THE FLORIDA PROJECT – A REVIEW

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In a video released on the 7th of December 2015 on the Criterion Collection Youtube channel, Sean Baker holds a copy of Ken Loach’s masterpiece, Kez, and states, “I’m going to be making a film with kids soon, and this is one of the greatest films ever, so I’m definitely going to want to revisit this”. Baker’s research and awareness of the works of his predecessors permits him to defy W.C Fields’ age-old trope “Never work with kids or animals” and create something beautiful: An intimate stay with a poor, single mother and her kid in a Florida motel — Sean is an exemplary filmmaker, and has made one of the best films of the year.

So, my first port of call, casting. Newcomer Bria Vinaite plays Halley, a single mother, living scam-to-scam (I can’t say paycheck-to-paycheck; she doesn’t get one) and trick-to-trick out of a small room in a giant, purple motel. Vinaite’s performance perfectly balances the two characters Halley must play in order to survive: fun, sweet Mum (for her child) and hardened, unrelenting urban survivalist (for them both). Brooklynn Prince plays Moonee, Halley’s Daughter, and, with their performances supported by realistic dialogue, every time they’re on screen, both together and separately, we’re gifted profound slices of a life none of us would wish for ourselves. I’m talking about sending your own kid and her friends off to beg for food. I’m talking about teaching them inappropriate dance moves to modern music with lyrics kids shouldn’t be exposed to, or bonding over swimwear selfies. Their situation is different to mine, and I feel it’s one of my responsibilities as a relatively privileged person to be at least aware of people like Halley and Moonee so that one day I might act compassionately — slice-of-life films often have this effect.

I can’t describe much how good the performances are without entering into hyperbole, so please, please see them yourself. All the kids, Willem Dafoe (Bobby, the motel manager), and all the smaller parts are perfectly gritty, yet human. I think my favourite films are funny AND something: The Florida Project’s characters are humanised by how much excellent dialogue we get, with a lot of it being hilarious, so the film is funny AND dramatic, or funny AND poignant. The kids are always roaming around, going on adventures. They giggle playfully as they spit onto a neighbours car, they make fart noises with their hands under the stairs, they run to a nearby field and cower under a tree, “I didn’t think it would rain!”. Bobby’s strife with trying to keep his tourist destination motel descending into becoming a homeless shelter is oddly comedic too.

Calling the film beautiful would be incorrect in a lot of critic’s eyes because of where else that word is often used. Using beautiful, people think of Star Wars-like vistas. Here, it’s difficult to describe downtrodden motels and waffle houses as beautiful (if you were there, it would be the last word to come to mind), yet Baker makes The Florida Project a perfectly beautiful film. Using a squat, wide aspect ratio film, low angles, and a range of static and dynamic camera movements, Baker creates a world for these kids and makes them the biggest stars in it ie. fills the shots with their faces a lot. Shots outside are bright and vibrantly colourful (Orange world, purple motel, Balamory-esque derelict houses); it’s the kids play area, and they have the most fun here. Inside, they’re locked in the bathroom, or sat bored in the dark — inside is an adult space, you have to worry here about food and rent.

The combination of a relatively unknown cast with something to prove, the excellent plotline that builds and pays-off perfectly, and the gorgeous film design (location scouting, costumes, grading etc.) come together to create something that will be nominated for Oscars and recognised as a victory for independent filmmaking: from Tangerine, to here. This story has purpose, it’s entertainment coupled with activism.

Great job Sean. 9.2/10.

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LATE TO THE PARTY: LION – A REVIEW

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A misstep tangentially re-routes a young Indian boy’s life in the 80s; torn from his family, thrust into chaos and plucked from the brink by angelic Australian adoptive parents. Where’s home for the re-located, and, even before that, what makes home home? Garth Davis’ wildly successful adaptation of Saroo Brierly’s tale is fluid in its telling, punchy in its climactic moments and believable at its core. This really happened: using Google Earth to find your house, only you don’t know where your house is.

