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‘The Florida Project’ review: Sean Baker’s latest effort is humanist exploitation pop art realism

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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.

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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.

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‘Love, Simon’ review: Nick Robinson shines in this heartwarming gay coming-of-age tale

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Love, Simon GLSEN
20TH CENTURY FOX

Though it might be riddled with all of the familiar high school movie clichés that you’ve come to know and expect, Greg Berlanti’s lovingly crafted gay coming-of-age tale Love, Simon is easily one of the best films of the year, and its message about love, family, and acceptance is bound to make your heart soar.

Based on Becky Albertalli’s best-selling 2012 novel Simon vs The Homo Sapien’s Agenda, Nick Robinson flawlessly plays seventeen-year-old and not openly gay high school senior Simon Spier, whose life is seemingly perfect in almost every way possible: he has a family that he actually likes, including his parents (Jennifer Garner and Josh Duhamel) and little sister (Talitha Bateman), lives in a nice Atlanta suburb, and enjoys the company of Leah (Katherine Langford), Nick (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), and Abby (Alexandra Shipp), who make up his tight-knit group of friends.

But when one of Simon’s classmates comes out via an anonymous letter posted to the Creekwood High School blog under the name Blue, things start to change for better and for worse. Shortly after reading the anonymous letter, Simon begins exchanging emails with Blue, while also hiding his identity by setting up a fake Gmail account. “I’m just like you,” Simon writes in his initial email to his new pen pal.

The secret email flirtation that ensues is adorably cute and helps Simon muster up the courage he may need to finally come out to his family and friends. Well, that is until the messages end up in the hands of Simon’s obnoxious, overly confident classmate Martin (Logan Miller), who screenshots the email exchange after Simon forgets to log out of his Gmail account on one of the computers in the school library. Why? Because Martin believes that with Simon’s help, he could get a date with Abby. If Simon doesn’t help, though, Martin promises to leak the emails to the entire school.

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While screenwriters Elizabeth Berger and Isaac Aptaker veer away considerably from the source material, their script is so incredibly sharp and witty, despite the occasional cheesy line or two, and Berlanti, a gay man himself, handles the film with plenty of love, care, and affection, much like Simon’s parents when they finally learn his secret. “These last few years, it’s almost like I could feel you holding your breath,” Garner’s character says during a heartwrenching monologue that could rival that of Michael Stuhlbarg’s in Call Me by Your Name. “You get to exhale now, Simon.”

There’s a lot to be said about the rest of the supporting cast, too, including Tony Hale, who plays the lively vice-principal Mr. Worth, Natasha Rothwell, who plays the hilarious drama teacher Ms. Albright, and Clark Moore, who, while stealing nearly every single scene that he is in, plays Simon’s out-and-proud classmate Ethan.

Love, Simon may not break any new ground for queer cinema, especially in the age of Moonlight, BPM (Beats Per Minute), and Call Me by Your Name, but it sure is a treat to have production companies and major distributors like Fox 2000 and 20th Century Fox throw a reasonable amount of money behind a gay coming-of-age movie and make it easily accessible by releasing it in thousands of theaters around the world next month—especially one of such outstanding quality. The world could really use more films like Love, Simon.

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‘Annihilation’ review: Alex Garland’s latest effort is destined to be a new sci-fi classic

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Annihilation
PARAMOUNT PICTURES

It’s truly a shame that international audiences will not get the chance to experience Alex Garland’s moody, cerebral sci-fi thriller Annihilation on the big screen, the way it is meant to be seen. Then again, though, after reading about all of the drama that was happening behind the scenes of this movie, and then actually getting the chance to watch it, it’s easy to understand why Paramount decided to let Netflix handle the film’s distribution overseas.

Annihilation is loosely based on the first book in the acclaimed best-selling Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer. If you’re expecting a faithful adaptation, you’re likely going to walk out of the film feeling rather disappointed, among other things, though there are many aspects of the book still intact in Garland’s script.

Lena (Natalie Portman) is a biology professor and former soldier who’s still grieving the presumed death of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who disappeared on a secret mission a year ago. Well, that it is until he returns home again, but something about him just isn’t right. He shows little emotion to his wife that he hasn’t seen in months, and the things he’s saying just aren’t very making very much sense. And then there’s a little blood. And then he says he isn’t feeling very well. And then there’s a lot of blood.

Soon enough, Lena and Kane find themselves somewhere along the Gulf Coast where a meteor strike has produced a sinister and mysterious phenomenon that is expanding rapidly, mutating both the landscape and creatures within it. They call it the Shimmer, and it’s a beautiful sight to behold. Lena is determined to find out what’s on the other side of the phenomenon, as is Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), who is planning to lead an expedition of female scientists (Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny) into the Shimmer after several other expeditions, primarily military men, failed to return, with the exception of Kane, of course.

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Much like Ex Machina, Annihilation is filled with plenty of disturbing imagery. From the blood spewing out of the mouth of Kane, to a man’s stomach slowly being cut open to reveal his intestines, Annihilation is not always a fun movie to watch. From the moment the film begins, there’s this certain sense of unease, a nightmarish feel that sticks with you, even long after the film has ended.

There’s one sequence in particular that I can’t seem to get out of my head. Not because it was grim or grotesque, but rather visually spectacular, and even mesmerizing to a certain degree, thanks in part to Rob Hardy’s gorgeous cinematography, Andrew Whitehurst’s visual effects, and, most of all, Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s pounding, pulsing synthy score. It’s too bad we didn’t get to hear more of that weird little melody from the trailer throughout the film, but when it does show up, it’s a real spooky treat.

