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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 27, 2017 - Volume 45 Issue 43
Movie Reviews
Arts & Entertainment
ALL STORIES
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Baker's Florida Project an empathetic masterwork
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Now playing


It's hard to believe I'll see a better motion picture than The Florida Project in 2017. Director Sean Baker's follow up to 2015's stunning comedy Tangerine, the movie is a funny, gut-wrenching, emotionally complex masterwork of the human condition that exudes warmth and humility in every frame. Never shying away from the stark, tragic truths always silently lurking in plain sight, there is something universal here that stops the heart right in its tracks, everything building to a single moment of selfless friendship that is as fantastical as it is breathtaking.

Just down the road from Disney World, a series of Florida motels dot the landscape. Inside the freshly painted The Magic Castle lives six-year-old ball of mirth and mayhem Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), her young, recently unemployed mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) coming up with a variety of creative ways to pay each week's bill. Overseeing things is the stern if remarkably patient Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager doing his best not to get too caught up in the various types of upheaval and strife many of his residents appear to be going through. Moonee, however, is happily oblivious to a lot of this, and while she knows things aren't as they should be, the child still finds happiness playing with her friends, especially fellow Magic Castle resident Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and the quietly inquisitive Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a little girl who just moved in at the motel next door and is living with her indomitable grandmother Stacy (Josie Olivo).

There's not a lot more to say as far as plot goes. Baker and frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch (Starlet, Tangerine) have composed an observational scenario that allows life to just sort of happen. The majority of the movie is seen entirely through Moonee's eyes, with little asides focusing on both Halley and Bobby sprinkled throughout. Yet this is mostly a saga of how children view the world as its given to them and how the friendships they craft can make even the most fragile of circumstances more tolerable. It is a movie that overflows in the promise of what each new dawn can bring no matter what the current situation, the stark realities of economic despair coupled with each person's unique human frailties the dark tragedy silently waiting in the wings to pounce.

Baker walks in some familiar cinematic footsteps. Influences here range from Ken Loach's 1969 gem Kes, Carroll Ballard's 1979 classic The Black Stallion, Fran├žois Truffaut's timeless 1959 stunner The 400 Blows, John Boorman's graceful 1987 drama Hope and Glory and Andrea Arnold's 2009 marvel Fish Tank. It brings to mind Larry Clark's Kids, Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes, Patricia Cardoso's Real Women Have Curves and Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland's Quincea├▒era. And yet, while those comparisons and more can be made, the truth is that Baker's latest effortlessly becomes its own idiosyncratic and unique animal as it moves forward. Moonee's story is universal, becoming easier to relate to and increasingly more affecting as events progress. It's excruciatingly genuine, the director never sugarcoating the reality of this world yet at the same time still finding great joy in the way children not-so-cluelessly go about trying to persevere.

Newcomers Prince and Vinaite are superb. They craft a sisterly mother-daughter bond that is undeniably genuine. The connection between the two is consistently fascinating, the way their relationship evolves as things become increasingly dire planting a lump in my throat that refused to disappear. There are some twists to their story that, while not surprising, are still brutally startling, both actresses doing a stupendous job of showing how this evolution is taking place, each in their own, imaginatively personal way. Vinaite takes a character who could have been impossible to embrace and somehow got me to care for her, and while Halley isn't anything close to the definition of what most think of as a good mother, there is never a doubt she loves her daughter with every fiber of her being.

Then there is Dafoe. The veteran actor slips into Baker's stripped-down minimalist world with ease, Bobby becoming a three-dimensional figure of authority and compassion as events avalanche to their upsetting termination. Whether interacting with the children like a tired curmudgeon coming close to the edge of sanity, to the way he deals with business matters relating to his hotel's inhabitants, to little observational quirks that show just how much he cares even though he can never admit to doing so, Dafoe is masterful. He is responsible for some of the films biggest laughs as well as many of its strongest tears, his interactions with Prince absolute perfection.

Impeccably shot by cinematographer Alexis Zabe, there is a sundrenched crispness to The Florida Project I couldn't resist. Baker seems to get that the intimate nature of the visuals only augments the emotional veracity of the story being told, all of which helps make the events that climax the film echo with even more profound confidence than they ever would have otherwise. Additionally, it makes the final scene even more suitably surreal, this delirious bit of unabashed eccentric whimsy hitting home for me in a way that had me drowning in tears while also wanting to stand up and cheer. Friendship, even when darkness descends to take its pound of flesh from the guilty and the innocent alike, can sometimes salve even the deepest wound, a second of happiness maybe the bit of hope a breaking heart needs to see them through until a new dawn can rise.


