THE FLORIDA PROJECT***** Outstanding


OH WHAT A magnificent movie.

The story follows -in that affectless, naturalistic style of the under-awarded “American Honey”- a giggle of 7-8 year old kids, who are having a thoroughly enjoyable time. Life’s a blast. They roam here and there around Future World, an awful, kitsch, almost alien imitation Disney World, as well as the forbidden rooms in their apartment complex: the Magic Castle Motel (“the most magical place in the world”). They explore places, giggle, hustle money for ice cream and, as no doubt all kids do, burn down abandoned apartment blacks. The world as seen through their wide-eyed innocence is one of all fun and laughter all the time.

It’s a tremendous piece of directing. Director Sean Baker has managed to wrest performances from his young cast (almost all of whom are first timers) that are absolutely spot on. Their ringleader is Moonie (a scene-stealing, compelling Brooklynn Prince). She loves pigging out at diners and at the hotel just down the road; she still has some baby toys and has been taught to take long and leisurely baths while mom, who seems barely out of her teens, turns tricks in their tiny one-room apartment.

Beneath the bubbling happiness of these undisciplined, feral children, the world we glimpse is a dark (if garishly lit) one. It’s a world well beyond the reach of any social safety net, simply the long arm of an indifferent law; and where only a network of relationships (offering filched food) and a separate law of the (urban) jungle are all that keep destitution and despair at bay.

The director/writer team of Baker and Chris Bergoch keep the mood buoyant by their ostensible focus on the naughty kids. It’s almost a tease to the presence of the darker realities that never quite intrude on the fun and games but are unmistakenly there.

Mom is Halle (an engaging Bria Vinaite in her first movie). She’s a pretty young gal, whose mentality seems barely less immature than her daughter’s. We’re made privy that she’s served time, but nothing more… for the movie does away with any attempt to bother with the back stories of its characters. But you can more or less guess hers: knocked up at a tender age; father long gone; no education to speak of…and with only her wits to get her through life. The brilliance of this character is the sense of innocence and naiveté that still manages to live on, despite the sordid reality of the experience.

She (and Moonie…this is a mom and daughter team) con their way into free hotel meals, hustle guests at the hotel to buy “genuine” perfume, steal and then resell Disney tickets, and mom earns some extra cash from casual prostitution to pay for the rent.

In this nowhere world of nowhere people, Robbie (a surprisingly charming, menace-free Willem Dafoe), the downtrodden manager of the apartment block, is the closest thing to a helping hand. Not that he’s much help: he simply goes about his business with compassion and without judgement.

And that’s about as accurate a description you’ll find for this extraordinary portrait of a slice of the American Dream circa 2017. Here is the world’s richest country whose wealth is no more accessible to these citizens than is the Fantasyland just down the road from their neighbourhood. (The Florida Project incidentally was the original name for Disney World)

In the same way that Chris Bergoch’s clever writing doesn’t need a back-story to give his characters depth, we can be pretty sure where their future’s heading. This is a cycle of poverty, pregnancy and prison from which there’ll never be any escape. And, despite the bouncy sunniness of Moonie’s disposition, there’s no doubt about what awaits her as adulthood unfolds.

Baker and Bergoch’s last project was the (apparently) stunningly successful “Tangerine”, a movie about transgender prostitutes shot entirely in situ on i-phones. That guerilla movie making spirit is only evident at the very end when a scene shot in Disney World was done so “unofficially”. A story that began in the faux Disney of Future World ends in the real Disney with its Magic Kingdom slightly out of focus in the background. So this is Baker’s America: a place lived in a fake world where all ambition tilts forever toward a make believe one.

Or maybe we’re simply describing the White House here

 

THE FLORIDA PROJECT. Dir: Sean Baker. Writer: Baker + Chris Bergoch. With: Willem Dafoe, Brooklynn Prince, Bria Vinaite, Valeria Cotto, Christopher Rivera, Caleb Landry Jones (“Three Billboads Outside Ebbing, Missouri”). Cinematographer: Alexis Zabe

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BATTLE OF THE SEXES**** Smashing


AS THEY DID so un-fussily in their earlier movie, “Little Miss Sunshine” directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, along with writer and Oscar winner Simon Beaufoy (“Slumdog Millionaire”) tackle this heavy topic of misogyny and sexual discrimination with effortless dexterity and a light hand. These guys are masters of tone.