Annihilation leaves you with a lot to unpack once it’s over and it’s unfortunate that I have such little time to even write this review, as I’m still digesting much of the film and need a little more time to piece together a few, key aspects of it in mind. That’s a good thing, though. Garland isn’t a filmmaker that spoon-feeds you anything—his movies are meant to be thought-provoking. And, while it’s not nearly as polished and structured as much as his previous effort, there’s no denying that Garland has crafted an ambitious, new sci-fi classic with Annihilation.

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‘Golden Exits’ review: Alex Ross Perry delivers shrugging misogyny and asshole hypocrisy

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Golden Exits

“Nick’s been a bad boy.” This line, a form of self-evasive parody worthy of a bad comedy sketch, appears somewhere amidst the cacophony of Golden Exits, still sticking out as an egregiously distasteful line. Still, the phrase feels right at home in the filmography of Alex Ross Perry, New York’s newest canonically petulant, neurotic, virulent cinephile child. Lambasted at Sundance and reclaimed as divisive at Berlinale, Perry’s newest, Golden Exits, finally rumbles into theaters, over a year later. When I first walked out of the film at BAMCinemafest back in June of 2017, I found myself irked and puzzled. After seeing the film a second time (albeit at home), it soured even further. This is the year’s heretofore weakest film. 

Perry’s previous work has been some combination of derivative fan-fiction and willfully misguided and lame experimentation, but it has remained wickedly engaging and even smart (“Hang on while I put my head in this sweater.”) Golden Exits continues Perry’s fascination with facial expressions, the power of the close-up to distort reality. Here is where the film’s most prominent strengths lie. Robert Greene’s editing is, once again, a marvel, conjuring empathy between shots, appropriate for a film where absence breeds its strongest artistic current. Sean Price Williams‘ cinematography is an incredible feat, a world lived-in, aging millennial/Gen-X aesthetics. Yet these end up supportive measures, in service of a peculiar and horrid work.

Bypassing the more artificial structures of, say, Listen Up Phillip, Perry is not an adept enough writer to juggle so many characters. Beyond the frankly ludicrous dialogue is a more overarching slack in the narrative. The sisters are shrill and lonely, the men callous and silly – which improperly serves to excuse their ill behavior. It most neatly falls into narratives: An art world Western, where Emily Browning’s foreigner Nina saddles up as the cowboy, and a ruthlessly inane and inconsequential—even by the film’s own dramatic standards—tale of infidelity.

The film’s total lack of people of color, or New York citizens outside the very narrow artistic and socioeconomic status, is less an issue to this relentlessly closed-off world, but that the film lacks any philosophical perspective, further amplifies the pain of this gorgeous folly. This is a view of a New York dead zone, cut off from those outside the film’s orbit, even geographically. It’s a block that spans an entire world but remains crushingly claustrophobic. The screen feels insulated and privileged, a compendium of techniques without soul, tracing out a diagram of the actor’s faces and postures without ever offering psychological insight. There is an apathetic attitude to the actor’s experiences, a strained auteurist arrogance.

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The work is not a collaboration with its performers or even an exploitation of their craft. Rather, it’s totally disconnected from the dramatics at play, tethered to a weak script with a camera whose compositions sketch out a totally irrelevant vision. That same distortion of which Perry is so fond remains, but without the absurdism that gave it purpose. 

Lily Rabe, an actress with an immense amount of dexterity and range, is saddled with a ton of verbose and stupid dialogue and handles it masterfully, emerging unscathed and leaving the lackluster film in her wake; in a film designed as an intricate series of limp-dick domestic disputes, her words gain a sharpness and prickly balance so sorely missing elsewhere. Emily Browning is perhaps on the other end of the bell curve in this regard, which is a shame, as Perry re-contextualizes this uncertainty as a sexualized wistfulness. The film offers many instances of observing Browning wandering, yet the film never seeks anything beyond the cleavage below her lip-bite, partially obstructed by lengthy hair strands to give the illusion of depth.

That the film leaves its male characters to mere caricatures seems to function as an excuse for its deep-seeded grossness. The camera leers at the female characters, transforming the female bodies into crude aesthetics. Its women are catty and desperate and the film, abject and plain, nurtures a deep contempt for them. Perry’s relative restraint, after the puzzle-box density of Queen of Earth’s image, face pressed against the screen, can be admirable. Yet it reveals an insecurity with the classical, something Exits desperately need. Laid bare, the visual formalism is dull and ineffective.

Golden Exits believes itself to be Rohmerian, though perhaps it more closely resembles Ibsen (if we are being generous). Rohmer allows for the sort of cutting and heavily structured spaces of banality that a film as inexplicably plot-heavy as Golden Exits has no interest in, nor the capability to sustain. The film settles instead for a particularly distasteful kind of venom. Linklater, with the phenomenally bland Before trilogy, misread Rohmer’s talkiness and controversial politics from an easy romanticism; Perry, on the other hand, makes his hyper-articulation as evasive and anxious, a refusal to acknowledge beyond towards the more troubling and guarded traits of character. It resembles the worst of cinephilia’s tendencies, the shrugging misogyny and asshole hypocrisy, the window dressing philosophy that everyone is equally bad and flawed built to ignore and, by extension, indulge. It is a high melodrama without a hint of consideration, dismissing emotionality in favor of barbed-wire gladiator battles that say nothing. Golden Exits is a work that pro ports to be of sin, but ultimately offers the moral equivalent of a puddle.

Where the hell was Chloë Sevigny, anyway?

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