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Saturday
Mar232013

Spring Breakers (2013)

Childish Borenography

I didn't see Spring Breakers. I survived it.

Look, I'm as red-blooded and heterosexually horny as the next guy, but Harmony Korine's latest movie is excruciatingly dull--a modern-day Ludovico Technique of repetitive, morally bankrupt excess that practically murdered my attraction to booze, breasts, and bullets. It also strained my will to stay in the theatre more than any film in recent memory. Making it to the end credits imbued me with the strength of a god. Pardon me while I leap Everest in a single bound.

Ostensibly a story about four college friends who get mixed up in the drug trade while vacationing in Florida, Spring Breakers is really about suckering audiences into paying for the privilege of seeing former Disney teen stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens (as well as current sensation Ashley Benson of Pretty Little Liars fame) show off their tanned, supple goods in between doing bong hits and furiously masturbating machine guns. 

The jokes on you, pervs! The only one of the four to get naked is the actress no one gives a shit about: Rachel Korine, whose claim to fame is being the director's wife. Sure, the marquee starlets show off plenty of side-boob, and if you squint reeeally hard, you might see an eighth of Hudgens' areola during a pool scene. But if you're going into this movie (or, more precisely, bringing it home) for the sole purpose of playing lead skin flute in a private rendition of High School Musical, I'm sad to say there's not enough material here to warm up your instrument.

Yep, that's about as crude a way as possible to sum up the film, but I can think of no other reason to suffer through it. The studio knew this. You'll notice that all the publicity centers on the "Good Girls Gone Bad" angle, and that's because the suits need as many asses in seats as possible on opening weekend before the general public catches on. What might they be catching onto, you ask?

If we're to consider Spring Breakers as a film, it amounts to a half-hour of forward story momentum, which is broken up amongst sixty additional minutes of Spring Break B-roll. There's a random cutaway to swirling fake boobs getting drenched in beer approximately every two minutes; the first five minutes of the movie, in fact, are a credits-free, credits-sequence-style montage that sets the tone for the rest of the movie: pointless displays of naked, stoned idiocy.

Perhaps if this had come out in 1995 it would have amounted to something. But we all have the Internet now, and can pull up not only naked pictures of Hudgens at a moment's notice (for free, mind you), but enough downloadable videos of celebrity look-alikes doing God knows what to themselves, each other, and countless human and non-human partners that this kind of art-house Skinemax nonsense seems cute in comparison. Worse yet, Korine comes across as the worst kind of navel-gazing indie snob who thinks he's too cool for the Internet, and therefore has no idea how not shocking his rejected film-school thesis really is.

The saddest part of this tiresome production is that it ends on a morally ambiguous high note. Two of the girls split early on, leaving their friends to become pseudo-badass hit women for a local crime lord named Alien (James Franco*). Spring Breakers' big climax involves a Scarface-lite shootout at a rival gangsta's (Gucci Mane) estate, which our space-cadet heroines survive without a hair out of place. They drive off in a stolen car with vague notions of doing something better with their lives, but this tacked on change of heart is as mysterious as the head bad guy's decision to have absolutely no armed security inside his actual house.

The message is a dangerous one, and I take solace in the fact that Spring Breakers is so blandly presented that I doubt the impressionable teen girls in the audience will stop sexting crotch shots to their girlfriends' boyfriends long enough to hear it. I'm not a prude, and I don't want every movie to be tied up in a glittery bow of positivity--but none of these characters deserve happiness, success, wealth, or fame. They're oblivious to everything but their own boredom, which must be fucked, snorted, and blown away at all costs. That kind of movie requires sharp writing, bold performances, and undeniable style in order to succeed.** Korine and his silly, semi-nude Disney kids are just whiny tourists without a map.