In this marvellously entertaining story of the famous grudge match between Bobby Riggs – a past tennis champion turned Carnival huckster and gambler – and Billy Jean King, then the world number one women’s player, Messrs. Dayton and Faris make their points without ever belabouring them.

Emma Stone is a thoroughly convincing Billy Jean (with, a remarkable physical resemblance). She plays the part against “type”. This “type” as depicted by Riggs, Jack Kramer the President of the US Lawn Tennis Association (Bill Pullman) and pretty much all the men in the movie, is really one of two cartoon archetypes in which all women are slotted. The (preferred) type is that of the woman who accepts her inferiority and knows that her real place is either in the bedroom or the kitchen. Her opposite is the upperty/feminist type: the woman as harridan (“a hairy legged feminist” as Riggs describes her), who somehow refuses to recognise or acknowledge her inferiority.

The BJK we meet is a real person, not a type. We hear about her character long before we really meet her; she’s a single-trick pony: someone so obsessed with her tennis that she’d sacrifice anything. But the (married) Billy-Jean we meet is warm, funny, engaging and, much to her surprise, smitten by another woman (resulting in the third ‘type’, still to this day despised by the venomous, fellow player, Margaret Court: the lesbian type. There is indeed a strong gay subtext in the movie. The battle is never only about recognition and equal pay; “equality” is as much about gender as it is about sexuality)

The writing is clever. Even as we’re warming to this more fragile side of her personality, we’re introduced to the steelier, courageous, “don’t fuck with me” side. The side that refuses to accept her male counterparts being paid eight times more. And the side that takes on the responsibility of defending her gender’s demand for equality by finally rising to Rigg’s misogynist Man v Woman, Strong v Weak, Superior v Inferior challenge.

The eponymous Battle of the Sexes.
So very much hung on this match!

Riggs was coming off a victory over Margaret Court; someone who’d clearly accepted the narrative of female inferiority, and yielded to it. That victory had proven Kramer’s point, and his justification for the unbalanced pay scales: that women simply didn’t have the nerve, the disposition, the emotional toughness to stand up to ‘real’ (i.e. male) tennis players.

BJK frets and worries about losing. And like the warrior she is, she prepares for battle. Riggs, as a man, assumes he’ll win.

But if BJK is a nicely rounded personality, the writers deliberately leave Riggs as a cartoon character; one as buffoonish as his patronizing and contemptuous, if popular, views on women (despite being entirely dependent on one, his long suffering wife). It’s a subtle editorial comment that.

Steve Carrell’s Riggs is as physically compelling as Stone’s BJK. And like Ms. Stone’s portrayal , it’s a nicely subtle and convincing piece of acting: appearing one dimensional…almost the pantomime villain, without it being one dimensional acting. There are only occasional flashes, and especially at the cathartic end, when Carrell allows us to see the sad, hollow man his character really is.

Stone and Carrell dominate the movie. But two other characters manage to edge into frame: Sarah Silverman is Gladys Heldman, the pushy, ballsy, bossy manager of (BJK’s) newly formed Women’s Tennis Association (disparagingly referred to as Ladies’ tennis). And, as the darker, more menacing, more threatened face of male misogynism, Bill Pullman’ is excellent (condescending, sneering, supercilious) as her counterpart as the USLTA.

Billy Jean’s courage, her victorious battle of the sexes, was the first big breakthrough in making some headway in gender pay equality. And, even back then, the WTA’s first big sponsor, Virginia Slims, said it succinctly: “We’ve Come a Long Way, Babe”. But, with the sad reality of 33 women CEO’s in the Top 500 US companies, that slogan, like the reality of equal pay would suggest that there’s a verrrry long way to go yet.

Battle of the Sexes. Dir: Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris. With: Emma Stone, Steve Carrell, Bill Pullman, Sarah Silverstein, Alan Cumming, Andrea Riseborough (“The Death of Stalin”)  Writer: Simon Beaufoy. Cinematography: Lindys Sandgren (“American Hustle”)

 

MUDBOUND***** Excellent


This superb movie (Another challenge to Hollywood by Netflix) is an epic, small-scale film (There could be no more than a dozen or so characters) that, confidently, tackles the huge issue of (black) servitude – the legacy of slavery – and the struggle for freedom.

