Friday, March 22, 2013

Review: Spring Breakers

2012 was a year of big movies. With precious little exception, all of my top 10 movies were big; Big stories, big characters, big events, big acting. The year name even sounded impressive. Since the year turned, I’ve been looking for what 2013’s identity would be. But now that I’ve seen a few movies in 2013, I think I’ve identified its theme: 2013 is the year of the bizarre.

But on to the movie itself: Harmony Korine is a director I’ve never really liked. I’ve seen a total of two of his movies (Gummo and Trash Humpers…yes the second one is about exactly what it sounds like) and I initially dismissed him as John Waters with half the talent and a third the heart. But I’ve never been one to let my opinions about a director’s previous work cloud my judgment when it comes to a new movie they’ve made, and this is not only easily his best and most coherent work to take, it’s easily one of the most sneakily subversive and just plain great movies of the year so far.

The plot is concerned with four college girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) who are desperately awaiting Spring Break. When it arrives, they find themselves unable to afford it…so they rob a chicken joint in order to pay for it. The movie descends into a pretty fetishistic depiction of typical spring break debauchery, until the girls are arrested for drug possession. They are bailed out by Alien (James Franco), a drug dealer and aspiring rapper who wants to show them the real party. That’s when the real plot, and the real darkness of the film, begin.

What I think really sets this movie apart, aside from some unique direction, is the way it treats its characters. From the description, you’re probably assuming that James Franco’s character is a sexual predator, designed to punish their desire to party, but the movie is darker than that. Oh, Alien thinks that’s what he’s doing and Vanessa Hudgen’s character thinks he is too (as she exits the movie just about the time he arrives in it) but the eventual character interplay eventually turns into something completely different. I don’t want spoil the eventual character turns, but you’ll know when the movie has made it’s major turn.

And the character turns are what makes this movie highly unique. Despite it’s understanding and even empathizing with it’s characters (it’s awful, awful, awful characters) it never once feels the need to condone or condemn them. It just presents the leads and their idiocy and shallowness without commentary. And what’s worst is that none of them are pretending or putting up a facade. They really are this stupid and shallow, and the movie presents it in such a way to make it inescapable and horrifying.

The writing is solid, reflecting Korine’s ability to understand and write youth and features repeated lines and dialogue, in order to reinforce the character’s state of mind, slight changes in delivery altering what the line means at that moment. The direction is unique, especially in the weird sound editing (the number of shots that end with the sound of a gun cocking gets disconcerting) and interesting color scheme. The four leads appear to have been chosen based almost entirely on their Disney Channel pasts, in order to make the content of the film a little more disconcerting, which means they might not be the best suited to their roles. But they’re all pretty solid, especially Benson and Hudgens. But the really heavy lifting comes from Franco, who disappears into his despicable role in a way he really hasn’t before this.

I can’t promise everyone is gonna like this movie. I’m not certain this is a movie that is meant to be liked. It’s intended as a takedown movie, a movie that tricks people similar to its leads into going to see and then confronting them brutally with what they really are. And while I am pretty damned far from being like the leads (I hate parties and crowds, and Spring Break for me in college was when I caught up on my reading and the video games I missed) I found the movie to be unique, fascinating and engaging. It’s easily the best movie of Korine’s career and one of the better movies of the increasingly bizarre year. Highly recommended.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’d like to congratulate the parent’s of the year for taking their five year old to this movie.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Review: Stoker

If there’s one thing I like in my movies its originality, either in story or presentation. One of my favorite movies of all time, Fargo, is at a story level, a simple heist gone wrong movie elevated by a unique character dynamic and story structure (not to mention peerless writing and directing). Stoker meanwhile is a blend of several different story types combined with some extremely unique direction to make something that is not only much more than the sum of it’s parts, but also easily the best film of released this year so far. 12 weeks in and 2013 finally has its first great film.

The story is about India Stoker (Mia Wasikowska), an emotionally cold teenager, whose father has just died (and she was closer to her father than her mother, just to rub salt in the wound). At the funeral, she is introduced to her uncle (Matthew Goode), who announces his intention to stay, which delights her mother (Nicole Kidman) and irritates her. But soon, people who argue with her uncle are disappearing. And what’s worse, the already emotionally distant and prone to occasional acts of violence India isn’t nearly as bothered by this as she probably should be.

