Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

27 October 2017

A Better Title than The Florida Project

I find the title of The Florida Project totally nonsensical. But Sean Baker apparently is not interested in titles. He titled his previous film – about two sex workers and a cab driver in Los Angeles –Tangerine, a color/fruit that has no apparent connection to the film itself. He has also said in interviews that he doesn't see why filmmakers feel the need to title their works. Ok.

I wasn't super excited for The Florida Project, but the first time I tried to see it here in Florida there was a line outside the door. Screenings of this film have been selling out in my local Orlando theatre, where it has been playing on only one screen for two weeks. In any case, the excitement was contagious, and when I finally got myself a ticket, I was really looking forward to it.

The first forty minutes or so of The Florida Project build the world in which we're going to be living in. We follow around six-year old Mooney and her miniature friends as they cause trouble, spit on parked cars, curse at adults, beg strangers for change, share a soft-serve cone between them, and turn off the power of the motel in which she lives with her mother. It's quality world-building that I didn't find that interesting until about the 40-minute mark, at which point I really became enamored with the film's characters and their world.

For the subsequent 50 minutes or so, things start to happen and the film really finds its stride. We begin to see the consequences of the absurd parenting job Mooney's mother is doing, and I began to feel afraid for the little girl at this film's center. Her mother is really not taking care of her, and this gave the film a real tension that truly began to work.

But then just as the film works its way toward its end, Baker changes the entire tone of the movie. The Florida Project ends with a laughably bad fantasy sequence that is completely incongruent with the rest of the film. All of a sudden, the beautiful care with which the previous parts of the film have been captured is discarded. The final sequence appears to have been shot on a smartphone. And all of a sudden an upbeat film score appears out of nowhere. We're clearly supposed to be in an impossible, fantasy-style sequence that is only being imagined by a character.

But who is doing this imagining? And why would a film that has been documenting the life of an impoverished six-year-old and her mother end with a sequence unrelated to the previous 90 minutes of documentation? The audience with which I saw The Florida Project left the theatre completely baffled. What was that? people were asking. Why did that happen? 

My companion and I decided that what happened was that Sean Baker doesn't really know what he's doing, and the more I think about that the more right I feel. The Florida Project is filled with interesting images and beautiful characterization, but none of this actually adds up to anything. The film ends the way it does because the end doesn't matter to the filmmaker. Baker strings sequences together, but they don't need to go in any particular order, and none of them actually says anything – about the characters or poverty in America or Florida or Kissimmee or Disney World or food or sex work or anything. They're all actually just surfaces.

A good example of what I mean is three sequences in the movie where Mooney's mom Halley (pronounced like Hayley) sells brand-name-knock-off perfume to residents at a Disney hotel. Each of these sequences is filmed in a longshot. We're asked simply to observe her, to watch her sell this perfume. And the sequences are also played for madcap humor, even one in which she is assaulted by a Disney security guard. Because the camera never moves in, the film never asks us to identify with Halley's experience while she does this. We never get a feeling of the stakes of the situation in which she has found herself. Rather than sympathizing with her, the camera sits in judgment of her, or to put it more accurately: the camera is simply there. It has nothing at all to say about what we're watching.

Baker clearly likes Richard Linklater – his influence is all over The Florida Project. I generally find Linklater a bit boring; to my mind he makes films that are more interesting in concept than in reality. But Baker really takes this all even further. It is as though he's making pseudo-documentary cinema. His camera captures the real, the gritty, the unattractive, the mundane. Fine, but what he is shooting is, of course, fictional – a set of fabricated characters and contrived situations that are not captured by his camera but created precisely for his camera – by him. He's devoted to avoiding meaning only so that his films seem more "real".

All I get from this is emptiness. The Florida Project is a film that could have plenty to say but doesn't say anything at all. And one begins to suspect that Baker doesn't have anything to say.

26 October 2017

Angry Harvest

Angry Harvest (Bittere Ernte) wasn't directed as well as it was written. (It was directed by Agniezska Holland and written by Holland and Paul Hengge from a novel by Hermann H. Field and Stanisław Mierzeński.) In other words, the film is more intelligent and interesting on paper than it ends up being on film. The direction was more claustrophobic than it ought to have been, and it avoided suspense almost purposefully.

Beach Rats

Beach Rats is contemplative and sad with an excellent lead performance. There were long stretches where I forgot Harris Dickinson was even acting. This has gotten better in my mind since I watched it, too. Beach Rats has its problems, but I liked it a good deal.

22 October 2017

Wake Island

Wake Island was apparently a huge box-office smash in 1942, as well as being widely acclaimed by critics. I was less impressed than the USAmerican populace in 1942, I guess. Act one is actually awful – stilted writing, bad acting, awkward editing.

Act two involves this absurd monologue about how women create memories or something. But the good part of acts two and three is the bombing of Wake island by Japanese forces. The sound, the explosions, the tension of it – all of that is great. I loved all of the air sequences too: they're balletic and exciting and dynamic.

