Simpson) makes an easily Google-able story into a real live wire of a film. It's an impressive achievement, on screen and off. 

(R for language, some violence, disturbing images and brief drug content; click here for showtimes at United Artists Amarillo Star 14, 8275 W. Amarillo Blvd., and Cinemark Hollywood 16, 9100 Canyon Drive))

 

Darkest Hour

Did 2017 leave you aching for an inspiring, moral, brilliant leader? Gary Oldman is here to sooth your embattled soul.

Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour, a close look at a pivotal month during World War II that helped determine the fate of the free world.

As the film opens, Churchill is called upon to replace Neville Chamberlain as prime minister, despite deep doubts about his fitness by even some in his own party. Over the course of three speeches and some pivotal decision-making, Churchill rises to the occasion and becomes the leader England and the world needed.

The subject matter is familiar territory: It's set around one of the most famous military events of World War II in the retreat at Dunkirk and it dives deep inside the crafting of some of Churchill's most famous speeches. And 2017 certainly saw a resurgence of interest in Dunkirk, with Christopher Nolan's July film and the lesser-seen but highly entertaining Their Finest. And Wright has been inspired by Dunkirk before, in his famous tracking shot in his breakthrough film Atonement.

Here, Wright flirts with hagiography, inserting a fictional but possibly inspired by real-life scene late in the film that shows Churchill mingling with the commoners on the London Underground. But mostly, the film depicts an embattled, self-doubting man who nonetheless finds the wherewithal to stand up for what he thinks is right, despite his flaws and shortcomings. Wright's narrow focus on this crucial period from May to June 1940 — when Britain's army faced possible annihilation at Dunkirk and when the country's leaders were seriously considering negotiating for peace with Hitler — serves the film and its audience well. It encapsulates the essence of Churchill's leadership and the precarious state of the world into one tense film.

In its willingness to wrestle with Churchill's faults — even his wife, Clementine (marvelously played by Kristin Scott Thomas), gets fed up with him frequently — Wright elevates the film beyond an ordinary biopic, especially one laden with Greatest Generation baggage.

Helping immensely in that effort is his star. Oldman's transformation is positively breathtaking. He's completely changed physically, with only his twinkling eyes to remind us of the real man under extraordinarily realistic prosthetics. His whole body and manner of moving around are changed, too. It's a stupendous achievement, one that rightly is pegged as a sure-fire Oscar nominee.

The film doesn't always live up to Oldman's performance, though Wright and cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel certainly make the film a gorgeous, cinematic delight, and co-stars Thomas as Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI are impeccable. It's far better than the average biopic, if not quite the total package it could have been.

(PG-13 for some thematic material; click here for showtimes at Amarillo Star 14 and Hollywood 16)

 

 

The Florida Project

A few years ago, while between jobs, I worked for several months as a substitute teacher. I'd never thought seriously about being a teacher and wasn't at all sure I was cut out for it, but I had to make ends meet while looking for a new steady job.

I wound up loving it far more than I ever would have thought possible, and I'd like to think I grew from the experience, particularly from the days I spent at schools that were so unlike the rich little district I grew up in. But I had some rough days too, days when I couldn't understand why the kids were being such ... well, brats.

One day has stuck with me, in particular. I was at an elementary school in northeast Amarillo, and one young girl was not at all impressed with her sub's attempts to start the day. I wound up sending her to the office before morning announcements, and the principal sent her back to spend the day in another teacher's class. After school, that teacher found me and made a friendly comment about how difficult the child was known to be and, by way of explanation, mentioned that the girl and her mother lived just down the road at a rundown hotel. 

In the years since, I've used the story as an anecdote about that period of my life — not exactly about how I braved the wilds of northeast Amarillo, but not not exactly about that.

And then, last night, I saw writer/director Sean Baker's The Florida Project, which is about a young girl and her mother, barely scraping by while living at a hotel in the shadow of Walt Disney World. I couldn't stop thinking about that little girl in northeast Amarillo and how I failed her that day. Yes, she was being a disruption, but I was impatient and ill-equipped, and I took the easy way out.

The situation faced by young Moonee (the dazzling neophyte actor Brooklynn Prince) and her young mom Halley (Bria Vinaite, also a newcomer) certainly had some surface similarities to what little I understood of that Amarillo girl's life, enough so that the film sparked something in me, at least.

Baker's film, co-written with Chris Bergoch, also reminded me of a favorite quote by Roger Ebert, from remarks he made when receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2005

Movies are the most powerful empathy machine in all the arts. When I go to a great movie I can live somebody else's life for a while. I can walk in somebody else's shoes. I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief. ... The great movies enlarge us, they civilize us, they make us more decent people.

Watching Moonee and Halley's daily life unfold over the course of one summer in south Florida let me walk in their shoes, let me live their life for a while. The film is naturalistic to the point that it feels like a documentary at times.

We follow Moonee and her friends Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto) as they wander, uninhibited and unsupervised, through the kitschy exceses of their tourist-trap home, past gift shops shaped like wizards and ice-cream stands shaped like a soft-serve cone, back to their raggedy home in a room inside the bright purple hotel named the Magic Castle, not-accidentally-at-all reminiscent of The Magic Kingdom, just a few miles away geographically but a universe away spiritually.

The kids are spirited at best, little turds at worst. We meet them when they're having a spitting contest off the balcony of a neighboring hotel, aiming squarely at a woman's car, then cussing at her when she yells at them to stop. It's an off-putting introduction, but eventually it reminded me of other kids who loved to flout authority and raise some hell — the Little Rascals, only Spanky didn't cuss like Moonee. 

Moonee is mostly shielded from how fraught her mom's financial standing is, and though Halley makes some truly terrible decisions here, Baker's open-hearted enough to show the moments when she is a good mother — joyfully dancing in the rain, going on a shopping spree at a cheap store after an unexpected windfall (which is ... complicated, to say the least).

Plot is secondary to Baker's intent to let us play witness. We've just dropped into Moonee and Halley's lives for a couple of months while Moonee is on summer break. Halley's chronically unemployed after getting fired from a strip club for not performing "extras" for the clientele, so she's nominally in charge of babysitting both Moonee and Scooty while his mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), is working at a waffle restaurant down the road.

A lot of the responsibility of supervising the kids, though, falls on the hotel manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe in one of his best-ever performances), who grumbles when the kids get too rambunctious but genuinely cares about them, recognizing that this seedy hotel is the only stopgap measure keeping them from being homeless.

Bobby's like a stand-in for Baker, observing the lives of Moonee and Halley — at times critically, but not judgmentally. The film never wallows in misery, nor is it overly romantic about their struggles. It's just letting us play witness to their lives in the hopes that our eyes are opened a little.

It certainly worked for me. And it makes me wonder what happened to that girl in northeast Amarillo, who'd be a teenager now. I hope she found a teacher who didn't fail her. I hope she's had some magic in her life like Moonee had. 

(R for language throughout, disturbing behavior, sexual references and some drug material; click here for showtimes at Premiere Cinemas Westgate Mall 6, 7701 W. Interstate 40)

 

 

 

Chip Chandler is a digital content producer for Panhandle PBS. He can be contacted at Chip.Chandler@actx.edu, at @chipchandler1 on Twitter and on Facebook.