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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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‘Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool’ review: Annette Bening shines in this flawed Gloria Grahame biopic

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Annette Bening and Jamie Bell

Annette Bening is captivating in the role of former Hollywood starlet Gloria Grahame in Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which follows the Oscar-winning actress in her later years as she develops a relationship with Peter Turner (Jamie Bell), an aspiring actor from England who falls head over heels for the fading star the moment he lays his eyes on her in the North London guesthouse where they are both lodging.

Based on the memoir of the same name by Turner, Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, which first premiered at the Telluride Film Festival last year, is as stunning as it is romantic, though, beyond the wonderful performances by Bening and Bell, whose chemistry sparks the moment they begin to interact with each other, there isn’t much here that we haven’t seen before—the film just feels too basic and too generic.

Perhaps its Matt Greenhalgh’s script or Paul McGuigan’s direction, but there’s something about Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool that causes the first hour or so of the film to feel unbearably boring, making it difficult to feel invested or even care about its rather predictable story that ends with inevitable tragedy. It feels as if the actors are doing most of the work in this film, and they do the best they can with what they have available.

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That being said, the film is still magnificent from a visual standpoint. Ula Pontikos’ magical cinematography, which utilizes lighting and color so effectively, is wonderful to soak in, while editor Nick Emerson flawlessly takes us back and forth between flashbacks and the present with such efficiency. And, oddly enough, despite the unauthentic look of the rear-projection used to transport Bening and Bell to cities such as New York City and Malibu, it makes Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool feel like one of the old Hollywood movies the real Grahame would’ve starred in back in the day.

By the time the film is over and the end title track, “You Shouldn’t Look At Me That Way,” written and performed by the great Elvis Costello, begins to play, you’ll probably wish that Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool had more to offer than just powerhouse performances and nice filmmaking techniques rather than a typical, by-the-books premise; especially one about someone as interesting and eccentric as Grahame.

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‘Call Me by Your Name’ review: Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating gay love story is one for the ages

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Call Me by Your Name

From the moment the opening credits appear in Luca Guadagnino’s intoxicating new film Call Me by Your Name (scored to the sweet, melodious sounds of “Hallelujah Junction – 1st Movement” by John Adams), you know you’re in for a very special treat; a treat that will leave you thinking about the film you’ve just watched for hours upon end, like it did for me. It’s lush, erotic, riveting and, above all, simply delightful.

Based on the acclaimed first novel by André Aciman, and adapted for the screen by James Ivory (who cameos in the film, alongside producer Peter Spears), Call Me by Your Name transports its viewer to a sun-soaked Northern Italy in 1983 and follows Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), an awkward, horny, not-so-average 17-year-old who enjoys transcribing music, reading books, swimming at the local river, and going out at night, as he describes to Oliver (Armie Hammer) in one scene. The latter is a chiseled, charming 24-year-old American graduate student staying at Elio’s parent’s (Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar) gorgeous 17th-century villa as the annual summer intern tasked with helping Mr. Perlman, a professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture.

Elio appears dumbstruck by Oliver’s charisma early on in the film, invoking feelings of fascination, or perhaps even obsession, drawing him closer to the tall, sophisticated blond man that just seemingly waltzed into his own tiny little lazy world, surrounded by the walls of his parent’s villa. However, soon enough, we realize Elio isn’t the only one plagued with these feelings—Oliver feels just the same—and they share an amorous kiss on the side of a dirt road, surrounded by towering green grass and no one but themselves.

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“No, no, no. I know myself,” Oliver says after pushing Elio away when he comes in for a second kiss. “We’ve been good. We haven’t done anything to be ashamed of and that’s a good thing. I want to be good, OK?” Though, Elio doesn’t take this too seriously, as he places his hand on Oliver’s crotch, grabs it a few times, and asks him, “Am I offending you?” It’s a cutesy, playful moment, and is really just the beginning Guadagnino’s masterful tale of first love.

