READY PLAYER ONE: Remember When….

 

 

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Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018)

One of the mollifying aspects of nostalgia, which has taken a strong grip on American culture of late, especially as we all cope with exponential advancements of technology and the constant bombardment of media from streaming services, is that it provides a recess from the fast-paced media-driven craze of today’s world. It allows us to dive back into a time when everything just seemed quieter. It’s rather ironic then that Ready Player One is so high-octane and exhausting. The movie is a pop-culture junkie’s version of snorting three lines of cocaine. For some, that’s a high. For others, it’s another instantly gratifying entertainment that provides no lasting value. I feel somewhere in between these two extremes.

The film’s most interesting aspect is in its mythologization of James Halliday, the OASIS’s creator. His character essentially mirrors the way nostalgia has evolved in internet culture. It starts off as a fond personal memory of cultural markers which shaped us, especially those “nerds” such as Halliday, as adults.  But once internet culture got a grip of nostalgia it turned into something weird and malformed. Its personal weight started to lessen. It flattened into a 2D stream of a million different “references” whizzing by your eyes with each click. Halliday’s OASIS is filled with his favorite media references when he was a kid, but they’re so vast and they exist in such quantity and velocity within the game that they don’t register as anything other tokens of remembrance. The OASIS, as a virtual reality program, is the physical written and produced manifestation of an “Only 80’s/90’s Kids Will Remember This!” meme that you see re-posted on Twitter every day.

READY PLAYER ONE - Dreamer Trailer (screen grab) CR: Warner Bros. PicturesThe underlying darkness of the film’s social commentary occurs as we, along with the central characters, discover the clues that tie together Halliday’s life. His obsession with his own past, the pop culture remnants of his childhood as well as the devastating regrets he had as a person, descends into unhealthy levels as more is revealed. At the end of the film, after Wade wins the game, Wade Watts is transported to Halliday’s childhood bedroom, where he speaks with him. It’s not enough that the film suggests Halliday was so possessed by a long-gone past that he downloaded his own conscience into his video game (Wade asks, “you’re not a hologram are you?”), but that Halliday also keeps a younger version of himself alongside for company.

The lack of fulfillment in Halliday’s life forced him to retreat to an era where he felt he was his best self, his happiest self, so much so that he kept that version of himself near him at all times. In small doses, these moments of escape provide mental balance and a harmonious re-connection to where we came from. But the further we are dedicated to constantly holding onto what used to be, in pop culture, politics, social ideas, anything, the less we find ourselves dedicated to progress. In the end of the film, Wade decides to change the way the OASIS works. His final statement declares that people need to spend time outside and in the “real world”. This is as deep a cut as Spielberg has possibly ever made on American society.  Spielberg’s ability to elevate the shallow and lazy self-satisfied geekdom of the novel into an actual discussion of nostalgia’s effect on human memory and its toll on us, is what makes him one of America’s greatest filmmakers.

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Favorite Movies of 2017

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I guess you could say spending New Year’s Eve getting screened in the Middle East by United States Border Patrol officers is the perfect ending to the political experience of 2017. At least I got some champagne and dessert afterwards.

Part of the flight, I re-read one of my absolute favorite pieces of film criticism ever written; Jonathan Rosenbaum’s review of Bela Tarr’s Satantango. It reassured me that the great cinema is not something that should be assumed to be lost on most people. That there is always an audience for a great film no matter how unwieldy, ambitious, or downright unappealing in appearance it may be. Rosenbaum is always great at scanning cinema and all its aspects of writing, directing, production, distribution, and consumption through the lens of a “power of the people” mantra. It’s a political philosophy which prioritizes access regardless of demographic models and it undoubtedly needs to be made more aware of because of the sectarian means by which cinema (and culture in general really) is showcased in America. So this too was a perfect capping of 2017.

This year, I continued my habit of the past couple years of just saying “fuck it” to trying to watch new releases just for the sake of watching them. Selectivism over volume, hurrah. Out of the dozens of remakes, sequels etc. that got churned out at the detriment of much more interesting material that could easily have taken it’s place, I saw but a few (War for the Planet of the Apes and BladeRunner 2049) and they were both rather underwhelming, especially in comparison to their own predecessors.

