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Dan the Man's Movie Reviews

All my aimless thoughts, ideas, and ramblings, all packed into one site!

Tag Archives: Sean Baker

The Florida Project (2017)

Disney’s overrated anyway.

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) is a young girl currently living in a shady, relatively scummy hotel with her young mother Halley (Bria Vinai). Most days, Moonee is spending her time running around with her friends, causing all sorts of havoc, and getting into all sorts of trouble, while her mother is off trying to make money anyway that she feasibly can. Sometimes, this means selling cologne/perfume on the streets, other times, this means a little something more that Moonee doesn’t quite know about, but everyone around her does. Either way, the two try their best to make something of a lovely little life for themselves, given the current situation that they’re in, despite being only a few miles away from the Magic Kingdom itself. And one person who is also doing all that he can is the manager of the hotel, Bobby (Willem Dafoe). He too has been dealt a pretty crummy hand at life and is just doing all that he can to get by and also ensure that his tenants, that he tries not to get too close to, are safe and sound in their own little bundles of trash paradise.

Save the day for once, Willem!

Basically, it’s two-hours of misery and I loved almost every minute of it.

Actually, that’s a lie. The Florida Project isn’t as miserable, or as depressing as I make it sound; Sean Baker is such a talented film-maker that he knows how to keep downbeat, relatively disturbing material like this, not only quick, swift, and entertaining, but also make it all compelling, even when it doesn’t ever seem to have a real story-line or plot to work with. But that kind of works in the movie’s favor; Baker has always moved to the beat of his own drum and here, he gets the opportunity to tell whatever story, however he wants to.

And it’s why the Florida Project is his best movie so far. Sure, it’s a lot like his other movies, in that he focuses on a large part of society that has, unfortunately, been pushed away from the movies, or entirely forgotten about, but this one has so much heart, so much energy, and so much creativity, it’s hard not to get wrapped-up in all of it. Right from the beginning, you have an idea of where it’s going to go and end up, until, about halfway through, it switches itself up, decides to go down another path, and it’s just surprising.

Cause in a way, the Florida Project is a coming-of-age flick, that is very loosely following some form of a plot or story-line. Baker has done this in the past with all of his movies, where he doesn’t really concern himself with much in the way of plot, but instead, just relies on the strong characters and performances to hold things over. Occasionally, he’ll drop in a bit of story here and there, but it’s never anything too crucial to where it ruins the overall improvisational look and feel of the flick.

And it’s what the Florida Project specializes in.

Due to it being a movie about such a downtrodden and depressed group of people, it almost feels like it should be preaching a whole lot more and trying to say something about the way our society is forced to treat these people who we’d rather not admit to being alive, or taking up any space. Baker knows and understands that this is something the common, everyday person thinks and while he, as well as all of us, knows that it’s wrong, he doesn’t let it get in the way of this movie, or getting to actually know these characters. All of them could have easily been pedestals for Baker to jump off of, but he’s a much smarter film-maker than that, to just use compelling characters, for the sake of getting an agenda across – he knows that they are the heart and soul to a good movie and with the characters here, he gets a lot of mileage.

Which is to say that everyone here is great. But what’s really shocking is how very little everyone seems to be working from a script; this is something I thought to myself throughout the whole movie, but it wasn’t until I went home and actually checked-out interviews and realized that a good portion of the movie was improvised and sort of made-up, on the spot, with the actors making their stuff up as they went along. I’d expect this out of a pro like Willem Dafoe (more on him later), but with relative newcomers like Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite, I was especially surprised.

That I never heard of them before now, doesn’t really matter. That they never actually acted before, is all the more shocking.

Damn kids and their ice cream.

In the case of both Prince and Vinaite, these will be star-making roles, and with good reason: Both are great and go well beyond convention. Prince is a smart, sassy, and charming little girl who, just about every second, actually feels like a little kid who may be a little too smart for her own good, but a smart girl nonetheless. Vinaite, despite seeming like the typical cliche of the awful mother who doesn’t really care for her kid and just wants to smoke, drink, and have sex all of the time, eventually, shows us a real heart and humanity within this character. It’s something that you don’t expect with this character – all of the tattoos and piercings, I’ll admit, are more than enough to turn any person off immediately – but that’s sort of the point.