Surprise in discovery:
Director Sean Baker on the childlike realism of The Florida Project
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

THE FLORIDA PROJECT
Now playing


Sean Baker's The Florida Project is the best film I've seen in 2017. It's one of those rare motion pictures where I knew I'd just watched something monumental the second it had come to an end. Much like other recent instant classics like Michael Haneke's The White Ribbon, John Carney's Once, Barry Jenkins's Moonlight, Richard Linklater's Before Sunset, Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty or Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, I was so completely blown away by what I had just experienced I was utterly speechless as I left the theatre. Baker's latest held me in complete and total awe, allowing the film to transcend it's relatively simple story to become something deeply affecting on a level going way beyond the personal.

At the center of things is six-year-old Moonee, portrayed magnificently by newcomer Brooklynn Prince. She lives with her unemployed, hard-living mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) at The Happy Castle motel in Kissimmee, Florida just down the road from Disney World. A thorn in the side of scrappy, if still understanding building manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe), this little girl spends her summer exploring the environs surrounding the motel with her small cadre of friends, not quite understanding just how tenuous things are for both she and her mother, the two of them always on the precipice of being completely homeless with no one to turn to for help.

The secret of the movie's success is just how completely it keys into this childlike mindset, how fully it comprehends how a kid views the world, their innate ability to find the beauty in even the most disgusting or abhorrent of situations, an ability deserving of being cherished. Additionally, much like Baker's award-winning 2015 comedic stunner Tangerine, this film is a celebration of friendship, Moonee's ability to make long-lasting connections with everyone she comes into contact with a beguiling talent that ultimately is able to bring her some form of cathartic solace as events in The Florida Project move towards their heartbreaking conclusion.

I had the chance to sit down with the talented Baker to talk about his latest feature during his recent visit to Seattle. Literally less than an hour before our scheduled interview, the Gotham Awards, a set of independent film awards voted on by a small panel of New York journalists in October that signal the start of awards season, which culminates with the Oscars in February, were announced for 2017. The Florida Project was one of the big winners, the film receiving three nominations for Best Feature, Best Actor Willem Dafoe and Breakthrough Actor for Brooklynn Prince. With that information as the prelude, here are some of the highlights from my conversation with Sean Baker:

Sara Michelle Fetters: So, how's your morning going? I'm just going to assume today is nothing more than a boring, relatively humdrum day, right?

Sean Baker: Yeah. [laughs] Exactly. It's good to be in Seattle talking about the movie.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Were you surprised at all by this morning's announcement? Any of the nominations catch you off guard?

Sean Baker: I woke up to them, the Gotham Awards announcement, so it was like, wow. The first thing I saw was Brooklynn Prince [nominated for Breakthrough Actor], so the fact that she was nominated means everything. Her performance, I didn't have to manipulate it with editing or anything like that. Her performance is there and she is deserving of this, so I'm so happy. Also, I mean, I just have to say, that company! Get Out and Call Me By Your Name and Good Time and Lady Bird and I, Tonya. I'm just honored to be in that crowd.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Is this still a little surreal for you? All of this recognition? Or are you used to it after all the awards and nominations that went to Tangerine just two years ago?

Sean Baker: Yeah, it's nice. And it's really nice because [the awards] bring attention to the older films, too. It is a great feeling. It's really wonderful that audiences are connecting; I appreciate it. I always thought these films, at least the last two, Tangerine and The Florida Project, I thought these were going to be polarizing films. And this film does have its polarizing aspects. The ending, I can tell is polarizing. I didn't know that it was at the time, that was a surprise, actually, but it's also a great thing as it means people are really attempting to find meaning in every second of the film.

But to tell you the truth? To have that support from the critics, to also have the public that's into movies like these embrace them so completely, that means everything. It took me so long to get recognition from the industry and the studios, so the fact that it's been coming from people who care about films, who care about great stories, that's great.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I know that you and co-writer Chris Bergoch had worked on this idea for The Florida Project for quite some time. If I read correctly, you actually had a general idea for this film before you made Tangerine.

