Props to Sean Baker, at least, for shooting The Florida Project on film. With 2015’s bottle rocket screwball breakthrough Tangerine, the festival circuit labeled the film with the unfortunate informal tagline of “the iPhone movie,” though the dialogue eventually circled around to the meatier discourse on representation in cinema. A blitzkrieg Christmas comedy following two trans women of color on the Sunset Strip’s sex work industry, the film received equal parts praise and backlash for its spotlight on the L.A. nobody talks about.
Fast forward to this past May, when The Florida Project stormed the Cannes Film Festival. Though it failed to scoop up any awards, the film was showered with glowing reviews. Set around an Orlando motel filled with a collection of extremely poor outcasts, the film follows Mooney (newcomer Brooklynn Prince) and her friends on a wandering, tangential journey through a world never given its own iconography, its own recognition.
As a Tangerine agnostic, the marketing leading up to The Florida Project kept expectations in that same limbo. (As smart as it was to flip the script on the follow-up by making such a visually gorgeous work distinctly classical.) Alexis Zabe lights the film so perfectly, plaster walls and muted, damp climates, communicating the weather as truly normalized to the character’s interior expectations. This is some of the showiest work of the year, to be sure, but it is also some of the best.
Here’s the thing: this is social realism disguised as pop art, so why not just make it pop art? The imagery of the Magic Kingdom, the sense of place, is irrevocably tied to the capitalist institutions, yet the movie chooses to visually root its more somber moments in the palette of arthouse poverty porn. The most striking elements of Tangerine were the aimless, flourishing interludes, where the simple act of walking down the street was fully voyeuristic, and thus reclaimed and brought to life the kind of attention paid to the sex workers in real life, glaring L.A. sunset and all. The issue with combining the quotidian and gritty with such vibrancy is clearly meant to reflect the tone, but the aesthetic awareness of the surroundings proves, inversely, too cute for Baker’s central conceit. The kids have no idea what’s going on around them.
Willem Dafoe, as the motel’s manager, soars above the entire film. One of the most skilled and innately personable actors in Hollywood, Dafoe’s performances appear to be siblings, all akin to one another in their distinctively shared mannerisms and operations, yet so wildly disparate in their emotional range and dramatic function. Though Bobby is written essentially as the motel’s patron saint, Dafoe renders him parts civil servant, father figure, nuisance, hardened wise-ass, stage manager, and ringmaster.
The kids are adorable, acting out obnoxious, shrill, totally cute interludes, the non-actors led by the magnetic Brooklyn Prince. Baker’s main contradiction, that empathetic objectification, works best and most interestingly here. The innately compelling notion of observing children as they go about the world is so endearing, and Baker’s commitment to keeping the children as dynamic and egocentric as possible puts the film’s visual language to use with what many critics have called the “entertainment” of such a relentlessly bleak film.
The film’s greatest disservice falls upon Mooney’s young mother Hailee (Bria Vinaite). There’s a fascinating interview from the festival circuit where Baker describes looking at Bria Vinaite’s Instagram, wanting to capture that “free-spirited” attitude onscreen. Baker sees her for an individual quality, a single trait which defines a character so fully it rings hollow, from a performer who shows such produce if, under different circumstances, were allowed to flourish and operate in a more varied range. Hailee serves as both a maternal and sororal figure for Mooney, and although the film is especially intelligent on her temporal space in the film – the effect her mother’s schedule, specifically, has on Mooney is the closest the film comes to structural sophistication – Baker has no real sense of their interactions; Unlike the spontaneity of the kid’s interactions, Hailee and Mooney’s feel railroaded, speaking not to shared experiences but rather the most overwritten and underdeveloped parts of the film’s skeleton. The mirroring between the two’s attitude only comes across as a function of the script’s paring down of Hailee to her impoverished standing, defined only in that context, even for herself.