Looking at my Best of 2017 list, there is a dearth of American movies (also possibly due to the ambiguity of Hollywood vs. UK produced film). The three that end up on there are all, unsurprisingly, original films, one a major blockbuster by a well-known celebrity director, and the other two, small indie films by relatively new filmmakers. These movies are becoming rarer in a distribution cycle which is slowly and surely being overtaken by whatever sells in China, Hollywood’s largest market. Outside of Star Wars which remains quintessentially, an American-exclusive loved franchise entity, everything else from Marvel to DC to Fast & Furious to Monster Movies to whatever the hell James Cameron comes out with next is going to be seen by more Chinese paying customers more frequently than any other nationality of movie-goers on Earth.

But I consciously hoped to allow this list, like the ones I made in the past, be a representation of the diversity of cinema that is still existent in the nooks and crannies of cinema-halls in the U.S., if you care to search and look for them. Movies are always going to be there even with Netflix and Chinese-centric marketing models because there are always artists who are going to be making them. If not in the U.S, then elsewhere. It’s a huge world, and it’s connected closer and faster than ever. Fascism and nationalism are rising, but so is everyone’s desire to see things outside of their own box. Maybe 2018 will be about that.
Anyway, here’s the list of my Favorite Films of 2017. (click on the title of each film to be taken to a full review of the film) :

  1. The Other Side of Hope | dir. Aki Kaurismäki (Finland)
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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

2. The Florida Project | dir. Sean Baker (U.S.A.)

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The title of the film is taken from the developmental code-name for Walt Disney World, and its no coincidence because the film lies entirely within the shadow of “the happiest place on Earth”. From rainbows and Disney gift-shops to rich tourists passing by getting scammed by Mooney and her mother Halley into buying stolen park passes, the title becomes a rather darkly comedic joke, juxtaposing the lavish and carefree living of American families on their way to a magical vacation with a community of people barely making ends meet.

3. The Killing of a Sacred Deer | dir. Yorgos Lanthimos (U.K.)

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which can be considered Lanthimos’s first dive into genre cinema, plays on the same sort of premise set by James Wan’s Saw series. A sociopathic teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan, who deserves every award for this) sets the rules for a game wherein the central character, a surgeon named Steven, (Colin Farrell) must make an unthinkable sacrifice to save himself and others.

4. Let the Corpses Tan | dir. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani (France/Belgium)

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“You remember those Looney Tunes cartoons where Taz comes ripping through a jungle in a giant whirlwind and everything is just tearing and flying? That’s how I imagine Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani were in the editing room when they edited their latest film, a rapid-fire pulp-drama of blood and fury, Let the Corpses Tan.”

5. Clash | dir. Mohammed Diab (Egypt)

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The conversations that Diab strikes between his characters are wild enough to make our heads spin, the confusion of who is on who’s side is unclear enough to frustrate our ignorant and uneducated Western minds. I could tell, from the first 10 minutes of the movie, until its conclusion, that Diab’s film works both as a stark social commentary for an Egyptian filmgoer and a mocking satire of America and Europe’s feeble attempts to try to “pinpoint” the good and the bad of the Arab Spring. The film systematically obliterates our binary point of view when discussing tensions in the Middle East. Diab purposefully populates the back of the police van bit by bit with different groups, initially daring us to pick the good guys. Like the Western-educated rube I am, I fell for it.

6. Dunkirk | dir. Christopher Nolan (U.K./U.S.A.)

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The transparency of intentions may sound disappointing, as fans of Chris Nolan have grown to enjoy putting the pieces of his ambiguous film-puzzles together after the credits roll, but then, Dunkirk is a true story of a real event with real people. Nolan plays this straight and appropriately so. Nevertheless, there are many facets of Dunkirk which belie the traditions of a Hollywood war film, and Nolan’s direction innovates along with Hoyte van Hoytema’s camerawork and Lee Smith’s editing juxtapose points of view and deep focus shots that are mesmerizing in 70mm projection.

7. Vazante | dir. Daniela Thomas (Brazil/Portugal)

 

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Shot in a stunning black-and-white, there is a clear influence of Terrence Malick and other visually poetic directors that laces every frame of the movie. Centered around a Portuguese slave-trader Antonio and his new child-bride Beatriz, the film takes a unique approach to studying a historically dark and violent time for the South American continent. What would have undoubtedly been turned into an exploitation tale filled with torture and sex if Hollywood were to get their hands on it, instead becomes a quite understated (but still emotionally affecting) film.