As for the film's politics, Wake Island island surprised me by valorizing suicidal sacrifice by USAmerican soldiers. As much as the Japanese kamikaze would be demonized by United States media, our own media celebrated suicidal missions and sacrificing one's self for one's nation.

As for actual violence, Wake Island soft pedals things, like most films from this period under the PCA. When a man dies, he sort of clutches his breast, seizes up, and collapses. This isn't Bataan. Men don't bleed in Wake Island; they just fall over.

Honestly, though, it's sort of crazy that John Farrow made this movie in 1942, less than a year after the actual battle for Wake. And I was shocked to find that the film also references the Warsaw ghetto! Wake Island was released in August 1942, and evacuations of Polish Jews to Treblinka had only begun earlier that Summer.

The film ends with an upbeat musical sequence, over which a voice intones: "These marines fought a great fight!" as though the whole thing were a game. It's an odd bit of nonsense, that quote obviously makes the whole thing seem like a bit of fun rather than a slaughter in which hundreds of men were killed.

In any case, this ended up being sort of cool to watch, even if it is, more often than not, overly sentimental and awkwardly made.

20 October 2017

Am I in Cryo Sleep or Is This Film Boring?

It's a shame about Alien: Covenant. It has two or three really awesome scenes, but mostly it just doesn't jell. The more I think about it, the more surprised I am that Ridley Scott directed this installment of the Alien franchise (this is #6, right?). The film seems to have been heavily edited and re-molded by producers. It is very clearly a big-studio film that the producers thought was too long or too slow or too confusing. What it is now is not too long, but it is definitely too slow, and it is way more confusing than it needs to be, on top of being so totally predictable that it actually began to bore me.

Honestly, the poster is cool
The trouble is, I think, that the alien that has been the subject of the previous five Alien films has ceased to surprise. These are prequels to the original 1979 film, and Prometheus was about the evolution of the alien, and in this film the alien is a kind of contagion that behaves exactly as we expect it to behave and know that it will behave. There is one really great sequence in which an alien hatches out of Benjamin Rigby's back – it's incredibly cool and the film's best scene – but otherwise the monster is totally predictable.

In fact, the entire film is predictable, from start to finish. The third act is supposed to have two really big surprises. These plot twists are tired, generic reversals that could only fool a viewer who'd never seen one of the other Alien movies. You'll see both "surprises" coming from a mile away.

This leaves the film's relationships as the real interest of the film... except that the film's relationships aren't at all interesting. Covenant skips all exposition about its central characters. There is absolutely none. We begin with the death of the ship's captain and the entire crew weeping for his death. We, of course, cannot share in their grief because we do not know him at all. This is a strange storytelling tactic, and I feel pretty certain that this wasn't the way the film was written. The captain – we find out in a recorded video – was played by James Franco, so presumably his part was larger in some earlier version of Covenant. In addition, there had been early press that Covenant was going to introduce a gay male couple into its storyline. They're there in the movie, but their relationship is completely unclear, as though entire sequences had been excised from the final cut of the movie.

Covenant's best sequence – Mr. Rigby's back
Which isn't to say there is not a long, boring, expository scene because there is one of those – one in which we see Guy Pearce talk to Michael Fassbender, not about things we needed to know for the film to work, but about whether or not there is a god or whether we all need a father or something. I didn't care, and it was a ridiculously static way to begin an action–horror movie.

The alien, as usual for these movies, is totally disgusting, and this film had two or three really gross, cool sequences that I enjoyed, but overall I think the Alien series doesn't seem to have any more surprises up its sleeve. I was bored for most of this movie. In fact, I thought the Alien knockoff Life was more fun than Covenant – and I think the reason for that is that I never really knew what the sociopath alien in Life was going to do. I never really figured that little motherfucker out. With Covenant, I knew all of the moves the alien was going to make. This plot was hatched a long time ago.

12 October 2017


I loved Holiday and I love Ann Harding. What a great actress! It makes me wonder why she didn't work more.

Androids Dreaming of Electric Dads

Blade Runner 2049 is a long film. That is probably the first thing you ought to know about it. It clocks in at a totally unnecessary 2 hours 45 minutes. This movie is taking its time doing what it wants to do.

The next thing – and you already know this – is that the film is visually stunning. Its production design, costume design, cinematography, and visual effects are all award-worthy, awesome achievements. It just looks so good. The photography and lighting, honestly, are even better in the movie than you can tell from the trailer. There are sequences that are absolutely visually breathtaking.

And God remembered Rachel, and God hearkened to her and opened her womb. –Genesis 30.22

But Blade Runner 2049 is a self-important, pretentious movie, that expects its audience to do a lot of intellectual labor. It doesn't clearly articulate the ethical questions at the center of its filmic puzzle, either, so that if the characters are thinking through questions of right and wrong, or if they're making bold decisions that contradict their programming or their caste in society, we don't really have much access to the thought processes (or perhaps software processes) that lead to those decisions. In short, the movie doesn't really let us in to the characters. Even if I loved Ryan Gosling's character K, I only rarely felt like I understood the conundrums with which he was struggling. (Robin Wright and Carla Juri's characters are notable exceptions to this.)

