Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Fearless Franco Delivers in Subversive and Surreal 'Spring Breakers'

Mid-movie, the cast has a sing-along to Britney Spears' Everytime.
Spring Breakers isn’t a movie you watch so much as a film you experience. It’s an art film, but not in an urbane way. After all, the film does feature scenes that could be pulled straight from Cops, Girls Gone Wild and Grand Theft Auto, as well as James Franco playing a corn-rowed, tatted and gold-toothed drug-dealer named Alien who leads a cast sing-along to Britney Spears’ Everytime and simulates fellatio on a gun.

That makes the film sound like a campy comedy, but it’s really quite more than that. Although it’s darkly bonkers and emphatically provocative, at its heart, Spring Breakers is a melancholic message movie. It’s an indictment of an entire way of life embraced by a whole sect of shallow and desensitized youths – the spring break state of mind.

The bare-bones plot involves four college girls who rob a diner for the money to attend spring break in Florida, where they eventually befriend Alien and get mixed up in his decadent lifestyle and drug turf war. But really the story itself is of secondary concern – much more important is the way it’s told.

Writer/director Harmony Korine makes some interesting stylistic choices to create a surreal daze of a film. The most effective of these is the use of repetition, with some lines and even full on monologues being repeated multiple times. However, the varying color saturations, dissonant musical cues, hypnotic editing, and, hell, even the scene blocking, are all worth mentioning.
For his central quartet, writer-director Harmony Korine casts
three former Disney stars alongside his real-life wife.

The film’s casting is also noteworthy. Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson, all former child stars who made their names under the Disney banner, join Korine’s real-life wife Rachel to form the film’s central quartet.

Although the roles are intentionally underdeveloped, the against-type casting works to emphasize Korine’s genre subversion. One can easily imagine a glossy coming-of-age comedy starring these same actresses with this same exact title – Sisters of the Traveling Pants with a touch of Sex and the City thrown in. Korine knows this, and he exploits it to make a point about a party lifestyle that is simultaneously alluring and abhorrent.

As for Franco, well, it’s not a stretch to say pairing him with Korine could’ve been a real disaster since both have come to be known for a certain level of pretentiousness. However, the teaming proves to be a fruitful one. In Alien, they’ve created a uniquely contradictory, and perhaps even iconic, character. 

Although he’s glimpsed earlier in the film during a rap number (oh did I not mention he’s also a low-level rapper?), we first meet Alien when he bails the girls out of jail. It’s easy to think a character like this would trap these girls under his thumb and corrupt them via manipulation or force, but Alien is genial, uncontrolling and ultimately submissive to them. A man who came from nothing and has no family, Alien holds status and material things in the highest regard. He’s repulsively garish, and yet he’s also endearingly fragile and magnetically honest.

Although this could've been a Showgirls type of embarrassment,
Franco successfully navigates his way to a mesmerizing performance.
In some ways, he is a spiritual kin of Jay Gatsby (whose own movie treatment I reviewed earlier this year). There’s even a scene to mirror the one in which Gatsby proudly shows Daisy his lavish collection of clothing. Here, Alien proudly proclaims “look at my sheeyit” while pointing out his things, which include numerous automatic weapons, designer clothes, nun-chucks, and, best of all, a flat screen playing round-the-clock Scarface.

It’s a testament to Franco’s skills that he can take a ludicrous caricature like Alien and make him feel like a real human being. He’s turned this trick before of course – making Saul, the drug dealer from Pineapple Express, into far more of dynamic character than he had any right to be – but he’s working on a totally different level here. Alien could've proven an embarrassing undertaking, but Franco fearlessly puts his all into the role, coming across equal parts ridiculous and sincere. The end result is probably his best work to date.

Regardless of how one views the content of the film, it’s hard to argue against the craftsmanship on display. In a just world, the film would be a major player for end of the year awards in cinematography, editing, and directing. However, since Franco’s chances of a supporting nom are slim at best, I wouldn’t hold my breath on kudos for anything else.

It’s been weeks since I viewed this film, and, still, it lingers with me. Despite its experimental nature, Spring Breakers is an accessible film. It never approaches the frustrating ponderousness of something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Synecdoche, New York or The Fountain. Whereas those films are undone by their sweeping ambition and opaque curiosities, Spring Breakers succeeds on the strength of a brisk pace and focused scope. With a run-time of 94 minutes, there’s very little fat on the film, and it manages to get in, captivate and get out before fatigue sets in. A-

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

"Admission" Fails to Stand Out

The shower scene was necessary. Because of the cow placenta.
Admission is a decent enough flick. It’s professionally made and has many of the things you’d look for in a good film, including a likable cast, a solid setup and worthwhile themes.

It stars Tina Fey as a Princeton admissions officer who simultaneously discovers that her live-in boyfriend of nearly a decade (Michael Sheen) is leaving her for the snooty English scholar he impregnated and that one of her kookier admits (Nat Wolff) may be the child she secretly gave up for adoption back in college. Oh, and all of this turmoil is coming right in the thick of the busiest season for admissions, during which she’ll be vying to replace the retiring dean (Wallace Shawn).