*Much has been made of Franco's performance, I assume by people who are new to the concept of actors acting. Yes, Alien is an entirely different character than Harry Osborne or the wizard of Oz, but white guys have parodied and adopted (to the point of parody) the black gangsta affect for years. No amount of corn rows, prison tattoos, or drawl-soaked free-style raps can cover up the fact that Alien is a younger, far less ambitious take on an archetype perfected by Gary Oldman in True Romance--and that was twenty years ago.

Sure, he's the highlight of the movie. But in the same way that flushing is the highlight of taking a shit, both are important and neither are discussion-worthy. In fairness, I did get a kick out of Franco's weird, strangely touching beach-side piano serenade of his girls to a Britney Spears tune--which, I predict, will be a YouTube sensation once this thing hits home video.

**See A Clockwork Orange and Natural Born Killers.

Friday
Mar222013

War Witch (2012)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice's Machine Gun

I can't imagine what other countries must think of U.S. cinema. We export multi-million-dollar garbage and expect them to help us make it into billion-dollar garbage (which, admittedly, they do). But rarely do we import foreign-language movies and make them hits. No surprise there. Really, what chance does a film with words along the bottom of the screen have in a marketplace whose consumers can't be bothered to read (or demand) warning labels on their food?

When it comes to filmic sophistication, most Americans are like Kim Kardashian: we're so caught up in glamour, excess and non-challenging palatability that we assume there's nothing better in life than having luxury served to us on a silver platter. This attitude has allowed poisonous memes like "There's nothing good in theatres between January and May" to gain a foothold in pop culture. I know this because I'm guilty of such thoughts myself.

The truth, of course, has been known by people much wiser than me for a very long time. To quote Harvey Danger, "If you're bored, then you're boring". If the dearth of big-ticket Hollywood entertainment has kept you away from the theatre since late-August (or, worse yet, forced you to settle for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), might I suggest heading away from the mall and hitting up your local art-house theatre? Yes, that means you'll have to experience strangely dressed people who talk funny and share different values than yours--but don't let the loitering lobby hipsters keep you from seeing some really exciting movies.

Case in point: Kim Nguyen's Oscar-nominated masterpiece War Witch opens today at The Music Box in Chicago. Set in modern-day South Africa, the film stars Rachel Mwanza as Komona, a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her village at age twelve and forced to join the anti-government rebellion of Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). Her first test of worthiness: mow down her parents with a machine gun or watch them be hacked to death at the hands of Great Tiger's brutish second-in-command (Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien). I've just described the opening five minutes, which are likely its most tame, thematically.

Komona and a handful of other children are taken deep into the jungle where older boys teach them how to handle and fire weapons, move about undetected, and get so high enough off a hallucinogenic tree sap that they'll be ready to fight military-trained soldiers. During an early skirmish, Komona takes point and encounters a pair of pale, ghostly figures who warn her to run. Seconds later, the rest of her first-wave party is wiped out in a torrent of machine gun fire.

Whether because of the drugs or a full-on mental break, Komona is instantly hailed as having other-worldly gifts. She's taken to Great Tiger's compound and anointed his "war witch"--a grand advisor and strategist whose job is to keep psychic tabs on the enemy. She also develops a relationship with Magician (Serge Kanyinda), her male counterpart in the organization. As they fall deeper in love, their desire to strike out on their own grows until they have no choice but to escape Great Tiger or die in some pointless battle.

Besides the extraordinarily naturalistic and heartbreaking performances by everyone in the cast, what sets War Witch apart are the odd moments of supernatural fantasy that Nguyen places around unexpected corners. So immersed in superstition are Great Tiger and his minions that the audience is left to wonder whether or not Komona's ghosts are real, the product of a substance-abused brain, or the result of traumatic brain-washing by an extremely charismatic and deadly leader. At times, Magician seems to buy the line he's been sold and which he sells, but the rules of his inner cosmos are unclear: he can create "magic" necklaces of protection, but is unable to conjure a white rooster when Komona tells him it's the only way to win her hand in marriage.