The story centres on two, dirt poor, families – neighbours – in rural Mississippi. One family, the McAllan’s is White and the other, the Jackson’s is Black. After being suckered by a sheister, the McAllan’s find themselves sharing a (symbolic) common plot of mud-drenched farmland with the Jackson’s. It’s a come-down in life. They see the land as a curse. The Jackson’s see it as a blessing. But despite the commonalities of their circumstances – the unforgiving rain, a long shared history, a family structure that almost mirrors each other’s, the daily grind to eek out a living from the land- the divide of race remains a barrier that can never be surmounted.

Even seventy five years after the end of slavery, the master/slave dynamic remains hard wired into the muscle memory; into a sense of identity, bound to a status quo that demands that the Blacks know their place: one of servility and deference. The scenes of rural poverty, of people literally stuck in the mud suggest that the belief of (White) racial superiority is the only thing there is to offer these poor Whites some semblance of self-respect. Without it, there is nothing. Only poverty (and Trump).

The two women in the families, Laura (Carey Mulligan) and Florence (a superb Mary J. Blige) share some sort of recognisably human bond (They’re both also meant to “know their place”): in times of trouble, Laura, herself trapped in a miserable life, depends on the healing hands of Florence. There are moments when human compassion and empathy override the racial relationship that defines their lives, when two people see each other as people, not racial types. But it is Poppy McAllan (Jonathan Banks), an embittered, racist KKK member, whose unrelenting hostility sets the tone.

The problem comes when the two sons, Jamie McAllan (Garret Hedlund) and Ronsell Jackson (Jason Mitchell, so very good in “Detroit”) return from the (2nd World) war. This war of liberation has for them become the theatre of their own personal liberations; their own personal epiphanies. For Jamie, the simple verities of White masters and Black slaves have been shattered by the necessarily shared values of fighting shoulder to shoulder (and by being saved by a Black fighter pilot). For Ronsell, the shock of being regarded as a liberator, as an equal, has so shifted his world-view that the demeaning servility expected of him back home becomes unbearable.

The two men form a bond, a band of brothers in a minor key.

But Jamie, with his not understood PTSS and Ronsell with his uppity ways, are strangers in their own town. And this cannot be permitted. The tradition of racism, so knitted to identity and self worth, must defend itself against the post-war disease of equality. The old ways will never yield to the new (as the KKK do their thing).

But director Dee Rees’ thesis that the individual can transcend his/her history and find fulfilment no matter the odds, leads to an ending that feels shoe-horned onto a gloomier and more honest conclusion.

It’s a minor blemish to a major work.

Apart from the excellence of this movie, there’s something radical and groundbreaking about it: many of the production crew (cinematographer, editor, composer, writer) buck Hollywood tradition: they’re mostly Black and they’re mostly women.

Way to go Netflix

 

MUDBOUND. Dir: Dee Rees. With: Carey Mulligan, Garrett Hedlund, Jason Clarke, Jonathan Banks, Rob Morgan, Jason Mitchell, Mary J. Blige. Writers: Virgil Williams (Who wrote most of the “24” TV series), and Dee Rees from a book by Hilary Jordan. Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison (“Cake”); Production Designer: David Bomba (“Walk the Line”, “Godless”)

 

PADDINGTON BEAR 2**** A Christmas Joy


THERE ARE A couple of scenes in this marvelous movie that are guffawingly funny. When the brilliantly realized, thoroughly clutzy, Paddington (voiced by Ben Wishaw) decides he has to earn some money cleaning windows, Director Paul King (who directed the first movie) unleashes a series of comedy routines that are simply priceless.

This revisiting of Michael Bond’s good natured bear and his adopted family (or is it the other way around?) is as good as the first.

King’s fluid, roaming camera (that takes you with him to the edge of thunderous waterfalls and swoops over rooftops) gives the story (of a bear in search of a stolen book) an energy and a stylishness that’s irresistible. You can’t blame Hugh Grant’s (we presume apocryphal) story that his father queried whether the bear were real. As far as I’m concerned, Framestore’s magic made it so.

And as you’d expect in a story like this, there’s a hissable baddy: said Hugh Grant as the dastardly Phoenix Buchanan

This is Grant’s movie-dominating, scene-stealing, triumphant tour de force return to the movies (a return he tempted us with in “Florence Foster-Jenkins”). Even if you hate “kid’s movies” see it just for him. Grant isn’t just one baddie, but several. He’s a devious washed-up actor, desperate for some extra cash; and he’s a shifty nun, a piratical Magwich, a Medieval knight in armour, a bumbling bald train conductor and an all round deliciously entertaining comedian.

