Four Letter Words

(USA 2000)

With The Florida Project (https://moviebloke.com/2017/10/03/the-florida-project/), Sean Baker sparked my curiosity in his work. Big time. Sure, I heard of him and caught an earlier film, Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/), before that. Now, though, I’m practically obsessed with seeing what else he’s done, more than any other director in recent memory. For my latest foray into Baker, I went back to Four Letter Words, his first feature film.

Truly a show about nothing, Four Letter Words takes place at the end of a house party in suburban Los Angeles. It’s 3:30 a.m. Art (Fred Berman), who’s in his second or third year of college —  and on his third or fourth major — is home from school and threw a get-together at his parents’ house, inviting his BFFs from high school. It’s clear that it’s time for everyone to go but he doesn’t want to be alone.

Baker’s style is very much ‘90s DIY. Four Letter Words feels a lot like early Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith, loaded with naturalistic dialogue and rants mostly about sex, slacker characters, dumb antics, and mundane events that transpire over the course of an hour or so.

Baker explores the outlook of suburban men in their 20s. Four Letter Words isn’t revolutionary or terribly insightful. It’s neither a major work nor required viewing, but it’s mildly interesting because it shows what draws him in.

With David Ari, Henry Beylin, Darcy Bledsoe, Edward Coyne, Matthew Dawson, Thomas Donnarumma, Loren Ecker, Karren Karagulian, Robyn Parsons, David Prete, Matthew Maher, Vincent Radwinsky, Susan Stanley, Jay Thames, Artyom Trubnikov, Paul Weissman

Production: Vanguard

Distribution: littlefilms

82 minutes
Not rated

(DVD purchase) C-

http://www.littlefilms.com/home.htm

Starlet

(USA 2012)

After The Florida Project wowed me even more than Tangerine did two years ago (I liked that one a lot, too), I decided to check out what else Sean Baker has done. I didn’t know about Starlet. Written by Baker with frequent collaborator Chris Bergoch, it’s the first of three from them so far. It came out before Tangerine, so it seemed like a good place to start. I’m happy to report that Starlet is another winner.

In Starlet, Baker and Bergoch explore morality and female bonding in the context of a cross generational relationship. Jane (Dree Hemingway) is a nihilistic or simply oblivious 21-year-old aspiring actress who just moved to the Valley — the one on the other side of the hills from Hollywood — with her unnamed chihuahua (Boonee). She’s kind of a slacker, spending her days not unpacking her shit but getting high and playing video games with her housemates Melissa (Stella Maeve) and Mikey (James Ransone), a young couple not exactly in tune with each other. They let her stay with them in an extra bedroom that Mikey occasionally uses for “work.”

Jane is likable: she’s got a lot of idiosyncrasies but she isn’t helpless, she takes care of her pooch, and she seems like a nice person despite her aimlessness, lack of planning (like, anything), and the questionable career path she’s chosen to get her foot in the door of the film industry. I’m not spoiling anything when I reveal that she makes porn under her stage name Tess. One name, like Cher or Madonna (or Prince, for that matter). A few real life porn actors (Manuel Ferrara, Asa Akira, Jules Jordan, Kristina Rose) even appear as themselves.

Jane hits a yard sale at the home of crusty old lady Sadie (Besedka Johnson), who can barely be bothered to answer Jane’s questions about a thermos she spots and wants to buy (she thinks it’s an urn). Jane takes it home and is befuddled when she finds multiple rolls of cash stashed inside it.

Jane tries to return the money — after she spends some of it on a blingy harness for the dog (incidentally, it says “starlet,” which becomes his name). The problem is, Sadie doesn’t give her a chance; she won’t even let Jane talk, dismissing her with a “no returns” shutdown. So, Jane does what any reasonable person would: she stalks Sadie at the grocery store, in the diner, in her garden, and at her bingo games to become her friend and spend the money on her.

Starlet is unique in its pace and its narrative, perhaps even moreso than Tangerine or The Florida Project. It’s offbeat yet warm, and it beautifully captures the tempo of real life: mostly mundane stretches peppered with moments of excitement. Both Hemingway (yes, her great grandfather was the notable author) and Johnson in her only role are both mesmerizing. Radium Cheung’s cinematography is gorgeous; all sunbleached and perfectly framed, it gives Starlet a sunny hue that belies its melancholic sense that this is as good as it gets for these characters, not that anything — fame, fortune, love, a pornstar sex life, retirement, Hollywood itself — is as thrilling as the fantasy.

Starlet lacks the impact of the aformentioned films that follow it — the big reveal at the end is a bit of a dud. However, its real surprise is how damned sweet it is. Hemingway and Johnson interacting with each other are a joy to watch. My big question: what’s in the suitcase?