Sunny Pawar and Dev Patel play young and 20s Saroo, and each have roughly equal screen time. Early on, Saroo is established as a joyful, responsible, fun-loving young boy; a boy part of a loving, but impoverished (his Mother labours in a local quarry) Indian family. When Saroo pesters his brother to take him to work with him and loses him at night in a train station, childishly he steps onto a decommissioned passenger train which he unwillingly moves with to Calcutta. Every mother’s worst nightmare is manifest in the following scenes: their child lost, hungry and alone, strewn amongst the uncaring and occasionally malicious population of a busy city. Only miracles rescue kids in this situation from fates which should be unacceptable, but unfortunately homeless kids still exist to this day all around the world.

Saroo, for one reason or another, is lucky. He is rescued. A little kindness here and there takes him from the hectic streets to a quiet family home in Tazmania where he grows up healthy and happy – that is until technology, the great enabler, makes scraps of memory a viable way to backtrack. This is an incredible story, and a true one at that. Sometimes little choices change everything and Saroo is a shining example of making the best of what you have. “..You’ve seized every opportunity. We’re so proud of you.” say John and Sue Brierly lovingly. Saroo’s life brightened the lives of his adoptive parents at the cost of 25 years of heartache for his Biological mother; I think he makes the right decision to use Google Earth to fix that broken heart if he can, whatever it costs him.

Lion is an excellent film. It highlights that things can go wrong, and things can happen to you without your say so, but also that if you can stoically stay strong, composed and if you use your little bit of luck, why can’t you work a miracle?

Miracle worker: hmm.. that could be all of us, right? If you use, or work, a miracle to squeeze the best from it. I need to work my miracles more, because my life is Cloud 9 compared to Saroo’s.

9/10.

 

 

 

Blade Runner 2049 – A 10-minute Review

Blade Runner 2049 is the definition of a perfect modern sequel. An original film that could have been left alone, its name to be uncovered only by the most intrepid cinephiles, is reinvigorated under the guise of a soft-reboot with updated visual futurism and a clearer storyline.

Its lack of explosiveness in the Box Office is both understandable and not so. I think many are put off merely seeing the run-time and others because the original, with which many cinema-goers have no tangible connection, released over 30 years ago. Furthermore, the original, cerebral Sci-Fi noir polarises its own audience; it’s one of those where you’re either in, or you’re out. But, Gosling, Ford, Leto.. These are big names in the pop culture sphere; even Denis Villeneuve (Director) is becoming a household name due to his huge recent success. Big names should equal big money in the movie business especially in the mainstream.

It’s not all about money, however. The people that go to see BR2049 will be rewarded for their choice, have no fear. The words “Beautiful”, “Cinematography” etc. have been thrown around and rightly so. The score contributes well to atmosphere, despite being largely the same annoying, grandiose phwooarrring that plagues most film trailers – the flying cars, electric signs etc. look like they could make these humming, droning sounds, just less dramatic, for example. Everyone actually acts really convincingly, even when they have to pretend to be robots who might be this, and then might be that.

I would recommend BR2049, especially to those that haven’t seen the first one. It’s not boring, but it does demand attention; let your gaze/hearing slip, and you will lose out.

Go for a pee before the film starts.

8/10

La La Land – A Review

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There aren’t many greater things in life than enjoying a song and dance with your partner, in my opinion. When you’re both there, together, the external stimuli take us from the real world to somewhere different and special, and great musical films make you feel you’re escaping reality in just the same way.. while you’re sat on your arse.

Whiplash Director Damien Chazelle returns with a lot more StarpowerTM and a little less originality with the latest Hollywood Oscar winning so-called masterpiece that is La La Land. Opening into a freeway gridlock of traffic à la Falling Down, a girl in a yellow dress jumps out of her car and wails about her trip into the unknown; she’s taking her big shot at stardom. Suddenly another all-too-happy road-user ups and preaches the same sermon et voila now they’re all at it. Haphazardly twirling about and prancing on top of one another’s cars the people have started a celebration of the person who’s on their way to makin’ it in the Big City. Once the music stops and the incredibly ethnically diverse dance crew is back sat down and belted up, Mia (Emma Stone) gives fellow driver Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) the finger and  later their Meet Cute is stuffed again when Sebastian blanks her after his performance in a local Jazz hole.