8. Kedi | dir. Ceyda Torun (Turkey)

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Kedi is still overall light-hearted, featuring several sequences of “go-pro” style camera tracking shots that give ground-level point of view shots of the cat’s journey through human-dominated habitats. The film is fun, and it plays perfectly to our unmitigated need to place human characteristics and traits onto non-human animals. A sequence where one of the cats chases after a mouse plays like the tunnel scene from the Harrison Ford movie The Fugitive. The mouse peeks in and out, aware of the cat’s presence but avoiding being seen. It’s thrilling, it’s quirky, it’s exactly the type of thing that gets a million “likes” and “clicks” and “retweets”.

9. Endless Poetry | dir. Alejandro Jodorowsky (Chile)

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In Poesía sin fin, as with previous Jodorowsky offerings, much of the verbal philosophizing that goes on can be taken with a grain of salt, and much of may be dismissed by most as nonsensical blabber anyway, but what cannot be ignored is the brutal events which the central characters undergo and their constant search to find meaning in the physical pain and suffering they go through. Here too, Alejandro is beaten, raped, bled, and abused in several instances, and his anger is always accompanied with a questioning of his existence. This is how Jodorowsky thinks. After all, he is a man for who limitations and convention are a complete detriment to his world-view.

10. Brigsby Bear | dir. Dave McCary (U.S.A.)

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Originality isn’t what really sets Brigsby Bear apart. The film follows a conventional progression of a character’s “self-discovery” and its emotional appeal is derived from nostalgia. Once James eventually becomes re-acclimated with “normal society” outside his igloo sanctuary, he gets the idea to create his own Brigsby movie. Alienated from everyone by the fact that nobody “understands” his love for a TV show, the movie’s moral argument centers around how we reconcile with the idea of “normality” itself. Do our experiences as children and what we consume in media as children ultimately shape who we are? And is this good? The answer to the second question depends on who you ask.

 

Best “Past Discoveries” of 2017:

The Turin Horse | dir. Bela Tarr (Hungary, 2012)

I Stand Alone | dir. Gaspar Noe (France, 1998)

Twin Peaks (Season 1) dir. David Lynch (1991)

The Panic in Needle Park | dir. Jerry Schatzberg (1971)

The Sopranos (Seasons 1-6)| (1999 – 2005)

Night and Fog | dir. Alain Resnais (1956)

The Spirit of the Beehive | dir. Victor Erice (1973)

The Werckmeister Harmonies | dir. Bela Tarr (2000)

The Forbidden Room | dir. Guy Maddin (2015)

Shin Godzilla | dir. Hideaki Ano & Shinji Higuchi (2016)

 

Small Stature, Powerful Punches – Aki Kaurismäki’s THE OTHER SIDE OF HOPE

 

 

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The Other Side of Hope (Aki Kaurismäki, 2017)

There is a term in boxing called “pound-for-pound” whereby a boxers rank is determined by his physical achievement in relation to his size. The best pound-for-pound fighters do the most with the least and while their stature may be small, the power and heart they exhibit during a fight outweigh it. If there is a stylistic equivalent to a pound-for-pound fighter in movies, I can’t think of a more fitting title-holder than Finnish director Aki Kaurismäki.

 

Since the beginning of his career, his cinema has been defined through a simplicity in style, dialogue, and emotion that is delightful and rich for some, but distant and opaque for others. It features lighting that can best be described as sparse and dialogue that is curt and aloof, most of it to comic effect, but also revealing deep insights into the character’s lives and emotions. I spoke much about Kaurismäki before here, and why I felt his movies not only do the most with the least, but why his idiosyncratic style is difficult to absorb at face value and not as easily digestible as his Western European counterparts, but yet, behind the coy and jokey design his films are draped with, he is a filmmaker with immensely bold and important ideas.