In the crazy alternate reality in which all movies exist along the same timeline, and in the same universe, I imagine Nicolas Cage's Yuri Orlov character from Lord of War selling arms to Great Tiger. This same world is inhabited by the fairies and eye-ball-handed monsters that made Pan's Labyrinth so heady and moving. But Nguyen's almost documentarian approach to the material pushes his messages beyond the realm of escapist entertainment, forcing the audience to remember their own complicity in the real-world tragedies he's illustrating.

Look no further than the faded Abercrombie t-shirt one character wears, or the bucket of shoes and boots looted from dead child soldiers that their replacements must wear--not to mention the finely crafted details on every weapon of war depicted in the film. Watching this film, you might shush the guilty whispers that sound strangely like shopping-mall muzak, but they won't be silenced.

Despite this undercurrent of righteousness, War Witch doesn't play as a Message Movie. In fact, it rarely feels plotted at all--nor does it meander. Each of its ninety minutes is full of wonder, sorrow, and uncertainty, which are far more fun to experience at the cinema than mere plot-twist guessing games. It's also a haunting portrait of a beautiful land torn apart by political and religious nonsense. From the abandoned monuments to progress overrun by garrulous, teenaged squatters; to the flimsy tin-and-wood shacks populated by people who live in constant fear of being drawn into deadly conflict; War Witch carries the tune of a weeping Mother Nature who wants nothing more than for her children to chill out and enjoy all she has to offer.

This is a very special, unforgettable film--which is why you won't see it playing anywhere near Oz the Great and Powerful or Jurassic Park 3D. But if you can drum up the mental and emotional courage to seek out War Witch, I promise you'll leave the theatre with a greater sense of pride in the human spirit and appreciation for bold, passionate filmmaking than you've had in the last six months. Hell, maybe even the last six years.

Thursday
Mar212013

Angela (2013)

Basement Bargain

Attention aspiring filmmakers: This is how you do it! Moviemaking is a tough, collaborative art to practice. Illustrators and musicians can shrug off an unproductive afternoon, but you're accountable to a whole group of people who spend lots of time wondering what you're going to do next--precisely because they're invested in seeing themselves on-screen (or seeing their behind-the-scenes efforts realized).

For years, I've lamented the convenience and power of modern recording equipment, which gives everyone who seeks it instant "auteur" status. These cretins have no qualms about charging people ten bucks a pop to watch them go through do-it-yourself film school (or, worse yet, fuck around with their friends). I can't get excited about the indie scene anymore because one never knows if they're dealing with the next Stanley Kubrick or a middling Shane Van Dyke.

So it is with great enthusiasm that I herald the arrival of Nathaniel Scott Davis' second effort, Angela, a twenty-two-minute gem that you can watch for free, right now, on YouTube. Last year, I reviewed Deprivation, which is the spiritual precursor to this movie: by cosmic coincidence, both feature a main character named Angela, as well as a killer who watches the fictitious slasher series Arbor Day on television.

Though both movies deal with stomach-turning material, Angela is the more upbeat of the two. We meet Angela (Brooke Green), a bullied high school introvert. She has trouble relating to people--largely thanks to her abusive mother (Teresa Butler Marler)--and receives a stern slap in the face after staring curiously at one of the popular kids. Running parallel to her story is Joshua's (Austin "Monster" Wood). A hairy, obese creep who shares Angela's awkward shyness he works an office job by day and kidnaps women by night (don't worry, I'm getting to the "upbeat" part).

Ah, yes, another basement-torture flick. It seems swinging lightbulbs and water-damaged cement walls have become staples of low-budget horror--likely because Saw taught us that, given the right cast, watching two people chained up in a room can be as compelling as it is inexpensive to film. The good news is, Angela isn't as brutal as Brutal. It's not as consistently good, either, but Davis' movie has a lot more going for it than one might expect from the synopsis.