Despite their rocky beginnings, the persistence of aspiring actress Mia charms Seb at a local party and a beautiful romance is born. He loves Jazz music and she hates it; he knows she hates it because she doesn’t know it. Before Mia, lowly Seb was spitefully disobeying employers by deviating from their lame-o setlists and swapping in his own work, “I let life hit me, and hit me, and hit me and then I’ll hit it back when it gets tired” he says to his sister when she questions why he masochistically does what he does. Post-Mia, Seb is inspired to achieve greater things but when they both begin to taste success (re-using a theme from Whiplash Chazelle, alright) their relationship becomes a little less feasible.

The plot may be a little stale but it’s only there to move things along. The film is a lot of fun and without a doubt it’s a great (date?) movie. It’s definitely a musical but it’s definitely entry-level for the genre: Stone and Gosling have great chemistry but they aren’t the greatest singers or dancers meaning most musical numbers don’t reach louder than talking volume or jump higher than Gene Kelly’s lowest which leaves them far from memorable and the songs are all too similar thematically. I think it’s quite unfocused; sometimes I thought it was trying to make a point (similar to how there was a lot of discussion about the cost of greatness thanks to Whiplash) but then after the mid-point, with several scenes though one Super 8 one in particular, I was drowning in schmaltz.

All of that hatred said, I still enjoyed it. As I said, it was fun. There was chemistry, there were stand-out performances, a couple of cameos, an homage to Cleo From 5 to 7? I can’t knock something a little different making it mainstream either and Damien Chazelle continues to be a leading Director in musical films.

Cha, cha, shi-boop AH doo-wap se se six point five outta 10.

Notes on Blindness – A Review

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You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone, Joni Mitchell wasn’t singing about her eyesight but the incredible Notes on Blindness does just that. The story of theologian John Hull and his irreversible transition from seeing to blindness tackles the confrontation of man’s – literal – darkest hours whilst remaining watchable, relatable and most importantly, optimistic.

The film, written and Directed by Peter Middleton and James Spinney and using the audio tapes which form the body of Hull’s book Touching the Rock, synchronises the original recordings and interview audio direct from John with mouthing actors to visualise his inspiring story. Maintaining his work as a University lecturer was of utmost importance to John so he tackled his experience of going blind methodically. Initially asking colleagues to record books for him and learning braille is enough for John, but, as he describes, memories and images distort and fade in the darkness of his mind which makes keeping a grip on the life behind the dark veil increasingly difficult. He decides understanding blindness is his only way forward and begins an inspired series of dictated, recorded audio notes to distance John, the academic, from the John, the blind person, until he’s ready for them to become one. John’s notes are beautiful, profound, gritty, and sad; they’re inspiring, life-affirming.

There are so many tear-jerking moments in Notes in Blindness. John shares the time when his young daughter suggested crying her tears into his eyes might heal them like in Rapunzel or how helpless he feels outside his own home or a similarly controlled environment. He tells how crushed and alone he felt when the last rays detected by his brain informing him when his wife passed by a window or if a light was on or off were eclipsed by the growing black spot his detached retinas propagated. If you don’t cry a little from what you hear, you might be deaf. On the other.. sense, beautiful shallow focus with wavy foregrounds forcibly reduce our dependence on visual stimulation and often turn the film into a more suitable “lightly visual audiobook”. Some set-pieces however, especially one at the end, are among my favourite shots of the year in cinema.

Nobody can say 2016 has been a weak year for film when films like Notes on Blindness are being released.

8.8/10

American Honey – A few words.

I’m very impressed with Andrea Arnold’s new film American Honey. Her other film I’ve seen, Fish Tank, was – to me – equally engaging (it also featured one of Michael Fassbender’s first feature film appearances.

Honey is cropped to the Instagram-like Academy aspect ratio 1.37:1. Lots of travelling shots, extremely shallow depth of field and vivid colours in the costumes and locations made me want to hit like and follow.

Our leading lady, Star, played by emerging actress Sasha Lane, joins a posse of fellow young’uns whose primary objective is to sell “magazines” to the public and make paper/stacks/cheddar – money, but the rappers rapping the annoying music (music which these budding entrepreneurs mindlessly repeat the rhyming words) prefer not to say money.

Our boy Shia’s there too. Giving it his all, as always. He leads his merry men and women into the battlefield each day, teaches new recruits and is the right hand man of the REAL leading lady, Krystal. Krystal is the pimp, 80% of the sales the team gets go to her and her operating costs.