Sean Baker: Yeah, and we just couldn't get funding for it, because it was a low budget, but not a micro budget. We would actually have to go there, to Florida, and I wanted to shoot on film. Then there are the kids, of course, which was another complication. We couldn't find financing. We were actually really upset. I mean like Chris and I were just like, how many times do we have to prove ourselves in this industry? Starlet did well to a certain degree, at least critically, so we were understandably upset.

We went ahead, we asked [Tangerine producers] Mark and Jay Duplass whether their offer was on the table to make a micro budget movie. It was, so we went ahead and made Tangerine. That film opened up the doors and found us financing for The Florida Project, and then in hindsight Chris and I were like, if we had made this in 2011, not only do I think it would have been stylistically different, because Tangerine actually helped guide us to how we realized this one, but Brooklynn would have been one-year-old. I mean, the movie is Brooklynn. I can't imagine what would have happened if we made the movie at that time. We're very happy now, to say the least.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Where do you find that balance in telling a realistic, issue-driven story? I mean, there are hard issues at play in The Florida Project, but they are seen through the eyes of a child. Maintaining that level of innocence, that level of humor, that level of empathy and compassion, all of which that is very child-like yet still ends up being universal, how do you do that? How difficult is this to accomplish?

Sean Baker: It's subjective. Every audience member will feel slightly different about it. To tell you the truth, it was a balancing act where I had to just rely on what we thought was appropriate in terms of how far to push things in one direction or another, how much to show the audience and how much to keep them in the dark just as much as Moonee is. It was a balancing act, being there on location and figuring out our camera angles and how much we would be separated from the adults. All of that.

Then in post-production, where I basically had to decide what to include and what to leave on the cutting room floor. We had actually shot some scenes - I don't know if you know this, but we shot some scenes for safety purposes that explained a little more in detail in a procedural way how the Florida Child Protection Services would happen, how they would get involved, as well as some more adult-oriented scenes. We wrote and shot them, and I think they're good. They're fine, but they don't belong in this movie, in Moonee's story. In post-production, that was like my balancing act, removing those scenes and putting in stuff that had to do more with just extraneous hanging out with the kids. That stuff I thought got us closer to what our goal was, to have audiences connect with the kids and feel for [them].

Sara Michelle Fetters: There was a lot here that reminded me of early Ken Loach films, especially Kes.

Sean Baker: Oh, my gosh, yes! Well, he's my hero, and I'm trying to get [Ken] to see the movie. I have to write him a letter. I know his producer saw the film at the London Film Festival just the other day. But he's an inspiration and somebody who I think has always had a singular mission. A lot of people don't talk about this, but actually he has a lot of humor in his films as well, behavioral humor. Even Kes had it. I mean, God, the whole soccer scene, right? The soccer scene is one of the funniest scenes ever shot.

Sara Michelle Fetters: But that scene also leads to a subsequent moment of drama that's...

Sean Baker: Yes! Exactly.

Sara Michelle Fetters: ...quite emotional.

Sean Baker: It's pretty amazing.

Sara Michelle Fetters: The Florida Project does that as well. I don't want to spoil it for viewers, but there's this scene where a stranger wanders onto the hotel grounds and is watching the children play, and Willem Dafoe during this sequence, he's hysterical. But the kicker to the scene is almost like a punch in the gut. It adds so much insight into his character and how seriously he takes his job. It's something else.

Sean Baker: That's why you have to find that balance, because that's what life is. It's always a combination. It's always a little bit of both, comedy and drama. Every scene had a little bit of that balance. I mean, when we were shooting it, that scene, we were all trying to contain our laughter. But at the same time there was a wait to when the minute would come where we would think about the crux of the scene and how serious it was. It would change everybody's mood on set.

I wanted to capture this exact thing. It was like it was this constant attempt to play with people's emotions in a way. Because that's what life is, right?

Sara Michelle Fetters: I feel like we were introduced a little bit to this world in Ramin Bahrani's 99 Homes.

Sean Baker: Oh yeah. Definitely.