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With his latest film, The Other Side of Hope, Kaurismäki is his most unabashedly political and humanist. While his previous films, including Le Havre which dealt with very similar issues, nodded and prodded at societal undercurrents of Finland and Europe as a whole from the corner but disguising it with his signature façade of quirky deadpan humor, his latest offering doesn’t hold back punches. That’s not to say he strays anywhere near Ken Loach territory of melodrama-as-personal-statement, but Kaurismäki is undoubtedly the most fired up he has ever been about the current state of Finland.

Much like another 2017 film, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless which uses a parent’s divorce and missing child as an allegory for life under Putin, Kaurismäki utilizes a refugee story and a businessman’s redemption to channel politics, economics, and culture within Finland.

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Khaled is a Syrian immigrant, whose first appearance in the film is at the opening series of shot, with him slowly peeking his head out from under a pile of coal and casually walking away, caked in soot. His journey to Finland was anything but clean, and in one of the film’s most heartbreaking moments, he recounts the entire journey to a Finnish immigration officer. “I didn’t choose to come here” Khaled simply says at the end. He is looking for his sister who is the only family member left alive after a bomb massacred the rest of them in Aleppo. “ISIS, Kurds, Syrian government, USA, Russia, Hezbollah… it could have been anybody.” Many monster movies in Hollywood fashion the tagline “Whoever wins, we lose.” Khaled, and many other Syrians live that reality every day, and it’s not cool or exciting to watch. This is probably the most a Kaurismäki character has ever talked in one setting, but it indicates the importance Kaurismäki hold for the words of refugees, and for the director to break his style of undescriptive dialogue for this character, speaks volumes about his moral compass as a filmmaker.

While Khaled tries to find his footing with no money nor identification, the other central character in the film, a cold business investor named Wikstrom, who is recently divorced, buys up a restaurant and its staff with a large sum of money he won in high-stakes poker. He is incredibly savvy in the business world, and cutthroat as well. We realize from the beginning, after they arbitrarily come across each other on a deserted road in the first 10 minutes and promptly part ways without a word, that both Khaled and Wikstrom are destined to meet up once again. The dichotomy of these two characters is that between an established, wealthy national citizen and someone who has just arrived and is scraping by. They also represent the old and new visions of the director with Wikstrom’s restaurant venture providing the light-hearted brevity we have come from know and love of Kaurismäki’s cinema, while Khaled is the cipher for a new path of political commentary he is embarking upon.

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Wikstrom knows the lay of the land when it comes strictly to business, but he is not savvy to the political climate of the nation. When his workers ask for a high salary, he retorts they will get “union wages… whatever they are.” He is also easily duped by them in a hilarious sequence where the front-end host sweet-talks Wikstrom into a couple of extra Euros. He then steps out and signals to the other two employees a look which says “yeah, he’s a sucker” and the waitress promptly goes in to pinch a few easy bucks from him as well. Wikstrom’s uptight business attitude belies his vulnerabilities to dealing with people, and contributes to his complexity as a character and sets up for his encounter with Khaled.

That Wikstrom would find Khaled sleeping near the dumpsters outside his restaurant, get into a fist fight with him, and promptly offer him a job may be a naïve idealist dream, but it does make one thing clear, Kaurismäki refuses to brand people in his films as good or bad. In fact, the only characters in the film who end up being one-sidedly evil (because that’s the only factual and realistic way to portray them) are the Neo-Nazis who tussle with Khaled several times throughout the movie. In a comedic film, the presence of these figures feels like a jolt to the system. Kaurismäki’s inspiration here seems to come from Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. In that film, the Jewish barber is inherently a comedic character, but in one sequence, he is being lynched at a streetlight by Nazi sympathizers. It’s a terrifying scene because it is sandwiched between comedic hijinks. Even the event itself is poised as a “funny bit” with the Nazi’s not being able to tie the rope properly and Chaplin falling down and bonking one of them on the head. Kaurismäki recreates a similar mix of terror and comedy when the Nazis follow Khaled outside near an alley and attempt to pour gasoline on him and light him on fire when a homeless man smashes a beer bottle on one of their heads and sends him for a loop.

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Racism themes are treated in Hollywood with tear-jerking patronization and an ironic silencing of actual minority voices by posing it as a “both sides issue”. They are also hilariously considered brave and moving and are automatic awards hogs, like Martin McDonaugh’s disgustingly bad Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Kaurismäkis is a welcome antidote to the trivialization of these important topics, and his ability to create moments of such great power and emotion, and an unmistakable clarity in right vs wrong, from unassuming and often detached characters and situations inherent in his style is what makes The Other Side of Hope a remarkable achievement and the must-see film of 2017.