Davis teases the basement setting early on, focusing most of the film on his two main characters' interactions with other people. A trip to the boss's office following a harrassment complaint and a trip to the guidance counselor following the slap are the story's high points. Joshua's co-workers have no idea what kind of danger they're in because he's got the disposition of a wounded child. Even his monstrous id is hard to pin down: when unleashed, he's unforgivably mean, but his psychopathy appears to stem from genuine mental illness rather than cartoonishly evil intent.

Similarly, Angela feels trapped in high school, surrounded by people who think she's weird for being shy. She turns this self-hatred inward--though it's made clear later on that much of her anxiety is self-pity. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Angela's world is gray and hopeless, mostly because she's never known anything different.

It truth, I could have done without the kidnapping angle. That's not as sexy, I guess, as a horror premise, but Angela would have been just as interesting had it been about two damaged people finding each other in a way that doesn't involve bruises and the fear of death. Maybe I would have bought into it more had the action choreography been better executed, but it's so clumsy that I re-watched key scenes to figure out what the hell had happened. I still don't know if one character was hit on the side of the head, chloroformed, or fell victim to a Jedi-like hand wave that made them pass out.

And that's exactly why I love the way Davis released Angela. He's clearly getting better, but he obviously has a long way to go. Had I been asked to pay for this movie, Green and Wood's incredibly strong performances might have overshadowed their co-stars' uneven skills, but the odd staging of key moments and persistent sound issues* would have likely made me wonder why I didn't spend that money building up my blu-ray library from the ashes of my old DVD collection. As it stands, I can totally see Angela, Deprivation, and Davis' next handful of short-film sketches as extras on a truly great movie that I would have no problem recommending people pick up.

*Hey, 1261 Pictures, if you launch a Kickstarter campaign to buy the next production a windscreen, I'll gladly kick in some dough.

Monday
Mar182013

OZ The Great and Powerful (2013)

Army of Lightness

Do me a favor, before we begin: click your heels together three times and repeat, "The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist. The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist. The Wizard of Oz doesn't exist."

Look, we all love and respect Victor Fleming's 1939 classic, but appreciating Sam Raimi's Oz The Great and Powerful begins with putting everything you know about Judy Garland and singing Munchkins out of your head. A ridiculous thing to ask of a prequel? You bet.

But we're not talking about a prequel here. 

Had The Wizard of Oz and Oz the Great and Powerful taken place in the same universe, then, yes, Fleming's film would be considered a sequel to Raimi's--with the "first" film being rightfully maligned by fans. But thanks to copyright law, Warner Brothers (which owns and licenses every scrap of what we remember about Dorothy Gale's concussive, Technicolor adventures) insisted that Disney stick to interpreting author L. Frank Baum's Oz novels anew and leaving their classic film alone. That's why, in 2013, we get a CGI cowardly lion, rather than a guy in a suit playing The Cowardly Lion. It's also why, I'd bet, the movie's sole musical number is cut short with an annoyed, almost cautionary "Shush!"

The average moviegoer likely has no idea of what I'm talking about, which is, I suspect, why the new Oz is getting so much flak.* Another reason may be because it's Disney handling the new version rather than, say, Dreamworks or Paramount. The Mouse House's family-friendly stamp is all over this thing, and even through the expensive 3D glasses you can see Raimi's anarchic signature being gradually erased by a puffy, white cartoon glove.

Set in 1905, the movie opens with a carnival magician named Oz (James Franco) failing to impress an audience full of Kansas rubes. Sure, his put-upon assistant Frank (Zach Braff) is great with ominous, off-stage sound effects and effectively packing the explosive black powder, but neither man is prepared for the little girl in a wheelchair (Joey King) who asks Oz to make her walk. Back in his tent, he's confronted by Annie (Michelle Williams), the head-over-heels local with whom he'd fooled around during his last trip through the sticks. Just as he's letting her down gently, a Strong Man (Tim Holmes) bursts in, upset about Oz having made something disappear into his wife.

