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.

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Making bad decisions and having a GOOD TIME

 

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Good Time (The Safdie Brothers, 2017)

 

There eventually comes a time where I witness an undeniable talent in the film world. Last year it happened with Moonlight and its director Barry Jenkins, and this year it happened with Good Time and its directors Josh and Ben Safdie. It’s a beautiful thing really to see filmmakers who inject such a personal serum into every fiber of a film. It’s beautiful because it has become so rare. It’s beautiful because barely anyone has a fucking imagination anymore. Many are too scared to reveal a whole deal about themselves.

Centered around a drug-rattled and morally questionable protagonist named Connie Nikas (Robert Pattinson, who, like Ryan Gosling before him, has officially transitioned from cheesy teen heartthrob to an actor you actually want to pay attention to), the film takes us on a winding journey through Connie’s pathetically desperate attempt to save his brother Nick (Ben Safdie) from a botched robbery for which he was sent to jail.

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The Safdie Brothers don’t hide their artistic flair, and their inspirations, influences, and general view of the world are on full display. The opening shot, a robotic, thundering zoom into a glass building next to a sunny coastline, is like something directly out of a Michael Mann film. Everything that comes after subverts expectations of what I’ve become accustomed to being fed by “traditional” action thrillers.

Ironically, there is hardly anyone in Good Time who is likable. Nobody is lionized as some criminal hero. Connie manages to skirt many an attempt by police to stop him, and weasels his way through a number of fortunate situations, but there is hardly a reason to root for him especially since his actions are at the detriment of innocent civilians (It’s worth also noting that, whether intentional or not, the film perfectly showcases how black individuals end up being collateral damage and scapegoats in majority of criminal activities conducted by white perpetrators). The sad and easily-combustible cesspool-like environment here is a tamer version of the Safdie’s pervious much more gutting and much lower-budgeted film, Heaven Knows What (which I reviewed here).

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During Good Time, I found myself subconsciously wishing for Connie to get caught. He’s not Tony Montana, nor Don Corleone, nor Henry Hill. He has no air of superiority. He has no larger-than-life personality. He’s not charismatic. He’s just a slimy bumbling prick who needs to get what’s coming to him. His victories are luck, not an act of strength. His moral ambiguity and lack of clear lines make for an interesting introspection into how we perceive criminals in movies. Is the bumbling dirty poor criminal, who acts against the law out of desperate survival deserving of more sympathy, as a bit player scheming a system built to crush him? Is the organized white collar criminal, with power and wealth at his fingertips the one we should be tearing down?

Social and cultural undertones included, GoodTime provides a thrill ride that doesn’t rely on set pieces and pre-conceived situations as much as its characters’ decisionmaking. Connie and the rest of the cast’s fuzzy standing on the scale of “hero and villain”, which changes almost every sequence, change the way we’re supposed to think of action movies. There are no “keys to the city”, no “damsel in distress”, no “beating the bad guy”. Everyone in this movie is there for one reason: Surviving, for themselves, at all costs.

The Oscars 2017! or, something like that

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Ugh, these Oscars… the Best Picture nominees (except for Moonlight) this year are boring. The individual acting and directing nominees (except for Moonlight’s cast and director) are uninteresting and tired. The show is just going to be a sling of overused jokes about a toupeed orangutan all of us are tired of thinking about . I frankly care less about who wins or loses this year (but Moonlight is great, it should win) more than any year in the past.

So here’s just ONE THING you should keep in the back of your troubled minds while you’re sitting on your couch watching this charade thinking about the 6th Mass Extinction that scientists keep mentioning and wondering when it will finally take all of humanity with it:

The Real BEST PICTURE Nominees are in the BEST DOCUMENTARY CATEGORY:

I just made 3 straight not-subtle references to Moonlight if you were paying attention, but even that movie is nothing compared to the merciless bitch-slap across the face the Best Documentary category has in store for you. These movies are challenging, frustrating, the “I want to throw my computer against the wall because what I just watched pissed me off to no end” sort of great realistic, unapologetic and volcanic documentation of LIFE.
I mentioned in my Best Films of 2016 list that O.J.: Made in America was the #1 movie of last year. That hasn’t changed, and I wrote enough about it here to not have to go into an explanation:

But look at the other 4.

The 13th is a film by Ana DuVernay in multiple parts on the epidemic of unlawful and dangerous incarceration of black people throughout American history. There is zero excuse for you not to watch it considering it is on Netflix right now and I know all of you send them $7 straight out of your paycheck every month. Stop wasting that money watching F.R.E.I.N.D.S. for the millionth fucking time and support the voice of a filmmaker in DuVernay who is doing important work.

I Am Not Your Negro is probably the best title for a movie since Leos Carax’s Pola X (the explanation for that film title is here). On the manuscripts of James Baldwin, the film runs through his thoughts on and furious anger over the civil rights violations of a nation coming to grips with its own horrifically racist past, present, and if nothing changes, future.

