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

Most Wanted Indeed.

A Most Wanted Man ****1/2 (out of five)

a-most-wanted-man-673x449Anton Corbijn’s third feature is a modern masterpiece in a minor key; a rare example of the director, scriptwriter and creative team producing an original artistic work that it is completely, and successfully, committed to having nothing less than full integrity in relation to the intentions, style, tone and voice of the underlying source material.

That source material belongs to John le Carré, who has been surprisingly well served by adaptations over the years despite being known to be notoriously tricky to adapt. Perhaps there is a correlation: only those skilful enough to adapt le Carré have the balls to try. The best versions of his books have been The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (Martin Ritt, 1965), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (mini-series, 1979), The Constant Gardener (Fernando Meirelles, 2005) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Tomas Alfredson, 2011) but to my mind A Most Wanted Man is the best yet.

Set in Hamburg, post-911, the film follows German spy Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his team as they follow leads, connect dots and try and gather information in the face of various other departments – of various nationalities – wanting speedy results. In particular, they are interested in a known Chechen Muslim, Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin), who has popped into Hamburg illegally, looking like a homeless man and seeking the help of a humanist lawyer, Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams). Theoretically, Karpov can lead to a bigger fish, who can lead to a bigger fish, and so on. There is no real objective, just the relentless gathering of intel; no real product, just endless, meticulous process.

I don’t know if the intelligence gathering game works like this but it sure feels like it does; the movie bleeds with authenticity, or at least its perfect illusion. Andrew Bovell’s rich and idiosyncratic screenplay manages to ride a perfect line of accessible complexity and Le Carré obfuscation (a line which I felt the 2011 Tinker Tailor crossed, to its detriment); it’s a challenging plot, but always within reach, and time is allowed for many, many sublime character moments – just wait for Günther’s little moment in a seedy dive bar.

6a00e0097e4e68883301a511f0603b970cEvery single shot – and I mean every single shot in the whole movie – is exquisite. Corbijn, cinematographer Benoît Delhomme, and the production, set and costume and artistic design team work together to create a stunningly photographed and realised Hamburg full of ordinary spies and suspects going about their work; every scene is banal, and yet every scene is beautiful. Somehow, with some dark magic, Corbijn and Delhomme achieve perfect framing in every shot (Corbijn is also a renowned still photographer); it’s the best looking film of the year thus far.

Hoffman wears a very large gut like Bogart wore a trenchcoat, as an indelible signifier of character; I can’t recall him ever being fatter on screen, and, with his constant smoking and extremely pale face, he looks dangerously unwell (Günther also drinks scotch throughout the film, but we can assume that, at least, is a prop). It is a quick and obvious leap to suspect that Günther, unless he radically changes his lifestyle, is headed for a young death, and real-life circumstances hover around the film and Hoffman’s performance in a way that, sadly and weirdly, is in perfect alignment with everything that is going on: in one scene, Günther offers a cigarette, and when told by his companion that she quit, he offers, spookily, “Good luck with that.”

AMWM-Trailer-01But the role with the most meat, the most dilemma, and there most heart, is that of Annabel, and McAdams once again scores on all levels. This luminous Canadian could easily have gone down the route Hollywood reserves for women as beautiful and inherently likeable as her, but she chooses with intelligence and bravery, coming to roles like this and owning them. Although there are many excellent actresses who must have been considered for the role (among them, supposedly, Amy Adams, Jessica Chastain and Carey Mulligan), by the end of the film you can’t imagine anyone other than McAdams in it. She’s really good.

And this is a fantastic film. Corbijn’s first film, Control, succeeded almost perfectly; his second, The American, was too interested in its look to worry about its story, but here, all stars have aligned. He dispatches each scene like a maestro snooker player sinking balls, with power, style, and, most importantly, absolute precision. See it on the big screen.