Angel Unchained [Hell’s Angels Unchained]

(USA 1970)

“Stay? What does ‘stay’ mean?”

— Angel

Lee Madden’s Angel Unchained is the type of ’70s movie that you would see on late night TV during the ’70s. A low budget grindhouse exploitation revenge flick, this one involves bikers and hippies and hicks, oh my. If the title isn’t obvious, Angel Unchained is a prime example of the kind of film that influenced none other than Quentin Tarantino.

After saving leader of the pack Pilot (Larry Bishop) during a bizarre rumble at a children’s amusement park, dumpy bodied restless spirit Angel (Don Stroud) decides to break from his gang of bikers and go his own way. While getting gas somewhere in the Arizona desert, he observes a group of redneck townies hassle a couple of hippies, one of whom is sweet Merilee (a young and soft Tyne Daly). Angel sticks up for the hippies.

He and Merilee are digging each other. She invites him to her farming commune, which is led by Southern buck Jonathan Tremaine (Luke Askew). They live off the land in a remote spot just outside some desert hicktown. The redneck townies don’t care for the hippies, which they make known by driving dune buggies through the hippies’ garden, messing with their livestock, and physically pummelling them. Angel stabs one, head honcho hillbilly Dave (Peter Lawrence), in the arm with a pitchfork as he speeds past him.

After that, Dave gives them all an ultimatum: leave by Saturday, or his posse of rednecks is going to wreak havoc on the commune. This frightens the hippies.

Angel calls on his old gang to save the farm, literally. He persuades Pilot, who grudgingly gets the guys on board. They head out to stay there for a week. Not surprisingly, the bikers clash with the hippies, starting with their diet of alphalpha. Things go south fast: the bikers drink, hit on the ladies, and generally make a mess. The last straw is stealing the batch of cookies — the vague implication is that they’re laced with drugs, probably pot or peyote — that an elderly medicine man (Pedro Regas) bakes in a hut.

Loaded with chases in “vee-hicles,” fistfights, and a good mix of dramatic tension and humor, Angel Unchained isn’t the worst thing. It’s got an odd charm to it, with the desert setting and the fringe dwellers of a long gone era battling the philistines of an even longer gone era. It has a few memorable scenes, such as a brilliantly kooky one in which Pilot has a nice, nothing chat with the sheriff (Aldo Ray) outside the jailhouse. As they talk, they nonchalantly watch the the bikers and the townies beat the crap out of each other in the parking lot in front of them. Another sad scene occurs right after a rape — again, it’s vaguely implied but you know what just happened.

Still, Angel Unchained is pretty silly; its earnestness makes it even moreso. If it has anything to say, it’s exactly what Rodney King would utter 20 years later: “Can we all just get along?” A nice sentiment for sure, but it doesn’t make up for the strained, amateur acting or the monotonous folky (and folksy) score by Randy Sparks.

With T. Max Graham, Jean Marie, Bill McKinney, Jordan Rhodes, Linda Smith, Nita Michaels, J. Cosgrove Butchie, T.C. Ryan, Alan Gibbs, Bud Ekins, Jerry Randall

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Anglo-EMI Film Distributors (UK), MGM-EMI (UK), Film AB Corona (Sweden)

86 minutes
Rated PG

(Impact) C-

White Christmas

(USA 1954)

“May your days be merry and bright; and may all your Christmases be white!”

— Cast

I’ve never heard anyone — not even my grandparents — call White Christmas their favorite movie. Nonetheless, as corny holiday adventure romantic comedies go, it’s a holiday treat that can’t be beat. This year, we caught a double feature (White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life) complete with live piano, carols, Yuletide shorts, and Santa!

White Christmas follows Captain Bob Wallace (Bing Crosby) and Private Phil Davis (Danny Kaye), members of the 151st Division of the U.S. Army, from a World War II battlefield where the latter sacrifices his shoulder to save the former, into their successful postwar Broadway partnership likely borne out of a sense of obligation, to a tiny Vermont inn where they both fall in love. Not with each other — though that would be interesting. No, with two nightclub singers they meet in Miami, “Sisters” Betty (Rosemary Clooney) and Judy Haynes (Vera-Ellen, who’s visibly anorexic).