Sara Michelle Fetters: In that film, we weren't really given enough information to fully understand what's going on at these Orlando hotels. I love that The Florida Project doesn't really mention the housing crisis, doesn't really say this is what has happened, not just in Florida, but pretty much everywhere; it's all just sort of a given. There is some fairly obvious commentary, however, I think, these hotels being right in the shadow of Disney World. Walt had very definitive utopian ideas as to what he felt defined 'The Florida Project,' and in many ways that's what Epcot was supposed to be all about.

Sean Baker: Well, it is where we got the title of the movie, after all. [laughs] In all seriousness, I think so many Americans have actually been either affected by the housing crisis personally, or they've experienced it via second or third degree. I think Americans get it. I mean, I think they understand the situations so many at this budget motel 'The Happy Castle' are going through going in. It's like a given. There's a political and an economic landscape that they're already familiar with as well. But again, we see the story through a child's perspective. They don't understand the housing crisis. They're just living through its aftermath.

Sara Michelle Fetters: As to seeing things through a child's eyes, when did you know Brooklynn was the one to play Moonee?

Sean Baker: I have to re-watch her audition, but I'm pretty sure that I felt it in my soul within a few seconds of her walking into that room. I knew she was going to be in the film, definitely, but I was pretty convinced she was going to be Moonee even within those first few minutes. She came in and just was like, wow. She just took over the room. She came in with Christopher Rivera [who plays Scooty]; we had grouped them together just by coincidence. Their energy, even though they didn't know each other, it was amazing. They had an undeniable chemistry. They were doing these exercises on the floor to get all psyched up. It was really funny to watch.

Then when we were asking Brooklynn to do these scenarios, we would say, 'Hey, we're younger kids and we're in the pool. You guys have to come over and kick us out and tell us the reasons that we have to leave.' She would come over and be like, 'You younger kids, you're not cool. You know why? Because you don't even know what cool is. You know what cool is? Getting to stay up after 8pm. That's what cool is, so get out of the pool.' She would improvise this stuff that was really from a child's point-of-view. It was pretty incredible, and I knew that she would have that skill of comedic improvisation if we needed her to do that. And we eventually used a lot of that, too, because she was so good at it.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Brooklynn not only has to interact with the other kids in a believable way, but she has to have real chemistry with Bria Vinaite, who plays her young mother, Halley, too. These two together...

Sean Baker: It's amazing, right?

Sara Michelle Fetters: Exactly. When did you know you had something special with these two?

Sean Baker: They got along very quickly. I think they had a matched energy, and that's what I was looking for. When they actually read together, Bria had read the script, so she understood it was like a mother/daughter relationship, but I told her, 'Don't go into the audition thinking that. Think like this is a sibling relationship.' Halley is a young girl who never had the chance to grow up, so she's child-like herself. I wanted her to act like Moonee's sister, not her mother. I think that really helped, because from the first minute they were singing Top 40 songs that even I didn't know, but they did. It was really great to see. I also think that Brooklynn actually likes hanging out with Bria and is excited by her. That certainly helped.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Over the course of all of your films, but especially these last two, Tangerine and now The Florida Project, you've developed a definite track record of being able to work with acting newcomers, guiding them to do just extraordinary work.

Sean Baker: Thank you! And thank you for calling them newcomers. Because a lot of people refer to these cast members as 'nonprofessionals,' which I don't think is correct. They're newcomers. They're first timers. They are not non-actors or nonprofessionals. Calling them such just isn't right.

Sara Michelle Fetters: With that being the case, how does someone like Willem Dafoe walk into a mix like this? How did he fit in?

Sean Baker: I actually throw all of the credit to him. I mean, Willem really wanted to blend in. He's transformative. He's such a patient, nice guy who is just incredibly kind and wants to help. He doesn't have that Hollywood diva thing. I didn't have to deal with any of that. Instead, he was just there to be a part of the ensemble. He gave words of encouragement to Bria, and he genuinely liked the kids. He was very patient with the kids. Christopher would always be jumping on his lap saying, 'It's the Green Goblin!' and then take a selfie. But was I concerned if this would be the case? Certainly. But those concerns vanished almost immediately. Willem was very patient. A team player. He's an extraordinary man.

Look, every time I put in any face who is recognizable in any of my films, like James Ransone in Tangerine, I always get a little bit worried. But when you can choose actors that are this talented who can slip into worlds like these so effortlessly? It's pretty cool. It's cool being able to choose actors who can do that.

