The Florida Project

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* * * * 1/2

Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is an enormously compassionate film; it is joyous and funny, incisive and surprising, and truly subversive. It manages to be furious about the state of affairs in the United States while never raising its voice nor venturing near any political imagery. It is sublime and must be seen.

I’ve seen two of Baker’s previous features, Starlet (2012) and Tangerine (2015). Both were original, often very funny, and determinedly empathetic for their characters who lived in the margins of society. However, The Florida Project towers above them as a major, mature work, one of the very best films of 2017. Like Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), Alexander Payne’s Election (1999) and Steven Soderbergh’s Out Of Sight (1998), this is the big, confident, near-perfect film that delivers on a director’s enormous, already demonstrated, promise and potential.

Ostensibly, it’s about life among the community – the residents and the manager – at The Magic Castle, a motel in Orlando, Florida, that sits geographically close, but socio-economically worlds apart, from Walt Disney World. Many of the residents are essentially permanent tenants, living week-to-week, barely scraping by; some American media outlets refer to people in this predicament as the “invisible homeless”, for, although they technically have shelter, it is impermanent, insecure, hanging by the Damocles Sword of the weekly “rent”. Our primary characters are six-year-old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite, who Baker found on Instagram, and who delivers an astonishing debut performance); as their life becomes subtly more precarious, they are watched over by the motel’s manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), whose empathy and compassion make him an obvious stand-in for Baker himself.

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Baker and his cinematographer Alexis Zabe tell the story through the perspective of Moonee and her friends (the camera never once ‘looks down’ at these little wonders); the bold tacky colours and neglected flora of and around the series of motels and small businesses that make up their world are rendered as bright, joyous, delicious. For at least half the film, Baker – and we – are content to delight in the children’s exultant, unsupervised play; it is the beginning of summer, and their holiday stretches before them like an endless sunny paradise. Even if they can’t afford to go into the Magic Kingdom, they have the pools, the corridors, the laundry rooms, the ponds, and, of course, each other. This section of the film feels defiantly episodic and breezy, and is utterly delightful, and very funny.

But Baker has an incredibly precise schematic up his sleeve, and all the while, he is slowly, calmly and very deliberately layering in story elements that will build to a narrative we never saw coming. It is a superb display of directorial control, especially given that he was not only working with many “non-actors”, but, often, six-year old ones. Impressively, unlike Tangerine, which was famously shot on iPhones, The Florida Project is shot on film and utilises very formal, often symmetrical, highly structured locked-off shots, so it wasn’t as though Baker and Zabe were just letting the kids be kids and shooting whatever they did. These remarkable little thespians are hitting their marks and acting within the frame, yet bring endless moments of ecstatic spontaneity.

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Still, Baker and his cast and crew were flexible and agile enough to let their environment deliver them natural bounty: I can think of two scenes – one involving a rainbow and one some flamingos – that were obviously captured on the fly when opportunity knocked, and there may be more. Certainly, there are some astonishing sunsets that can’t have allowed for many takes, and Dafoe, the professional actor within this diverse young company, was obviously game to leap in and deliver at a moment’s notice. With the flamingos, he comes up with one of the film’s funniest lines, but with the kids, he truly lives within the moment, making every exchange full, rich and real. I have never loved him as an actor more.

As for little Brooklyn, it’s hard to sing her praises too much, and one shouldn’t. Like Quvenzhané Wallis is Beasts of the Southern Wild, Brooklyn is impeccable, the absolute heart and soul of the film, as astonishing find, a boundless life-force captured forever in a magical film. I hope she’s not dragged all over the red carpets, nor saddled with – as Wallis was – an Annie remake or the like. She’s Moonee in The Florida Project and always will be. One thing The Florida Project can teach us is that it’s vital that we let kids be kids.

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Sean Baker

The Man Who Invented Christmas

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* * * 1/2

You’ll come for the promise – fulfilled – of excellent production design and a feast of fabulous British thespians, but you’ll stay for the surprisingly engaging story. The Irish-Canadian co-production which couldn’t be more British The Man Who Invented Christmas took me by surprise in all the right ways. It’s a delight.

Dan Stevens plays a younger Charles Dickens than Ralph Fiennes did in The Invisible Woman (2013). It’s 1843 and Dickens is famous and seemingly wealthy, with a lovely London house teeming with life – a lovely large family, servants, tradesmen. But he’s had three flops in a row, he has debtors at his heels, and he needs a hit. Lo and behold, to guide him through the writing of his new book, a Christmas fable ultimately to be called A Christmas Carol (spoiler alert: it was a hit), the characters of the book come to life (at least for him), most notably Scrooge, played deliciously by Christopher Plummer, who is truly a fine wine, getting better and better in his rich maturity (he’s 88).

