Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

Director: Harmony Korine

**

Anyone can be critical (Look who’s talking!), but satire is difficult. It is an art form in itself, requiring the artist to walk on the fence looking in on their subject without ever succumbing to it. In his work Harmony Korine attempts satire, but can fall into the trap of immersing himself in the subject to the point that satire goes out the window. That satire is then replaced by wallowing bordering on empathy; amongst Korine’s work, Gummo is a notably repugnant example of this. Spring Breakers is a similar dive into the depths of human weakness. Compared to Gummo, it’s more stylish and accessible, but when your characters flit between unlikeable and dim, what’s style worth?

Spring Breakers intends to be a pastiche of/commentary on the hedonism of that one week when college students of all shapes and sizes (usually the shape is slim-to-curvy and the size is 2 or lower) migrate southwards to party. The opening scene is a slo-mo glide over said hedonism accompanied by hip-hop beats, with booze and breasts flying everywhere. If you’re a college freshman, this is where you want to be.

Hoping to venture south are Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine, the director’s wife), but they’re in college with no disposable income. Thus they opt to rob a diner and get away scot-free, natch. They then round up their Jesus-freak pal Faith (Selena Gomez) and make for Florida faster than a retiree on smack. The first half of the movie sees our heroines (for lack of a better word) get caught up in this drink-and-drug-fuelled mayhem, whilst occasionally giving Faith a pep talk when Jiminy Cricket tugs on her heartstrings. It’s chaotic, but they’re clearly all having fun. Drink in the atmos and the sex-drenched air, folks; as our central foursome often intone, spring break forever, bitches! However, once they’ve reached those highs, the trip back to earth ends with a loud, realism-tinged thud.

Busted by the cops at a drugged-up party, the gals are arraigned, but are bailed out by a silver-toothed, dreadlocked sleazebag named Alien. This louche lounge lizard is the warped creation of James Franco, who manages to make this drug-dealing creep seem somehow charming. It’s unlikely to get him awards attention, but he deserves it. Then again, it’s not hard to be charming next to the four female leads. Hudgens, Korine and Benson are all uncouth attitude-spouters. Gomez at least gets an identifiable character; her worried wilting wallflower spouts genuine concerns, though she does try to join in. Even if these girls aren’t likeable (There’s only so much whining one can take, after all), it’s not for lack of trying on the parts of the actresses. They certainly convey the hedonistic energy Korine wants for his film, and it should help Hudgens and Gomez break free from any tween typecasting.

Alien takes the girls under his wing with the intention of recruiting them into his ‘business’. They are enticed; Alien seems to share their predilection for money excitement and the oeuvre of Britney Spears (An armed ambush set to Spears’ ‘Everytime’ is one of the most singularly odd scenes of the year). A feud between Alien and rival drug dealer Archie (Gucci Mane) keeps the plot going in between the neon-lit chicanery on hot Florida nights. The second half of the film is primarily girls in balaclavas, guns, sex and drugs. Did Snoop Lion write this, or has the target of Korine’s parody moved to rap lyrics? Earlier in the film Alien claims “This is the American Dream, y’all!” (He says ‘y’all’ a lot.) Sadly, that one sentence is arguably as profound or political as Spring Breakers gets.

There can be no doubting Korine’s talent as a director. From Gummo to Julien Donkey-Boy to this, he leapfrogs between visual and shooting styles with wild abandon. He’s not one to draw attention to stylistic tics; there is not Korine-esque playbook for other young guns to aspire to. Korine’s primary concern is establishing a sense of place and a definite atmosphere, and with Spring Breakers he succeeds admirably. Between the shots of purple-pink sunsets and toned bodies, you can almost smell the sea air and tanning oil (Alien keeps ample supplies of various varieties, or so he says). However, as in some other entries on Korine’s CV, the medium outshines the message, if indeed there is a message at all. Spring break is vapid and empty, you say? Any entry in the Girls Gone Wild series would tell us that. Spring Breakers is ultimately another of Korine’s full-bodied  pointless immersions in sordidness. Hmm, maybe there is such a thing as ‘Korine-esque’ after all.

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Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Director: Rupert Wyatt

****

In the opening scene of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (seriously, that’s an awkward title), Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) reveals that, based on tests conducted on chimpanzees, he has synthesized an antidote to Alzheimer’s and other such mentally degenerative diseases. That kind of discovery would have been material enough for a movie of its own, but we’re focused on the test subjects here. The original Planet of the Apes (let’s forget Tim Burton’s remake, shall we?) is one of the most influential sci-fi flicks yet made, and the idea of simian uprising was explored in 1972‘s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes but, like the titular chimps, this latest installment refuses to be redundant.

The cure for Alzheimer’s is tested on chimps, and goes awry. However, before she was put down, one test chimp birthed a baby who inherited the benefits of the experimental treatment. Rodman is presumably an intelligent man and sensitive to issues of quarantine, health and safety. So why does he take the baby chimp home?! It’s almost as irresponsible as testing the cure on his own Alzheimer’s-suffering father (John Lithgow). He’s probably spent too much time with his supervisor (David Oyelowo) whose only interest is being a cliché making money. If disaster movies teach us little else, it’s that we are the architects of our own doom. However, that still doesn’t make Rodman’s actions any less stupid! Ultimately it doesn’t matter because, as far as the script is concerned, the humans are the second-tier characters here, though the likes of Franco, Lithgow and Frieda Pinto do their best. Audience sympathies lie with the apes throughout. The newly-christened Caesar (a mo-cap Andy Serkis) grows up to be one highly intelligent chimp. However, he never feels truly accepted and, after being placed into an ape sanctuary, incites his fellow simians to rebel. A campaign should and must be launched for Serkis to get an Academy Award nomination; he deserved one for Gollum, and this performance is just as immersive. Aided by some impressive CGI, Serkis makes Caesar a living, breathing and relatable character. In fact, you’ll doubtlessly cheer as Caesar and his minions take their fight first to their captors (Brian Cox and Tom Felton, owners of the ape sanctuary) before attacking the stinky humans of San Francisco.

