Wednesday, February 21, 2018


(US - 2017)

Though THE FLORIDA PROJECT shares some surface similarities with the little-seen SUNLIGHT JR, it benefits from a loose, improvisational, verite feel with its effective location shooting in the seedy vicinity around Walt Disney World (whereas SUNLIGHT JR was filmed in economically-depressed areas of Clearwater). Six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Kimberly Prince) lives at the Magic Castle motel in Kissimmee with her single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), who redefines the concept of the irresponsible parent. While Moonee plays with downstairs neighbor Scooty (Christopher Rivera) and Jancey (Valeria Cotto), a little girl who lives with her grandmother (Josie Olivo) at a nearby motel, Halley gets high, watches TV, and engages in various scams to get the necessary weekly rent money for Magic Castle manager Bobby (Willem Dafoe). The kids are a handful, and certainly products of their environment and upbringing, with Moonee especially prone to being a foul-mouthed brat. Bobby's patience is always wearing thin (when they spit on someone's car, spill ice cream in the office, or sneak into the maintenance room and turn off the power to the entire motel), but he's very protective of the kids and realizes it's not their fault. Director/co-writer Sean Baker (TANGERINE) lets the story develop very slowly, instead focusing on the world in which these characters live in ways that recall the work of British filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Vinaite's performance in particular is reminiscent of Katie Jarvis, a non-professional who won the lead in FISH TANK after Arnold happened to see her arguing with her boyfriend on a street corner, as well as Sasha Lane, who was cast in AMERICAN HONEY after Arnold saw her sunbathing on a beach. Likewise, Vinaite had no acting experience and ran a small marijuana-themed clothing line when Baker discovered her on Instagram. Her performance--Halley's attitude boiling with rage and desperation but doing what she does because she loves her child even if she still acts like one herself--is quite remarkable.

The same goes for young Prince, who's a natural (watch her give Jancey the tour of the motel and the rundown of the residents: "This guy gets arrested a lot and this lady thinks she's married to Jesus"), and both actresses work beautifully with an Oscar-nominated Dafoe, playing perhaps the warmest and most empathetic character in a career largely spent personifying creeps and weirdos. Baker delves into a little of Bobby's life too and the wrong turns that make him sympathize with Halley and Moonee, even when Halley doesn't really deserve it. We see Bobby's day-to-day job duties, which include fixing a broken ice machine, dealing with the removal of a mattress in a bedbug-infested room, chasing a pedophile off the property when he starts talking to the kids, plus he has a fractured relationship with his own son (Caleb Landry Jones), who he frequently calls to help him with stuff around the motel. Perhaps the most moving scene in the film is when Halley and Moonee take Jancey to an empty field to watch the Disney fireworks from a distance for her birthday, celebrated by blowing out a candle on a small cupcake the three of them share. As the fragments begin to cohere into a genuine story, the outcome isn't going to be good, but it does put you in the mindset of children forced to use their imagination to survive the grimmest of circumstances. (R, 112 mins)

(Japan/UK - 2017)

A lot of years have gone by, but it's easy to forget the impact that incredibly prolific Japanese auteur Takashi Miike had on connoisseurs of cult cinema when his films began hitting the US in the early '00s. That first wave of Miike films to hit the States--AUDITION, DEAD OR ALIVE, MPD PSYCHO, VISITOR Q, THE HAPPINESS OF THE KATAKURIS, and even the much-maligned GOZU-were so gonzo and transgressive that even hardcore cult cinephiles were often left aghast at that they were seeing (after I described VISITOR Q to a friend, he screened it at a movie night at his place, pissing off half of his guests and gleefully describing it as "a total room-clearer"). Miike was known enough in horror circles by 2005 that he was invited to helm an episode of Showtime's MASTERS OF HORROR series. The result was "Imprint," which went into such dark and disturbing places that the cable network wouldn't even air it. Miike has been directing since 1991 and has dabbled in every conceivable genre (even retro spaghetti westerns and kids movies), hopping around from cinematic extremes to mainstream commercial fare (he also helmed the J-Horror hit ONE MISSED CALL) with remarkable ease, but while his notoriety in the US has diminished in recent years, his output hasn't slowed down at all. His latest effort, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, is his first to get any US distribution beyond the festival circuit since 2015's YAKUZA APOCALYPSE. To give you an idea of how much and how fast Miike works, the last of his films I've seen is 2011's HARA-KIRI: DEATH OF A SAMURAI, and between that and BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, he's made 13 feature films and had a hand in directing two different series for Japanese television, and since BLADE wrapped, he's already got another movie completed.

BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL was sold as Miike's 100th film. While the exact tally is a mystery and might even be to Miike himself, this is an odd choice to herald such a milestone. It's based on a popular manga by Hiroaki Samura, but Miike doesn't really bring much of a personal touch to it. As he pushes 60, it's entirely possible he's moved beyond the poking-people-with-sticks years that helped establish his legend (or he's just exhausted), and while he's done very well in this genre before (2010's 13 ASSASSINS was his best film in years), he really seems to be going through the motions with BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL. The convoluted story has disgraced samurai warrior Manji (Takuya Kimura) on the run after killing his corrupt lord and his six shogun constables, including his brother-in-law, whose death drove Manji's sister Machi (Hana Sugisaki) mad with grief. After Machi is killed by a bounty hunter and Manji massacres his small army, he nearly dies from his injuries until he's granted immortality by 800-year-old witch Yaobikuni (Yoko Yamamoto). 50 years later, a depressed Manji wanders the countryside wishing he could die, but he finds a purpose when he's sought out by Rin Asani (also played by Sugisaki), who wants revenge on shogun warrior Kagehisa Anotsu (Sota Fukushi) after he kills her parents and gives his associate Kuroi Sabato (Kazuka Kitamura) the severed head of her mother to mount on his shoulder. Manji feels sorry for the girl, who reminds him of his baby sister and may very well be her reincarnation (Rin even starts affectionately calling him "Big Brother"), so they embark on a journey to kill Anotsu and anyone who stands in their way. Of course, there's shifting alliances, double crosses, and various supernatural hijinks, but after a smashing start, the film rapidly devolves into repetitive set pieces and becomes a laborious slog. Even when it comes alive for an epic climactic showdown, it still feels like Miike's just recycling ideas and images from 13 ASSASSINS and other similar films. Manji is a sort of Wolverine/Logan crossed with a shogun HIGHLANDER, so no matter what happens to him or how many appendages get hacked off in battle, the "bloodworms" planted in him by Yaobikuni will heal him by reattaching the limb and he continues to live. There's plenty of spectacular action sequences and squishy sound effects as inventive weaponry guts through flesh, and KILL BILL fans will like seeing Chiaka Kuriyama--aka "Gogo Yubari"--in a supporting role, but at nearly two and a half hours, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL is a good 35-40 minutes too long as Miike somehow manages to be both self-indulgent and disconnected from the material at the same time. (R, 141 mins)

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