That fantastical element works (again, surprisingly!) well, but it is the warmth of Dickens’ relationships with the real people in his busy life that gives the film so much generous spirit. In particular, his scenes with his best friend / “manager” John Forster (Justin Edwards) are all superb. Edwards is best known to me from The Thick of It, but your experience may vary: he’s been in an awful lot of British TV and film, and he brings a level of decent humanity to all of it, as he very much does here.

As for that production design: it’s wonderful! The London depicted here is “clean-grubby”, teeming with urchins, chimney sweeps, musicians, carriages and all manner of businesses, many of which are wittily named. There are jokes aplenty in each frame as Dickens and his cohorts rush through the crowded streets. And those thespians? How about – besides Stevens, Plummer and Edwards – Jonathan Pryce, Miriam Margolyes, Donald Sumpter, Simon Callow, Morfydd Clark, and about two dozen other faces you’ll recognise even if you don’t know their names? Margolyes and Callow both routinely tour one-person Dickens shows, a terrific piece of gentle meta-humour of which Dickens would approve, as he would, I am sure, of this lovely movie.

Goodbye Christopher Robin

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* 1/2 (out of five)

I’ve done my research, and there is no evidence to suggest that A. A. Milne, author of the Winnie The Pooh books, wore facial make-up on a daily basis. And yet in every shot (and there are hundreds) of Domhnall Gleeson as Milne in the turgid Good Bye Christopher Robin, there’s a massive, frustratingly obvious layer of pancake all over his face. It’s beyond distracting. The history of narrative cinema is partially the history of the cinematographer and make-up artist hiding the leading man’s facepaint, an important art not bothered with here.

It may seem churlish to harp on a man’s facepaint, but Gleeson’s make-up travesty is the perfect microcosmic example of everything that is wrong with Goodbye Christopher Robin. This is the kind of movie where the actors step from one incredible shaft of sunlight carefully into another, as though there were multiple suns; where their performances are as stiff as nineteenth century mechanical wind-up toys, hampered by the need to place their faces “just so” to catch the light. A movie that was obviously hijacked by a cinematographer (Ben Smithard, whose terrible overlighting also afflicts The Second Best Marigold Hotel, Viceroy’s House, My Week With Marilyn and the upcoming The Man Who Invented Christmas) who is too chummy with a terribly lazy director (Simon Curtis). This duo is a blot on British filmmaking; to see dailies of Gleeson’s face and not correct the problem is astonishing.

The make up artists involved here are Sian Grigg, Duncan Jarman and Rachael Speke, and I will avoid their work in future if possible. Besides the constant awfulness of Gleeson’s day-to-day look, the film features the worst “age make-up” I have perhaps ever seen; Gleeson and co-star Margot Robbie, when aged, look simply glammed up for a party. Indeed, I didn’t even realise they were supposed to be decades older until a story point made it clear; the make-up certainly did not.

The script is terribly on-the-nose, misusing PTSD as an incredibly cheap sentimental trick. At one point, Milne, a recent veteran of World War One, gets triggered by a popping balloon. The way to overcome it, of course, is to pop another balloon, and soon everyone’s jumping on balloons and getting over their PTSD! The story is about Milne’s creation of the Pooh books after moving to the countryside (to get over that darned PTSD!) and the effect it has on his son, the real Christopher Robin. That’s an intriguing idea for a movie, and it is royally screwed at every stage by this horribly over-baked movie, that may as well be called Look How Pretty We Are. Hampered by everything – script, make-up, lighting, obvious lack of direction – the normally reliable Gleeson, Robbie and even Scottish National Treasure Kelly Macdonald are all dreadful, breathing as much life into their characters as the waxworks at Madame Tussauds. Wretched.

The Teacher (Učilełka)

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It’s always a delight to watch a superb lead performance from a mid-career actor you’ve never seen before. Czech-born actor Zuzana Mauréry is new to me, although she has a solid list of film and TV credits, and she delivers a doozy of a turn as The Teacher, utterly convincing, nuanced, funny and slightly terrifying.

We’re in the suburbs of Bratislava in 1983, when it was the capital of the Slovak Socialist Republic, Mauréry’s Maria is the relatively new teacher in town, and she’s utterly corrupt, first identifying her students’ parents’ vocations and then demanding free services in exchange for good grades and an easier school passage. It’s outrageous and something must be done, but will there be enough collective will to do it?

The astonishing period production design is both a help and hinderance to the film; it takes you there, but it’s not a happy place to be. The drabness of the school and the various apartments of the characters are oppressive dramatically and visually; what is authentic is also a little numbing. About a third of the action takes place in one of the school’s classrooms in the evening and these scenes drag repetitively; indeed, the whole film, which is only an hour and forty-two minutes, makes its point over and again, and could have been tighter.

That said, the milieu is intriguing, the metaphors at play are clear and enlightening, and Mauréry’s performance is absolutely worth catching. Like the film itself, her Maria has a sheen of humour; just one prick, though, and you’ll find nothing to laugh at underneath.