For all the film’s focus on class, it has no interest in interrogating late capitalism, racism, or media, which, admittedly, caters to a very specific audience. Consider the people of color who inhabit the film, gesturally outside any sociopolitical climate. So much of the film looks like the greatest collection of Tumblr posts, VSCO filters, Instagram stories, any number of soon to be outdated forums for a quintessentially modern vision (and most of which are dominated by specific visions of whiteness). That this is guided by some vague, ill-defined sense of humanist cinema, a genre which itself was borne out of privilege, arrogance and a lack of context for various cinematic forms, where the film’s political concerns are broad and caricatured, its characters loose nothings, a window dressing against which actors struggle aided only by personality. Baker never comes close to capturing even the multi-faceted display of iconography on Vinaite’s Instagram feed, let alone a more intimate assemblage of portraiture.
The ending feels like the inevitable evolution – an aesthetically divergent, manipulative, moving, artistically dubious finale that feels like a pure fantasy on a visual and dramatic level. The desperation of the catharsis is perhaps not wise enough, thanks to the film’s guiding commitment to childish subjectivities, but it is worth noting that this near-satirical ending (or perhaps it feels as such just because it’s the only time the film’s thesis proves biting) does not conflate the children’s ignorance with resilience. The system will swallow these kids up whole, both Hailee and Mooney alike. Baker holds a generic but resonantly shrill documentation of a childhood oblivious to its own dire, poverty-stricken backdrop. The work’s fatalism is at least pointedly opposed to glib contrast, but The Florida Project fails to synthesize the two beyond a naive sort of exploitation and representational displacement.
‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ review: Drew Goddard delivers a wildly entertaining noir thriller
A lounge singer, vacuum salesman, shifty priest, two strange sisters, and a cult leader walk into a bar. Or rather, a hotel. What happens next makes for one of the best films of 2018. Bad Times at the El Royale is Drew Goddard’s second film that he has both written and directed following 2012’s The Cabin in the Woods. Reteaming with the latter’s Chris Hemsworth and bringing in a fresh cast of amazing talent, Goddard manages to deliver a wildly entertaining film that is certain to please any fan of the noir thriller genre.
The El Royale, an infamous hotel on the boundary of California and Nevada near Lake Tahoe, is home to countless strange occurrences. This film follows the lives of seven strangers whose paths diverge during a heavy storm at the bi-state establishment. Aspiring singer Darlene (Cynthia Erivo), Father Daniel Flynn (Jeff Bridges), traveling vacuum salesman Laramie (Jon Hamm), and nervous bellboy Miles (Lewis Pullman) all cross paths one night as they check in to the hotel. While each of these characters brings their own peculiarities, things get weirder when two sisters Emily (Dakota Johnson) and Rose (Cailee Spaeny) show up, pursued by eccentric cult leader Billy Lee (Hemsworth). All of these guests aim to discover what really lies behind the walls of this eerie hotel, as long as they can survive until morning to find out.
Creative and original screenwriting is an art form that, nowadays, is quite rare to find in a filmmaker. The majority of large studio films tend to be style over substance, but luckily, this film has an incredible amount of both. Each film that Goddard has written tends to be completely varied in genre. From Cloverfield to The Cabin in the Woods to The Martian, he has made it clear how diverse his skill set is. Bad Times at the El Royale is a 70’s-set, Tarantino-esque, crime thriller that is not only self-aware, but cleverly references its inspiration. Goddard’s storytelling ability transcends many other modern writers and he does so by simultaneously paying respects to Tarantino while also poking fun at him. Many of the choices throughout this film seem like an homage to the infamous director, including the set design, flashback sequences, unnervingly upbeat soundtrack, and the transitional techniques. Yet the way this story plays out is more of a riff on the crime genre.