Baker isn’t making a movie full of gorgeously beautiful A-listers, who are risking their lives and careers by slumming it down. In fact, what’s crazy about getting Dafoe here, is that even though he is quite the known-talent, he’s also one of the uglier guys in the business (which I mean, in a good way). So yeah, even though Baker was able to nab a top-tier talent like Dafoe for his small, scummy indie, he was able to get one who fit and looked the part.

That said, Dafoe, like everyone else here, is amazing. He fully understands and sinks into this Bobby character who, you think is going to be a terrible, awful human being who just wants money and lots of it, but shows a true heart after a short while. He actually cares for his tenants and the hotel that he imagines, and while he’s stuck with the hard task of keeping everything all together and in-check, he sort of loves getting the pleasure of keeping this close-knit family, well, together. It’s a wonderful performance filled with subtlety and beauty, sometimes, both at the same time and it makes me happy to not just see Dafoe giving this really small indie a chance, but also working wonders for it, too.

Basically: Give him the damn Oscar already. Same goes for Vinaite. Hell, same goes for the whole movie. Give them everything!

America needs it. We all need it.

Consensus: Scrappy and gritty, the Florida Project realizes the harsh conditions in which it is set, yet, never succumbs to the inherent sadness and is instead, a beautiful, well-told, well-acted, and honest film about growing up, loving those close to you, and making your own little piece of paradise, the only way that you can. It’s sort of sappy, but the best kind.

9 / 10

The American Dream, everybody. Learn it. Love it. Accept it. And shut up.

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

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Starlet (2012)

The bonds that can be forged by simple misunderstandings.

Jane (Dree Hemingway) is an actress down on her luck, short on cash, and in need of a new friend in her life, because her supposed one, Melissa (Stella Maeve), just ain’t cuttin’ it and her boyfriend (James Ransone), isn’t helping matters, either. But one day, Jane gets a surprisingly new lease on life and her apartment when she accidentally stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself, but also makes attempts to befriend the old lady who sold her the thermos in the first place. The old lady turns out to be named Sadie (Besedka Johnson) and although she doesn’t quite know what the hell Jane wants with her, she’s not totally against her wanting to hang around with her day and hearing all of her stories of the good old days. It not only adds a little more hope to Sadie’s later days, but gives Jane a newfound love and appreciation for the sometimes unfortunate, and rather disturbing, life she currently lives.

Put some clothes on, girls! It’s not that hot in L.A.!

Cause who knows? Maybe it will all get better.

Sean Baker does something brilliant here in Starlet, and while it’s no doubt a small aspect of the film, it’s a glaring example of why he’s one of the best writers and directors out there today. At the center of the film, we have Jane, a relatively idiotic woman who doesn’t seem to have much in the way of a job, or even a career; she spends most of her time at home, smoking pot, yelling, listening to trash rap, and caring for her little dog. We get an idea that she’s an actress, but we never actually see her, well, acting.

Until we do. It’s one of the biggest and most well-kept secrets in the whole movie and the ultimate reveal of what Jane does, and how far Baker’s willing to go with it, not only took me by surprise, but had me looking at this character, and the whole movie a whole lot differently. It’s not so much of a twist, as much as it’s just a small, little secret hidden in plain-view – some may have been able to figure it out right away, but for some of us, it wasn’t all that easy. Either way, it’s another sure sign of Baker’s great writing and directing style that, no matter how much he depends on his naturalistic look and feel, the man still has some tricks up his sleeves.

That, and he’s also still a great storyteller, without it ever seeming like he’s trying too hard at all.

And with Starlet, Baker gets a lot of mileage out of just letting the camera sit there and do most of the work for him. He follows these sometimes annoying characters, but Baker never seems like he’s judging any of them for a single second; even Mikey and Melissa, the somewhat evil and conniving couple who live with Jane, just seem ridiculously dumb and not necessarily like they’re out to get any person in particular. Baker is smart in giving us a great idea of who each of these characters are, not just by telling us through a story, but just by their actions, and it’s as much of a testament to the actors, as it is to Baker himself.

That said, the performances here are all pretty great. Dree Hemingway, who’s beauty commands your attention with every frame, seems like a natural for the screen, just as her mother was. But in this case, there’s a much more dangerous and rather dark mystery about her that makes her compelling, as we never full well if we can trust her to have good morals, or if she’s just too dumb to function, too. Regardless, Hemingway is great here and makes Jane a whole lot more interesting, packed with a heart, than she had any right to be.