Oh, how wonderful it is to watch Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s (who also shot Guadagnino’s upcoming Suspiria remake) stunning 35mm cinematography as he captures a summer that will change the lives of Elio and Oliver forever; riding bike rides around the town square, indulging in luscious breakfasts under the sun, engaging in secret meetings on the villa’s balcony, smoking cigarettes while discussing European history, and, yes, for those of you who’ve read the book, making love to peaches. It’s a relaxing, peaceful, spellbinding film with no real antagonist other than time and Oliver’s impending departure.

Chalamet, a young, new, fresh face in the world of Hollywood, who also appears in this year’s Lady Bird and Hostiles, delivers what is undoubtedly the best performance of the year in Call Me by Your Name as Elio, while Hammer, perhaps best known for his work in The Social Network and The Man from U.N.C.L.E., proves just how much range he truly has an actor in the role of Oliver; the two are an impressive dynamic duo, and it’s hard to even imagine anyone else playing as their characters. And, just when you’ve thought Stuhlbarg’s wise Mr. Perlman has stolen the show with a riveting, heartfelt speech to his son during the final act of the film, Chalamet swoops in with a silent, delicate close-up under the end-credits that will, undeniably, give you chills, if not tears.

Call Me by Your Name is a modern gay love story for the ages.

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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ review: Rian Johnson delivers a riveting intergalactic spectacle

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The Last Jedi Mark Hamill

Star Wars: The Last Jedi begins just like any other installment in George Lucas’ long-running intergalactic franchise: A static blue text that reads “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” followed by that rousing, iconic theme song composed by John Williams and a brief, yet informative opening crawl, teasing the adventures to come over the course of the next 150 minutes (making it the longest Star Wars movie to date).

But look a little closer and you’ll see that The Last Jedi is as unique and special as the diverse cast of characters it showcases, and writer-director Rian Johnson looks to take this series to a whole new level with the latest chapter in the seemingly never-ending Skywalker-saga that finds not one, but two central characters grappling with the Light and Dark sides of the Force.

As we see in that unforgettable The Force Awakens finale (the best part of a rather lackluster film), Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the gorgeous, Porg-infested island of Ahch-To to deliver Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) long-lost blue-bladed lightsaber and to convince him to join the Resistance in order to help defeat the First Order. However, a weary, worn-out-looking Luke doesn’t seem to have much interest in doing so, telling Rey that “it’s time for the Jedi to end” once and for all.

Meanwhile, the First Order, led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hot on the tail of the Resistance, is ready to strike again in retaliation for the destruction of its Starkiller Base. With General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) calling the shots, the Rebel army must act quick, as both time and fuel are running out fast. However, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), takes matters into his own hands and enlists the help of Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) to help carry out his rather dangerous plan of infiltrating the First Order’s fleet and disabling their tracking system.

Though the pacing could certainly be a bit tighter at times, Johnson does a more than impressive job of balancing multiple storylines in The Last Jedi (three, to be exact), and they all eventually come full circle by the time the credits start to roll and the age-old mysteries of the Force and shocking revelations of the past have finally been unlocked. Chances are, though, fans will be too lost in this riveting, visual feast of a film to even notice (or care about) something such as minor pacing issues or out of place humor.

Much like he did in The Force Awakens, the scar-faced Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) practically steals the show and reveals a much different side to his character than we’ve previously seen. “Forget the Jedi! Forget the Sith! Forget the First Order!” he exclaims at one point in the film, revealing his desire to start an entirely new order. But it’s whether or not he can convince Rey to join him that will keep audiences on the edge of their seat for the duration of the film.

A dazzling, gorgeously put-together sci-fi action extravaganza, The Last Jedi was obviously handled with much love and care by Johnson in both his writing and direction and that certainly translates on screen. The multiple storylines are exciting, while the characters, both the newcomers and the veterans, are simply wonderful to watch develop over the course of the film.

It’s no wonder why Walt Disney and Lucasfilm decided to give Johnson an entirely new Star Wars trilogy to create; the franchise is in exceptionally good hands as indicated by The Last Jedi.

AROUND THE WEB

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