If kudos is being given to Serkis, some must also go to director Rupert Wyatt, as he allows his camera to run alongside the apes. As they leap from tree to tree and building to building, we’re caught up in the action, climaxing in a fantastic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge. In amongst the action, there are nods aplenty to the predecessors in the franchise, and one major plot strand references (ironically) Twelve Monkeys. Boasting some intense action and an all-too-believable glimpse at our future demise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is this summer’s big surprise. It’s flawed, but it has all the blockbuster action requisites, plus more (monkey) heart than most other summer action flicks. You’ll go ape for it (couldn’t resist, sorry!).

Review: 127 Hours (2010)

Director: Danny Boyle

***

imageDanny Boyle is an amazingly visual and kinetic director. He fills his films with colourful images that sear themselves upon the mind, refusing to budge. From the grim glee of Trainspotting to the intoxicating colours of Slumdog Millionaire, his films may vary in quality but are rarely dull, always moving and distracting the eye. Presumably, then, he decided to challenge himself after winning his Oscar by making a film that requires its protagonist to stay in one place for most of its runtime.

127 Hours is based on Aron Ralston’s memoir ‘Between A Rock And A Hard Place’. In 2003, Ralston’s arm became trapped under fallen rocks whilst climbing in caves in Utah. His ordeal, culminating in an unfortunate act of DIY surgery, is prime material for any young actor hungry for a challenge. James Franco (a.k.a. the less-hammy-yet-more-annoying Green Goblin) is just such an actor. The promise of good performances was clear, and he seizes the opportunity to deliver a great one with both hands (well, one free hand). He captures the right mix of arrogance, derring-do and fear that defined Rolston’s sojourn in the caves. Though not a one-man show (Clémence Poesy, Kate Mara et al turn up to flesh out Aron’s backstory), Franco holds the screen for the whole film with his terrific performance.

As impressive as Franco is, there are problems. Given the grim and bloody nature of this tale, it would have been very easy for it to lapse into maudlin storytelling and a depressing tone. Depression is not an option for Boyle, and the film boasts a surprisingly upbeat tone throughout. However, Boyle’s exuberant style actually take the film to the opposite extreme. At just 93 minutes, 127 Hours feels rushed. Right from the start, as we watch Rolston prepare for his excursion, we know that this is going to be a very upfront and exciting ride, but surely you have to stop and take a breather at some point, especially when the main character is reduced to staying in one spot and drinking his own urine. Still, plenty of moments stick in the mind, including a bizarre Scooby-Doo cameo and the eventual surgery, which is necessarily nasty, but not excessively so. 127 Hours is a celebration of the will to survive, and a breathless one at that. Aron Ralston paid the ultimate price for trying to live life to the full. Though not fatal this time, perhaps Boyle ought to consider taking a leaf out of Rolston’s book and slow down a little, too.

Review: Howl (2010)

Directors: Rob Epstein, Jeffrey Friedman

***

Whoever controls the media, the images, controls the culture.
– Allen Ginsberg

The Beat Generation defined itself by free expression emotionally, sexually and in a literary sense. Encapsulating the freedoms and liberated ideals that the Beatniks stood for, Allen Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ became a defining piece of work for this generation from the moment it was first published in 1956. Other defining works of the period have either already made it to the screen (Naked Lunch) or are on the way (On The Road), but how to adapt a poem like ‘Howl’ for celluloid?

Writer/directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s approach is to examine how ‘Howl’ came to be. Dedicated to Carl Solomon, a man Ginsberg met in a mental institution, the three-part epic poem is a treatise on the devaluation of the post-war generation. Its stark sexual references (particularly the overtly homosexual references) led to the publishers of ‘Howl’ being tried for obscenity in 1957. Howl divides its time between the obscenity trial, interviews with Ginsberg (played by James Franco) and Franco reading the poem aloud. Following on from 127 Hours, Franco delivers another engaging performance, investing all his natural charisma in Ginsberg and effectively capturing his laid-back charm.

The three-pronged narrative approach taken by Epstein and Friedman is both a blessing and a curse. On the downside, it could be argued that Howl lacks a clear focus. The focus on the obscenity trial could be scene as an excuse for injecting a little salaciousness to proceedings, as state prosecutor McIntosh (David Strathairn) is reduced to uttering ‘obscenities’ to illustrate his argument whilst smooth defence lawyer Ehrlich (Jon Hamm, in full Don Draper mode) looks on. Howl may be a treatise on the poem, but the courtroom scenes feel dropped in to serve as a reminder that it’s full of naughty words!! Still, it does give Strathairn and Hamm a chance to flex their muscle, as well as drop in some neat cameos (from the likes of Mary-Louise Parker, Treat Williams and Jeff Daniels). The sections featuring the reading of the poem are accompanied by vivid animations, but they serve equally to illustrate and distract from the poem. Surely the words are enough to make a point. Still, there’s no shortage of visual beauty here, and the whole film, whether in bright Technicolor or black-and-white is beautifully shot by Edward Lachman.

Like Ginsberg himself, Howl boasts a distinct sense of mischief. However, despite Franco’s best efforts, the film periodically forgets that there’s meaning beneath the profanity. Howl brings the style of Ginsberg’s work to the screen, if not quite all the substance.