The Florida Project (Baker; 2017)

Take people from Haiti, Cuba, Jamaica, and the other various Caribbean Islands, mix in a large elderly Jewish population, elderly people in general from all walks of life, a dash of college students looking to attend the nation’s most notorious party schools or just spend some time getting drunk and wearing skimpy clothes while on break, and family tourists also wanting some beach time and good clean amusement park fun, and you have the recipe for Florida.  It’s an unusual but not quite volatile mix resulting in a place which seems sickeningly sweet on the surface, but as you get past that surface you can see that things are often rancid.  The Florida Project is a slice of life film featuring the story of a young single mother (Halley played by Bria Vinalte) and her precocious but delinquent 6-year-old daughter (Moonee played by Brooklyn Prince) who live in a run-down hotel which exists on a strip in Orlando riddled with gaudily decorated souvenir and gift shops capitalizing on their proximity to Walt Disney World.  Also featured is Willem Dafoe as the hotel’s long-suffering but good-natured manager Bobby.

The Florida Project most definitely has a story it is telling, but it’s not one which is obvious until the film’s final frames as it is more concerned with just showing the everyday lives of its poverty-stricken but optimistic protagonists.  This is a film which is very much concerned with how a poor unemployed mother manages to pay for rent and food every week, but also showing what it is about her which could put such a beautiful, friendly person in the situation in which she’s found herself.  It’s a film which shows us how a 6-year-old girl who is smart and charming can see a world of tourists and poverty as a place which is still magical, adults are people who buy her ice cream, pranks are fun for everyone, and a hotel’s continental breakfast is the greatest thing on the planet.  The Florida Project much like the tourist traps just down the road from its action is far more concerned with an experience than with a plot.

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The only veteran actor in the film is Willem Dafoe, the rest of the cast is a ragtag bunch found via Instagram and talent agencies and are working for the first time on camera.  It’s amazing, then, that this cast is so adept at both standard acting and at improvisation.  It’s obvious that there are scenes which are both scripted and scenes which are completely off the cuff, but what is not obvious is which are which until the film is over and you can see where the audience is ultimately being led.  We expect this from Dafoe, but when Bria Vinalte riffs with her fictional daughter one second then gives an impassioned speech to her best friend the next, we know that there is some real natural talent on display.  Most impressive is 6-year-old Brooklyn Prince.  She has to give the audience its point of view and also act as the film’s emotional core, and you know when she is conning tourists at the ice cream stand or running with her friends through the Orlando landscape that she is “just being a kid”, but then when she shows she can also shatter our hearts into pieces with one of the most realistic and affecting emotional breakdowns ever put on screen we see that this child truly is an actor, as well.

Sean Baker, the director of The Florida Project, is not yet a household name, but if he continues his trend of giving us visual dynamic films with a twist of the innovative he may soon be.  He has given us a film shot entirely on an iPhone (Tangerine) and even when not using a gimmick (I prefer to call it an experiment) he shows he has an eye which excels at framing the people who are the true focus of his attention, but which can also step back and show us the character of the landscape these people are framed against.  The Florida Project is absolutely gorgeous, but it also artistically captures the emotion of the impoverished areas near the Magic Kingdom accurately and impressively expressing its vibe of equal parts whimsy and desperation.   The only film this year that can match the impressive cinematography of The Florida Project is Blade Runner 2049, and that film had a large budget and special effects to lean on.  The Florida Project has no such crutches.

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The Florida Project may not have a very specific story to tell, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a lot to say.  Its characters are flawed, but not so flawed that we can’t identify with them, and this is the most important take away to come out of the movie.  This film is meant to show us a culture which may be slightly foreign to us, but the characters themselves are people we know very well, if not mirror images of ourselves.  They are caring, loving, occasionally thoughtless, scrabbling to get through life without a clear set of rules to follow and with ruts easily fallen into.  They aren’t pure altruists, but they do love people and are attached to those closest to them even if that attachment isn’t healthy or helpful and they know it.  The Florida Project is not meant to be escapism, but it is meant to remove you from your own life and see the world through someone else’s eyes, a child’s eyes, for a couple of hours, and in that it succeeds.

When I lived in Florida, I used to joke that people went there to retire not because of the weather – while it is warm, it’s also constantly humid and subject to being battered by tropical storms and hurricanes on a semi-regular basis – but because Florida gives the illusion that while you are there time doesn’t pass.  It’s a comforting but dangerous illusion which is at the center of Florida living.  The Florida Project captures the essence of that part of Florida life perfectly, leaving us with an appreciation of the honestly gorgeous nature left in the state, a mix of whimsy and shame at the superficial gaudiness humans have inflicted on that nature, and deep distress at what life in that state has done to those who can’t seem to escape it.

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Final verdict:  If you like a strong dose of reality in your films, an authenticity which sees its characters just trying to get through life and not as plot devices, then The Florida Project will most definitely appeal.  To those who are more interested in film for its entertainment value, this is a little tougher of a sell.  There is entertainment to be had in Moonee’s antics and in the complex relationships between Moonee, Bobby, and Halley, but it’s not the entertainment of a standard story with complications to be overcome, villains to be defeated, and rousing finishes.  The Florida Project is gorgeous and artistic, it’s charming and thoughtful and very emotional, but it is not exciting nor gripping.  If you liked last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight, then I think you will enjoy this, as well, as they have a lot in common including the setting.  If you didn’t get why Moonlight was a big deal, you probably won’t see a lot in The Florida Project, either.

