Girls Gone Wild – Spring Breakers

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 17th September 2013.

The notion of spring break is a little alien to those of us residing in the southern hemisphere. With our seasons out of sync, the only references we have are teen movies and Girls Gone Wild videos. Controversial director Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers does little to dispel the myth and will split audiences with its confronting mix of alcohol, drugs, bikinis and bad behaviour. For the record, I liked it, but you have been warned.

The film opens with footage of students partying on the beach. The booze is flowing freely. The boys stand around leering at the nubile girls as they become even more nubile. Everyone is having a great time, except the audience. With crotch shots that linger just a second too long, Korine is deliberately making you uncomfortable. There’s a dark side to this frivolity.

We soon meet our spring breakers. Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Cotty (Rachel Korine), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Faith (Selena Gomez) are desperate to escape the humdrum of their student lives. Unable to afford a spring break vacation, the girls rob a local diner and soon find themselves partying it up in what can only be described as a Miley Cyrus music video.

At first it’s all fun and games but eventually their actions start to have consequences. Arrested for drug possession, the girls come under the influence of Alien (an almost unrecognisable James Franco). The cashed up drug dealer is all grills and guns, and leads the girls even further down the rabbit hole.

Spring Breakers has the distinction of featuring two ex-Disney stars in their first adult breakout roles. Be prepared to be “shocked” by scenes of Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Hudgens (High School Musical) smoking bongs, swearing and wearing bikinis. Don’t let the DVD cover fool you though. Rachel Korine, married to the director since 2007, does all of the heavy lifting, nudity-wise.

In fact, Gomez only appears in the first half of the movie. Her character, however, is easily the most interesting of the quartet. Her Faith, torn between religious beliefs and loyalty to her friends, resonates on the screen. The other three, unfortunately, fare less well and are indistinguishable from each other, besides the colour of their swimwear.

James Franco, recently the subject of a hilarious Comedy Central roast, steals the show and almost makes amends for his dull turn this year in the even duller Oz the Great and Powerful. His Alien is all bravado and southern accent. A memorable scene features Franco performing Britney Spears’ Everytime on his poolside baby grand piano (as you do).

Spring Breakers is told in an unusual format. Although ultimately a linear narrative, Korine adopts a montage style, continually changing locations. Occasionally, we are given a glimpse of a future development which doesn’t make sense until later in the film.  This surreal format reinforces how far from reality the world of spring break is for our protagonists.

Korine divided audiences back in 1995 as the screenwriter for Larry Clark’s challenging Kids (for the record, I hated it). Now in the director’s chair with Spring Breakers, Korine once again proves a magnet for controversy. This time, however, he has the story and the storytelling chops to pull off a rewarding film for some. Love it or hate it, Spring Breakers will provoke a reaction.

Spring Breakers is now available on DVD, blu-ray and digital download.

Published in: on September 17, 2013 at 19:17  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: (Don’t bother to see) Now You See Me

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th August 2013.

The makers of Now You See Me want you to believe that the film shares roots with Christopher Nolan’s brilliant The Prestige. Both feature the stage magic theme and Michael Caine in a prominent role. To strengthen the association, Morgan Freeman also co-stars with Caine in both this new feature and Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Unfortunately, Now You See Me is not even half as smart as The Prestige and the only magic trick on show is the filmmakers making money disappear from unsuspecting moviegoers wallets to see this mess.

The film initially shows promise as we are introduced to street magician Daniel Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), washed out hypnotist Merritt McKinney (Woody Harrelson), street hustler Jack Wilder (Dave Franco, brother of James) and high risk illusionist Henley Reeves (Isla Fisher). Brought together by a mysterious stranger for an even more mysterious purpose, the quartet become the Four Horseman and are soon filling stadiums under the guidance of millionaire sponsor Arthur Tressler (Michael Caine).

For the finale of their Las Vegas show, the Four Horsemen seemingly pull off the impossible: making millions of euros disappear from a bank vault on the other side of the globe. This trick draws the attention of FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Mark Ruffalo) and Interpol agent Alma Dray (Melanie Laurent), as well as professional magic debunker Thaddeus Bradley (Morgan Freeman).

