Reviewed by
Tricia Youlden

The Florida Project
★★★★ M

It is Summer break. Three young kids are amusing themselves by spitting at cars parked beneath their vantage point on the balcony of The Magic Castle Motel, much to the frustration of long-suffering manager, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). One boy is subsequently grounded by his father and forbidden to play with the other two children, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), who scarper off on their mischievous way.

The Magic Castle Motel is one of many motels originally built on the outskirts of Walt Disney World in Florida to cater for tourists. Now they are home to individuals and families down on their luck. Moonee lives there with her young mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), who employs a variety of petty scams to get money out of tourists. Scooty’s mother works at a local diner and slips food out to the children through the back door. She and Halley are friends, but the relationship is clearly one-sided.

When Moonee and Scooty befriend Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives with her grandmother in a nearby motel, they take her on a tour of the neighbourhood. All the while Bobby keeps an eye out for them, remonstrating with them when they sabotage the motel’s power supply, but protecting them from a creepy stranger and letting them share an ice-cream in the air-conditioned motel office on the strict condition “one drip and you’re out”.

Although he cops abuse from various tenants whom he has to eject for non-payment of rent, drug trafficking, prostitution, vandalism or violence, Bobby is more compassionate than most of them deserve. Whether the comment, “This isn’t a premises, it’s a dump”, is deserved, The Magic Castle Motel is a pretty awful environment for kids to live in. However, there is only so much that Bobby can do to protect Moonee and her delinquent mother. As Halley’s behaviour gets more and more out of control, so too does her daughter’s. The kids initially find fun in relatively harmless things like the aforementioned spitting and spying upon weathered old Gloria (Sandy Kane) as she sunbakes topless and drinks alcohol in the pool area. But when they find a cigarette lighter, their misdemeanours become scarily serious.

Co-writers Chris Bergoch and Sean Baker based their screenplay on interviews with real-life motel dwellers from the area where the film was shot. They set out to show how disadvantaged kids could make their own fun outside the theme park that they could not afford to visit. Most of the cast were first-time, non-professional actors. The children were all cast locally in Florida, while Bria Vinaite was cast from Instagram. This, added to Sean Baker’s direction and Alexis Zabe’s cinematography, endows the film with a documentary feel. The film tempers its presentation of major social issues by showing them from the kids’ perspective.

Although the children are the stars of the film, at the core of the film is the outstanding performance by Willem Dafoe, whose acting technique could best be summed up as 'less is more'. Dafoe economically conveys the quintessentially empathetic nature of his character, even though we are given only a hint of Bobby’s past life in his dialogue with son Jack (Caleb Landry Jones).

While this is an undeniably provocative film, it is also a celebration of the resilience of people marginalised by society. Above all, it has heart and humour. Highly recommended.

Murder on the Orient Express
★★★★ M

The line-up of stars is compelling in this remake

Although I am usually wary of so-called remakes, the line-up for this particular film was too compelling to pass up. With director Kenneth Branagh playing the ubiquitous Hercule Poirot, a stellar cast including Dame Judi Dench, Michelle Pfeiffer, Derek Jacobi, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley and Leslie Odom Jr, this Murder on the Orient Express is a must-see.

Michael Green’s screenplay plays around somewhat with Agatha Christie’s original characters, which serves to reinvigorate the basic narrative. Most of the film was shot at Longcross Studios, a former Ministry of Defence tank testing site, west of London. There, with what must have been a massive budget, production designer Jim Clay created replica sets of Stamboul Station, Stamboul Bazaar, two working replica Orient Express trains complete with a full scale replica locomotive, plus the mountain and viaduct set where the train was to be derailed by an avalanche. Because director of photography Haris Zambarloukos shot it on 65mm film, even the smallest detail of the sets, costumes and characters’ emotions is clearly defined, which magnifies the visual impact on the big screen. The costumes by Alexandra Byrne are utterly stunning!

After a brief segment set in Jerusalem that establishes Poirot’s credentials as a super sleuth, his friend, Monsieur Bouc (Tom Bateman), the director of business on the Orient Express, secures him a berth on train, even though it is fully booked. And then the fun begins. Every characterisation is finely nuanced and no performance needs to be singled out as better than any other.

The only aspect of the film that I didn’t totally embrace was the abundance of Poirot’s moustaches which I found over the top. I would, however, advise that you see Murder on the Orient Express on a big cinema screen.

Goodbye Christopher Robin
★★★ PG

It is impossible not to view such a film as Goodbye Christopher Robin without judging the characters and their world through 21st century eyes. Accordingly, one cannot find many redeeming features in the society of post World War I London as presented in Frank Cottrell Boyce and Simon Vaughan’s screenplay. However, it is always best to start with something positive, as the film does: Ben Smithard’s exquisite cinematography.

Alas, while we are catching our breath from the sheer beauty of the opening shot of light coming through the trees in Ashdown Forest, we are whisked off to the brittle bonhomie of bright young things celebrating lauded playwright and columnist Alan Milne’s return from the front. The lack of empathy for a man clearly suffering from “shell shock”, is astounding. “The Somme? Bad show that!” Probably the worst offender is Alan’s wife Daphne (Margot Robbie), who dares attribute to Plato her fatuous philosophy of life which she explains as “if you don’t think about it, a thing doesn’t exist”. Whether one should blame the writers, the actress or director Simon Curtis, this character would have to be the least likeable in any film all year.

However, back to Christopher Robin. The newly delivered child is presented rosy-cheeked, bright-eyed, alert and clearly weighing twice the normal birth weight of a normal newborn. He grows into a cute, dimple-cheeked little boy (Will Tilston), who calls himself Billy Moon, and whom Daphne insists on dressing in the little smocks she had planned for the daughter she’d wanted. By this time, the family has moved to Sussex, where Alan hopes to regain his equanimity and start writing the lucrative plays and essays that keep his wife in the manner to which she is accustomed. After she petulantly storms off to London, threatening not to return until Alan has committed his trusty fountain pen to paper, father and son find themselves thrust into one another’s company full time, because lovely Nanny “Nou” (Kelly MacDonald) must go to her ailing mother. During this relatively idyllic time, largely spent together in the woods, Billy asks Alan to write a book for him. Alan, in turn, asks his friend Ernest (Stephen Campbell Moore) to illustrate the ensuing poems. Daphne sends Vespers to Punch and, voilà! Christopher Robin is born and the money starts rolling in.

Ernest also suffers from post-war traumatic stress disorder and, like Nou, is one of the more accessible characters in the film. So too is the 18-year-old Christopher Robin (Alex Lawther), who is understandably bitter about having spent most of his childhood in the constant glare of publicity. While Nou has always been aware of the toll this has taken upon her beloved Billy, it is not until Daphne utters one outrageous statement too many that Nou accuses the Milnes of regarding him as their meal ticket.

As well as the objectionable Daphne’s born-to-rule attitude, the screenplay is embedded with implicit condemnation of class, war and bullying. It highlights the fragile nature of childhood and youth. To quote Christopher Robin: “That bear made my life a misery. Childhood was wonderful. Growing up was hell.”

David Roger’s production design and Odile Dicks-Mireaux’s costumes capture the period perfectly, as do Hilary Sleiman’s hand-knitted sweaters and such. A little more judicious editing might have stopped me dwelling so on Daphne’s words and wigs.

Tricia Youlden has celebrated her 30th year at Willoughby GHS by taking leave to have a long overdue hip replacement, following which she is currently in rehab.