With Zoe Voss, Krystle Alexander, Jessica Pak, Jackie J. Lee, Dean Andre, Dawn Bianchini, Edmund C. Pokrzywnicki, Dave Bean, Eliezer Ortiz, Andy Mardiroson, Cesar Garcia, Heather Wang, Helen Yeotis, Dale Tanguay, Patrick Cunningham, Karren Karagulian, Michael O’Hagan, Amin Joseph, Cammeron Ellis, Nick Santoro, Joey Rubina, Cassandra Nix, Liz Beebe, Tracey Sweet

Production: Maybach Cunningham, Freestyle Picture Company, Cre Film, Mangusta Productions

Distribution: Music Box Films (USA), Golden Scene (Hong Kong), Rapid Eye Movies (Germany), Tucuman Filmes (Brazil)

103 minutes
Not rated

(iTunes rental) B

http://www.musicboxfilms.com/starlet-movies-44.php

The Florida Project

(USA 2017)

“Relax. Your daughter’s perfectly fine in my hands.”

— Moonee

Sean Baker’s Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/) impressed me. On the surface an offbeat odyssey of castoffs living on the fringe in West Hollywood, it’s one of those films that creeps up and hits you at the end. Comprised largely of small moments and vignettes strung together, its sum is much more — and completely different — than its parts: insightful, powerful, and quietly profound.

Come to think of it, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight (https://moviebloke.com/2016/11/19/moonlight/) operates in a similar way even though it’s not the same story.

I was thrilled to hear that Baker has a new film, The Florida Project, out this fall. The comments I overheard from audience members while walking out of a prerelease screening were amusing but maddening: “That was realism, hard realism. Too hard.” “Well, that didn’t go anywhere.” “I had to force myself to stay awake.” “I wouldn’t recommend that to anyone.” Insert eyeroll here.

I disagree. The Florida Project switches gears, so it doesn’t end up where it seems to be going. The trailer makes it look like a childhood nostalgia movie, and it starts out like one. But it’s not. Often amusing but just as often difficult to watch, it paints a vivid picture that doesn’t criticize, demean, or sentimentalize its characters or their situation. I’ve heard Baker lauded for his humanism; his work definitely shows plenty of that if nothing else. His best attribute may be his willingness to let his characters develop into real people over the course of two hours or so.

To be clear, the impact of The Florida Project is not immediate. Baker’s pace isn’t quick, either. Written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project starts out as a sort of Little Rascals sitcom involving the misadventures of besties Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) and Scooty (Christopher Rivera), two grade school kids growing up in a sketchy roadside motel, the Magic Castle, that sits along a tawdry strip just outside the Magic Kingdon — a.k.a. Disney World in Orlando. A gun shop, a convenience store, a market that sells oranges, and a boarded up clinic dot the strip, which incidentally intersects with Seven Dwarves Lane.

Moonee and Scooty spend their days running around, screaming, and stirring up mischief. They spit all over a motel guest’s car. They drop water balloons on people. They spy on an elderly topless sunbather (Sandy Kane). They scam change to buy ice cream. They set a fire. They recruit a third hellion, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who lives next door and easily goes along with their antics probably because there’s no one else to play with. Their favorite target is weary motel manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe).

Slowly, a different picture emerges and The Florida Project becomes another film. Moonee’s mother, Halley (Bria Vinaite), can’t get it together. Feral and clearly her own worst enemy, she lives hand to mouth with her young daughter. She’s constantly about to be evicted, and she takes free meals wherever she can get them. When selling stolen amusement park passes and wholesale perfume in the parking lot of a “nicer” motel up the street doesn’t work, she turns tricks in the room.

After Halley has a falling out with Scooty’s mom, Ashley (Mela Murder), Baker literally zooms in on Moonee.

The events here are purposely mundane, and it’s hard to say exactly where the climax is. It doesn’t matter: The Florida Project works because of the way Baker executes the story. He’s just as careful about choosing what he shows as what he doesn’t. The thrill here is watching the characters develop, anyway; that’s what makes The Florida Project soar. It doesn’t hurt that the acting is superb, particularly Vinaite, Prince (who at six years old is a natural — I almost cried when she did), and Dafoe, whom I haven’t seen this good since Mississippi Burning.

Alexis Zabe’s cinematography — alternating long shots and pans with almost uncomfortably close shots — works beautifully with the gorgeously effervescent color palette. The ending is unexpectedly touching and fun. The Florida Project just might be the first Oscar contender I’ve seen this year.