Sara Michelle Fetters: I have to wrap things up, but I do have a couple of final questions. The first of which is arguably a little more personal than I should probably ask, if that's all right.

Sean Baker: Certainly. Shoot.

Sara Michelle Fetters: For me, while I am not a person of color or have ever been a Transgender prostitute, it's still pretty obvious Tangerine was still pretty affecting for me. I've always felt, my journey is my journey, my story is my own, and in the end I want my work to speak for itself outside of anyone's preconceptions or misconceptions about who I am.

Sean Baker: Exactly. That's how it should be.

Sara Michelle Fetters: But, even so, what affected me so much about Tangerine was how universal Sin-Dee and Alexandra's stories proved to be. I was shocked at just how much I could relate to what they were going through even though their individual Transgender experiences were so far removed from my own. So, I wonder, how do you do that? How do you make these stories in Tangerine, in Starlet, in The Florida Project, these tales about marginalized people living on the edge of society and make them so universal?

Sean Baker: That's very nice of you to say. All of that. Thank you. To try and answer, I honestly feel that it's really about finding the common threads. I mean the universality of everybody, and looking for those story lines that could happen anywhere, in any corner of the Earth. I mean if you look at Starlet, it's about an inter-generational relationship, and that could happen anywhere. Tangerine had to do with friendship and infidelity, and a lot of people have obviously been through that. I mean everyone has a best friend, everybody has been hurt and everybody has had a broken heart. Then with this film, it's about childhood. We've all had our childhood. To represent that collective childhood, that's what the goal...I mean not the goal...I mean...I don't know. It's honestly hard to say it's a goal, but it is something that I know as a moviegoer, when I go to a movie, I always want to connect with the protagonist, and I feel you often connect with the protagonist when you see a little bit of yourself in them.

I think that that's what people are responding to here with these films. They're saying, I never thought that I would be able to identify with a Trans woman of color on the corner of Santa Monica and Highland, but I can. I love them and I feel like they remind me of the relationship I have with my sister or my best friend. That's what's helping, I think. See, when people say, 'You humanize characters,' what they maybe fail to see is that they are already human. It's really difficult to speak about it, but I just feel that the goal with these films, if there is a goal, it's to really show the common thread amongst all of that. Hopefully that leads to empathy, because if you can empathize with a character, even if you can't 100-percent put yourself in their shoes and walk in their shoes, that helps make the world a better place. Don't you think that's the case? I hope it is.

Sara Michelle Fetters: Finally, at the end of the day, what do you hope people take away from this film? More importantly, if they come out wanting to learn more, to do something about the issues discussed and highlighted by The Florida Project, what advice would you give them?

Sean Baker: Well, thank you for asking that, because that's very important. To answer the first questions, I want there to be 100 minutes of entertainment in the theater, okay? People are putting out their hard-earned money and they're dedicating a night, which is a big deal to ask people in today's day and age when they can go home and do pretty much whatever. You understand?

Sara Michelle Fetters: Definitely. I do indeed.

Sean Baker: But that second question, that's the important one. So very important, because the thing about a film like The Florida Project is to actually hope that awareness is brought to this issue, which I think is one that does not have the light shined upon it all that often, if it all. I certainly didn't know about it. Not before making the movie. And it's nationwide. It could be happening in your own community, it probably is happening in your own community, so if you care about these characters, Moonee and Halley and Jancey and Scooty and Ashley and Grandma Stacy and the others, and you care about the real Moonees out there, the first step is to look into your own community. In every community, there will be an organization focused on trying to develop affordable housing, and I think that whatever one can do to support them they should do.

And that doesn't always mean donations. I'm not asking anyone to throw money at any organization, even though that can be a great thing, but support can come in other ways as well. It can come in advocacy, in volunteering. It can come just via awareness, by spreading that awareness, and so that's what we're really asking people to do.

They don't have to focus on Kissimmee and Orlando, of course, but if they do, there's a wonderful organization there called The Community Hope Center, hope192.org, and they're outstanding. But this is a film that is obviously addressing a national issue. So look into your own community. Right here in Seattle. You'll likely be surprised at what you'll discover.


