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Tag Archives: Sean Baker

Bryan Cranston in Last Flag Flying / The Ending of The Florida Project

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I consider Richard Linklater one of America’s very best filmmakers, which is why, although its virtues seem undeniable (like all of his work, it’s smart, well-crafted, emotional filmmaking), Last Flag Flying strikes me as something of a dud. I have friends who made the same claim for Everybody Wants Some!! but that raucous college comedy didn’t really aspire to be anything other than a dumb, fun party movie — unless you count John Waters’ pithy observation that it’s also the best “accidentally gay” film ever made. Last Flag Flying, on the other hand, with its Vietnam and Iraq war vet characters and exploration of the themes of loss, grief and brotherhood, clearly aspires to a gravitas that I don’t think it quite achieves. A big part of this failure, I’m sorry to say, stems from the artificiality of Bryan Cranston’s lead performance. The problem isn’t that Cranston is “over the top.” His character, Sal Nealon, is written to be over the top. It’s the same character, after all, that Jack Nicholson played in Hal Ashby’s The Last Detail (even if his name has been changed here for copyright reasons) and the part cries out to be embodied by a larger-than-life screen presence. No, the problem is that Cranston makes too many actorly “choices.” His performance is simply too busy, the intellectual decision-making behind Sal’s “salt-of-the-earth” qualities too transparent. There’s nothing wrong with many of these choices individually but, scene after scene, they add up to a portrait of a working-class life that ultimately feels synthetic and false. Look at the way Sal wakes up Steve Carell’s “Doc” by literally rubbing a piece of cold pizza against his face. Or the way Sal extinguishes his half-smoked cigar by flicking the cherry with his middle finger then waiting until he’s gone back inside before pocketing the cigar in a leather case. Or, worst of all, the way Sal retrieves a donut from a box by sticking his index finger into the tiny hole in the donut’s center, a moment captured in near-pornographic close-up by Linklater’s camera. Which makes me wonder: did it ever once occur to Linklater to ask, “Bryan, could we try a take where you just pick up the donut like a normal fucking person?”

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It has come to my attention that the sublime ending of Sean Baker’s The Florida Project has come in for criticism in some quarters, in some cases even by people who otherwise like the movie. The fact that this daringly ambiguous ending has been interpreted as being some kind of sentimental cop-out is shocking. There is obviously a strong “fantasy” quality to this sequence — even without considering the aesthetic shift that occurs from the gorgeous 35mm cinematography of the rest of the film to the iPhone look familiar from Baker’s previous work in Tangerine (an aesthetic apparently necessitated here by the fact that Baker was shooting inside Disney World without permits). But regardless of whether or not the ending is “real,” it has to be seen as the saddest ending possible: The Florida Project is a tragedy about American capitalism as embodied by the characters of a woman, Halley (Bria Vinaite), and her daughter, Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), who live in a cheap motel near an amusement park so they can rip off tourists without ever actually visiting the park themselves. When Halley is arrested on prostitution charges, it inspires Moonee and her friend Jancey (Valeria Cotto) to finally take the plunge and try to sneak into the park, allowing them a glimpse of a “normal childhood” and a life they’ve never known. That the scene imparts a feeling of transcendental uplift is undeniable but I would argue that, if we’re watching the movie correctly, this very transcendental quality compounds Baker’s overall sense of tragedy; this will clearly only be a very brief of glimpse of paradise for the girls — before the cops catch up to them and put Moonee in foster care for good.

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Filmmaker Interview: Sean Baker

I can only add my voice to the chorus of praise for Tangerine, a refreshingly new kind of screwball comedy about the misadventures of a couple of transgender prostitutes working in Hollywood on Christmas Eve. The film has deservedly racked up raves and awards since its Sundance debut in January: radical in form — it was shot entirely on iPhones — as well as content, it’s my favorite American movie of the year (yep, I liked it even more than Inside Out). I recently had the great pleasure of interviewing the film’s director and co-writer, Sean Baker. Please note that a slightly different version of this interview appeared on the Time Out Chicago blog yesterday.

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MGS: With a focus on the intimate lives of transgender prostitutes and a family of Armenian immigrants, Tangerine depicts characters and subcultures rarely seen in American movies. What kind of research did you do to ensure that the film would be as authentic as possible to the lives of these marginalized figures?

SB: It all comes down to time and collaboration. Chris Bergoch and I are cisgender white males from outside the world that we are focusing on and we knew that the only way to tackle this project responsibly and respectfully was to spend time in the research stage. Mya Taylor and Kitan Kiki Rodriguez were not only the film’s leads but our main consultants who introduced us to people from the area. We had very informal meetings where we heard numerous stories and anecdotes. Then when Chris and I finally wrote our treatment (based on everything we had heard or witnessed), we gave the treatment to Mya and Kitana to approve. Once approved, we moved forward with workshop sessions which helped give their voice to the dialogue. Then when we were shooting, there are constant approval and consulting. And in post production, Kitana was present and gave notes as I cut the film. So it was quite collaborative in every stage of making this film. For me, that’s the way you achieve authenticity. Same goes for the Armenian sub-plot but to a lesser degree. Karren Karagulian and Arsen Gregorian finessed all of our written dialogue with Armenian flare.

MGS: The visual style of Tangerine goes against expectations of what we think of as “microbudget cinema.” How did you decide on the look of the film and how important is it to you that people experience it on the big screen (as opposed to VOD)?

SB: Well, thank you. We did our best to elevate the iPhone footage to a cinematic level. We knew from the beginning that we were going to attempt to shoot something that was worthy of being shown on the big screen. We also set out to make a film that would get the audience engaged and active… so hopefully seeing it with an audience adds something to the experience. The saturation of the colors came during the tests. At first I de-saturated the colors because that’s a stylistic choice that fits with “neorealist” genre. But as soon as I looked at the desaturating images of Mya And Kiki, something didn’t feel right. The style clashed with their colorful personas… so I went the other way and pumped the colors through the roof. Then it suddenly felt right.

MGS: A lot has been made about the fact that Tangerine was shot with iPhone cameras but I thought that the editing was the most impressive aspect of the film. Can you talk about the importance of creating pacing and timing in a film comedy?

SB: Well I think that editing is 50% of directing. The editing room is where I’m discovering the film I just shot. And with comedy, I believe there is a pacing/timing that you have to find in the same way that a stand-up comedian has to time the set-up and punchline of the jokes. Also, I think that reactions are very important. I think that cutting to reactions (or the lack of) is where comedy lies.

MGS: Hey Sean, what’s your favorite Fassbinder movie?

SB: I have to go with The Merchant of Four Seasons. Whole lot of broken dreams.

Chicagoans can (and should) see Tangerine at its exclusive engagement at the Music Box Theater. You can check out the Red Band Trailer below:



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