'The Florida Project' review: Sean Baker's 'Tangerine' follow-up is humanist exploitation pop art realism
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‘The Florida Project’ review: Sean Baker’s latest effort is humanist exploitation pop art realism



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.



‘Aquaman’ review: James Wan manages to deliver a satisfying underwater superhero origin story




Well, it appears that audiences will be forced to find another superhero to make the butt of a joke.

James Wan‘s Aquaman is a spectacular comic book film that proves itself a leap in the right direction for the DC Extended Universe. This incredibly well-crafted underwater adventure creates a spectacular world that truly has no match in visual delight, making it one of the most vibrant and colorful stories in the DC film series yet that demands to be seen in theaters. Flawlessly traversing genres and providing a little bit of something for everyone, Wan has given audiences the perfect comic book experience.

Aquaman is the story of Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), the half-bred Prince of Atlantis, born to a surface-dwelling lighthouse keeper named Tom (Temuera Morrison) and the queen herself, Atlanna (Nicole Kidman). Arthur is raised knowing about his Atlantean heritage, but not aware that his half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) has been declared king in his absence. When Princess Mera (Amber Heard) seeks out Arthur to stop Orm from declaring war on the surface world, Arthur must reluctantly challenge him to claim his rightful throne as the king that the seven seas needs.

The pure passion for a character that was seen in Patty Jenkins’ direction of Wonder Woman in 2017 is similarly seen in how James Wan handled Aquaman. Wan embraces the fact that this fish-talking superhero has been a joke for decades, but instead of taking an unnecessarily dark look at this hero’s origin story, he has boundless fun with its potential. This film is the splash of creativity and liveliness that was desperately needed in the midst of audience’s other favorite heroes going through some rough times after a certain snap of the fingers. Where Wan exceeds most, however, is his ability to take this story in so many different directions without making it appear sloppy. It is quite difficult to place a genre on this movie, as it seamlessly transitions from science-fiction to comedy to horror to romance and everything in between without missing a beat. Throughout the film, Wan seems to take inspiration from his own experience in horror, as well as iconic franchises like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Lord of the Rings, just to name a few, while blending them all together beautifully.

Comic book purists will be very satisfied with this film as well, as Wan has certainly done his research on that front. Aquaman is a perfect culmination of the Aquaman mythos that has been constantly built upon since his first appearance in 1941. Paired with an undeniably catchy, synth-pop soundtrack, the balance between this character’s original story and its modernity for the current scene in cinema is fantastic. Since the character of Aquaman was introduced in 2016’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and brought back for last year’s Justice League, he has evolved to truly make his own film the best entry into this shared universe. There still exists a bit of Zack Snyder’s signature polish in this movie as he is an executive producer, but not much of his directorial influence is seen, which is undoubtedly for the best. Wan was the greatest possible choice to helm this character’s wild solo film in its vividly royal, underwater setting, making for a picture perfect fantasy adventure.

David Leslie Johnson-McGoldrick and Will Beall’s script is the one unfortunate aspect of this film that fails to deliver the same amount of epic quality. This type of story has been told before and much of the dialogue throughout this film was consistently weak. While effective, the majority of this script is full of tropes and one-liners that can venture into painful and cheesy screenwriting territory. The surprising benefit of this, however, is how self-aware the writing is. These two screenwriters knew that they were writing a film about one of the most ridiculed heroes in pop culture history and because of that, the story does not take itself too seriously. This film knows that it doesn’t have to pretend to be something that it’s not and it has no need to try either. Knowing there is nothing to lose means that the writers are simply there to please moviegoers with a purely entertaining story. Despite the generic writing, Momoa, Heard, and the rest of the ensemble have an absolute blast with their characters. Each actor and actress emits passion and energy through their performances and it is obvious that they put so much care and effort into creating something special.

This film is wonderfully done in all of its technical parts as well. The colors and visuals that entranced the world of the undersea kingdoms were simply stunning as visual effects supervisor Kelvin McIlwain has a tremendous eye for not just beauty, but fantasy world-building too. While DC’s previous films have had quite a lack of color and even Marvel films stick to a certain grading, this movie breaks that formula in the most appealing ways possible. The fight choreography, coordinated by Jon Valera, was very exciting and brilliantly utilized the different powers and abilities that the various characters had. These action sequences were also aided by the very fluid cinematography from Don Burgess; his use of wide shots and lots of twisting of the camera created some mesmerizing scenes. Regardless of how much CGI was used throughout this movie, there were also many fantastic shots that aimed to establish the absolutely wild tone of whatever genre Wan was switching to next.

Aquaman is an unapologetically fun thrill ride that is the epitome of a great adventure movie. James Wan holds nothing back in terms of gorgeous visuals and relentless entertainment value and the entire cast and crew make this underrated superhero one of the best fantasy films ever. There’s also a scene where an octopus plays the drums, so make of that what you will.

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‘Roma’ review: Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white family drama is nothing short of a masterpiece



Roma Netflix

As someone who has long championed Alfonso Cuarón‘s 2006 dystopian thriller Children of Men as being the best film in the Oscar-winning Mexican filmmaker’s career, I was astonished when I slowly began to realize about halfway through watching Roma, Cuarón’s latest offering, that my opinion about Children of Men was no longer the same.

