First, an update from Tijuana. I found a statue of Julia Roberts next to Marilyn Monroe at the Wax Museum. Maybe there’s hope for today’s movie stars after all. Or, really, the day before yesterday’s movie stars. Only Sylvester Stallone, Whoopi Goldberg, Wesley Snipes, Harrison Ford and, er, Mel Gibson and Bill Cosby made the cut. Oh, and Tom Cruise, but with an asterisk—his figure was a monstrous, mangled thing plopped on a bench. I’m 90 percent sure they just put a wig on Forrest Gump. Call me a conspiracist, but I’m also convinced their Obama statue is just Garry Shandling with a tan.
(P.S.: IF YOU GUYS WANNA CHECK THEM OUT, HERE THEY ARE.)
If we don’t have new faces, at least we have The Florida Project’s Sean Baker, who can make a movie star out of anyone, almost like it’s his personal dare. I thought his steady hand in Tangerine was fantastic. Then I had to shepherd his lead actress Mya Taylor through a Screen Actors Guild Q&A where she didn’t want to talk about anything but her shoes. She was charming and energetic, but I couldn’t get her to answer a single question. That Baker got a whole movie from Taylor isn’t just fantastic—it’s phenomenal. (I’m so curious to see her next gig in Marti Noxon’s adaptation of Dietland, a book I listened to on tape for two hours and turned off before I hear it gets good.) On my third watch of Florida Project—Mark, I’m catching up to you!—I began to wonder how much Baker has in common with Willem Dafoe’s motel manager, one of the only experienced actors in the cast. Both men seem to draw from a bottomless well of patience. They keep their misfits happy and their focus on the tricky clockwork of making sure every piece is oiled and in place.
Mark, I’ll see your Chalamet closing shot in Call Me by Your Name and raise you Brooklynn Prince’s close-up in the scene before the final scene, where the sobbing 6-year-old’s moxie slides from her face and we realize she’ll never again be able to make believe that her mother with the mint green My Little Pony hair raised her right. As for that mom, Bria Vinaite’s audition of sorts was just tattooed twerking videos she uploaded to Instagram. Fifteen seconds isn’t long to make an impression, but Vinaite doesn’t even need that. Her character is instinctual, ruled by emotions that ripple across her face a millisecond before she reacts. She’s as twitchy and mean as a feral cat with fleas.
Baker’s movies burrow into the corners of America. He’s not making pity-these-Trump-voters treacle or anthropologically dull mumblecore. He tells real, full stories with complete arcs and smart dialogue and sets them in places other filmmakers drive past on their way to pitch reboots of Baywatch and CHiPs. He’s curious, which might be the best compliment you can give a young director when everyone else in his class is pleading to steer one lap of a franchise.
That said (and here comes a The Last Jedi spoiler), how great was it when Rian Johnson drove The Force Awakens’ dumb mystery about Daisy Ridley’s lineage off a cliff?! Space is huge. Infinite. How small-minded to set up some genealogical coronation, as if the entire universe was just a chronicle of begets. Speaking of which, my favorite line delivery of 2017 might be Peter Dinklage’s deadpan, “Penelope said begets?” in Three Billboards. Either that, or Louis C.K. in I Love You, Daddy, wheezing, “I’m sorry, women!?”
As a rule, I hate plots where a chosen one is born to greatness like a prize-winning poodle. That is why I groaned when The Shape of Water set up the obvious secret behind the scratches on Sally Hawkins’ neck a full hour before the ending. I already thought the film had the feeling of a well-designed aquarium with no surprises, not even a pirate skeleton popping out of a plastic treasure chest. That’s fine if writer-director Guillermo del Toro passionately sold us on Hawkins’ interspecies romance, on woman and fish-man figuring out if they can make things work, but their final, heavily foretold embrace just felt like he’d scripted an arranged marriage.
Instead, I’d rather see a trilogy about the poodle. Kameron, in your deep dives on FilmStruck, have you waded into the Jim Henson section? I got hooked watching his stagy 1969 experiment The Cube, but this week I’m pestering everyone to click on Henson’s 1989 short Dog City. The arc is an ordinary Jimmy Cagney story about a good-boy puppet squaring off against a mobster bulldog. But Henson’s really thought out the rules of being a dog, the way his hero has to circle the floor before climbing into bed or how time ticks by on two clocks, human and canine. One sidekick brags he’s been going to obedience school “for two, I mean, 14 years.”
Watching Dog City felt like being inside a world where someone smart and good is in charge—kind of like how I imagine a dog feels tucked into sleep in a crate. To quote Mark, I didn’t need to “police the margins” for narrative inconsistencies in a comedy where the lead German shepherd was so traumatized by land mine–planting sheep that he quit his job and took a pledge of nonviolence. (On the extreme other end of the spectrum, I also admired the recklessly half-cocked Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, which barely explored any of its ideas. Luc Besson spread his imagination across the screen like a deck of cards—pick one, any one, and you could make an entire movie.)
Why bring up Dog City in 2017? Because, as Dana mentioned in her last letter, audiences have been thrown too many bones. Each night is an intimidating buffet of options, especially with streaming services supplanting cable. The line between film and TV is blurring—by this time next year, the Venn diagram will have scrunched closer toward an eclipse. Yet, when I look at the modern movie landscape, I also see separation, fiefdoms of subscription apps like Shudder and Mubi staking out a niche, each one an aisle in a Blockbuster. Funny how I used to consider Blockbuster the corporate enemy and now mourn it like the fallen library of Ephesus.
I subscribe to four apps and consider it a tithe. Even if I only have time to watch one or two old oddities a month, I just want them to be available. My $9.99 a month is paying to babysit these old movies until future film critics take them on in 2038. Perhaps by then, The Florida Project will just be beamed straight into people’s heads, like inhaling the scent of cheap pizza and wet paint. But I’m feeling an old crank’s need to hoard everything of value. Call me the J. Paul Getty of copies of Revenge of the Nerds.
Yes, I’m one of the anxious weirdos who bought a new VCR in the year 2017. But hey, after destroying Blockbuster, Netflix trimmed its own classics section to 42 films. And one of them is Dead Poet’s Society? As Robin Williams said, “I like Byron, I give him a 42, but I can’t dance to it!” Or maybe that was Forrest Gump. I’ll let other people make the wax statues.