War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves; 2017)

In 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes rebooted yet another beloved franchise in the attempt to show us the story of what happened to Earth while the astronauts who feature in the now classic 1968 movie were away on their ill-fated mission.  Most were surprised at just how gripping and intelligent this new take was with a story with themes warning us of the dark road hubris could one day lead the human race down, completely sympathetic and gripping characters despite their hubris, and just the right amount of action to make the film more a blockbuster and less a think piece so it can appeal to a broader audience.  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continued the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the leader of the new intelligent species of apes, and once again ended up being an intelligent action film giving us both spectacle and commentary on xenophobia and its insidious and far reaching consequences.  Now we have the trilogy’s conclusion, and with Rise, Dawn, and now War for the Planet of the Apes we get to see the truly rare trilogy in which every part  is masterfully crafted both as an individual work and as one third of a larger epic story.

War for the Planet of the Apes picks up two years after the conclusion of Dawn with Caesar and his clan still hiding in the forests outside San Francisco, but now they are being actively hunted by the remnants of the United States Army who were called in to exterminate the apes by the human colony in San Francisco in Dawn‘s finale.  Caesar has had a new child in the intervening years and his older son has been acting as a scout trying to find a place the apes can relocate to so they can get away from the army without violence.   The news of a new living space reaches Caesar too late, however, as just as the apes are preparing to leave San Francisco they are discovered by the Colonel (Woody Harrelson), leader of the army stationed in the area who is bent on wiping out the apes.  A skirmish between apes and man ends with the humans being chased off, but the apes’ losses prompt Caesar to decide the Colonel must be killed at all cost and so he leaves his tribe on a suicide mission to confront the Colonel and end his life.

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War for the Planet of the Apes has all the intelligence and empathy of the two films which preceded it.   This time, the major themes on display are ones of survival, revenge, and fear, though not the xenophobia which was the focus of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.  This time the fears are very well known, not unfounded, and inescapable.  It’s less about fear of the unknown, and more about how we act when our fears are justified and right in our face.  Caesar and the Colonel are both charismatic leaders and idolized by those who follow them, and Andy Serkis and Woody Harrelson bring both of these magnetic personalities to life brilliantly.  As is the case in the best fiction, but particularly in the best action adventure fiction, we are given two characters working against each other who are nearly mirror images and the only reason one is considered a hero and the other villain is due to the lengths the Colonel is willing to go to ensure the survival of the human race and the men in his unit.

As has been the case in the first two films in the trilogy, the special effects on display in War for the Planet of the Apes are remarkable.  There are more animated via motion capture actors than live action in the film, but this does not create any lack of empathy in he audience.  The apes are still quite silent, preferring to rely more on sign language than actual speech, so their communication is done with facial expressions and body language and nothing is lost in translation despite the fact that what we are seeing isn’t real.   The environments also change this time, as we leave San Francisco and its forests behind for more northern climes, and again the shots involving the snow covered mountains are gorgeous.  Also deserving special mention is the lighting in the film.  Much of the action takes place at night, but Reeves and his crew never allow that to interfere with our vision either as mistake nor crutch.  We see everything we need to see while still understanding when the action is taking place, and in a Hollywood in which action scenes are literally getting darker and darker this was a pleasant choice.

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This trilogy does have its problems, and one that seems to be consistent across all three films, and that is that since the characterizations and plotting are so intelligent that when a specific bit of action has to be rushed through due to pacing issues that bit really stands out.  For instance, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes what takes years and years to change Caesar’s brain so he has human level intelligence happens overnight with a little gas for the rest of the apes.  In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes Caesar is brutally fighting for his life with great strength and agility mere days after being shot with a high powered automatic weapon.  Without spoiling anything, War for the Planet of the Apes also has to fall into similar traps to keep the story moving, and that little bit of dumb shoved inside what is otherwise genius really sticks out.

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Final verdict:  War for the Planet of the Apes ends its trilogy wonderfully, putting this apes trilogy up there with The Lord of the Rings, the original Star Wars trilogy, and the Nolan Batman films as one of the truly great action trilogies in all of filmdom.  Each part can be enjoyed on its own as a complete work and will still be satisfying, but the experience is amplified by enjoying all three as a continuous work.  Caesar will go down as a legendary Hollywood character, and his story as one of the greats.  I hope Hollywood ends it here and does not give in to the temptation to create more films as a cash grab as this really was the finale the story of Caesar deserves.  None of the films are perfect, War for the Planet of the Apes being no exception, but they are gripping and intelligent action films which deserve your attention.  If you’ve seen the first two, War is a must, but you probably already knew that.  If you haven’t seen the first two, you can still enjoy War for the Planet of the Apes, and I recommend you do, but I recommend even more seeing Rise and Dawn before moving onto this one for a far richer experience.