LET THE CORPSES TAN – Fire and Fast Cutting in the Medditerranean

 

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Let the Corpses Tan (Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani, 2017)

Everything in excess. Everything inspired. One sure way to catch the attention of an audience be it in the form of scorn or adoration is to do things the way Godard would. It’s the cinematic equivalent of “What would Jesus do?” and all else in post-modernist cinema essentially branches out from there. One of the major weapons at the helm of filmmakers like Tarantino and others who cut their teeth on the Godardian technique is editing, and they wield it like a crazed maniac slicing and dicing like its nobody’s business. You remember those Looney Tunes cartoons where Taz comes ripping through a jungle in a giant whirlwind and everything is just tearing and flying? That’s how I imagine Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani were in the editing room when they edited their latest film, a rapid-fire pulp-drama of blood and fury, Let the Corpses Tan.

One of the most obvious aspects of the film which, like a gust of Meditteranean wind, revitalized me in a late showing (11:00 PM!) which I wasn’t all too excited about, is that it reverts back to a conviction similar to early Tarantino, where the film is hardly concerned with telling any of sort of meaningul story, but instead plows full steam into a rapid heart-pounding pastiche of movie tropes that play like being slapped by every page of a copy of Steven Jay Schneider’s 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Cattet and Forzani elaborately dress the film mainly as a Spaghetti Western with Giallo undertones and boil the stew up with Godardian jump-cuts, which are literally separated by a ticking timer (in hours & minutes) that tells you exactly how much time has passed both between each scene and since the beginning of the film. This is a moment of contention for me because it seemed to be the one and only place where the directing couple entered into a territory of excess that produced eye-rolls.

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It’s very difficult to tread that line between what can be considered bold stylistic experimentation and just doing a bunch of edgy shit for the reactions. This film falls almost on that line, but what really keeps it in reign is Cattet and Forzani’s understanding of where their inspiration is coming from. In the whole line of “movies about other movies”, if one doesn’t recognize the original utilization of a particular scene, or camera placement, or editing, an inspired subversion and homage to those images become merely cheap mocks. One of the best instances of this film really understanding where its style originates from is how every conversation between any characters in the film is a high-noon standoff with the camera constantly aware of every movement of a person’s eyes (averting, opening, closing), hands (on a gun, clutching a knife, caressing a woman), and feet (planted apart, together, or limp and lifeless). It’s a brilliant way to elicit all the emotions of a Western from just it’s bare-bones ingredients. Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani…you have my attention.

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ONMbWj8u-RA

THE KILLING OF A SACRED DEER – It’s Lanthimos’s world and we’re all just slowly dying in it.

 

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer (Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

 

There’s nothing better than watching a film made by a director you absolutely love and have it meet every expectation. It becomes even more enjoyable when the tonal frequency of the filmmaker is compatible with yours. It’s a pure coincidence, of course – no great filmmaker remains great by catering to an audience – which is what makes it special.

Since his breakout film, Dogtooth, Yorgos Lanthimos has been relentless in his personal translation of the world around us: The mundane attributes of a typical human society stretched to lengths and limits and turned upside down so that even the most vanilla of daily moments are revealed as absurdly ritualistic. The bare bones of this concept are not unique… David Lynch did it with American suburbia, Charlie Kauffman with industry and media, and Roy Andersson with middle-class Norwegians. What sets Lanthimos apart is that his characters are not mere pawns of a greater society, they are the society. While the other filmmakers play with characters in a world bigger and more comprehensive than they can really wrap their heads around (Blue Velvet, Being John Malkovich, and A Bird Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence all feature people who are naive and alien to the world they have entered), Lanthimos’s central characters build the world and make its rules themselves.