God help these misters! It’s love at first sight for Phil and Judy, but not for Bob and Betty (which amusingly are my parents’ names). The gals have to take off for a Christmas performance they booked in Vermont. Not wanting her to leave, Phil finagles a sneaky way to extend his time with Judy — much to Bob’s dismay. A startlingly sad surprise awaits them in Vermont, exactly where the gals are performing. It seems it will take a Christmas miracle to turn things around, but Bob and Betty and Phil and Judy just might pull it off — with a little help from their friends in the 151st Division.

Directed by Michael Curtiz, White Christmas is standard golden age Hollywood fare: slick sets, catchy songs, peppy dance numbers, and a cute, heartwarming, almost cloying plot that ends on a sunny note. It’s not over the top, like, say, Anchors Aweigh, but it’s totally entertaining and fun. The screenplay by Norman Krasna, Norman Panama, and Melvin Frank is energetic, building its narrative with familar elements: recurring jokes, antagonistic relations, a drag scene, eavesdropping, misunderstandings, feigned circumstances, setting something free, saving the day, blooming love, and of course snow on Christmas.

Irving Berlin’s music is classic: “Love, You Didn’t Do Right by Me,” “Gee, I Wish I Was Back in the Army,” “Sisters,” and — duh! — the title track, a huge hit that was already a decade old by the time the movie was made. The single “White Christmas” holds the Guinness World Record as the top selling record of all time (https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/chart-beat/8022047/white-christmas-bing-crosby-number-1-rewinding-charts). Title of this movie explained.

With Dean Jagger, Mary Wickes, Johnny Grant, John Brascia, George Chakiris, Anne Whitfield, Percy Helton, I. Stanford Jolley, Barrie Chase, Sig Ruman, Grady Sutton, Herb Vigran

Production: Paramount Pictures

Distribution: Paramount Pictures

120 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) B

Dick Tracy

(USA 1990)

“You better get over here fast. They’re gonna find out we’re not together.”

— Dispatcher (from Dick Tracy’s watch)

Dick, that’s an interesting name.

It took 15 years for Warren Beatty to achieve his vision of Dick Tracy, Chester Gould’s hard-boiled square-chin (and nose) comic strip detective in the hideous yellow trench coat (http://www.newsweek.com/tracymania-206276). I skipped over him in favor of lighter and friendlier (not to mention more current) stuff like Peanuts, Hägar the Horrible, Hi and Lois, Marmaduke, The Far Side, Life in Hell, and later Calvin and Hobbes and, um, Crankshaft. Good times!

I remember the media blitz during the summer of 1990. It included Madonna — I’m Breathless, an album of music from and “inspired by” the film, and a landmark world tour (Blond Ambition). I guess it makes sense coming a year after Tim Burton’s mega successful Batman that the studio would push Dick Tracy to be the next big blockbuster. This one cost more and made less, but it still made a mark at the box office.

Dick Tracy (Beatty) is dying to bring down mob boss “Big Boy” Caprice (Al Pacino), the city’s most notorious criminal. He may have found a way through femme fatale lounge singer Breathless Mahoney (Madonna), Big Boy’s new girlfriend. She knows a thing or three. Now, if only Dick can get her to talk. The problem is, she’s more interested in Dick.

Written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr., the screenplay is adequate: it doesn’t knock your socks off, but it certainly holds your interest. It doesn’t really matter, though, because the story is secondary.

Dick Tracy is a sensory feast. Rick Simpson’s sets are gorgeous and elegant art deco cityscapes punctuated with primary colors and Depression Era practicality. Makeup designers John Caglione Jr. and Doug Drexler concoct memorably grotesque prosthetics that define each villain — there are many — and actually help you keep track of who’s who. Vittorio Storaro’s camera work pulls the whole thing together like an Edward Hopper painting.