The Italian documentary winner of the Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival, Gianfranco Rossi’s Fucoammare (Fire at Sea), showcases the lives of immigrants from Northern Africa who sail to find solace in Europe. The film’s raw footage gives the depth, danger, and peril of the journey of many of these individuals who understand the risks of death and proceed at all costs.

The final film is the least political, but still important. Roger Ross Williams’ Life, Animated showcases the coming of age a young boy with autism, who escapes the isolation and discrimination from society and learns to cope with his disability through his love for Disney movies. Most of our childhoods were defined by the Disney Renaissance, but for some, it wasn’t just a matter of nostalgia. This doc is a great testament to how cinema can change a life.

Watch these movies. If you have watched ANYTHING from the year 2016, makes sure you watch these:

OJ: Made in America (on WatchESPN for free)

The 13th (on Netflix)

I Am Not Your Negro (on Netflix)

Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea) (on Netflix)

Life, Animated (on Amazon Prime)

O.J. Made in America

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OJ: Made in America positions itself as a media-on-media critique. It uses interviews, news broadcasts, movie scenes, commercials, sports clips and analysis, and political speeches and reactions to recreate the aura and mythology of its central character, O.J. Simpson. As a black kid from the projects turned football star turned American icon, he was the living, walking, and talking embodiment of the American Dream, and exhibit A for proof that capitalism worked. A man whose figure in the American pop culture diaspora was so magnanimous, it defied definition. As Jay-Z put it, “Not a businessman, but a business… man.” However, all of this was shattered through a court trial that ended up finding him innocent, but fallout that rendered him an outcast of American society. In this, Edelman paints an America comprised of two sides that were always at odds in the fight for O.J. Simpson. A white America who embraced his rise and turned un-apologetically to relish in his fall, and a black America who felt neglected by his apathy towards their social struggle yet embellished in the opportunity to use his trial as a means of social justice. As a documentary, a piece of visual media, it turns its lens in every direction and points it back at us in 2016, facing a similar racially fractured situation which all but intensified post a seminal verdict in the court that is the American presidential election. It points it back at its own storytelling form, the overexposure of an individual, a normalization of his dangerous behavior, a treatment of him as a victim of unwarranted harsh criticism rather than recognizing his actions as inviting and justifying it.

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The social and cultural shifts of American history through time shape and are shaped by its most powerful citizens. Race relations brewed through O.J.’s life, even if he tried his hardest to avoid them. We perceive race as a binary entity. You are either racist or you are not. However, like most ideologies or worldviews, it exists in a blended spectrum that makes it harder for us to judge, and dangerously, harder to detect or realize. Many instances in O.J. Made in America showcase blatant examples of racism. Use of the n-word, beating of black individuals by police, direct violence against blacks by whites. However, there is also deeply rooted systemic racism that the documentary taps into and it is revealed not only in the laws and policies of the nation, but in the everyday lives of people, perhaps unwittingly. As they say, the system isn’t broken, it’s meant to work this way and it ingrained itself in the American psyche to the point of second nature… subconscious reaction to visual signals. Mark Cuban mentioned in an interview several years ago that if he was out at night in the city and saw a black kid in a hoodie he would feel the need to go to the other side of the street(1). We don’t know where such a mental reaction originated from and that’s exactly the issue. Preconceived notions on race are omnipresent in American media as well. In OJ, majority of the violent news footage is consisted of black individuals in urban areas attacking and being “handled” by police officers. These biases exist in everyone and they exist to different degrees. They existed within the rich white circles O.J. Simpson surrounded himself with and then was discarded from once they couldn’t use his stature to their benefit anymore. They existed within Johnny Cochran and his team, who used race-baiting tactics to overcome hard evidence and let a murderer go free. They existed within Simpson himself, who claimed he “never saw race” yet, upon seeing a commotion outside his mansion following his chase down the highway remarked to a white police officer “what are all these n—— doing here?”

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The subject, OJ, of Ezra Edelman’s documentary is amended with a predicate: Made in America. Here lies the power of the story. Where the onus is placed on a culture, a nation, and a history that perpetuated the rise of such an individual, and tore itself apart amidst his demise. The idol worship culture, where the concept of a person being bigger than a person, exists for better or for worse. We elevated Bill Cosby as an all-time comedian. We elevated Tom Cruise as a charismatic screen-stealing superstar. We elevated Donald Trump as a money-savvy outsider who could plausibly lead the most powerful nation in the world for four straight years. Through interviews and news clippings Edelman shows us how our (now social) media-obsessed culture feeds into the mythos of ultimate success and power. We say that America is the place where winners go. You’ll never become as successful and as wealthy and as powerful anywhere else in the world as you can in America. Well, that sword comes with two edges. Capitalism is always coupled with materialism. Fame is always coupled with greed. Power is always coupled with corruption. Only in America could an O.J. Simpson be made. We all made him because we all fed into his myth and his lie. The greatness of O.J. Made in America is in its ability to connect the evolution of a nation with the trajectory of one man’s fame, power, and wealth and the American people’s investment in that story. Something to think about for the next four years.

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