Roma, Cuarón’s semi-autobiographical black-and-white love letter to his hometown of Mexico City and the women who raised him, is arguably his best work to date for an assortment of different reasons, mostly because it’s a stunning achievement not only in Cuarón’s personal filmography, but rather cinema as a whole.

Set in the early 1970s in the bustling, upper-middle-class neighborhood of Colonia Roma, Cuarón’s most personal project to date follows the day-to-day life of Cleo (played extraordinarily by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), who is based on Cuarón’s actual real-life nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, to whom the film is dedicated to.

Cleo is relatively quiet and mostly keeps to herself as she does chores around the house of the family she works for like picking up laundry, cleaning up dog poop, and making sure all of the bedrooms in the house are tidy. She even puts the children to bed late at night and is there to wake them up bright and early in the morning when it’s time to start getting ready for school.

In her off hours, Cleo enjoys gossiping and reminiscing with Adela (Nancy Garcia), the family’s cook, and going to the local movie theater with Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero), a martial-arts enthusiast with whom Cleo shares somewhat of a distant relationship with—a relationship that will eventually set them even further apart as the film goes on.

It’s somewhat of a shame that not every person will have the pleasure of experiencing Roma, which is currently playing in theaters in select cities before launching globally on Netflix later this month, the same way I did, in a theater, to fully absorb Cuarón’s masterpiece for the remarkable piece of work that is truly is.

Cuarón’s exquisite 65mm black-and-white photography beautifully captures every detail that comes into frame, making excellent use of long takes and wide shots, while Cuarón’s equally impressive editing allows the story to unfold with an incredible amount of patience, yet it does so with efficiency, never letting the film lag for even a second.

There’s also something to be said about Skip Lievsay’s marvelously complex sound design, whether it’s the sound of a splash of water hitting the ground or gunshots ringing out as a student protest turns deadly, and Eugenio Caballero’s meticulous production design, which utilizes sets that are so simple, yet so intricate at the same time.

A film that is packed with an overwhelming amount of beauty, emotion, and intimacy, Roma is a mighty impressive feat on the part of Cuarón and evidently sets forth a new standard when it comes to this type of personal filmmaking. Or perhaps just filmmaking in general.

Roma’s limited theatrical run is currently ongoing in select cities including New York, Los Angeles, and London. Find out if it’s playing in your city here. The film will launch globally on Netflix on December 14.

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‘The Favourite’ review: Yorgos Lanthimos’ oddball period piece runs out of steam far too soon



The Favourite BAFTA

A year after the release of his brutal, absurdist dark family drama The Killing of a Sacred Deer, Greek auteur Yorgos Lanthimos is back again with The Favourite, an unsurprisingly bizarre, rather over-the-top glimpse into the life of England’s least known ruler, Queen Anne, and the lesbian love triangle at the center of her life in the early 18th century.

The story of The Favourite is actually grounded in some fact, if you can believe it, and follows an obese, gout-ridden, emotionally unstable Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) as she struggles to help guide the country of England through its ongoing war with France from inside the confines of her Royal Palace, a place where she spends most of her time holed up in her bedroom.

Oddly enough, though, for some who’s a Queen and ruler of her nation, Anne is deeply insecure and highly susceptible to manipulation, and so she yearns for the love, attention, and guidance of Lady Sarah Churchill (Rachel Weisz), her life-long friend, political advisor, secret lover, and one of few people who know how to keep her in check.

But when Sarah’s younger, mud-covered peasant of a cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) comes around the palace looking for a job, before eventually becoming a royal herself, things begin to take an absolute turn for the worst as the two battle it out for Anne’s love—even if it means lying to and taking advantage of the Queen herself.

While there’s certainly something to be said about Colman, Weisz, and Stone, who are all beyond extraordinary in their respective roles and deliver what are undoubtedly some of the best performances of the year, I couldn’t help but feel somewhat annoyed by some of The Favourite‘s wild antics and extreme nature.

By the middle of the second act, it felt as though the once witty, profanity-laden jokes had grown old, while the story itself had quickly begun to lose the momentum it so excellently was able to keep up during the first half of the film, leading us into a ridiculously abrupt final act, which features an ending that felt more like a cop-out than anything else.

Nonetheless, though, I still very much admire and respect The Favourite‘s commitment to being an oddball period piece. The posh costume and production designs are downright stunning, to say the least, and the soundtrack, which includes classical compositions from the likes of Handel and Bach, fits it all just so well.

Not to mention there’s Irish cinematographer Robbie Ryan’s dark, gritty 35mm photography, which captures every moment in the film in such incredible fashion. Perhaps he utilized the fisheye lenses one too many times for my liking but the rest of his camerawork is so flawlessly executed that it’s an issue I’m willing to let slide.

Despite its flaws, many of which I believe to be more the fault of Lanthimos than it is of screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, The Favourite is still an exceptional piece of work and will undoubtedly continue to win over the support of awards voters as the Oscar race rolls on thanks in part to its three leading ladies.

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