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The Killing of a Sacred Deer, which can be considered Lanthimos’s first dive into genre cinema, plays on the same sort of premise set by James Wan’s Saw series. A sociopathic teenager named Martin (Barry Keoghan, who deserves every award for this) sets the rules for a game wherein the central character, a surgeon named Steven, (Colin Farrell) must make an unthinkable sacrifice to save himself and others. If he doesn’t play by these rules, then everyone dies. Unlike Jigsaw, Martin is not presented as a criminal mastermind, but as a timid, bumbling pubescent teen.  His actions are motivated purely by isolated revenge and not some greater worldly moral postulate. As Martin says, “this is the only thing I can think of that comes close to justice.”

Martin is a world-builder and very much in charge of everything that happens in the film. Much like the Father in Dogtooth who raises his children on strange and false fears about the world, or the Hotel Employees in The Lobster who set a timer on single people finding a mate, everyone else is at his whim. The Greek mythological allegory going on in the film is Iphigenia in Aulis, which is a tale of events sparked by Agamemnon killing one of Artemis’s sacred deer. This God-like stature of Martin is prevalent in the film, by the fact that his methodologies for enacting this vengeance are never discussed, and how he gets around is never shown. His phantom presence, over time, clouds over Steven’s family to a suffocating degree.

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Despite this, Lanthimos’s villains can never be too self-serious. They are still manifested as humans, and like all humans in Lanthimos’s world, they are also uncomfortably funny. One of the most terrifyingly giddy moments in the film is when Martin showcases how much he believes his own words as he bites off a chunk of Steven’s arm, and then proceeds to do the same to his own arm. In the most monotone voice possible, mouth full of blood, he drools out, “See? It’s metaphorical.” This can be expected from a filmmaker who revels in the fact that no moment can be completely normal, but is always a direct representation of how numb we are to the absurdity of societal norms and our own thought processes. Pushing this even further is that outside of the genre tropes of a typical horror film, everything else is filled with Lanthimos’s standard ingredients, namely his dialogues which make every phrase sound like its being recited by robots attempting to mimic human conversation.

The mix is discomfiting, and that’s really what it aims to be. In the end, all of Lanthimos’s films are about things humans feel often. His darker and more sadistic tone with this film doesn’t change the fact that it’s a movie about loss and our urge to get back at those who wronged us. But even in the face of death and murder his characters can’t help but dive into whimsy. When first confronted with his impossible situation, Steven bargains with his mistakes by saying “A surgeon can never kill a patient. An anesthesiologist can kill a patient, but a surgeon never can.” It’s a hopeless tactic of ill-conceived logic, but when we’re pushed to the brink of doom, we’ll say anything to keep ourselves going. In Lanthimos’s world, our fears and actions and words become parts of a Greek tragicomedy. In every character, we see something about ourselves laughing back at us. We can’t help but (uncomfortably) laugh along too.

Kingdom Come – Sean Baker’s THE FLORIDA PROJECT

 

1280_thefloridaproject2_a24.jpgCentering a film on children, especially annoying and mischevious ones, is walking a tight-rope. How far can you take their shenanigans until they become completely unlikeable? Where do you draw the line so their cutesy antics remain “bad but funny” and never go to being actually cruel? Mooney, Jancey, and Scooty, all around the ages of 6, 7, or 8, engage in a wide spectrum of practical jokes, from spitting on peoples cars from the balcony to shutting off the power grid. Yet, they remain the absolute heart and soul of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project, a highlighter-markered dramedy adventure with an incredibly dark undercurrent.

The title of the film is taken from the developmental code-name for Walt Disney World, and its no coincidence because the film lies entirely within the shadow of “the happiest place on Earth”. From rainbows and Disney gift-shops to rich tourists passing by getting scammed by Mooney and her mother Halley into buying stolen park passes, the title becomes a rather darkly comedic joke, juxtaposing the lavish and carefree living of American families on their way to a magical vacation with a community of people barely making ends meet.

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For the kids, Disney World is but a distant and unattainable pipe-dream. Instead, their kingdom is a four-story pink motel in Kissimmee, Florida which houses a diverse group of families, many of them poor and struggling. It’s easy to forget the psychological toll that poverty plays on children. Their reckless behavior is hard to sympathize with and understand. The concept of poverty and day-to-day uncertainty in life is so foreign for many us who, like me, grew up in the suburbs in a stable home with a steady income and a virtual guarantee of food, water, a paycheck, and electricity.  That these kids act out in a bunch of mischevious ways, curse like sailors, know a lot about sex and genitalia, is not a matter poor parenting as much as it is a matter of them being forced to find entertainment in the real world wherever possible. There are many movies which showcase how children cope with difficult living situations by creating their own worlds and forming their own mythos (the most obvious example here is Pan’s Labyrinth where Ofelia’s adventures with Pan result as a means of coping with death and brutality in Francoist Spain). For Mooney and her gang, the world is their oyster and in a much more serious sense, it’s their coping mechanism for a life that is incredibly unfair for children to have to live.