He’s backed up by a who’s who of Brit cinema: Brendan Gleeson as a career criminal who falls for marmalade, Sally Hawkins and Hugh Bonneville as Paddington’s adopted parents, Michael Gambon, Richard Ayoade, Jim Broadbent, Joanna Lumley being Ab Fab, Peter Capaldi, still nasty, Imelda Staunton and others

Here’s a version of England as the England – community spirited, diverse, forgiving – as we’d all like it to be. And giving the entire enterprise a jolly pep to its step (as in P1) is a swaying, smile-making Trinidad calypso band (D Lime featuring calypsonian Tobago Crusoe).

Who could want for anything more

 

PADDINGTON 2. Dir: Paul King, With: Hugh Grant, Ben Wishaw, Brendan Gleeson, Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins. Written by: Simon Farnaby (from the books by Michael Bond) along with Paul King. Cinematographer: Erik Wilson. Production Designer: Gary WIlliamson

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS*** Occidental Tourists


THE CHALLENGE FACING Kenneth Branagh in his stylish re-imagining of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was how to make a dated, preposterous story, engage an audience well accustomed to very high class murder mysteries on TV.

As a reminder of the story: Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot (Branagh), sporting (or I should say, fighting against) an absurd clownish mustache, finds himself on a train with an eclectic cast of characters, one of whom is brutally murdered. The train (said Orient Express chugging through snowfall from Istanbul to London) gets stranded by an avalanche and it behooves the world famous detective, armed only with his formidable intellect (and without even the aid of Google) to solve the mystery and reveal the murderer.

Branagh’s solution to his problem is to offer us a conjurer’s trick. He invites the audience to slip back into the effortless glamour of 40’s Hollywood, when everyone looked fabulous; when the clothes, like the complexions glowed with an otherworldly gossamer of elegance and sumptuous wealth. And not just the people: the scenery, the sets, the locations are all gloriously beautiful. There is one particular moment when the detective’s motor launch steams into the Bosporus that is picture postcard perfect.

And it’s while we’re engaged, preoccupied, by all this visual spectacle that he sneaks in a crudely cartoonish, tension-free version of Cluedo. Was it the butler with the hammer in the library or the count with the spanner in the bedroom?

The story presents us with a series of broadly drawn stock caricatures that this high quality ensemble of actors struggle to transcend. Judi Dench is the haughty Princess with her fussy dog, Daisy Ridley is the deceptively sweet governess, Johnny Depp (mercifully contained) is the brash gangster, Derek Jocobi is the snooty man-servant, Michelle Pfeiffer is the flirtatious American, Olivia Coleman is the dowdy German lady in waiting, Penélope Cruz is the distraught sinner etc. The twist of course is that below the caricature, there are real beating hearts, one of whom is a murderer. But caricature wins out over the beating hearts, whose stories never quite make it to the surface despite an endless yawn of interrogations.

Christie’s writing may have made this absurd assemblage easier to digest by colluding with her readers’ imaginations and escapist fantasies. But writ large on the big screen in a post “Gone Girl” world, these cartoonish characters all seem shop worn and passé.

In the end, the big, deliberately theatrical reveal, with a Poirot burdened with his choice between the law and Justice, seems all very anti-climatic.

That said, as a lover of great cinematography (Haris Zambarloukos of “Denial” and “Thor”), brilliant production design (Jim Clay of “Woman in Gold” and “Love Actually”) and inventive wardrobes (Alexandra Bayne of “Doctor Strange” and the “Avengers” franchise), it was a very watchable film. (Far more watchable, say, than the much-lauded faux jollyness of “Thor: Ragnarok” which, at best, was a great cure for insomnia)

 

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. Dir: Kenneth Branagh. With Kenneth Branagh, Penélope Cruz, Willem Dafoe, Judi Dench, Daisy Ridley, Leslie Odom Jr., Tom Bateman, Johnny Depp, Derek Jacobi, Lucy Boynton, Michelle Pfeiffer, Olivia Coleman. Writer: Michael Green (“Blade Runner 2049”), Composer: Patrick Doyle (“Thor: Ragnarok”)

 

ANDREA WULF: THE INVENTION OF NATURE**** Just Brilliant

This gallery contains 4 photos.