Finally, there’s the music. Danny Elfman’s score is cool, but throw in some Stephen Sondheim songs — three of which Madonna performs — and you’ve got a winner. In fact, “Sooner or Later” won the Oscar for Best Original Song (https://www.oscars.org/oscars/ceremonies/1991). Bonus: Dick Tracy is the closest you’ll get, at least up to now, to seeing Madge perform “More,” an overlooked classic from her catalog that to my knowledge she has never done live. Ever.

Dick Tracy isn’t perfect. A few moments teeter dangerously close to overboard on cuteness and camp, but fortunately Beatty knows when to pull back. This is not an essential film, but it’s an enjoyable one. I like it.

With Glenne Headly, Charlie Korsmo, James Keane, Seymour Cassel, Michael J. Pollard, Charles Durning, Dick Van Dyke, Frank Campanella, Kathy Bates, Dustin Hoffman, William Forsythe, Ed O’Ross, James Tolkan, Mandy Patinkin, R.G. Armstrong, Henry Silva, Paul Sorvino, Lawrence Steven Meyers, James Caan, Catherine O’Hara, Robert Beecher, Mike Mazurki, Ian Wolfe

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Silver Screen Partners IV, Mulholland Productions

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

105 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

Who Framed Roger Rabbit

(USA 1988)

Let’s get this out up front: the appeal of Who Framed Roger Rabbit is not its outstanding narrative. Based on Gary K. Wolf’s novel Who Censored Roger Rabbit?, Jeffrey Price and Peter S. Seaman’s screenplay is competently written but it’s conventional if not downright pedestrian, a standard whodunnit complete with hiding, seeking, and a clock ticking. The situations are goofy, the characters are even goofier, and the jokes…well, they’re silly. The whole thing relies too heavily on farce and slapstick for my taste.

Los Angeles, 1947: alcoholic private investigator Eddie Valiant (Bob Hoskins) is summoned to the studios of movie mogul R.K. Maroon (Alan Tilvern). Studio star Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is unraveling over romantic rumors involving his amply curvaceous toon wife Jessica (Kathleen Turner) and human Marvin Acme (Stubby Kaye), the inventor and maker of the sundry gadgets used in cartoons. It’s affecting the studio’s bottom line, so Maroon hires Valiant to check it out.

After catching Jessica’s act at an underground club, Valiant spies on her and Acme in her dressing room. He takes pictures of them playing “patty-cake.” He turns them over to Maroon, who shows them to Roger. Assuming the worst, he promptly freaks.

The next morning, Acme is found dead — a cartoon safe crushing his head. Naturally, all signs point to Roger. Dastardly Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), cloaked in a black cape and an evil hidden agenda, is following Roger’s tail. Valiant is unwillingly yanked into a crazy adventure to exonerate Roger, find a will, and stop Doom from selling Toontown, the appropriately named neighborhood where toons live, to a freeway developer.

Despite its shortcomings, Who Framed Roger Rabbit is a technical marvel unlike much before it. Directed by Robert Zemeckis, it took awhile to make. It was a box office blockbuster, and it’s easy to see why. From the outset, it’s a dazzling mix of animated characters, or “toons,” interacting with real people. The look and technique are impeccable, with natural movement and even toons and humans touching that melds seamlessly without any jumps or visual hiccups. An ongoing gag with Roger handcuffed to Valiant, for example, is flawless. Clearly, this film was assembled with painstaking attention to timing. It is, in a word, neat.

Plus, the incorporation of classic cartoons — from Betty Boop to Woody Woodpecker to Droopy, to a scene with Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse to a piano duel between Daffy Duck and Donald Duck — is really, really fun. I’m sure this is the only place you’ll ever see Warner Brothers and Disney characters together, and it’s a hoot.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Who Framed Roger Rabbit “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Joanna Cassidy, Lou Hirsch, Mike Edmonds, Eugene Guirterrez, Mae Questel, Mel Blanc, Tony Anselmo, Mary T. Radford, Joe Alaskey, David Lander, Richard Williams, Wayne Allwine, Tony Pope, Peter Westy, Cherry Davis, Nancy Cartwright

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures Distribution

104 minutes
Rated PG

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B-

Charleston

(Romania / France 2017)

With the title of his new film Charleston, writer and director Andrei Cretulescu seems to play on late actor Charleton Heston, who comes up during a dinner conversation between recently widowed Alexandru (Serban Pavlu) and his gay brother, Ludovic (Gavril Patru), while the latter’s silent and vacant German boy toy (Vlad Galer) plays a video game. It’s fitting for a movie that explores grief and masculinity.