Authentically heartfelt Goodbye Christopher Robin easy to adore
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN
Now playing


One of my earliest memories is my mother reading me The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh before I was even in preschool. I remember sitting there in rapt attention, listening to these tales of Pooh, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and the rest of the inhabitants of the Hundred Acre Wood whilst dreaming of joining Christopher Robin and this merry band on each of their numerous adventures. I wanted to hunt Heffalumps. I wanted to soar to the top of the tallest tree utilizing a bevy of red balloons. I wanted to rush outside and play Pooh Sticks. I wanted to go visit Rabbit for lunch and enjoy tea with Owl in the mid-afternoon. It was all wonderful, every second, these memories living inside of me so strongly I can say with absolute certainty they'll be there forever.

As I grew older, I read Milne's book on my own, finding so much more to this genius' writing as I poured through every word on my own. I fell in love with Disney's interpretation of these characters, The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh one of my favorite animated features and a movie that just the thought of brings a smile to my face and makes me feel like all the world's problems can somehow be fixed. Now, as an aunt to five nieces and one nephew, I've made sure each of them has their personal copy of The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh to call their own, and I hope as each grows older they will cherish these stories and characters even a tenth as much as I do.

With all that being the case, it's likely I was in the bag for director Simon Curtis's (Woman in Gold) drama Goodbye Christopher Robin before I even set one step into the theatre. Working from a script by Frank Cottrell-Boyce (The Railway Man) and Simon Vaughan, the movie is a look at what led Alan Alexander Milne (Domhnall Gleeson), still reeling from the horrors he suffered and the atrocities he witnessed while fighting during WWI, to write the very first story featuring everyone's favorite 'silly old bear.' A successful playwright and author, Milne retreats from the hustle and bustle of London to the peace and quiet of the countryside, much to the consternation of his socialite wife, Daphne (Margot Robbie). The pair are joined by their son Christopher, a.k.a. Billy Moon (Will Tilston), and his doting nanny Olive (Kelly Macdonald), the four of them attempting to make the most of their seclusion as best they can.

After Daphne retreats back to London, claiming she will not return until her husband starts writing again, and Olive is forced to take time off to go take care of her ailing mother, Alan and Billy find themselves alone. The pair begin to bond, the author fascinated by the imaginative stories he and his son come up with involving the child's various stuffed animals. Asking friend, illustrator and fellow war veteran E.H. Shepard (Stephen Campbell Moore) to come out for a visit, Alan begins planting the seeds that will lead to the publication of Winnie-the-Pooh in 1926. What happens next changes both the author's and his son's lives forever, each having to live in the shadow of a fictional character they together mutually imagined into existence.

There's so much that Curtis's film does right I almost don't even want to talk about the few missteps that happen along the way towards the story's cathartically tearful conclusion. Even so, Cottrell-Boyce and Vaughan's screenplay spends so much glorious time on Alan and Billy's relationship, that by the time it gets to the hysteria revolving around all of the Pooh books, most of these sequences can't help but feel rushed and dramatically undernourished. Daphne's character, as strong as Robbie's performance proves to be, is also noticeably underwritten, and while it's historically accurate she and her son didn't exactly get along (especially as he got older), as presented here this mother is such a selfish shrew and a self-centered narcissist having anything approaching sympathy for her proves to be impossible.

Then there is the climactic act, Billy now 18 (and portrayed wonderfully by Alex Lawther) and wanting to head off to take part in WWII, looking to follow in his father's footsteps (much to his dismay) as well as in the hope by doing so he'll finally get out from underneath Winnie-the-Pooh's gigantic shadow. This stuff happens all at once. I just didn't feel like I was given ample enough of an opportunity to get to know Billy at this new age, and as such the drama of his going off to war didn't have the impact upon me as I assumed it would going into the press screening.

Even so, I adored Goodbye Christopher Robin. There were numerous scenes that reconnected me with Milne's world in ways I hadn't felt since I was a child, and I couldn't help but recall those moments, so very long ago, looking up at my mother in wide-eyed love and admiration as she read to me these stories for the first time. The scenes between Gleeson and Tilston are perfection, their time wandering through the forest inventing the tales that would eventually blossom into the author's books holding me rapturously spellbound. Curtis manages to tap into the mature sensitivity of these various stories in a way that's magnificent, maintaining an intelligent maturity that works for adult and child audiences alike throughout.