The characters’ motivations and their reasons for being at the hotel are not fully explored until the third act of the film and while this may seem boring to some, it only increased the tension that was built throughout. There were a number of twists and turns that had the audience in shock as they were hidden quite well. One of the most interesting aspects of this film is how its characters interact with each other. It is impressive that Goddard is able to write with such timely correctness, absolutely nailing the politics and mannerisms of different classes of people in the 1970s. The dark and dry humor that was utilized in the dialogue seems to be a defining aspect of Goddard’s scripts too, as he effortlessly combines well-written comedy in the drama of the story.
Goddard’s entire script was spectacular, but like most of the screenplays he has written, he has not been the director of the production. That should have been the case here as well. His ideas in his writing will always shine through, but his directing is not always impeccable, and the story did not flow as well as it could have had it been handled by a more experienced director. The pacing throughout the film was strange as the third act dragged on for too long of a time, introducing new concepts that were not given enough time to be fully fleshed out, despite how intense some of the revelations were. Granted, concluding the story of these seven strangers is no easy task, but the resolution could have been given a bit more attention. There were a few plot points that are never fully resolved but still manage to succeed in keeping the audience on their toes, even after the credits roll.
Carmen Cuba’s casting (say that five times fast) was absolutely fantastic. Each member delivered an exceptional performance and fit their respective characters flawlessly. The two best performances came from the young Pullman and the talented Erivo. Pullman played the fidgety bellboy Miles and brought an unbelievable amount of emotion to his role, while Erivo played the confident singer that carried a tense background with her at all times. The audience will undoubtedly find themselves rooting for these two the most and for a good reason.
Once again, composer Michael Giacchino strikes with a marvelously intense score, which paired wonderfully with the soundtrack’s lovely pop songs of the 60s and 70s. Seamus McGarvey’s single-room cinematography and Lisa Lassek’s extended editing were utilized excellently here as well. McGarvey nails the framing of the shots and Lassek incorporates exciting montages with long, dramatic, takes beautifully.
Bad Times at the El Royale knows no such thing as a sophomore slump. While this film has its issues with pacing, practically every other element was masterfully executed. Drew Goddard has truly proven himself as a modern master of the art of screenwriting, as he carefully intertwines his characters’ stories to keep the audience guessing. This satire of the crime genre is absolutely worth the watch and is guaranteed to make you laugh, cry, and everything in between.
‘A Star Is Born’ review: Bradley Cooper’s Oscar-bound directorial debut is lavishly delightful
The skeptics scoffed when they heard Bradley Cooper had decided to make his directorial debut with yet another remake of A Star is Born. What could this relative newcomer to the Hollywood hierarchy possibly bring to one of show business’s Ur-myths of ambition, self-destruction and the cruel vagaries of fame? Admittedly, casting Lady Gaga as an unknown singer who becomes a pop sensation was a masterstroke. But would anyone seriously buy the boyishly handsome Cooper as a wasted, washed-up has-been?
It turns out Cooper is not only a judicious and instinctive storyteller behind the camera, but he also delivers one of the finest performances of his career in A Star Is Born, a well-seasoned, handsomely cured slab of showbiz schmaltz that hits all the right pleasure centers. With equal parts glitz and grit, Cooper has successfully navigated the most perilous shoals of making a classic narrative his own, managing to create one of its best iterations to date.
Appropriately enough, “A Star is Born” begins onstage, when Cooper’s character, Jackson Maine, takes a handful of pills and a swig of gin to make it through a packed arena concert. Brandishing a stylish green guitar with scowling swagger, Jackson furiously tears through one of his signature rootsy, hard-driving hits. Filming the sequence in urgent close-ups, Cooper plunges audiences into the deafening world of stardom at its most engulfing peak, made all the more numbing by the cushioned silence of the limo that picks Jackson up after the show.
Desperate for one more drink, the rock star stops in at a little nightclub, where a waitress named Ally delivers a sensationally torchy version of “La Vie en Rose” in the midst of sundry drag routines. He’s smitten, and who wouldn’t be after the most adorable meet-cute of the year, during which a spirited Greek chorus of drag queens comment lustily from the sidelines?