Mariel?

But the real stand-out here is newcomer Besedka Johnson as Sadie who, unfortunately, gave her first and last performance here.

But it’s a beautiful performance from Johnson, because it never seems like she’s acting. This was probably done so on purpose, hence why she was chosen for the role, but it really works in Starlet‘s favor – there are genuinely moments where it seems like Johnson is just being herself and forgetting that there was a camera, somewhere, out there, filming her every move and action. The chemistry she has with Hemingway is beautiful and while the movie does an awful bit of navel-gazing by the end and almost forgets about plot, them two are so extraordinary to watch, it’s hard to complain too much.

Or at all.

Consensus: With a thoughtful direction and attention to the performances, Starlet is a small, subdued, but surprisingly smart character-study of two women who couldn’t be further different from one another.

8 / 10

“So, uh, what’s your favorite color?”

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire

Prince of Broadway (2008)

Who needs to be the King?

In New York City’s Flatiron District, Lucky (Prince Adu), newly arrived from Ghana, hocks fake designer products out of back rooms with his partner, Levon (Karren Karagulian) and seems to be making something of a living with it. Even though his living-quarters have him spaced to just one tiny room and the business itself can be very dangerous, what with the feds constantly sniffing around, Lucky seems to be doing fine enough as is and not really having to worry about much in his life. But then, it all changes when his toddler son comes to live with him – the same son he had no idea really existed, until a former-flame of his can’t handle the child anymore and basically just drops him off on Lucky’s doorstep. Lucky isn’t ready for this and he doesn’t quite know what to do, and after a few attempts to pawn the child off on somebody else to make their responsibility, Lucky realizes that it’s up to him to take care of the child. He does, however, it all comes at a cost.

Daddy knows best. Especially with the coats.

As usual, Sean Baker takes a look at the small working-class of America and doesn’t ever seem to lose sight of the realism. In Prince of Broadway, what’s so interesting about Baker’s approach to the material is that he could have easily made this into a sort of broad comedy, with wacky hijinx and silliness abound, like how, for instance, Lucky can’t really father this child and doesn’t know much of anything. Actually, you know what? That sort of does happen here.

But it’s done in such a smart way that you almost never know. Baker starts off with a conventional plot-line about a long, lost father trying to take care of his child the best way that he knows how, and while you can tell that it’s going to be all easy yucks and jokes, eventually, it turns into something far more serious and meaningful. Sure, it’s funny to laugh at Lucky for being ill-equipped at this whole father-thing, but it’s also nice to see him grow into something of a loving, caring, adoring, and passionate father who does what he can, for the kid he hardly knows.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg with Prince of Broadway, which is also a bit of a problem.

Can’t even walk? Ugh! Long way to go!

See, so many of Baker’s films are best when he’s sort of just coasting his movies along, not really giving us a plot, nor demanding anything of us, either – he just wants our attention and to never have our eyes wander away from what’s going on. It’s how Baker does best and I think it goes without saying that, often times, it seems like plot may not be his best thing. In the case of Prince of Broadway, this seems especially clear; the whole subplot concerning Lucky and his boss, while well-done, also seem to pad the movie’s run-time a lot longer than it probably needed to. Baker is clearly making a statement about the United States cracking down on the everyday, normal American citizen just trying to make ends meet, by any means, but it seems a tad preachy and a little bit murky, considering we get so much other stuff with Lucky and his kid.

But at the center of all this, is Prince Adu as Lucky who not only gives us a very charismatic performance, but the kind that would make someone a star. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened just yet for Prince Adu, but if that doesn’t ever happen, it’s okay, because his role as Lucky proves that the guy has the chops to be both funny and a little sad, sometimes, in the same scene. Baker doesn’t really demand much of Adu, but he’s willing to give both Baker and the movie, more than they probably bargained for.

Damn. I wish this guy did more.

Consensus: Prince of Broadway gets bogged-down a bit in plot, but still benefits from a heartfelt, lovely, and compelling story of a father coming to terms with his life and responsibilities, without ever seeming all that ham-fisted.

7.5 / 10

Man Push Baby Cart.

Photos Courtesy of: Elephant Eye Films

Take Out (2004)

Tip your drivers, people. Please.