While most of the movie is excellently put together, a lot of the movie has to be held up the actors and they all do a great job. Mia Wasikowska is giving the best performance of her career so far, working a difficult and cold performance, but also finding energy for a couple of unexpected and profoundly disturbing sequences. Matthew Goode, who I can’t remember being good or memorable in any other movie, is really good here, playing a darkly cheerful character, and playing him well (and yes, I know he was in Watchmen). And Nicole Kidman…you know what, fuck it, I don’t need to talk about Nicole Kidman. She was in Eyes Wide Shut, The Others, The Hours, Dogville, Rabbit Hole… we all know she’s great, I don’t need to tell you right?

What really pushes this movie over the edge though, from merely ‘really good’ territory into ‘great’ is the direction. Everything about this movie, from the shot choice, to the blocking, to the lighting and shadows are highly deliberate and well chosen and the way it’s edited and especially the way it sounds are extremely unique. It’s hard to explain in words how weird and unique the editing and sound in this movie is, but it begins literally moments into the film, so you’ll see what I mean. At least a few shot choices and transitions are going to blow your mind and one transition had me literally gasping out loud at how brilliant it was.

The script and story are similarly unique and brilliant, existing in a weirdly nebulous place between horror, thriller, drama and coming of age. I think what genre this movie belongs to is going to be hotly debated among people who see it. Even the sparingly used makeup (most notably the contacts the three leads are all wearing) is brilliantly chosen. If there’s a flaw in it (and I’m not 100 percent convinced this is a flaw) it’s that the ending seems to drift off into ambiguity, but that seems more like another design, rather than an issue.

If you’ve heard of this movie at all, it’s probably because the director, Park Chan-wook is well known in the West for his film Oldboy (actually the second part of a trilogy and the subject a Spike Lee helmed remake this year, because Hollywood is full of idiots). And while Oldboy is justifiably lionized, Stoker deserves to be seen and evaluated on it’s own merits. If Stoker is playing near you, do not miss it, it’s the best thing I’ve seen all year.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and one scene in this movie is gonna make his upcoming Alice in Wonderland watchthrough awkward.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

DVD Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 2

As always, my watching of the Twilight series is aided and abetted by Rifftrax. Remember, The Seven love Rifftrax, and so should you.

Breaking Dawn Part 2 is, without doubt, the most entertaining of the Twilight franchise. Not the best (the horror involved in trying to determine what one of these is objectively the best would probably drive me insane, so I’m gonna skip over that question). But despite being an objectively terrible movie on essentially every conceivable level, Breaking Dawn Part 2 is unquestionably extremely entertaining. Because of how completely insane the whole thing is, best defined by the moment where Bella FULL BODY TACKLES A MOUNTAIN LION!

This aspect, more than anything else about the movie, makes it hilarious to watch. Because of how proudly and devotedly terrible it is, because of how it blows up all to insane proportions and lets it all hang there for you to see. The rampant misogyny, the Mary Sue-ism inherent in Bella’s character, the focus on Bella and Edward over still clichéd, but vastly more interesting characters, Michael Sheen’s HYSTERICALLY over the top performance, the horrible direction and special effects, the awful screenplay, all of it is ramped up to 11. And the result is a teetering train wreck of a movie that is hilarious to watch.

By now, all of you have heard of the hilarious anti-climax in the book (in which the bad guys show up, are told their issue is a misunderstanding and then leave) and how the movie manages to make it worse (how the movie decides to include a huge action sequences in which multiple characters are killed, only to reveal that it was all a dream and go with the anti-climax) but even having heard about it, the shock at the scene and the way they go about is jaw dropping, because without the copout, the ending would be legitimately awesome.

So ends the Twilight saga, not with a bang but with a whimper. And yet, as I look back over the saga and the way it altered the pop culture landscape, and my own arc of hating it, to being sick of it, to just being tired of the whole thing, backlash and all, I can almost say that in a weird, sadistic way I’m going to miss it. It was a uniting force in a way I’ve never seen in my life. Everyone outside of it’s fanbase, from highbrow critics to the average movie goer was united in our various flavors of disdain for the franchise. Not even Nickleback could achieve that. And even beyond that, Twilight spilled over into other things. Female targeted genre fiction exploded in a big way, and while a large portion of it was terrible, it’s slowly gaining ground into respectability (call me when a Tamora Pierce adaptation gets greenlit). Even in my own life the Rifftrax of all 5 movies remain some of their best work, and are largely responsible for me being as into Rifftrax as I am, as well as my returning to Mystery Science Theater 3000.

