Monday, April 29, 2013

"I Spit on Your Grave" as a Writing Lesson

I'm working on a "bad movie" column for Film Racket. The debut was supposed to cover I Spit on Your Grave, but it didn't make the cut. No big deal. It happens, especially when you're trying to find the appropriate tone. Still, I did not want to waste the work, so here you go.

Yes, the column is still going to happen, but in a better format that will take advantage of my strengths. (Look for it soon.) This version, admittedly, is a little flat. It's not as funny or as observant as my best stuff. There's no hum, and what's weird is that I knew it when I was writing it. Write for as long as I have, and you know when you get good wood. I got the bat on the ball, but I barely got it into the outfield.

The lesson: Never forgot about heart and soul when writing. If you're not feeling excitement, neither will anyone else.

Update (May 1, 2013): Much to my surprise, the piece did run on Film Racket. You can read it here. Still going with the new format. I'll let you know if anything changes.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Review of "42"

Do the right thing, America. Make this woman a star!
The movie should have been so much better, but the good news is its success will give Nicole Beharie's career a nice boost. Honestly, I'm not sure why she's not everywhere yet. Is it because she's 5'2"? Too young? Too old? Really, what's going on, guys? Check her out in American Violet and Shame and talk to me later. She's pure effervescence. 

As for my take on 42, please head over to The Weekender. You can read the review here.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

RIP, Roger Ebert

Sadly, the balcony is closed.

You would not be reading this blog--or anything else I've written--if it weren't for Roger Ebert. (Maybe I'll write more on this, maybe I won't. Frankly, I'm still in a daze over the news of his passing.) For now, I'll join the millions of others and say thank you. Thank you for helping me love movies. Thank you for teaching me how to write. Thank you for just being an example of how to act like a decent human being. 

Congratulations on a life well-lived. 

"G.I. Joe: Retaliation" Review

"I wanna a white wine spritzer, and I want it now!" 
Things go boom, but in a totally entertaining way! You can read my review for The Weekender right here. Some critics have eviscerated Retaliation and I'm not sure why. It's fun without being patronizing, and it's light years better than the first one. Then again, so would a sharp poke in the eye.

Monday, April 1, 2013

The Film Round-Up, April 2013: The Company You Keep, The Place Beyond the Pines, Reality, Upside Down

"So, you mean to tell me I'm not 45?"
In this edition of the Film Round-Up, two really good films and two that you will be playing on your local CW affiliate in about three years. Which are which? Well, you gotta read, child!

Sorry, I don't know why I lapsed into speaking like Pearl Bailey. I blame the fatigue. 

As always, these reviews appeared in ICON and are reprinted with permission.

The Company You Keep (Dir: Robert Redford). Starring: Robert Redford, Shia LaBeouf, Susan Sarandon, Julie Christie, Chris Cooper, Nick Nolte, Richard Jenkins, Terrence Howard, Anna Kendrick, Brit Marling, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Elliott, Stanley Tucci.
After a domesticated radical (Sarandon) turns herself in for her role in a 1970s murder, a feisty newspaper reporter (LaBeouf) makes a stunning discovery: one of her accomplices, Jim Grant (Redford), lives with his daughter in town. Grant then embarks on a cross-country trek, reuniting with his former freedom fighter buddies (including Nolte and Jenkins) in a last-ditch attempt to clear his name. Redford’s latest politically charged pseudo-thinkpiece isn’t particularly insightful—newspaper reporters can only see the main story, ideologies change when people are involved—and it’s further hindered by the lack of a compelling central character. LaBeouf’s changing view doesn’t register because he’s lectured into enlightenment instead of seeing it himself, while it’s preposterous to have Redford scaling fences and raising 11-year-olds. (Sorry. I don’t care how many jogging scenes you show; I don’t care if you cast Sarandon and Christie to obscure that he’s too old to have participated with the Weather Underground. Redford’s presence screams narc.) The biggest asset here is the acting, which lends an air of credibility that the movie’s content never achieves. [R] **1/2

The Place Beyond the Pines (Dir: Derek Cianfrance). Starring: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn, Ray Liotta, Dane DeHaan, Emory Cohen, Rose Byrne, Bruce Greenwood, Harris Yulin, Mahershala Ali. Cianfrance’s follow-up to Blue Valentine again features Gosling in a gloriously lowbrow role. He plays a stunt motorcyclist who tries to connect with his infant son and his mother (Mendes). There’s no money in staying straight, so he starts robbing banks. That ends at the hands of a rookie cop (Cooper, whose stiffness is actually an attribute), who is establishing his own legacy until he’s faced with corruption in his department. Years later, the cop and robber’s teenage sons (DeHaan and Cohen) encounter each other, not realizing that they’re weighed down by the past. Simultaneously grand and mundane, Cianfrance’s epic account of escaping our own personal mediocrity never offers you solid footing.  You don’t know how these lives will unfold. And that’s the point: Regardless of how we approach life, there’s no guarantee we’ll get away clean. It’s refreshing when a movie can offer a lofty message with good, old-fashioned tension instead of pretension. [R] ****

Reality (Dir: Matteo Garrone). Starring: Aniello Arena, Loredana Simioli, Nando Paone. Luciano (Arena) is the family ham, the guy everyone says should be on TV, a dream the fishmonger hopes to attain by appearing on Italy’s Big Brother. When he nails an open audition and makes the final round, Luciano knows he has it. He tells everyone in the village it’s a sure thing. But as he waits for a phone call that never comes, Luciano seeks salvation and looks for signs from the satellite gods. Wonderful satirical drama is cutting and charming, surreal and sympathetic. Garrone offers a tender look at a family man flailing toward something better while lighting a match on organized worship, whether it involves a church or a television. And Arena’s performance—his face, rough and rugged, childlike and open—shows a man who is both invested and totally lost in the lure of celebrity. He’s through the plasma screen. Director-writer Garrone (Gomorrah) had to get permission from a judge to procure his leading man, a former Mafia hitman who is serving life in prison. So do not expect to see Arena in too many projects. [R] **** 

