The Florida Project

Dir. Sean Baker

At this time of the year, the usual fare at the cinemas comprises of the big hitters with Oscar nominations in mind - The Post, Darkest Hour and so on. Sitting just below the hype leaders for the usual award nominations - Streep, Day-Lewis, Hanks - is Willem Dafoe, who is shortlisted for best supporting actor in The Florida Project and the only disappointment about this gem of a film is that it didn't garner more nominations.

Dafoe was even prepared to work with a group of kids, who inevitably steal the limelight. They literally provide the viewing angle of the movie via low-held cameras, as they explore and push boundaries, fittingly for a feature about growing up. In this area of Florida, they spout words barely comprehensible to UK viewers. Some of the best lines come from those aged seven and under. From the youthful viewpoint of Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), all they know is life amongst the bright, garishly coloured apartments that fringe the Disney World resort.

Whilst thousands of tourists and their money pour into one version of the Magic Kingdom each week, the other is a favourite among bed bugs. The scene where a pair of newlyweds realise that the latter Magic Kingdom isn’t quite the one they were expecting wrings laughter from the desperation.

For Moonee and her playmates, the area is one big playground where the imagination can run riot, in similar ways to the communities at Hulme Crescents. To them, it’s not a hand to mouth existence, but a series of challenges as to how they can get a free ice cream or scrounge some waffles, punctuated by the sound of departing police helicopters.

For parents or grandparents of the blended families who’ve accepted the task of raising kids, they are united both in living on the breadline and their love of tattoos. Everyone crosses each other’s path along narrow stairways and corridors linking the tiny one-bedroom apartments that frequently house three or more people.

Moonee's mother, the fiery Halley (Bria Vinaite) tries to keep a roof over their heads - sometimes by flogging perfumes, sometimes by other means - but when the universal language of America, the dollar, dries up, her frustration causes her to lash out in the only ways she knows; with her tongue or her fists.

Yet there is a warmth and tenderness that pervades throughout the film, most noticeably in Dafoe's nuanced portrait of the harassed building manager, Bobby. People will try to support each other, but if a line is crossed, it will stay crossed, no matter the impact on those around. When Moonee cried, a stifled murmuring of "Aww" could be heard in the cinema.

Those who’ve seen Baker's previous offering, Tangerine, know that his films with his co-writer, Chris Bergoch, don't really end, they are more likely to reflect real life with open endings, acknowledging that although today was fun, tomorrow’s problems are just a few hours away.

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The Shape of Water

Dir. Guillermo Del Toro

Bad man finds alien. Woman befriends alien. Woman falls in love with alien. Alien falls in love with woman. Viewers are asked to suspend all sense of reason for two hours of cinema and it’s difficult to understand why such a weak storyline and ending, which was seemingly telegraphed last week, is being touted as a potential winner of the Best Picture Oscar.

Rather, the Oscar-worthy elements are the sumptuous display laid out by director Guillermo Del Toro. Every pixel is used to convey the dark grimness of the USA in the cold war era of early 1960s, mixed with the hope and aspirations that pour from the household TVs’ black and white pictures. There may be no 4K technology on show here, but the dreams are in vivid colour. Apart from a few snippets midway through this film, almost every scene is filmed indoors, underwater or at night, especially the ones featuring the scientific research centre where the key personnel work. This visual feast is at its best in a scene where the alien is having a meal at a table (did I mention that the suspension of belief is necessary?) and the woman, Elisa (Sally Hawkins), is transported to a scene reminiscent of those flowing from the aforementioned TVs. This is just one example in a succession of wonderfully immersive scenes.

Aurally, there is hardly a second of the film not filled with sounds that enhance the on-screen images. While other soundtracks can detract from the imagery, everything here is carefully synchronised.

Strictly speaking, the creature (played by Doug Jones) is not an alien, but a tall, over six foot, amphibian that can exist both under water and on land. He bears an uncanny resemblance to Abe Sapien (also played by Doug Jones), an amphibious creature that features in the Hellboy series of movies, also directed by Guillermo Del Toro. This amphibious ability provides a space race themed subplot, pitching the potential for advantages in the Russian and US operations.

Elisa is a mute, communicating via sign language, which is rather convenient as the creature picks up on it to help the fairy story meets love story to move along. Reliant on expressive, physical gestures, such as tap dancing, to communicate her happiness or frustration, Hawkins attempts to convey her loneliness and longing for love via her eyes and other facial changes, enhanced by the skilful lighting that silhouettes her features at the right moments.

The bad man, Strickland, is played with gleeful malevolence by Michael Shannon, who finds any opportunity to shoot people or use his electric baton in order to inflict pain.

The acting and presentation are of the highest order, but as in the Hellboy series, they know when to laugh at themselves.

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