It's possible I'm biased. There's a chance when I go back and watch the film again, my various nitpicks might grow to become something far more frustratingly bothersome than they are at this moment. But I have trouble believing that will happen. Curtis gets far too much right, and there are so many bits and pieces that wormed their way into my heart I have trouble believing they'll be going anywhere anytime soon. My love for Winnie-the-Pooh and his many adventures knows no limitations; my admiration of Goodbye Christopher Robin almost equally as strong. Silly old bear, indeed.


Exquisitely acted Breathe oddly lacking in emotion
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

BREATHE
Now playing


While working in Africa in 1958, former British soldier Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) contracts polio and soon finds himself paralyzed, doctors giving him a scant handful of months to live while he struggles to breathe on a respirator strapped into a bed from which he cannot move. On the verge of giving up, wife Diana (Claire Foy) will not stand for her husband falling completely into depression and despair. Instead, she convinces him to fight on, even finding a way to get him out of the hospital, crafting a clunky portable breathing apparatus constructed with the assistance of family friend Teddy Hall (Hugh Bonneville).

Producer Jonathan Cavendish was right there at the center of Breathe, his parents Robin and Diana living a rich, full and complex life that lasted long after his father was stricken with polio. Screenwriter William Nicholson (Shadowlands, Gladiator) tells the family's tale, while Cavendish's friend and frequent collaborator actor Andy Serkis steps behind the camera in order to make his directorial debut. It's a handsomely mounted production, made with confidence and restraint, all involved doing everything they can to not overwhelm the viewer with ham-fisted emotive shenanigans that could be considered overwrought or maudlin.

Even so, as obvious a labor of love as this might be, the film proves to be nowhere nearly as intriguing or as emotionally satisfying as I kept hoping it would be. While presenting a stiff upper lip that's as British as they come, for whatever reason Nicholson and Serkis seemingly refuse to allow the viewer to embrace Robin and Diana, keeping them at arm's length from the audience for the majority of the feature's 117-minute running time. For a story about a family's ability to overcome a horrifying tragedy, there's a ho-hum predictability to events that's oddly boring. I had trouble caring about almost anything that was transpiring, not exactly the outcome I expected before sitting down to give this film a look.

There is a saving grace. The performances by Garfield and Foy are rich, complex, heartfelt and authentic. The pair strip themselves metaphorically naked, revealing much about Robin and Diana with a subtle dexterity that's transfixing. Foy, in particular, is a force of nature, transitioning from joy to anger, fury to euphoria, sorrow to rapture and a plethora of emotions in-between with an ethereal ferocity I was stunned by. While Garfield gets the showier role, tackling it with assertive virtuosity, Foy is the one challenged to carry almost all of the narrative load. It is through her so much of this story is told, in her eyes we see the struggle, not just of her husband, but of her son Jonathan (Dean-Charles Chapman) and their friends as well, all using her as their guide to figure out what it is they are supposed to do. The actress is outstanding, and any emotional connection I did end up having to Robin and Diana's story was in large part thanks to her and her alone.

Bonneville admittedly has a few nice moments, while Tom Hollander appears to be having a grand time portraying Diana's twin brothers Bloggs and David Blacker. There's also some dazzling camerawork on the part of cinematographer Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight), the Oscar-winning veteran playing with shadow, color and light in ways that are continually entrancing. As for Serkis, he shows definite promise from a directorial standpoint, creating a palpable air of paranoia, apprehension and disbelief during the early moments of Robin's affliction that is breathlessly affecting in ways so much of the rest of the film frustratingly never equals. There's also a sinister and bleakly disturbing trip to a German facility that cares for polio patients similar to Robin, all of them stacked together in iron lungs as if they're trapped inside metal coffins being made ready for burial.

I don't want to make it sound like Breathe is a bad movie. Far from it. The performances are extraordinary, and from a technical standpoint things are pretty much flawless across the board. But things are just too straightforward and underdeveloped for their own good, so much of this story told in a way that distanced me from the protagonists to such an extent I had trouble caring about what was going to happen to either of them. As sensational as Garfield and especially Foy are, as remarkable as Robin and Diana's story undeniably is, there just wasn't enough going on inside this movie to keep my attention for a full two hours, a disappointing a turn of events to say the least.