A hundred years after his birth, in 1869, almost every major city around the world celebrated the man who, at his peak, was the most famous man alive: Alexander von Humboldt. There were fireworks, street parades, speeches and festivities. He wasn’t a soldier, or a politician or an artist. The world was celebrating the anniversary […]

THE DEATH OF STALIN***** From Russia with Wit


HAVING RIDICULED THE amoral, power hungry incompetence at the hearts of governments in his outrageously funny TV series, “The Thick of It” and “Veep”, where could writer/director Armando Iannucci turn to find a proxy for the infighting imbeciles in Whitehall and the dangerously powerful infants running the White House?

You turn to a country where amoral, power hungry incompetence is wedded to sleazy sex and a ruthless reign of terror: the Soviet Union. “The Death of Stalin” is billed, accurately as “a comedy of terrors”. And what a comedy! What terrors!

The story spans the (three year) period between the death of Stalin and the ‘election’ of Nikita Khrushchev, during which time, against a background of on-going summary executions, Stalin’s inner presidium went, briefly, from mourning to chaotic in-fighting, plotting and double- crossing to the eventual victory of the army-backed Khrushchev over the secret service-backed Beria.

And this is the stuff of comedy?

In Iannucci’s hands it is. He deftly manages to maintain a neat balance between the terror (never marginalized) and outrageous, often slapstick comedy. From the outset Iannucci establishes Stalin’s absolute authority when we see him demand the recording of a just finished live piano concert. It’s not an unreasonable request but for the fact that the concert hadn’t been recorded. Welcome to the world of Stalinist Soviet absurdity, as a panicked producer (Paddy Consadine) frantically locks everyone he can into the concert hall, dragoons innocent passers-by to fill in any vacant seats left (to ensure that the sound accurately replicates the original performance), drags a conductor (terrified) from his bed in his pyjamas (to stand in for the original conductor who’s passed out) and records the re-performed symphony. The flunkies awaiting the record are furious that it all took so long.

So when Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is found comatose on his carpet (“in a puddle of indignity”), there is no absolute authority to tell his courtiers what to do. Chaos ensues. They can’t even carry his body from one room to the other without pratfalls and mayhem. It’s a woefully dysfunctional team of ruthlessly powerful sycophants and clowns who, relieved of the puppet master, turn on each other. Iannucci zeroes in on his cast of characters with laser like precision, peeling back their disarmingly banal character traits to reveal their deeper natures. Khruschev (Steve Buscemi) is the conniving master plotter disguised as the harmless clown prince; Beria (Simon Russell Beale) is the avuncular rapist and executioner; Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor) is the empty figurehead; Zhukov (Jason Isaacs) is the soldier hero in love with himself; Vasily Stalin (Rupert Friend) is the idiot son who needs to be either sedated or heavily managed; Svetlana Stalin (Andrea Riseborough) is the distraught daughter slowly fraying at the edges. And on and on. And somewhere out there, beyond the gilded walls of the Kremlin, slightly out of focus are the wretched people who suffer at every turn.

It’s a world of dysfunction, incompetence and the greed for power. “The Death of Stalin” may be set in Russia and may have itemised the events and characters in the aftermath of that eponymous death. But it’s really a story about the present state of the self-serving Republicans and the infighting Conservatives. Democracy or dictatorship. It’s almost as though the director were suggesting (seen through the lens of laughter) that the institutions of either of these opposite political systems were no more than facades for the interchangeable venalities and greeds of the people who run them.

As you’d expect from Iannucci, the writing (along with fellow writers, David Schneider and Ian Martin) is as spot-on sharp as it is scatalogical. Everyone curses all the time. It’s as though the conversations of his characters are as debased as their souls.

And the acting is outstanding. Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale carry much of the show, but the quality of supporting cast, even in the smallest of roles (such as Paddy Constdine’s distraught, dandyish concert producer or Michael Palin’s faux-courageous Molotov) ensures that the whole enterprise never flags.

Maybe Trump/Congress and May/Parliament should be made to watch this movie over and over again until the penny drops.

But that’d probably take years

 

THE DEATH OF STALIN. Dir: Armando Iannucci. With: Jason Isaacs, Andrea Riseborough, Steve Buscemi, Ruper Friend, Jeffrey Tambor, Paddy Considine, Michael Palin, Simon Russell Beale. Written by: Iannucci, David Schneider and Ian Martin; adapted from the comic book of the same name by Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin. Production Designer: Cristina Casali. Cinematographer: Zac Niclolson