Wouldn't you know it? All of this drama unfolds as a tornado rips through the countryside. Oz steals a hot air balloon to avoid a beating, and winds up getting transported to a magical land that happens to share his name. There, he meets the lovely Theodora (Mila Kunis), a self-proclaimed witch who believes Oz to be the savior of her land--

My God. I just realized something: Oz The Great and Powerful is a (more-or-less) family-friendly remake of Raimi's Army of Darkness. I mean, it's the exact...same...movie.

Holy shit.

Editor's Note: Please excuse me while I re-set my brain.

5...

4...

3...

2...

How did I not pick up on this sooner? The template is just about perfect: Oz is Ash, the stranger in a strange land who is called upon by the locals to fulfill a prophecy and rid the world of evil. He falls in love (or at least into the hay) with a local girl who eventually becomes (Spoiler for anyone who's not seen either film) a twisted, vengeful witch. When the people who trust him most realize he's a fraud, they turn against him, and it's only by digging deep to find some courage and nobility (not to mention an inter-dimensional ride home) that he rallies the good people to war against the forces of darkness.

From the battle prep that involves our reluctant protagonist bringing his era's technology to a primitive civilization; to the smirking sexism that would be inexcusable if it weren't so flamboyantly uncool; to the fact that Bruce Campbell appears in the fucking movie--it's no wonder Raimi wanted to jump aboard this thing.

Granted, there are a few differences between Oz and Army, most notably a couple of really strong female leads. Surprisingly, Kunis is not one of them. In fact, the moment she (Seriously, turn back if you haven't seen this movie) transforms into the Wicked Witch of the West, this typically solid actress becomes a more annoying cartoon than the one she voices on Family Guy. Everything about her, from makeup to motive to a performance straight out of Batman & Robin's deleted scenes is a Razzie-worthy embarrassment. Rachel Weisz, who plays Theodora's evil sister, Evanora, fares a bit better--mostly because she takes a back seat to the villainy half-way through the picture.

No, the leads I'm referring to are Williams and King (who also play residents of Oz: Glinda The Good Witch and China Girl, respectively). Their main role is to help Oz become less of a douchebag by giving him something to care about other than himself. Williams balances the goody-two-shoes optimism of "classic" Glinda with a determination that keeps her from being a doormat. And King's vocal performance as a broken China Doll who sees Oz as a father figure gives the film its bright, beating, emotional center. Kudos, too, to the CGI masters who made this completely digital character into as tangible a cast member as her flesh-and-blood co-stars.

Earlier, I mentioned that the Disney brand was all over this movie, and that it's a problem. While I'm glad the studio put up the budget to make Oz look and feel like the transportive wonderland it deserves to be (unlike the gaudy, chaotic garbage that was its previous such effort, Alice in Wonderland), it's easy to see the influence of studio executives who prefer length and neat visuals to great storytelling (you know, the hallmark that makes films like Fleming's Oz a classic). The sassy talking monkey (also voiced by Braff); the multiple, drawn-out action scenes that stop the story dead as surely as the musical numbers in latter-season episodes of Glee; and unimaginative 3D effects that define what most audiences can't stand about 3D effects--these all contribute to an uneven flow that keeps this Oz from being wholly enjoyable.

And that's a shame. Strip out the flat jokes and allegedly crowd-pleasing spectacle (not all of the spectacle, just the stuff that makes it reeeally difficult to not check the time), and you're left with an unexpectedly cool, unexpectedly adult version of Oz. This is just the kind of film that could use a solid, polished-edges sequel--which it kind of already has. But not really.

Note: I've read complaints about the overt sexism of Franco's character in the film, and the fact that he's still kind of lecherous at the end. Honestly, what's wrong with that? Remember, Oz came of age in a time and place when women couldn't vote and were seen as little more than baby-making machines. Plus, he's a carnival magician and not a Harvard Gender Studies professor. Short of a magical spell, it takes time and experience for a cretin to stop being a cretin, and a step in the right direction is better than ten steps in the wrong one.