Sensational Only the Brave an honest tale of heroism and sacrifice
by Sara Michelle Fetters - SGN A&E Writer

ONLY THE BRAVE
Now playing


Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) has a dream. No group of municipal firefighters has ever achieved the designation 'Hotshots,' a term the Forest Service utilizes for special units that battle forest fires from the outside in, drawing lines in the sand while fighting fire with fire, trying to establish borders and creating back burns they can utilize against the wildfire. Only federally-trained units could be cataloged as Hotshots, and with the assistance of Prescott, Arizona Wildland Fire Chief Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges) Marsh was determined to prove that his 20-man unit could perform at a level equal or above any the Forest Service currently employed.

Only the Brave is the story of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, a courageous group of municipal firefighters from Prescott, who quickly made a name for themselves as an elite unit of wildfire experts tasked with battling blazes throughout the United States. The movie focuses on Marsh, his relationship with wife Amanda (Jennifer Connelly), the unit's struggles to be designated 'Hotshots' and the introduction of a troubled new member, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), just at the moment the Forest Service was starting to take the crew seriously. It follows them as they crisscross around the United States doing what they do best, emphasizing the relationships between the men, everything culminating at the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona that proved to be one of the deadliest in recent U.S. Forest Service history.

It takes screenwriters Ken Nolan (Black Hawk Down) and Eric Warren Singer (American Hustle), working from the GQ article 'No Exit' by Sean Flynn, and director Joseph Kosinski (Oblivion) a little while to find solid footing as far as this movie is concerned. The opening passages are lumpy, featuring ham-fisted introductions to a few of the primary characters while at the same time showcasing a potentially maudlin heavy hand that would unquestionably grow increasingly tiresome had it been utilized for the film's duration. True story or no, there came a point during the introductory act where I wondered why all involved had been drawn to tell this particular tale, the thought I needed to sit there for roughly another two hours not exactly bringing a smile to my face.

How wrong those sentiments proved to be. Quickly, and with striking authority, Kosinski finds his directorial footing and Nolan and Singer's script starts showcasing an authentic character-driven complexity that's immediately mesmerizing. The filmmakers dig deep into who these various men are, what makes them tick and how they banded together to become the heroes they unquestionably prove to be. Couple that with dazzling firefighting sequences, magnificent camerawork by Claudio Miranda (Life of Pi), dynamic editing from Billy Fox (Straight Outta Compton) and powerful score from composer Joseph Trapanese (The Raid 2), the movie starts hitting on all cylinders with a vigorous suddenness that's astonishing, everything building to a shockingly heartfelt and bracingly honest climax of sacrifice and grief that ripped my heart clean from my chest and left it on display for all to see.

Brolin is superb. The level of depth he brings to Eric Marsh is something else, the easygoing way he makes all the varying emotions this haunted everyman is feeling positively stunning. He's matched by Connelly, her performance an unexpected gem that builds in vigorous nuance as the story progresses. Together, they are as dynamic a pair as any 2017 has offered up to this point, their journey having a naturalistic intensity that held me spellbound.

But they're not the only ones doing exemplary work. Teller's turn as the battle-scarred addict trying to turn his life around for reasons that are as fiercely personal as they are heartbreakingly universal is one of the best of the young actor's career, and that includes his unjustly overlooked tour de force in the Oscar-winning Whiplash. Yet he's matched by Taylor Kitsch and James Badge Dale, the duo portraying two longtime members of Marsh's unit, the fast-talking showman Christopher MacKenzie and the stoic Granite Mountain Hotshots second-in-command Jesse Steed. Both men have far more to do than initially meets the eye, their expressive, multifaceted performances building in passion, power and urgency in hypnotic parallel with the film itself.

I've always felt Kosinski was talented, but looking at both TRON: Legacy and Oblivion it's hard not to walk away from either sci-fi endeavor and not think this is a filmmaker who enjoys putting gorgeous, beautifully realized style up on the cinema screen over anything remotely substantive any day of the week. But that is simply not the case here. Only the Brave understands character has to come first, that if the viewer cannot relate to these men, their families and what it is they are setting out to accomplish nothing that happens during the film itself will resonate. Kosinski shows a subtlety I freely admit I did not anticipate, the level of restraint utilized in order to bring things to life frankly incredible. This is a seriously magnificent motion picture, one I'm almost certain to still be talking about as the year inches closer to its conclusion.


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