It’s a real coming of age movie. None of these “on my gap yah I found myself” coming of age come close to this though. There’s a very real character who develops appropriately to the experiences she’s put through. It’s a longer film and for the most part it held my attention; only a couple of situations in the 2nd & 3rd acts felt repetitive.

One of my films of the year though. Gutted I didn’t get to see it earlier at London Film Fest, really.

Arrival – A Review

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If one morning I were to step from my front door to go to work and a skyscraper-sized foreign object levitated with ease 30 feet above me personally I think I’d be really, really excited rather than scared crazy. Firstly, the fact I’m alive in that situation means the aliens (and yes, I’d immediately assume aliens) were friendly and not rampant extra-terrestrial terrorists pew-pewing laser beams and therefore likely less of a risk to my health than a McDonald’s breakfast. From there, then, I’d be even more joyous at the prospect of first contact, interspecies complex relations that are mutually beneficial, new technology..

Based on the 2000 Nebula Award winning Sci-Fi novella The Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang, Arrival, Directed by Québecois wonderboy Denis Villeneuve, is a clever multi-faceted look at how we, the humans of Earth, react to 12 stoic UFOs filled with things we neither recognise nor understand.

Amy Adams plays Louise Banks, a professor of Linguistics in America who makes Robert Langdon’s understanding of semantics look elementary. Louise is quickly re-recruited by army man Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) and teamed with Dr Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) in order to eventually communicate the question “What is your purpose on Earth?” to their otherworldly guests and decipher the answer hidden in their deep, menacing rumblings and creepy clicking sound that constitute their “language”.

In a series of over 30 meetings Louise and Ian begin at the beginnings and treat the silent visitors, who’re behind a protective clear screen, like foreigners from planet Earth and attempt to learn to speak the lingo. Imagine trying to learn Dog. Someone must of tried it. If you’d only just met a dog for the first time it would be ignorant to assume dogs have no means of aural communication with one another but is it as silly to think the way they mark territory with their urine to be as complex a means of communication as our written word? I don’t know and when Louise has a squid-ink ring squirted onto the screen before her she  has to use all her talents to derive all the meaning she can from it; who knows, maybe it just sneezed.

Benefiting from clearly exceedingly imaginative source material Villeneuve and CGI crew were able to bring loads of awe-inspiring imagery and set-pieces to an already gripping storyline. The giant eggish spaceships over lush fields had me thinking of rugby matches for the Gods, the perspective shifts with artificial gravity were gorgeous, certain scenes running through military tent tunnels looked straight out of Sicario. In my opinion some brutish writing surrounding certain countries response to foreign bodies in their airspace was a little lazy and reinforces stereotypes. Also, the whole “if we work together we can do anything!” side to international co-operation is a little stale as a plot driver; thankfully however there are more than enough “whoaaah” and “aaaaah I get it” moments that I won’t delve into here that keep it all fresh.

I’m always glad to see a new Villeneuve pop-up and I’m incredibly excited to see he’s at the helm of Blade Runner 2049; hopefully Arrival was just a warm up.

8.7/10

I, Daniel Blake – A Review

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Remember when you wrote people letters?

British master director Ken Loach with I, Daniel Blake makes an incredibly timely realist film drawn from the same tried and true vein as Kes and Riff-Raff.

In a connected modern world too many people are forgotten. Screenwriter Paul Laverty’s heartfelt story of an independent and clever old Geordie caught in a bureaucratic nightmare is painful to watch in the best way possible. Photographed candidly on the streets of Newcastle and dramatically in its cheapest rented abodes an all too relatable picture of society’s rock bottom is brought to incredibly select cinemas across small parts of the country for our viewing displeasure.

Specifically, Dan’s troubles begin with a heart attack that puts him off work by his doctor’s request. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the luxury of being able to just stop working anymore. Anyway, that’s what Employment and Support Allowance is for; supporting those in need, right? A safety net for the tax-paying citizens of this fair nation until they can once again stand on their own two, over-worked and underpaid feet. The crux of the film, then, is the missing link between his GP, who orders him to not work until fit and the “Healthcare Professional” that after having filled out a points-based questionnaire over the phone with Dan, states the opposite. So he shouldn’t work, but he can, apparently, so he has to find a new job but he can’t take it. Throw in trying to apply for Job Seeker’s Allowance. Throw in how they do everything online. Throw in he’s an older fella who’s less familiar with the ins-and-outs of E-mail and the internet than Hilary Clinton and you’ve got yourself a movie.