With Josie Olivo, Aiden Malik, Caleb Landry Jones, Shail Kamini Ramcharan, Sonya McCarter, Karren Karagulian, Kelly Fitzgerald, Lauren O’Quinn, Edward Pagan, Cecilia Quinan, Kit Sullivan, Andrew Romano

Production: Cre Film, Freestyle Picture Company, June Pictures, Sweet Tomato Films

Distribution: A24 (USA), Altitude Film Distribution (UK), Elevation Pictures (Canada), Filmcoopi Zürich (Switzerland), September Film (Netherlands), Front Row Filmed Entertainment (United Arab Emirates)

115 minutes
Rated R

(AMC River East) A-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://a24films.com/films/the-florida-project

Saturday Church

(USA 2017)

Ulysses (Luka Kain) is a quiet, delicate teen who lives in Queens and is just starting to figure out his sexual identity — it involves wearing panty hose under his jeans. When his father dies, he becomes the “man of the house.” Unfortunately, his mother (Margot Bingham), who works all the time, is already on edge because she caught him wearing her clothes. Ulysses shares a bedroom with his younger brother, Abe (Jaylin Fletcher), who knows that he’s still rummaging through mom’s closet on the sly and gives him shit for it. School is no respite because Ulysses’s classmates are jerks.

Enter stern Aunt Rose (Regina Taylor) to help at home while mom is away at work. She takes charge, usurping Ulysses and his mother as the master of the domain. She’s not about to have a dress-wearing freak around, so she pushes Ulysses toward the one cure she knows: the Lord.

Ulysses escapes to the Christopher Street Pier, where he meets a gang of “drag queens”: Ebony (MJ Rodriguez), Dijon (Indya Moore), and Heaven (Alexia Garcia). They take him to “Saturday Church,” a space in Greenwich Village where one night a week trans mother hen Joan (Kate Bornstein) offers a meal, a shower, clothes, perhaps a spot to vogue, and companionship to homeless LGBTQ kids. This is where Ulysses finds his groove.

Too bad mean Aunt Rose is waiting for him to come home.

Damon Cardasis’s first feature length film is a winning mix of Moonlight (https://moviebloke.com/2016/11/19/moonlight/ ), La La Land (https://moviebloke.com/2016/10/13/la-la-land/ ), and Tangerine (https://moviebloke.com/2015/07/28/tangerine/ ) with just the right splash of Paris is Burning (https://moviebloke.com/2016/08/26/paris-is-burning/ ). Saturday Church has some shortcomings, but the film oozes so much charm and warmth that I found it easy to forgive its flaws. Some of the songs and dance numbers are better than others — the song in the locker room and the other with Ulysses singing to his new boyfriend (Marquis Rodriguez) as they walk to the train stand out, especially when flower petals start falling. It’s really cool.

The acting is really good all around, but Kain is particularly awesome. He gives palpable tenderness and vulnerability to his character. The so called “drag queens” are not just fierce but downright touching. The way they save Ulysses is sweet. They make you long for a friend who has your back like they do. The story here totally sold me. I look forward to what’s next from Cardasis.

With Stephen Conrad Moore, Peter Y. Kim, Evander Duck Jr.

Production: Spring Pictures, Round Films

Distribution: Samuel Goldwyn Films

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with Damen Cardasis

82 minutes
Not rated

(Directors Guild of America) B-

Outfest Los Angeles LGBT Film Festival

http://www.samuelgoldwynfilms.com/saturday-church/

Tangerine

(USA 2015)

A day in the life of two transgender prostitutes, Sin-Dee (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) and Alexandra (Mya Taylor) of West Hollywood. Sin-Dee just got out of jail and is trying to tack down her fiancé/pimp, Chester (James Ransone), who failed to pick her up. Fellow trans hooker Alexandra lets out of the bag that Chester has been shacking up with a real girl (Mickey O’Hagen) while Sin-Dee was in the slammer. Sin-Dee shifts her plan and sets out to kidnap her. Did I mention it’s Christmas Eve? Thrown into all this is Armenian cab driver Razmik (Karren Karagulian), who is married and has a thing for Alexandra. Where is all this going?

Tangerine gets off to a shaky start, but director Sean Baker lets his characters develop into full-fledged people as the film rolls on and ultimately proves to be a beautiful story. With a pervading sense of loneliness, it makes a point about survival and needing to rely on others to do it. No man (or woman) is an island.

(Music Box) B

http://www.magpictures.com/tangerine/

Footnote: I tracked down Donut Time, the donut shop where much of the action in Tangerine takes place. It’s located at 6785 Santa Monica Blvd. at the corner of Highland. I used the ATM and bought a cruller. It was awesome.

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