Viewers familiar with previous versions of “A Star is Born” — whose narrative structure goes almost as far back as the medium itself — will already be bracing themselves for what’s to come. But Cooper allows the audience to revel in Jackson and Ally’s flirtations and courtship, which comes into florid bloom along with the tingly excitement of proximate fame, naked desire and unstoppable creativity. Part of the fun of “A Star is Born” is watching Ally, who lives with her starstruck dad (Andrew Dice Clay), pretend to be immune to the seductions Jackson has to offer, which are sexual but also aspirational. When she finally succumbs, the audience does, too. And when he brings her onstage for her big breakout, and Gaga lets loose with those pipes, the moment is electrifying.
Of course, nothing gold can stay. As Jackson’s and Ally’s fates intersect, collide and, finally, fatally diverge, “A Star is Born” lives up to the operatic tragedy hinted at by the arias that often play in the background. Cooper handles those tonal shifts with confidence as well, as sweaty immediacy becomes something more intimate and soul-baring. As an actress, Gaga may not yet possess the range she has as a singer, but with the help of editor Jay Cassidy, the film is shaped to make the most of her gifts. There are sequences in “A Star is Born” when it feels like a showdown between the best eyes in the business. It’s when she sings that she comes radiantly into her own, claiming the screen as totally as Ally claims the spotlight when her turn comes.
In a sly turn, Cooper seems to be doing his best Sam Elliott impersonation until the real Sam Elliott shows up, and it’s clear he’s delivering a performance-
within-a-performance, for reasons that become clear in a cleverly choreographed reveal. There are a few awkward transitions and slightly choppy patches in “A Star is Born,” but Cooper keeps the story on the rails, even when his characters are going off them.
And it’s not just Jackson who slips: As Ally becomes more successful, she starts to resemble a parody of a pop tartlet: one part Britney, one part Katy and no part real. As a study in artifice and authenticity, “A Star is Born” offers a suitably jaundiced glimpse of starmaking machinery at its most cynical, but also its most thrilling and gratifying. In many ways, it’s a paean to the frisson of discovering talent in its rawest, wildest state. And it’s a reminder that self-preservation is crucial to stewarding that untamed force. It’s Ally — and Gaga — who owns the spotlight, stage and screen by the end of “A Star is Born,” which Cooper has succeeded in making earthly convincing and lavishly, deliciously larger-than-life at the same time.
‘Life Itself’ review: A waste of the cinematic partnership of Annette Bening and Oscar Isaac
The less said about Life Itself — a truly zany multi-timeline melodrama from the creator of that NBC show that makes everyone cry — the better. A woman is hit by a bus and seems to survive, but then actually dies. A college thesis suggests unreliable narrators have gone “unexamined” in literary history. There’s a Spanish olive oil vineyard, and a lot of talk about dead and missing parents. Antonio Banderas wears linen; a girl dramatically eats a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich without washing her hands first. (I could go on …) And yet: somehow, in this rubble of its bus crashes and love affairs and teary reunions, Dan Fogelman’s Life Itself inspired a photograph that I cannot stop thinking about. It’s the most important photograph I’ve ever seen that did not debut on Beyoncé.com. I’m speaking, of course, about this photo of Annette Bening and Oscar Isaac.
It’s got a simple enough conceit: two movie stars, standing on an anonymous street corner in New York City. It’s winter, or at least fall — they have coats on. Annette Bening, the light of my life, peers ahead, her withering gaze deployed at its full magnitude. It’s an expression that looks a little bit like she believes winter is a curse and a narrative she would very much like to be excluded from, and a little bit like she is watching someone do something loudly and improperly (is this the face that ordered Warren Beatty homeafter the Oscars?). Where Annette looks inquisitive, Oscar Isaac looks searching, kind of like he hasn’t yet argued with Drake fans on the internet, and still has the ability to see the best in people. They are a match made in cinematic heaven, a partnership that should launch a million franchises. Give us this movie now, you cowards! you (okay, I) thought when I scrolled past the paparazzi shot as the movie filmed last year.