A model of a man, the character of Daniel Blake is fleshed out in its entirety through many well written interactions with his neighbours and the stone-like, dead-eyed drones he meets while he’s out trying to get things done. He’s fatherly to his entrepreneurial young neighbour, he yells at the forking man and his dog turning the grass surrounding his run-down castle into a poop minefield. Overhearing a young single mother whose JSA appointment, barely missed, could ruin her life if not completed that day, Daniel is spurred into life against the establishment and asks no.1 in the queue if he’ll just let the young lady jump in real quick – a seemingly simple solution right? Wrong. They’re both thrown out because common decency doesn’t comply with procedure.

The film successfully generates hatred in the viewer towards paperwork, towards the rich and greedy and conversely warms us with tender moments of human interaction and acts of bureaucratic kindness common amongst our realest people. An intense irony runs throughout the film that verges on comical but excellent emotive performance from Dave Johns and Hayley Squires mask the cynical undertones. One such moment for me was when Daniel and around 30 others are being taught how to write a CV and how to make it stand out; surely they’d all end up writing it the same way if they work according to the class’s plan? Forced to run a rat-race he no longer understands, in a world he no longer recognises, it’s impossible not to feel for the man. Provocative questions are raised. Do we place too much of our identity in what we do for work? Is the act of kindness dying? To what extent should we help our fellow man? The media, refugee crises, the NHS, Brexit. We’re just people trying to stay alive, see this film and self-medicate a reality check.

British filmmaking at its best.

8.7/10

Captain Fantastic – A Review

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Writer-Director Matt Ross brings us Captain Fantastic; the story of a family that isn’t satisfied with “civilised” live in the modern age. There’s a lot of dissatisfaction in people in general these days and people deal with this looming feeling differently. Some people travel and wander in search of fulfilment, some hone a craft and reduce the world’s complications to stitches in a homemade knitted sweater or joints in a carpentry project. Others delve into the world of readily available media in all its forms and seek the truth from the words and expressions of others and I think right now I am one of these people tumbling down the cinematic and literary rabbit hole. People say the education system is flawed, kids shouldn’t be schooled only to pass exams, this film embodies that point of view.

Dripping in references to acclaimed high-brow literature, music and personas you’d think Woody Allen had a hand in writing Captain Fantastic. The film is light-hearted enough that many viewers won’t feel inadequate but it does come close to the border of being a little elitist and difficult to relate to (the book Ready Player One, soon to be film, may one day be similarly accused) which in my opinion may detract from the moral of the story.

Ben (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife had several uniquely named children and, being much smarter than everyone else, decided to rescue them from monotony and tedious lifestyles by moving into the forest and teaching them a hunter-gatherer, nomadic way of life infused with poetry, music and philosophical writings to broaden their horizons. There are many hilarious moments built around this concept, and equally as many touching ones. Learning all you know about anything through a book rings of Good Will Hunting and there are several similar scenes hinging in a similar fashion on awkward recital of textbook phrases and lack of pop culture knowledge. They sing and dance, hunt, and read together as a family except one member becomes unreachable early on in the film and paradise becomes paradise lost as they family dynamic is upset dramatically.

The ideas tackled in the film surrounding proper parenting in the modern age are done so without shyness or tact for younger audiences much like the manner in which Ben communicates with his kids; free from civilised social grace the often taboo topics of politics and sex are spoken about openly which gives the film a very liberating feel. That being said there are also moments that, due to the nature of a sole teacher teaching many, the elf-like kids with flowers in their hair appear indoctrinated and despite their indoctrination being with liberal, progressive and intelligent thinking I couldn’t keep certain enraging images from the film Jesus Camp popping into my brain. The film is generally gorgeous to watch as well with a charmingly low-budget aesthetic that sparingly uses drone shots and CGI but to great effect.

To wrap it up, then. Yeah, it was a bit preachy. Occasionally melodramatic. Harping on about the flaws in society like hundreds of other films have done before, more of the same etc. etc. I still liked it. What can I say, I’m a sucker for quirkiness, for references, for hunter-gatherer 8-year old american kids with combat knives – it’s hilarious.

Enjoyed it. 7.5/10