Sean Baker’s ability to bring a sense of genuine awareness and understanding of the downtrodden without resorting to gross sentimentality and reality TV kitsch is even better developed here than his previous entry Tangerine, an electrifying film about trans prostitutes in Los Angeles. He doesn’t force us to agree or like any of his characters, instead, building their humanity through their day-to-day struggles. Halley does her best at building a life, or really more a shield, for her daughter Mooney who doesn’t really grasp the idea that her mother has to steal and resell wholesale objects and have sex with married men to get food on the table. The constant pestering of the motel manager, a friendly but firm man named Bobby (a fantastic Willem Dafoe) doesn’t help matters. She’s vindictive, violent, a poor role model, and most of all, incredibly spiteful. It’s hard for us to find anything redeeming in Halley’s parenting of Mooney. Yet, their bond and love for each other are never in doubt.

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In many ways, Halley is similar to the character of Sin-Dee in Tangerine. Bold and brash, and obnoxious to many faults, but ultimately we come to terms with the fact that their attitude is what kept them going this long. It wasn’t a trait that was built internally, but externally, a product of a fight to survive in a world which has completely discarded them. Baker’s themes of poverty are sewed into every fiber of the film, and The Florida Project‘s greatest moments come from its character’s ability to see the joy and magic in a world that many of us would consider an absolute misery. The movie’s tagline “Find Your Kingdom” is melancholic, because it shouldn’t have to be their kingdom. They deserve better. But for as long as they are there, they might as well stake their claim as the commanders of their world.

 

IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM YET… STOP READING. SPOILERS BELOW

 

 

 

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What is going to be one of the most debated and divisive endings since maybe Chris Nolan’s Inception or The Coen Brothers’ No Country for Old Men, the ending of The Florida Project is a jolt of electricity. It looks weird, it feels weird, it ends in a way where we have to slap ourselves and ask, what the fuck just happened? Corey Atab of Slate Magazine wrote a cool piece on why the ending is absolutely PERFECT.

In my personal view, the ending of the film ties back into the concept of “escaping reality” which is a theme that exists in many stories centering around children in difficult situations. The end of the films poses an inescapable and terrifying truth of life, where Mooney is going to be taken permanently away from her mother. We know this is not going to change, we know that there is nothing but ugliness ahead… yet, the children still have hope. Much like the end of Pan’s Labyrinth, where Ofelia’s life screeches to a tragic halt, a devastating conclusion to an existence in fascist Spain that featured war, death, hunger, and not much else… yet, the legend of her friendship with Pan, and her legacy as a Princess in the Kingdom of the Afterlife poses an alternate reality. Is this a cheap twist to squeeze happiness out of misery? The cynical may think so. But children’s minds, their imaginations, their hopes, and dreams are always different than ours. They are shaped by a yet unrelenting and untied belief in good. So when Mooney and Jancey run for their lives towards Disney World and the Magic Kingdom and a legacy build on fairytales and princesses, it isn’t just a naive escape from an inevitable reality, it is a confirmation that whatever may come, they will keep running towards a happy ending.

Inside Three Films From the Latin American Film Fest

The AFI Silver theater was doing the Latin American Film Festival, and I decided with time restraints and busy schedule and all, to pick three movies playing at convenient times and watch them. I’m glad I did because they represented a good distribution of what you’d expect to be playing at most festivals around the world…  most of the selection was picked off from bigger premier fests from earlier in the year including Berlin, Cannes, Sundance, Locarno, Rotterdam, etc. All in all, it was a good experience and the audiences at these films are much more “there for the movie” than your regular theater audiences so the screening experience is almost always enjoyable.

