Reviews: 'Sunshine State' and 'Full Frontal'

It was inevitable that John Sayles would eventually make a Florida movie. In picture after picture, it seems like the legendary independent filmmaker has been working his way across virtually the entire expanse of America, giving each of his films a distinctive flavor by setting each one in a different state. It was only a matter of time before Sayles got to Florida.

Actually, Sayles got to Florida some time ago. Even though Sunshine State (which opens locally this week) marks the first time Sayles has set a story here, the filmmaker's Florida connection goes way back. "Yeah, I've been coming here ever since I was 5 or 6 years old," Sayles told me during a recent phone interview. "My mother's parents lived in Hollywood, Florida, for years and I had cousins in Jacksonville. Over the years I've traveled around the state quite a bit."

All those years of traveling around Florida have paid off for a natural observer and storyteller like Sayles. Sunshine State is a big film, with dozens of characters from all sorts of backgrounds, and dozens of tales that slowly entwine as the film progresses. The film is set in a run-down Florida beach town (shot mostly on Amelia Island, just north of Jacksonville) in danger of being swallowed up by teams of competing out-of-state developers. The locals are conflicted about what to do, and the whole thing is further complicated by all sorts of factors, including the various characters' race, gender and age.

The film weaves a rich, complicated web, both personal and political, threading a series of smart little character sketches into an appealing mix of soap opera and ideology. Sunshine State is made up mostly of small, intimate moments, but it's a panorama of American life, Florida-style, that at its best recalls Robert Altman's Nashville or, even more specifically, Sayles' own Lone Star.

"That was kind of unavoidable," the filmmaker says with a laugh. "When you're talking about a whole community, with all the family dramas within it, there's gonna be some similarities in form. It's also similar to my City of Hope in that way. Actually, the way I see it, in the United States we very often live in parallel communities. Here in Florida you have traditionally had a very mixed community, pretty much from 1900 on. In the Miami area or in Tampa there might be more of a Hispanic community than in northern Florida, but I think that, while our lives cross, people think of themselves very often as part of these smaller, parallel communities rather than as part of a larger community. Some of that comes out in the film."

The movie divides its time pretty equally between its white and black characters; the one common denominator linking virtually all of the communities is their inability to control the steady franchising of their environment. The genesis of Sunshine State can probably be found in the trips Sayles made up and down the West Coast of Florida over the past 10 years, watching small family-run businesses transform into corporate chains. Sayles talks passionately about the most recent wave of development that he claims, "has changed from a kind of tourism that's owned by the people in the community to a more corporate tourism." Many of the characters in the film seem to share this perspective, so that it often feels like Sunshine State has a political ax to grind. The director denies that.

"I'm interested in what all of these people have to say," Sayles explains, "because I'm trying to understand the situation. I actually don't have an answer. You know, a lot of development is not bad, and it's even necessary. Certainly every year we have more people and we need to put them somewhere. But I do know that anywhere where development has just been pretty much totally left up to the developers — where the community hasn't had a say in it — it hasn't turned out well. So a lot of what I do in making a film like this is to accept that people coming from different perspectives are going to have a different way of seeing the world, and so they're going to want different things."

Sunshine State is often a bit too talky for its own good (although, then again, the characters in all of Sayles' films rarely know when to shut up), but the movie works on all sorts of other levels. When it's not making speeches, the film is particularly good at pulling the carpet out from under our feet, beginning with the dramatic opening shot of a pirate ship that turns out to be just one more illusion. In reality, it's a silly float for "Old Buccaneer Days," a fictitious tradition clearly modeled after Gasparilla. "I wanted to disorient people somewhat," says Sayles. "So suddenly you're not talking about the original history, but about some sort of pageant that has taken the parts they like about the original history and turned it into something that's basically advertising."

Sunshine State doesn't quite rank with Sayles' classics, like Return of the Secaucus Seven, Brother From Another Planet and Eight Men Out, but it's a worthy effort nonetheless — entertaining, witty, thoughtful and with the sort of distinctively Floridian atmosphere that's rarely seen outside of a Victor Nunez film. The movie is crammed with local color, features a strong ensemble cast led by St. Petersburg native Angela Bassett, and even employs a goodly number of crew members and actors from all across the state (including a smattering of non-professionals). It's a thoroughly Florida production, so much so that we can't help but wonder if the reality of Sunshine State has finally enabled John Sayles to get all this Florida stuff out of his system and move on.

"For the moment," the filmmaker answers, after giving it some thought. "But there are lots of other stories that can be told down here. And many of them would be perfect for Florida."

Grand Illusion Steven Soderbergh is up to his old tricks again. This is a filmmaker who's been remarkably successful at alternating the types of projects he chooses, doing something personal and artistic, and then following that with some big commercial movie designed to bring in audiences and a fat paycheck. At this point, Soderbergh has this rotation system down to a precise science. After the back to back crowd-pleasers Erin Brockovich and Oceans Eleven (and, in between, the somewhat more "difficult" but still basically mainstream Traffic), Soderbergh's new Full Frontal is a prime example of the director back again in full-blown experimental mode.

Full Frontal is being referred to in some circles as a sequel to Soderbergh's groundbreaking 1989 indie sex, lies and videotape. That seems a stretch, but the films do share some common obsessions. Those obsessions — most of which have to do with a couple of the characters' voyeuristic tendencies and unconventional attitudes to erotic fulfillment — aren't particularly well delineated, but they're only the tiniest bit of the picture in Full Frontal.

What we get, as near as I can tell, is a film-within-a-film-within-a-fantasy, in which the director seems to be having the time of his life creating what amounts to his own free-floating, self-contained universe. Full Frontal unfolds like a puzzle that begs to be put together even as it resists being solved. It's unclear for the longest time how the film's characters are related to one another, and we keep getting additional bits of information that suggest everything we think we know is wrong. All that we do know is that most of the characters are either directly or peripherally connected to the movie industry, most of them have serious personal issues, and several of them are responsible for the movie that appears within the movie from time to time.

Soderbergh and writer Coleman Hough seem less concerned with creating full-blooded characters than with developing themes, textures and teasing us with constant shifts between the film's various onion-like layers of reality. The movie-within-the-movie is beautifully lit and filmed like a big Hollywood feature, complete with an appearance by Brad Pitt. The "real life" stuff is shot on digital video and looks fuzzy, barely in focus and flooded with light, to the point where objects bleed into one another and it's hard to tell where one thing begins and another ends. Just like the film. For that matter, the faint, flickering image seems like it's constantly in danger of evaporating right before our eyes, also exactly like the film.

Despite the provocative title, sex here is as oblique and mysterious as everything else about Full Frontal. Contrary to much publicized rumor, Julia Roberts does not get naked, and the handful of erotic scenes are depicted as nothing more than a series of thoroughly arty, abstract and amorphous shapes. About as concrete as Full Frontal gets is a guest appearance by David Duchovny's erection, discretely tucked away under a white sheet and looking every inch like the spitting image of Casper. Beyond that, the best that can be said about Soderbergh's latest is that it tries harder; that it's highly imaginative, intriguing, funny and almost always one step ahead of where we think it's going. The worst that might be said of the film is that it's a great ride to nowhere, where getting there is all the fun.

Lance Goldenberg can be reached at [email protected] or 813-248-8888, ext. 157.

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