But the long lasting culture impact of Twilight could be an article (or several) on it’s own and would have to be written by someone much smarter than me. As for Breaking Dawn Part 2…well it is an unmitigated disaster, a complete failure as a movie. But…if you’re into pointing and laughing and someone’s pathetic failure to make a working movie...well let’s just say this’ll work. It is one of the biggest and most hilarious failures to come out of Mainstream Hollywood in a long while.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders why the franchise wasn’t about the lesbian Brazilian vampires.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Consisting of over a dozen books, L. Frank Baum’s Oz books are still probably the most prominent example of pre-Lord of the Rings fantasy, due almost entirely to the continued fame of the 1939 adaptation of the most famous book in the series The Wizard of Oz. That said, due to wildly loose continuity (due primarily to Baum growing increasingly sick of writing them towards the end of his life) so they’ve always been ripe for reinvention and reimagining. The most famous of these is, of course, Gregory Macguire’s The Wicked Years series, which was later adapted into the blockbuster musical Wicked, both of which I’m a huge fan of. But now Sam Raimi has taken his own stab at a prequel to The Wizard of Oz, this time based almost entirely on the movie, and devoted to the Wizard himself.

The story is concerned with Oz, played by James Franco, who you’ll recall from the original movie, is revealed to be a conman using technology to make himself appear to be use magic. At the start of the movie, he is established as an arrogant, selfish, womanizing magician, working in Kansas, who gets transported to Oz via tornado (and yes in case you were wondering, the switch is accompanied by a switch to color, a higher aspect ratio and a ‘you were there’ style of casting) and is taken for a prophesied Wizard, who will destroy the Wicked Witch who has been terrorizing Oz. And since the person taking him for the Wizard is a hot witch (Mila Kunis), promising him a literal mountain of gold, he goes along with it.

The movie is gorgeous looking. The CGI is flawless (with one major exception, which we will discuss in a moment), the costumes and makeup spot on and Raimi’s direction is incredible. The thing is, as much as I love Sam Raimi, I’m not 100 percent convinced he’s a very good storyteller. He’s got some real issues with story and tone, and these problems, more the first than the second, show through on this movie.

The issue is mostly one of characterization. Franco’s Oz is established from the first moment to be a womanizer and, if not smart precisely than at least clever, but he spends the vast majority of the plot being led around by the nose by whatever woman is in the room with him. Sure he’s a fraud, but he doesn’t show any initiative until the end, which I feel is a little weak for his character, especially given how smart he’s shown to be in the 3rd act. Not precisely a dealbreaker, but annoying.

There are some other minor story hiccups; The script is on the weak side, Joey King’s China Girl hangs around the movie a lot without much purpose (aside from being the person we’re worried about getting hurt) and the movie can’t decide if it wants to telegraph a 2nd act twist that I saw coming from the first trailer, but that I’ll be a good sport and not spoil. There are also a few minor problems on the technical department, especially the eventual realization of the Wicked Witch, who looks consistently and noticeably off (to the point where I wonder why they didn’t use makeup, rather than CGI) but the movie still works.

The reason it works, aside from Raimi’s direction, is largely on the cast. Kunis is extremely game for her role and really throws herself into it in the third act. Rachel Weiz is a little flatter, but it fits her character and works opposite…another character’s scenery chewing in the third act. Michelle Williams is clearly doing a riff on Billie Burke’s interpretation of the same character, but she does it well. And Franco, whose personality is really well suited to his character, does a great job as the Wizard. And hey, Zach Braff is in this, I didn’t know that until I saw it. He’s doing a good job too. What happened to him after Scrubs?

I was initially planning on trying to check how accurate the movie is to the Oz mythos, but I checked out as soon as they started talking about King’s (the pre-Wizard ruler of Oz was the Ozma line). I will say though, that the interaction between the Good Witch and the Wicked Witch is quite amusing to me, based on their relationship in Wicked (the book more than the musical, but both…you know what I mean). Either way, accurate to the often fluid Oz mythos, the movie is a solidly put together fantasy movie. I doubt it’ll top anyone’s best of the year list, but it’s enjoyable and exciting enough for what it wants to be, so call it recommended. It’s probably better than most things in wide-release right now.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he kept hoping the talking crows would ask for corn.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

DVD Review: Rise of the Guardians

I occasionally take flak from my friends because I refuse to judge kids movies differently from other movies, at least on an objective quality level. I will occasionally note that the content for this or that movie is slightly darker or more scary than I might expect (in the same way I might note that a bloody decapitation is pretty brutal for a PG-13 action movie) but overall, I refuse to let movies off the hook for story or character hiccups, just because it’s aimed at kids.