It’s Alexandru’s birthday. His wife, Ioana (Ana Ularu), was just killed, run down as she crossed the street. A cut to him lounging nonchalantly at her grave, wearing earphones and big sunglasses and smoking a cigarette, raises doubt about how bad he’s taking it.

After his dinner with Ludovic, a surprise knock on the door brings Alexandru face to face with Sebastian (Radu Iacoban), a stuttering hipster metrosexual wimp who introduces himself as Ioana’s lover. A punch in the face starts a strange partnership in which the two men pair up to commiserate separately.

Cretulescu’s premise is promising, and it gets some solid mileage for most of the film. Alexandru’s cynicism and derision contrasts sharply with Sebastian’s unsophisticated neediness and angst. Drinking, stealing, playing records, and constantly bickering, the two lonely men get into some marvelously absurd situations. A certain dance during the “intermission” is out of nowhere. They also learn a few things about the woman who left them behind.

Unfortunately, the story peters out about two thirds of the way through, starting with a plainly weird road trip to a town on the sea that both associate with Ioana. The climax isn’t exactly satisfying. I wish Charleston ended up somewhere as interesting as it seemed to be headed.

With Victor Rebengiuc, Ana Ciontea, Gabriela Popescu, Dorian Boguta, Andreea Vasile, Adrian Titieni, Sergiu Costache, Claudiu Dumitru, Alina Berzunteanu, Letitia Vladescu

Production: ICON, Les Films du Tambour, Kinosseur, Digital Cube, Mille et une Films, WAG Prod, Wearebasca

Distribution: Kinosseur (Romania), Versatile (International)

U.S. Premiere

Screening introduced and followed by a live Q and A with director Andrei Cretulescu

119 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) B-

Chicago International Film Festival

https://www.facebook.com/Charleston2017

It [It: Chapter One]

(USA 2017)

I’ve started a few Stephen King novels during my life, but I’ve never finished reading any of them. I have, however, seen enough movies based on his books to know what I’m getting into.

It is director Andy Muschietti’s take on King’s 1986 novel, which incidentally came out on my 16th birthday. Scary. It tells the story of a group of bullied junior high outcasts who go after a deranged clown named Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård) one summer, the Summer of 1989, after he kills stuttering Bill Denbrough’s (Jaeden Lieberher) little brother, Georgie (Jackson Robert Scott), the fall before.

Pennywise lives in the sewer of their small town (Derry, Maine) and resurfaces every 27 years to prey on children through their worst fears.

The screenplay, written by Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, is only part of the book — presumably to allow for a sequel. It starts out well enough in the same sweet nostalgic way as, oh, Stand by Me. Muschietti gets deatils of the time period mostly right: the Cure and New Kids on the Block were big in ’89 (even though the former’s “Six Different Ways” was two albums and a compilation earlier), and the reference to Molly Ringwald fits. He goes full on Steven Spielberg, however, about halfway through, turning It into The Goonies with the kids’ “losers club” and all the action switching to a dark cavernous underground sewer. This is to say, It gets cheesy after awhile.

The kids are all decent actors, and they keep It moving along. Sadly, though, there aren’t any real surprises here. More creepy and icky than outright frightening, Muschietti relies greatly on special effects; they’re good and a lot of work went into them, but they get tiresome after awhile. Plus, some editing would’ve been a good idea; It is too long.

As It is, it’s not a stinker. However, I wasn’t moved by It, either. It is a big budget Hollywood movie aiming to be a blockbuster, and that’s It.

With Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Beverly Marsh, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Nicholas Hamilton, Jake Sim, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Elizabeth Saunders, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Katie Lunman, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee

Production: New Line Cinema, Ratpac-Dune Entertainment, Vertigo Entertainment, Lin Pictures, KatzSmith Productions

Distribution: Warner Brothers

135 minutes
Rated R

(ArcLight) C

http://itthemovie.com

Tokyo Vampire Hotel

(Japan 2017)

This theatrical cut of director Sion Sono’s Amazon Prime miniseries Tokyo Vampire Hotel [東京ヴァンパイアホテル] (http://www.indiewire.com/2017/04/tokyo-vampire-hotel-sion-sono-amazon-1201808369/) is a fast-paced stylish and colorful bloodbath, something that wouldn’t be out of place in Quentin Tarantino’s oeuvre.

Manami (Tomite Ami) is a nice girl who shares a tiny apartment with her boyfriend (Saito Takumi) in Tokyo. Just after she arrives for dinner with her friends on the evening of her 22nd birthday, a crazy gun-toting assassin (Shoko Nakagawa) in a fuzzy pink mink shows up and takes out everyone in the restaurant — except Manami, whom she came to kidnap.

Manami flees, only to be picked up by another kidnapper, the mysterious K (Kaho). K in not so may words explains that Manami is a pawn in a war between two vampire clans, the Draculas and the Corvins, who have been enemies for centuries. Unbeknownst to Manami, she’s the target of a worldwide vampire hunt. K takes her to the glamorous Tokyo Vampire Hotel, which is run by a creepy geisha empress (Adachi Yumi) who needs blood.

The end of civilization is coming, but the empress has a plan: use the hotel to trap a healthy supply of humans to serve as food. Things don’t pan out as planned when the humans figure out what’s happening and the Draculas show up to crash the party.

This photo sums up what you’re getting into here:

Tokyo still.jpg

Tokyo Vampire Hotel is quirky, sexy, lavish, and fun. Sono serves up an imaginative feast of dazzling eye candy and nonstop action. His use of Christian symbols adds a nice touch. The sets are fantastic, and the action moves from the streets of Tokyo at night to inside the hotel to Bran Castle in Transylvania, and back. The editing works to make nine episodes flow seamlessly into a feature length film. However, the story wears thin after a little while, and it can’t sustain the interest I started out with. The gore gets old, too. The length, nearly two and a half hours, is a problem. It demonstrates why Tokyo Vampire Hotel is probably better in smaller doses.

With Mitsushima Shinnosuke, Yokoyama Ayumu, Kagurazaka Megumi, Shibukawa Kiyohiko, Takatsuki Sara, Tsutsui Mariko, Sakurai Yuki

Production: Amazon, Django Film, Nikkatsu Pictures

Distribution: Nikkatsu International Sales

142 minutes
Not rated

(AMC River East) C+

Chicago International Film Festival

Foxy Brown

(USA 1974)

“That’s my sister, baby. And she’s a whole lot of woman.”

— Link

 

“Death is too easy for you, bitch. I want you to suffer.”

— Foxy

To use a term straight from Willie Hutch’s theme song, director/screenwriter Jack Hill’s Foxy Brown is superbad. It’s definitely not something to see for technical or artistic excellence, but it’s cool nonetheless. A sort of reworking of Coffey, it’s a sexy vigilante revenge tale that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Pam Grier is Foxy Brown, a bodacious woman on a mission to track down the goons who shot and killed her boyfriend (Terry Carter), a government agent who just had plastic surgery to change his identity, right outside her door. Obviously, this is the work of a Los Angeles drug ring.

Foxy quickly figures out who the rat is: her own brother, Link (Antonio Fargas). He identifies her boyfriend’s killers as affiliates of a “modeling agency.” The agency is run by fixers Miss Kathryn Wall (Kathryn Loder) and Steve Elias (Peter Brown). Their clients are crooked high profile men of the law like judges and politicians who trade favors for girls.

Posing as a prostitute, Foxy gets inside the operation and does some major damage. It gets her in serious hot water when she’s exposed, bringing her into the center of a lesbian bar brawl and then onto a coke ranch as a junky sex slave. Fortunately, she’s tough and resourceful. No one gets the best of Foxy.