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Vazante (Daniela Thomas, 2017)

I guess I should jump straight into extolling about what I thought was the clear standout of the three, Daniela Thomas’s Brazilian romance-thriller Vazante. Premiering at Director’s Fortnight earlier this year, and getting rave reviews there, the movie certainly lived up to its pedigree. It was without question the most accomplished of the films I watched, and also the most singular in its vision. Shot in a stunning black-and-white, there is a clear influence of Terrence Malick and other visually poetic directors that laces every frame of the movie. Centered around a Portuguese slave-trader Antonio and his new child-bride Beatriz, the film takes a unique approach to studying a historically dark and violent time for the South American continent. What would have undoubtedly been turned into an exploitation tale filled with torture and sex if Hollywood were to get their hands on it, instead becomes a quite understated (but still emotionally affecting) film. The tranquility of its setting, where Beatriz walks elegantly through grass fields to the sound of tropical birds, belies the reality of each characters existence. The brutality of slavery is kept as a looming, threatening undercurrent in the film, and the violence kept to a bare minimum. Similar to a sequence in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave where a young child plays with her dolls in the cotton field while we know, somewhere unseen and unheard, slaves a being savagely whipped, so too in Vazante is the majority of bloodshed implicit.

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When Beatriz falls in love with a slave boy named Virgilio, we know that sooner or later their luck of running away together unnoticed is going to run out. We know the terrible consequences of their actions. Yet, the glimmer of hope for them taunts us in many ways; in the traits of each character, such as Antonio’s seemingly lazy behavior (he sleeps in a hammock all day) at the plantation and his frequent long trips out into the jungle, as well as the technical choices of Thomas and her editor and cinematographer, who keenly keep the presence of Antonio felt throughout exchanges between Beatriz and Virgilio.

While both of the young lovers face similar peril in their relationship to Antonio, with Virgilio being a bought-for slave and Beatriz as bought-for bride, Thomas makes a clear distinction that Beatriz’s whiteness remains an inherent privilege. The class and racial consciousness Thomas infuses through simple gestures is markedly different from most American treatments of slavery, which usually features white characters “with a heart”.  Here, Beatriz is not shy about her disobedience to Antonio because even as a young girl, she is very much aware of her status while Virgilio’s life becomes more and more in danger as their relationship becomes more passionate.

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The Night Guard (Diego Ros, 2017)

A quieter entry in the fest was  The Night Guard, the debut film of Mexican filmmaker Diego Ros. Obviously working with budget restraints and helmed by a director clearly still getting his feet wet in the art of making cinema, it is set in a single location; a construction site near a hillside overlooking a large city. A security guard named Salvador is about to become a father, but instead of being with his wife as she’s going through labor, he is stuck tending to a police investigation of a dead child in a van which appeared near his construction site. As the night progresses, police corruption, shady activity from his co-worker Jose, an encounter with a hooker, and other obstacles keep Salvador in a reverse-Waiting-For-Godot situation where, as he is about to finally leave, he keeps getting pulled back. The movie aims to at once present a clever ruse necessitated by its budget constraints while also giving us a look at crime and security issues rife within Mexico. It has its share of flaws that usually befall a first-timer, with some strange editing, questionable acting, and a script which seems to be a little too thin and light for its full feature length, but it also flashes moments of Ros’s technical knowledge. He develops his aesthetic well, playing with light and shade and utilizing long shots to showcase both the isolation of his characters and the ambiguity of their surroundings. But with an ending that just leaves many of its ideas laying on the ground, the movie remains an unfinished product with potential.

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The Desert Bride (Cecelia Atan & Valeria Pivato, 2017)

Finally, from Argentina, is Cecelia Atan and Valeria Pivato’s The Desert Bride, which was an Un Certain Regard Selection at the Cannes Film Fest. Featuring a terrific central performance from Paulina Garcia, the movie is a charming buddy-road-film about a maid who loses her bag at a bazaar and goes in search of it with the help of the last person she remembers having it with, a merchant named Gringo. It’s a breezy entry that is incredibly easy to digest because its narrative follows an arc I am well accustomed to growing up on Hollywood cinema, and its central focus on the chemistry between its “mismatched pair” is basically custom-built to please audiences. While the movie is certainly enjoyable, it is a dime a dozen of the road-trip genre. Not much more to say here. You know what to expect.