More than that, the film's characters are obsessed with, and long for, natural things like wood, water, air, and animal life. But Blade Runner 2049 doesn't make this clear enough, and the audience never shares the characters' wonder at the real. So things that seem wonderful or awesome to these people in 2049 are completely ordinary to the film's viewers. And how could they be anything else? Blade Runner 2049 doesn't spend enough time setting up the world for us; it avoids allowing us into how the characters feel about the slum slash police state in which they live.

The King
There is a famous robot play by Karel Čapek – the man who invented the word robot – called R.U.R. or Rossum's Universal Robots. This is also an overly long story, and it aims at questions similar to Blade Runner 2049: viz. What if robots could reproduce? What might it mean for two androids to have a child? R.U.R. is mostly a problem play, and it spends its time talking us through the various ethical and emotional questions involved in having robots working as slaves (the word robot in fact means slave). In other words, there is much to discuss and therefore much time is needed for the play to do what it wants to do. Blade Runner 2049, by contrast, squanders its time, seemingly extending every sequence by at least 45 seconds so that the camera can drink up more of the gorgeous production design. This makes for a ponderous film that is nearly emotionally empty. (A part of this is due to having Ryan Gosling as the lead. He goes for stoic and silent in these kinds of roles – an obvious heir to Harrison Ford's famous sullenness – but this film needed emotional vulnerability in order to stop itself from being one of Christopher Nolan's soulless adventures.)

But it is visually and aurally stunning, and now that I've laid out all of my problems with the movie, all of the reasons that I know the film is not great, I can't say that I cared very much about any of these objections. I really liked Blade Runner 2049. Do I wish Villeneuve had made a better movie? I do. But I was delighted, astounded, even shocked by this one. Roger Deakins' cinematography feels completely fresh in every sequence. The neon-red-on-one-side-neon-blue-on-the-other-side visual that you can see in seemingly every movie – and about which I have complained before – never happens in Blade Runner 2049 even if it is used on the poster. Instead, Deakins' use of color feels inventive, novel, even revelatory. Now, one might easily object: but in service of what, exactly? and this objection would make sense, but for me these images were actually enough. They evoked plenty of emotion for me as colors and light: It was like staring at a Mark Rothko or a James Turrell or a Doug Wheeler.

So, I guess I can't really recommend Blade Runner 2049. If I really liked it, I know that I liked it for very specific reasons. I expect that for most people, this film's self-importance and pretenses will weigh more heavily against it, and those people are – sigh – probably right.

05 October 2017

The Charge of the Light Brigade

Honestly, I hate stuff like Michael Curtiz's The Charge of the Light Brigade. This is one in something like a score of Errol Flynn–Olivia de Havilland pictures. He's handsome; she's boring. But none of that has any effect on this movie, which foregoes the usual swashbuckling version of Flynn in favor of a "noble" British officer fighting the Russians (apparently) in colonial India.

It's just impossible for me to be on the side of these British, who are hanging out in India and trying to protect Victorian interests on the subcontinent. I find it simply inconceivable that I am supposed to root for these men in mufti attempting to "tame" (or whatever other nonsense term they use) a country that isn't theirs in the first place. I don't care how many times the film refers to them as savages or shows them killing women and children. The British do not belong there.

This film's score (by Max Steiner) was nominated for an Oscar, but the music's insistent trumpets and constant use of martial pacing, as well as its reliance on quotation of "Rule Britannia" annoyed me just as much as the rest of Curtiz's movie.

Mostly, I must admit, I just didn't care about any of this. There is a love plot – two brothers love the same woman – but I couldn't be bothered one bit. The film quotes Tennyson's poem "The Charge of the Light Brigade" repeatedly by substituting its words for actual action, but the whole time I was just bored. To me it all felt as tired as Tennyson does.

I guess it is also worth saying that this is one of those films that thinks waging war, dying in war, and fighting over pieces of land that the generals themselves acknowledge they think are not worth fighting about are noble, valiant acts. And in this way The Charge of the Light Brigade is truly full of shit. When the film ended, with literally hundreds of men being killed by cannon fire because of an arrogant, foolish decision on the part of Flynn's character, it was driven home again to me just how nonsensical the whole thing was. Hundreds of men dying for a frivolous act of revenge, done to avenge an act that would never have happened in the first place if the English had just stayed on their island.

04 October 2017

The Racket

The Racket is more about the racket itself than about any one character in the racket, and although the film is occasionally smart about the criminal justice system's collusion with organized crime, this is way less interesting and not as well acted as 1929's Alibi, and it isn't even remotely as well made as Josef von Sternberg's Thunderbolt (also from 1929).

01 October 2017

The Dark Angel

The Dark Angel was sentimental but I found it rather touching. I love Fredric March so much. I know he was a huge movie star and that I probably should have admitted his long ago, but he's just so wonderful. I don't know why I was so resistant.

The Pied Piper

Typical sentimental war-time patriotic nonsense. I love Monty Woolley as much as the next guy, but this batch of silliness?