The trickery behind this initial illusion is explained but ridiculously we’re left completely in the dark for all of the subsequent acts of magic. There is no “prestige” or final reveal. Instead, the storyline spins completely out of control until it crash lands with a highly unsatisfactory resolution. Three screenwriters are credited for Now You See Me. I suspect that they have never met.

Director Louis Leterrier’s previous films (Clash of the Titans, The Incredible Hulk, Transporter 2) have all favoured style over storytelling. Now You See Me proves no different. The Las Vegas and New York City locations are appealing, and the performances by the Four Horsemen are certainly glossy and elaborate, but it’s all distraction and little else.

The performances are all uniformly solid with everyone doing a lot with their thinly written characters. Jesse Eisenberg once again proves to be a watchable leading man, although I suspect he is only capable of playing himself. Isla Fisher is radiant and deserves her place as one of the most in demand actresses working today. Mark Ruffalo is charismatic and on a rise after his turn in The Avengers. And Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman once again play Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman, respectively.

Despite a trailer that promises so much, Now You See Me doesn’t deliver. It’s the cinema equivalent of asking someone to pick a card, any card and then walking away with no explanation.

 

Published in: on September 11, 2013 at 00:05  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

This review was originally published on The Orange Post on Sunday 17th March 2013.

What happens when you take a well known filmmaker with a distinct visual style and a back catalogue of cult and popular hits, and run them through the Disney corporate movie machine? There are two answers to this question: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and now Sam Raimi’s Oz the Great and Powerful.

Burton’s 2010 blockbuster was a bland CGI heavy 3D mess that dispensed with character in favour of spectacle. Unfortunately, Oz suffers the same fate. Responsible for three of my favourite films of all time, the Evil Dead trilogy, Raimi’s trademark fast paced style and wry humour is crushed by the Disney steamroller leaving behind a pretty screensaver and little else.

With the rights to The Wizard of Oz, including all of the elements introduced in the 1939 MGM film which did not originate in L. Frank Baum’s book, held by Warner Bros., art director Robert Stromberg was forced to redesign the Land of Oz for this unofficial prequel. Thus, there are no ruby slippers, the yellow brick road in Munchkinland has a different swirl and even the Wicked Witch’s green skin tone is slightly (but legally) different.

These limitations, coupled with a reliance on CGI, results in landscapes which appear to have been lifted straight from last year’s Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, another ho-hum green screen adventure.

As the titular Oz, James Franco is out of his depth. Smiling is not the same as emoting and I wonder what the earlier casting choices of Johnny Depp and Robert Downey Jnr. would have brought to the film. Oz is a complex character who treats people badly at the beginning of the film, but then begins to see the value of friendship and love. Unfortunately, all of this character development is undermined by the audience’s knowledge that he will bugger off in the balloon at the first opportunity in the next film.

Rachel Weisz and Mila Kunis are serviceable as witchy sisters Evanora and Theodora. Michelle Williams fares better as Glinda, a role that requires her to do little else but look pretty and speak in a breathy style. Zach Braff appears in the beginning as Oz’s offsider Frank and then voices the CGI monkey bellhop Finley. A little Zach Braff goes a long way so don’t be surprised if you feel like reaching out and trying to strangle the 3D monkey by the end of the film.

The theme of duality which worked well in the MGM original makes little to no sense in this prequel. Beginning in black and white and a 4:3 aspect ratio, Raimi’s film then transitions to colour, 2:35:1 widescreen and stereo sound upon arrival in Oz. Several actors make cameos in the black and white segment, and then reappear as different characters in Oz. There seems to be no explanation for this. No-one is clicking their heels and going back to Kansas at the end of the film.

Remarkably, Raimi cannibalises from his own work, with a graveyard sequence and mechanical line of soldiers distracting the enemy ripped directly from Army of Darkness.

In 2009’s Drag Me to Hell, Raimi showed he was capable of finding his mojo again after a creative disappointment with Spider-Man 3. Let’s just hope he does something truly great and powerful after the disappointment that is Oz the Great and Powerful.