Ming Ding (Charles Jang) is an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman for a Chinese take-out shop in New York City. On a typical day, Ming puts up with a lot of crap from customers who are either too rude, or too unappreciative of someone of his delivery-skills. But because Ming knows very little English and is just trying to get by, he doesn’t care too much – he just continues to ride on, delivering treats to random New Yorkers, and getting very small tips, whenever they do come around. Problem is, Ming is behind with payments on his huge debt to the smugglers who brought him to the United States and he’s got until the end of the day to deliver the money that is due. After borrowing most of the money from friends and relatives, Ming realizes that the remainder must come from the day’s delivery tips. In order to do so, he must make more than double his average daily income.

“America blows, man. Everyone’s so angry here.”

You’ve got to love co-writer and co-director Sean Baker, who did this movie with Shih-Ching Tsou, for not ever bucking to convention. Mostly all of his movies focus on the outliers of society, the ones we don’t normally see as the main focus in a full-length feature-flick, where they aren’t just given the spotlight, but the ample opportunity to show their side of the story and the argument that sometimes comes with having a story be all about them. It’s also always interesting of Baker to never make it seem like his movie’s following any certain conventional plot, or story – mostly, we’re just plopped-down in the middle of someone’s life, where we are forced to sit there, watch, observe, and take them all in for what they are. Of course, this can be awfully intimate and uncomfortable, but that’s kind of the raw beauty that Baker gets away with in all of his flicks.

And Take Out is no exception. In fact, it’s one of his better ones.

By focusing on the small, meek, mild and awfully quiet Ming, Baker is able to tell us a great deal about this person’s life, without really telling us much of anything at all. He goes about his day, delivering food, getting crappy tips, and constantly wondering if he’s going to have enough cheddar to pay-off his dealers. We of course learn more about his life over the course of the movie, but Baker gives us character-development in smart, small ways that sort of happen without us ever really knowing; just sitting there and watching him gives us a better sense of the rhythm in which his life is lived.

Look at all that effort! Give him a big tip! Come on!

And therefore, we are not only more sympathetic to Ming himself and his situation, but many more out there just like Ming in our country, trying their best to survive, with very little resources. So often we see in today’s day and age the criticism of immigrants coming over to the U.S., soaking up benefits, taking up space, and generally taking away jobs from those natives who deserve it the most (this is all ridiculous and false, mind you), but little do these irate and pissed-off people know and understand that what they are doing, what they are trying to accomplish is, above all else, the American Dream. They, just like you or I, want to get by, be safe, happy, and have a little bit of money in their pockets, in hope of a better future for themselves, or their loved-ones.

It’s the notion of what this country was built on and to rob others of that privilege, is awful.

Take Out is the kind of movie that shows this, but never quite hits us over-the-head with it; Baker’s way too smart to really stand on a soapbox and preach to the rest of the world. Instead, he gives us a small, contained, but always compelling feature about someone doing what they can to survive and make a life, in the Big Apple, and not quite knowing full-well what’s going on around him. He’s just a small fish, in a very large pond and there’s a lot more out there like him.

Consensus: With a naturalistic look and feel, Take Out never feels too stylistically challenging, but is better off for that, giving us a glimpse into the life of an interesting, yet, all too sad individual who is far too similar to others out there in the world.

8.5 / 10

Just another day in Chinatown. With lots and lots of rain.

Photos Courtesy of: Take Out the Movie.com

Tangerine (2015)

The streets are hard for a girl out there.

Sin-Dee Rella (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) is a Trans who just finished her short stay in prison and automatically, wants to find out just what her boyfriend/pimp (James Ransome) has been up to and who he’s been up to it with. Issue is, she doesn’t have a working-phone to call him with, nor does she have any clear way of finding him on the gritty, but bright streets of Los Angeles. That’s why she enlists the help of her best friend, fellow prostitute, Alexandra (Mya Taylor), who doesn’t want to be apart of any of this drama, but clearly, doesn’t have much else to do except jerk dudes off in the front seats of cars for a couple of bucks. While this adventure is taking place, another one is occurring with local cab-driver Dinah (Mickey O’Hagan), who, despite being married with a wife, actually prefers the company of trans prostitutes, something his mother-in-law is suspicious about and wants to catch him in the act of doing. This is all, of course, happening on Christmas Eve, where joys may be merry, but for the most part, everybody’s just trying to live and survive another holiday season.