You would be (and I was) devastated to realize that the movie itself utterly wastes the pairing so beautifully suggested by this perfect photo. But at least Dan Fogelman gets to it quickly. Annette Bening is Dr. Morris, a sweet-but-firm therapist sitting through a session with a patient who has chosen to replace his obsessive eating with a fantasy-football obsession. She suggests this, and he gets quietly defensive. For reasons that are unclear, Samuel L. Jackson narrates the scene. “Look at that pretty therapist over there,” he says. “That’s a hero right there: amazing smile, silky smooth hair.” Well hello! Let’s celebrate this, you might agree. Annette Bening is serving us glasses with stylish (Warby Parker?) Lucite frames; she’s giving us chunky knits. Her office is full of weird not-quite–West Elm sculptures, the kind that make you not want to get too comfortable. But the office itself is wood-paneled and backlit in such a way that it looks like a womb (or at least what I imagine a womb to look like, although I haven’t been inside one in 24 years), which I personally appreciated!
But Fogelman has other plans for Dr. Morris: She leaves her office for a brisk walk, where she lights her cigarette. She takes a puff, and then Oscar Isaac steps into the frame. They wordlessly acknowledge one another; she makes eye contact and smiles. She steps into the street, holding the gaze. He smiles back, and — crash!
A bus has just killed Annette Bening. There she is, splayed out on the sidewalk, blood pooling around her head. “I can’t believe Dan Fogelman made me face my only natural fear in this world: Annette Bening’s death!!!!!” I scribble in my notebook. Oscar Isaac looks on in horror. I gasp. A perfect screen pairing, wasted by both Dan Fogelman and the M23 downtown bus!
But the movie has even more horrors in store for us. It cuts to Oscar Isaac sitting with a laptop at a big, glass-walled Starbucks. He’s tip-tapping away on the screenplay for his first feature, in which his therapist is hit by a bus. In other words, Annette is not actually dead. Somehow, this egregious and unnecessary rug-pulling is even worse.
Imagine what, in steadier, not-deranged hands, this photo and this gorgeous twosome could’ve been. Bening and Isaac, together onscreen, is just odd enough to be completely delightful. (I smell four-quadrant appeal!) It’s giving me highbrow, Peak TV, Emmys-bait vibes. Consider the possibilities: a detective series, where Annette Bening plays the crotchety veteran who butts heads with her slick young partner, Oscar Isaac. He fumbles around crime scenes, offering obvious observations (not unlike his Star Wars character). She says things like, “Well you would think that, wouldn’t you?” and mutters, “Fucking rookies!” under her breath, but just loud enough so he can hear her and the camera can catch him feeling insecure.
Consider: a Sunday night network drama about a pair of angels who run around New York City shepherding lost souls to Hillsong, or maybe just to a good, quiet brunch spot. As these angels meddle in the lives of others, they get to watch their family members cope with their loss. This would probably air on ABC.
Consider: a Phantom Thread–style romance, in which Annette Bening is the Reynolds and Oscar Isaac is the Alma, and I am the Cyril. Instead of designing dresses, Bening is an irascible sculptor who gets into a foul mood before a gallery opening, and Oscar Isaac makes her avocado toast in the morning, and she looks at it disapprovingly and goes across the street for bagels. The Last Jedi was a movie about Adam Driver’s torso sheen and Laura Dern talking down to Oscar Isaac — imagine the possibilities here!
Consider: Annette Bening as a complicated novelist who minds her own business being artistic and emotionally unavailable until she has to tussle with her daughter’s AP English Literature teacher (Oscar Isaac) over a grade. The teacher starts to hit on her, starting a toxic, whirlwind romance that will almost certainly end in my personal death. Maybe it’s better Fogelman didn’t go with this one, after all.