All of this is meant as long form defense against this film’s apparently huge army of fans, because I think this movie was good, not great. It’s certainly quite enjoyable and mostly well made, but it goes have its share of flaws. The plot is concerned a group of guardians (no shit) devoted to protecting the innocence of children the world over. There are perhaps a billion different jokes I could make about that, with varying degrees of tastelessness, so I’m just gonna shut up. Anyway, the team consists of Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, the Sandman and the Tooth Fairy and the plot consists of the recruitment of a new member, Jack Frost, to help battle the Boogeyman.

Okay so it’s a simple setup, but it’s a good one (albeit with a mind bogglingly generic title) and it works. The movie hits the ground running, skipping over most of the ‘explaining how things work’ which is usually the most boring aspect of fantasy action movies. It seems to be counting a lot on people getting the basics of everyone’s powers, based on their iconography. The design on most of the characters and their world works solidly, though I will say it’s weird seeing the Sandman as a short fat blonde guy when I’m used to him looking like a tall, thin pale black haired guy with completely black eyes (if you don’t get that reference, I truly pity you). And while this a personal preference, rather than an actual criticism, I like that the movie actually has action, rather than trying to avoid it like a lot of kid’s movies.

The voice actors are all solid, especially Alec Baldwin playing Santa. It’s weird to hear him interpreted with a Russian accent, but it works. Hugh Jackman appears to like the opportunity to use his actual accent (which I find weird, since rabbit overpopulation is destroying Australia, but whatever) and I’m starting to think Isla Fisher is a better voice actress than she is a live action actress. And hey, isn’t it nice to see Chris Pine show some emotion as Jack. Maybe he’s maturing as an actor?

That said the movie is not without it’s issues, mostly in a weirdly wobbly act structure. The movie is really eager to do flight based action and chase sequences, as they show off the 3D animation the best, and that means the second act amounts to a series of mini build ups and climaxes, which isn’t a problem in the second act, but it also means that the movie runs out of steam towards the third act. This isn’t helped by the fact that it begins to fall back on some tiresome clichés towards the climax (no spoilers, but you’ll see what I mean) It’s over eagerness to get to the action also means it undercuts the best part of the movie, IE the interplay between the characters, although I imagine if there are sequels, we’ll get more of that. And while this is, again, more of a personal preference than an actual complaint, I find it annoying that my favorite character (the Tooth Fairy…what? She was the most fun) doesn’t get involved in the combat much. Must have been hard to find applications for her powers?

Despite the (again, painfully generic) title, at the beginning of the movie the Guardians are pretty much done rising, and the movie is much more concerned with building up a franchise. And despite it’s flaws, they have my blessing to make a franchise, because the movie is a lot of fun. So if you’re inclined, definitely give it a watch. If nothing else, it represents a step forward for DreamWorks, as it contains almost no pop culture references. Well one. A little one. Still, worth seeing.

Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he’s not going to apologize for liking the Tooth Fairy the best.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Director Retrospecitve: Tim Burton Part 2

Burton’s golden years were, without doubt, the 90s and while he didn’t make all of his good movies during that time or even all his best movies, the 90s saw his longest unbroken run of good to great movies. It was also the time when he made some of his weirder, more offbeat movies. It all began with his first truly great movie Edward Scissorhands and went from there.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Director Retrospective: Tim Burton Part 1

It I really do like Tim Burton. I’m not kidding, I do. Lately it’s been more theoretical liking than practical liking, as a lot of his more recent films haven’t been, well let’s call it up to snuff. Actually, I’m under no obligation to be diplomatic, so let’s been honest: a lot of his more recent films have been straight up fucking terrible.

But I hold out hope, because I like a lot of movies he’s directed, and a few of them (Ed Wood in particular) are staples of my favorite movies of all time lists. But even as his quality begins to slide downwards, I’m grateful he exists; A mainstream director with such a unique and recognizable style, visual scheme and preference for certain themes. Plus I don’t think there’s another mainstream director with such a fascination with dark themes and imagery. And it’ll be easier to get through this one than the Shyamalan one (I own more of his movies on DVD…which is more than zero, but hush).

So in order to figure out what’s wrong with Tim Burton and if he can be saved, we have to go back and figure out what made him great in the first place. Oh and so you know, as always this is restricted to movies he directed, so Nightmare Before Christmas will not be appearing. So, let’s delve into the career of the ultimate modern master of the macabre, Tim Burton.