Built on sex parties, chase scenes, shoot outs, and boobs, the plot is structured like a sitcom, and it’s about as complicated and predictable. Naturally, Foxy gets what she wants in the end. Except for the very cool opening titles, there are no effects to speak of. The acting is average at best. However, the action is surprisingly steady, leaving very few dull spots. Plus, there’s real sas here, mostly from Grier, that keeps the whole thing interesting.

I wouldn’t go so far as to call Foxy Brown a feminist work, but Foxy is a badass heroine with her heart — and her head — in the right place. It’s a thrill watching her take control, especially in heels and those fabulous frocks. I wouldn’t want to piss her off.

With Harry Holcombe, Sid Haig, Juanita Brown, Sally Ann Stroud, Bob Minor, Tony Giorgio, Fred Lerner, Judy Cassmore, H.B. Haggerty, Boyd ‘Red’ Morgan, Jack Bernardi, Brenda Venus, Kimberly Hyde, Jon Cedar, Ed Knight, Esther Sutherland, Mary Foran, Jeannie Epper, Stephanie Epper, Peaches Jones, Helen Boll, Conrad Bachmann, Russ Grieve, Rodney Grier, Roydon E. Clark, Don Gazzaniga, Jay Fletcher, Gary Wright, Fred Murphy, Edward Cross, Larry Kinley Jr.

Production: American International Pictures (AIP)

Distribution: American International Pictures (AIP) (USA), Sociedade Importadora de Filmes (SIF) (Portugal), Film AB Corona (Sweden), Cinema Mondo (Finland)

92 minutes
Rated R

(Impact) C+

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

Funeral Parade of Roses [Bara no Sōretsu]

(Japan 1969)

Funeral Parade of Roses [薔薇の葬列] is an intriguing film for a few reasons. Clearly influenced by the French New Wave, writer and director Toshio Matsumoto comes up with something simultaneously ordinary yet avant-garde, very much a product of its time yet years ahead. It’s extraordinarily cool.

Structured as a movie within a movie, Funeral Parade of Roses follows Tokyo “gay boy” Eddie (Pîtâ a.k.a. Peter) through his many exploits as a young transvestite immersed in the underground club scene. He might even be a hooker. Meanwhile, he’s carrying on a secret affair with Jimi (Yoshimi Jô), the boyfriend of club elder statesperson and fellow gay boy Leda (Osamu Ogasawara). Leda is onto them. Oh, the drama it creates!

While all this is going on, a camera crew records Eddie as though this were The Real World or Truth or Dare.

As Eddie ponders who he is — and looks to alcohol, group sex, drugs, and lots of attention from others for answers — Matsumoto explores “queer identity” through him. He intersperses interviews, flashbacks, episodes with Eddie’s mother (Emiko Azuma), and even a musical diversion or two to offer clues. A crazy subplot develops, and it references Oedipus in a tacky and sad but clever way.

Clumsy in its exploration of “gay life” and downright disturbing at points, Funeral Parade of Roses is nonetheless fun to watch. Shot in gorgeous black and white, it has an otherworldly feel. When it’s not nihilistic, it’s kitschy and entertaining — almost in a nascent John Waters way, just not quite as rough. The clothes are mod. The music is heavy on classical. The ending, sudden and bloody, is really messed up.

I’m not sure what exactly Matsumoto is saying here — a lot is open to interpretation — or that I agree with him. Either way, I enjoyed the journey.

With Yoshio Tsuchiya, Toyosaburo Uchiyama, Don Madrid, Koichi Nakamura, Chieko Kobayashi, Shōtarō Akiyama, Kiyoshi Awazu, Flamenco Umeji, Saako Oota, Tarô Manji, Mikio Shibayama, Wataru Hikonagi, Fuchisumi Gomi, Yô Satô, Keiichi Takenaga, Hôsei Komatsu

Production: Art Theatre Guild, Matsumoto Production Company

Distribution: Art Theatre Guild, Image Forum (Japan), Cinelicious Pics (USA)

105 minutes
Not rated

(Gene Siskel Film Center) B+