The film also stars Lily Tomlin as Fey’s typically atypical mom and Paul Rudd as a romantic sparring partner and a teacher at the alternative school Fey’s possible son attends. And it makes some nice points about regret, parenting and the cruel and arbitrary guidelines used by college admission offices.

All in all, everything is very… amiable – amiable actors playing amiable characters in an amiable story by an amiable filmmaker (Paul Weitz). However, there’s not much takeaway beyond that general “meh, yeah, okay” feeling. It’s fitting that a movie that disparages the callousness of an admissions process that critiques students for how interesting and unique they are would be so competently ordinary, so readily unmemorable.

Although she's playing the clichéd wacky parent, Tomlin brings 
a nice energy to the film and kills her one dramatic scene.
That is perhaps somewhat harsher than it needs to be. Fey and Rudd share a nice chemistry, the messages play well enough, and there’s something to be said for the restraint the film shows in not wrapping an artificial bow around what would undoubtedly be a messy and anticlimactic situation.

In the film’s best sequence, the admissions staff meet to select next year’s batch of students, and, in so doing, they discuss the idea that they can only invest in so many on-the-bubble students.

With movies, it often works the same way. There’s always time for the big cinematic attractions that a Spielberg, Tarantino or Scorcese might make, but when it comes to these lower-wattage entries, there needs to be a certain vitality that sells the thing and gets it over the hump.

Films like Take This Waltz, Beginners, or Weitz’s own About a Boy manage to make the cut. Films like Admissions – well, they’re destined for the safety school that is basic cable. C

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Wolverine Marks a Wasted Opportunity

Hugh Jackman is one hugely jacked man. See what I did there?
The Wolverine has done relatively well with critics due to its atypically somber and intimate approach to the superhero genre, but, by and large, the praise is overblown.

The film aspires to be a slow burn, character-focused actioner with a flawed and broken antihero, something along the lines of the underrated George Clooney film The American or even Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven. However, while star Hugh Jackman seems game and there’s some interesting themes buried in the narrative, The Wolverine collapses under the weight of nonsensical plot machinations, lackluster development and a silly finale.

The movie opens with a Yeti-looking Wolverine eking out an isolated existence in wilderness of the Yukon, still haunted from being forced to kill ladylove Jean Grey at the conclusion of X-Men: The Last Stand. However, after being tracked down by pixie-cute martial artist Yukio (Rila Fukushima), he quickly finds himself enroute to Japan to bid farewell to Yashida (Haruhiko Yamanouchi), a Japanese acquaintance he saved from certain death during the bombing of Nagasaki.

When he arrives, Wolverine learns Yashida has become a billionaire industrialist and that, instead of saying goodbye, what he actually wants to do is take Wolverine’s regenerative power, saving his own life while simultaneously granting Wolverine mortality that will eventually lead to the peaceful and honorable death Yashida believes he desires. After Wolverine unexpectedly scoffs at the idea, Yashida dies in the middle of the night.

"Poison Ivy," I mean "Viper," terrorizes Wolverine's girlfriend.
From there, Wolverine gets embroiled in family politics, becoming the protector of Yashida’s granddaughter Mariko (Tao Okamoto) who Yashida names as heir to his empire. This revelation causes uproar with Mariko’s father, and ultimately the Yakuza, an ancient clan of ninjas and Viper (Svetlana Khodchenkova), a mysterious mutant who weakens Wolverine’s regenerative capabilities, factor into the plot.

There’s plenty of action, including a standoff on top of a bullet train and a beautifully shot sequence in which Wolverine goes up against numerous arrow wielding ninjas, but the film’s actually more of a drama in which our hero comes to terms with his immortality and learns to love again.

These through lines are strong conceptually, but the film botches them. For Wolverine’s existential crisis to carry weight, the film should’ve devoted more screen time to the development of Wolverine’s friendship with Yashida, perhaps even showing our hero vocalizing the burdens of everlasting life while hiding in a hole after the bombing. A similar criticism could be levied at the film’s romantic relationship. Although Jackman and Okamoto have a nice chemistry, there’s just not enough there, and, from a story perspective, it makes little sense that Wolverine would pull a Casablanca and fly away from the woman he loves, simply stating “I’m a soldier, and I’ve been away to long.”

Apparently, this scene intentionally evokes Akira Kurosawa's
Throne of Blood. That's cool.
However, that nonsensical plot point is nothing compared to the ludicrous (but telegraphed) twist in which viewers discover Yashida faked his own death and took up residence in an adamantium robot, biding his time until he could steal Wolverine’s power by force via drilling into his claws.