See plenty of this walking around Philadelphia. Trust me.

L.A. New York. Philadelphia. It don’t matter. Every city has the same people. 

Co-writer/director Sean Baker likes to focus on the smaller parts of the Earth that we don’t necessarily pay attention to. With Starlet, his last feature flick, Baker shined his lens on a relationship between an 80-year-old woman and a small-time, young porn star. With Tangerine, Baker is focusing on the lives of two trans prostitutes – both of whom, honestly, we’d never see in a mainstream, big-budgeted flick because, well, producers get scared of that and would much rather focus on white people, doing white things, so that other white people can go out and watch these white people do these white things. However, as snobby as I may sound, Baker actually isn’t; instead of making it seem like he’s trying to get a point across about the people he focuses on in his movies, he actually seems invested in where these character’s lives go and just how easy they are to relate to, regardless of what gender, race, or sexual preference you are.

And that’s one of the main reasons why Tangerine works as well as it should.

Not only does Baker keep things moving with this story at a fine pace to where we get to know everything about these characters from the very beginning, so that the reasons for why they act the way they do throughout the movie makes sense, but also gets us wrapped up in the excitement of this adventure they’re having as well. Baker infamously filmed all of Tangerine on an iPhone and while it may seem like a unnecessary gimmick, sooner or later, you totally forget about it and, if anything, realize that it’s perfect for capturing L.A. and these characters as they roam about the streets of it. There’s a certain tone that an iPhone catches, that most other digital cameras can’t, which allows for us to feel as if we’re not only right there with Sin-Dee and Alexandra, but feeling and smelling everything, too.

If anything, Baker’s success with filming Tangerine the way he wanted to, shows that up-and-coming film makers can probably do the same and make their own film. Who says they need a fancy, schmancy camera to do it with?

They can just reach in their pockets, after all!

But speaking of Sin-Dee and Alexandra, both Kitana Kiki Rodriguez and Mya Taylor are quite solid here, which probably has to due with the fact that they’re actual trans actors, playing trans characters. This may not seem like much, but considering that every movie nowadays that seems to tackle the subject of trans-sexuality and what it actually means to be “trans”, they cast a well-known, straight celebrity in the role and act as if said celebrity is really gritting their teeth by getting deep, down and dirty with such a role like that. Here though, Baker wisely makes the decision of having Rodriguez and Taylor portray these characters and it helps add another sense of realism to a movie that’s already sweating in it.

James Ransome playing a bad person? You don't say?

James Ransone playing a bad person? You don’t say?

Also, too, both have great chemistry that clearly seems to transcend well onto their characters, as both even each other out in surprising, but sweet ways. Sin-Dee is a bit reckless, dramatic and over-the-top with her emotions, whereas Alexandra is more reserved and about keeping her reckless feelings to herself. Watching these two pal around and walk throughout the grimy streets of L.A. is entertaining, especially since both actually seem like best pals in real life and not just two people forced to work together because they filled a certain look or image.

The only issue that I have with Tangerine has nothing to do with either Rodriguez or Taylor, but instead, with the supporting character who constantly jumps in every so often – Mickey O’Hagan’s Dinah.

Nothing against O’Hagan as I think he’s quite solid in a role that seems like it wants to be much more than just a subplot, but his role could have easily been taken out of this completely and Tangerine would have probably worked fine. It’s understandable what Baker is trying to do with this Dinah character from the very start, but after awhile, once he breaks apart some real exciting moments that push the story forward, it becomes clear that he’s just getting in the way of what could be a much more intimate story. But because Dinah exists in this story and is given so much focus, he ruins a lot of the swiftness and fast-pace that both Sin-Dee and Mya seem to really bring here. Once again, not saying that O’Hagan is bad here, or even that his character is given bad treatment – it’s just that maybe he doesn’t need to be here at all.

Which is a shame because really, Tangerine is all about Sin-Dee and Mya, as well as it should be.

Consensus: Despite an odd bit of plotting from Sean Baker, Tangerine still works as an entertaining, quick romp of a ride with two characters who, quite frankly, we don’t get to see a whole lot of focus on in movies.

7 / 10

So, anybody gonna finish that doughnut?

So, anybody gonna finish that doughnut?

Photos Courtesy of: Indiewire