Upside Down (Dir: Juan Solanas). Starring: Jim Sturgess, Kirsten Dunst, Timothy Spall. On a planet with opposing gravitational pulls, there are two worlds—an affluent top world and a dreary bottom world. After discovering, Eden, his long lost love from up top (Dunst), the bottom-dwelling Adam (Sturgess) longs for a reunion. Even though he gets a job at her company, TransWorld, whose strangling corporate conformity doesn’t feel satirical, obstacles exist. The two worlds do not mingle and Eden’s amnesia has wiped out their memories. Still, Adam fights against societal norms and neurology. Interesting take on the perils of class distinction never finds its creative juice. Writer-director Solanas spells everything out for us—which starts immediately with Sturgess’ endless pie-in-the-sky prologue—while the concept of an upside down world feels unnecessary, not to mention a pain in the ass to watch. Adam and Eden’s story works without that angle—just ask the makers of The Vow—and Solanas never examines the logistics and challenges of living in this new world; he just puts old problems in a new setting. A better movie could have been made with this material. In fact, Sturgess’ concluding narration reveals one. That is not good. [PG-13] **

The Big Review: Spring Breakers

Nope, this isn't from "The Bikini Carwash Company 3: Big Trouble in Little Bikinis"

Probably the best movie I've seen this year, with G.I. Joe: Retaliation finishing a close second. Could this be the year Adrianne Palicki gets her Oscar? My fingers are crossed! 

This review previously appeared in April's ICON and is reprinted with permission. 

Harmony Korine’s terrific Spring Breakers, or as I like to call it, Bikini Girls with Machine Guns, begs to be dismissed, or worse, embraced for purely lascivious reasons. It shouldn’t. Korine revels in the exploitative while preserving, even highlighting, the emotional. The film is erotic, hilarious, and bathed in nightclub neons, but the sadness sticks like bubble gum in your hair. We’re hooked at each turn. Four girls, eyes open to everything but reality, dive into the Girls Gone Wild culture without accounting for the jagged bottom.

It starts off innocently enough. The college friends want to leave their small, boring town and escape to spring break. It doesn’t matter if they’re partying pretty hard already—this getaway promises more. Korine plays the same scenes of sudsy sexed-up fun, with “spring break” repeated like a chant. The girls have become conditioned to expect a special kind of debauched glory.

Brainwashed is probably a better word. So it’s not surprising that three of the girls, Brit (Ashley Benson), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), and Cotty (Rachel Korine, Harmony’s wife) rob a chicken joint to raise the remaining cash for the sun-soaked sojourn. “Pretend it’s a video game,” one of them yells, which tells you everything about their perspective. Faith (Selena Gomez) doesn’t participate in the hold-up, probably because she’s the only one with any kind of ethical foundation. Faith is wisely advised to “pray super hardcore” by a member of her prayer group.

Initially, the trip intoxicates Faith, who wants to shut her eyes and preserve it. She’s seen a different part of the world and is touched by its spirituality. The sentiments are funny because they are about a place featuring binge drinking and novelty T-shirts. It’s also an ode to the beauty of a young, uncluttered mind, a sign of just how unprepared the girls—who do gymnastics in the hallway and sing Britney Spears tunes without irony—are after they’re arrested during a raucous hotel room party.

Alien (James Franco), a hip-hop gangster/wannabe high roller, who has no connection to the quartet, bails them out. He sees something in them that satisfies his own needs, a notion that immediately repels Faith. Having the girls around, or those who willingly stay, fills a void. You can see this in the now-famous “Look at my shit!” scene, where Alien rattles off his household possessions—“I have Scarface on repeat”—to the grateful, swooning bunch. This is not the behavior of a confident man. But Alien gives the girls, especially Candy and Brit, entry into the thug life—or at least the one that MTV has glamorized. When the girls help Alien on his rampage, they sport pink ski masks embroidered with unicorns. Their exploits are filmed in slow-mo or bathed in psycho Easter Bunny colors. It’s part of the fun of being young, responsibility-free, and on vacation.

For all of the movie’s freaky behavior and dreamy cool—the fragmented narrative and color scheme makes Spring Breakers feel like a nightmare poem—Korine exhibits a ton of parental concern. After their arrest, Faith says, “This wasn’t the dream. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.” The advice given by the leader of her prayer group—“Every temptation, He’s going to give you a way out”—isn’t treated as satire but as good advice. The constant shots of gyrating asses and beer-bathed breasts lose their allure quickly. What’s left is a lonely, outmanned gangster with an unresolved blood feud.

Franco now treats his career as some kind of performance art. That he’s a movie star seems to be a creative choice—witness his indifferent attitude in roles like Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As Alien, he turns a hip-hop influenced white boy gangster into a goofy, pathetic soul. Nothing about the performance is contrived. When Alien sings that these girls have come from heaven, it’s not some line. Candy and Brit, however, are more interested in serving as apprentices, not as icons in short shorts.  

I’m writing this a week before Spring Breakers opens in Philadelphia. Some undoubtedly will buy tickets to see Hudgens, Gomez, and Benson shed their clothes (and family-friendly personas) or to see how far the movie goes. These people must not use the Internet, which is ideal for slack-jawed gawking. Great movies stimulate another organ. Korine knows exactly what he’s doing in Spring Breakers. One way or the other, the public will be disappointed. Too damn bad. [R]