Forgetting for a second that the adamantium-heavy plan makes little sense in it’s own right (Wolverine’s actual powers have nothing to do with the adamantium skeleton Stryker grafted onto him), it’s tough to comprehend why Yashida would go through all the trouble of faking his death and putting his granddaughter in harms way when he could simply imprison Wolverine while he’s sleeping under his roof. It also doesn’t make sense why Mariko and Yukio wouldn’t be in on this plan, and why exactly Viper is helping Yashida at all.

Overall, the film plays like a series of artistic compromises, and while some parts are effectively thoughtful, others are mind-numbingly cartoonish.  Given the end result, it’s easy to imagine why original director Darren Aronfsky was attracted to the project, and why he ultimately bailed on it.
In watching The Wolverine, I was reminded of Last Stand, another X-Men film with some interesting ideas that downgraded at director right before production. Although most X-Men fans revile that film, The Wolverine has been embraced as a return to form for the character after two disappointing entries (Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine). However, from where I’m standing, it’s basically the same as Last Stand – a wasted opportunity. C

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Visceral Impact of Monster vs. Robot Battles Make 'Pacific Rim' A Worthwhile Ride

Can you guess which two are actually in Pacific Rim?
Give you a hint: the upper right one is from Cloverfield
Walking out of Pacific Rim, my friend Sean indicated he’d finally gotten the Cloverfield sequel he’d been waiting for. It was a joke of course, but other than the fact that the aliens came out of a different ocean in the 2008 film, it actually would be pretty easy to view Guillermo Del Toro’s latest spectacle as an unofficial sequel of sorts.

Similar content aside, the main reason for that is that Pacific Rim plays like the final film in a trilogy, dispatching much of what would make up films one and two via an epilogue, exposition and flashbacks. One can imagine a first film in which alien monsters known as Kaiju rise from the Ocean and begin attacking Earth’s inhabitants (ala Cloverfield) and a second film in which humanity begins to fight back via the creation of massive robots known as Jaegers.

But Del Toro bypasses all of that to focus on humanity’s last stand, holding nothing back for a potential sequel. In an era of moviemaking in which presumed tentpoles have largely ceased being self-contained films and instead become franchise-building first acts (i.e. I Am Number Four and The Golden Compass), that in itself is refreshing.

On the plus side, this approach results in a tightly paced film that, with so much to do, doesn’t have a lot of time to spin its wheels. That means we get a boatload of pay off moments and throw down battle scenes without having to sit through an abundance of coy foreshadowing, learning-the-ropes training sequences and lame filler.
Two damaged souls with tragic histories related to the Kaiju wind
up being humanity's last hope. Go figure.
However, with so much content to cover, Pacific Rim is ultimately forced to rely on a slew of narrative shortcuts and clichés in the hopes that the audience will fill in the gaps. Generally, we get exactly what we need to make sense of everything, and nothing more.* That’s not a crippling problem – the film is too visceral an experience and put together with too much care for that – but it unfortunately forces the film to focus on plot machinations in favor of organic developments and the far more novel ideas sketched in the margins.

*Apparently, co-screenwriter Travis Beachem wrote Pacific Rim: Tales From Year Zero, a graphic novel that more fully details the initial Kaiju assault, the creation of the Jaeger program, and the back stories of many of the characters.

Chief among these ideas is the intriguing notion that the mental strain of operating a Jaeger is so intense, that it requires two pilots. However, these pilots can’t just be any two schmoes; since they will share a neural connection, they must be “drift compatible.” Although there’s enough explanation to make sense of the concept of “drifting” and the intense connection it begets, it is not explored in the way it might have been if given more time to breathe in an earlier film (I imagine Tales from Year Zero does the concept justice).

The second most interesting element of the story –the way in which society has developed around the reality of the Kaiju – is intriguingly hinted at, but mostly left to the side. The quick depictions of how society begins to idolize Jaegers and look at Kaiju as a terrifying but regular threats (as we do with real-life terrorists), as well as the sojourn into the black-market dealings surrounding Kaiju remains, work to add detail and flavor to the world Del Toro is creating. But more of these elements would’ve been welcome.

Just Awesome.
Ultimately, complaining about such things seems pointless, because the film delivers on the promise of gigantic robots taking on humongous monsters. Pacific Rim has all the spectacle of a Transformers film, but also contains a decent amount of heart and manages to avoid insulting its audience. It sort of plays like the movie version of a Final Fantasy-type RPG, something that's even more solidified by bad-ass character names like Stacker Pentecoast, Mako Mori and Dr. Newton Geiszler (and that doesn't even include Jaeger names Gipsy Danger and Striker Eureka). The 12-year-old Frank buried within really can't hate on something like that.

Would I have liked to be more invested in the relationship between Charlie Hunnam’s Raleigh and Rinko Kikuchi’s Mako? Sure.

And would I prefer to have some of the broader elements toned down (Mako’s initial over-the-top reactions to the flirtatious Raleigh, Burn Gorman’s entire performance as Gottlieb) or eliminated all together (the Newton’s cradle gag, Ron Pearlman’s survival)? Absolutely.

But will I gladly take enthralling monster melees in a compellingly dense universe? You bet. B-