*In today's marketplace, flak doesn't necessarily translate into poor ticket sales: this film is a worldwide monster. And for as much as Disney need to distance themselves from the WB version, they're counting on brand recognition to put asses in seats--seats which cost two to three times the average to sit in, thanks to 3D and IMAX 3D presentations.

Friday
Mar152013

The Silence (2010)

That Dripping, Queasy, Beautiful Angst

On the surface, watching a two-hour German drama about killer pedophiles at 3am is a bad idea. Don't get me wrong: I love a good murder mystery, and have no problem reading subtitles,* but nothing about Baran bo Odar's The Silence had me rushing to press "Play". Fortunately, the charged, stirring performances and challenging ideas bursting at this film's seams are far more effective than coffee--and oddly fun in a way that makes the icky bits (a little) easier to handle.

The Silence begins with the 1986 rape and murder of an eleven-year-old girl named Pia (Helene Luise Doppler) at the hands of college groundskeeper Peer Sommer (Ulrich Thomsen). Peer's best friend, Timo (Wotan Wilke Mohring), an awkward young student, witnesses the crime, but is too freaked out to step in. They dispose of the evidence and part ways, with Timo fighting guilt not just for his inaction, but also for the sexual urges he'd been suppressing in the hours leading up to the attack--which he spent in Peer's apartment, watching child pornography.

Flash forward twenty-three years. Pia's death, once the subject of a media super-storm, is now but a memory marked by a wooden cross in the field near where her body was found. But the mystery still eats at Elena (Katrin Sass), her emotionally crippled mother, and Krischan (Burghart Klaußner), the newly retired, alcoholic detective dogged by his career's greatest unsolved case. On the anniversary of Pia's disappearance, another girl is found dead, compelling Krischan to unofficially team up with an equally damaged young cop named David (Sebastian Blomberg), whose wife recently died of cancer.

If you're already feeling squeamish aboard this misery train, watch out: we haven't even left the station. The story also follows the new victim's parents (played with understated dread and battered, underlying love by Karoline Eichornn and Roeland Weisnekker), and we get a taste of the middle-aged Timo's new life--which includes an ostensibly happy wife and children.

Where most films of this kind would likely focus on the investigation's sensational intricacies or showcase boisterous performances of over-written dialogue, The Silence works its way under the skin by opting for a world view based in Naturalism. Bo Odar, adapting Jan Costin Wagner's novel, fills his movie with unhinged characters whose inner tortures contrast the relentlessly tranquil natural world in which they live. For every shot of David and Timo trying to keep their shit together, there are three fly-overs of oblivious woods and wheat fields. The only two characters to make it out of the story unscathed do so by accepting their place in a cold, uncaring universe. Like it or not, the film's hero (I use that term based solely on the winner of the Naturalism game) is a class A predator in every sense of the word; more importantly, he's a survivor.

It's not every day that I'm presented with a film that suggests the so-called "good guys" are suckers. I have to say, it's refreshing--intellectually and emotionally, too, if I'm being honest. Though there's a strong David Fincher influence in bo Odar's visuals and choice of material, The Silence is more akin to Todd Field's Little Children than The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. All three films tackle twisty, uncomfortable subject matter and center on deeply flawed characters. But for all its conspiracy, rape, and depravity, Dragon Tattoo ends happily. Little Children (also a movie about pedophilia) is a mostly effective drama that winds up a cartoon because its characters are either too stupid, too selfish, or too trapped in their own heads to forge better lives. But bo Odar's movie takes matters to the ultimate next level of cynicism, boldly stating that even the noblest of men is doomed to fall short of happiness as long as he aspires to control things other than his own reaction to inevitably unfair change.

I don't even agree with this thesis, necessarily, but the writer/director sells the hell out of his viewpoint. The most interesting argument comes disguised in the dynamic between Peer and Timo. The elder, the murderer, is aware that he's a monster and has seemingly made an agreement with himself to not fight what he sees as part of his DNA. Timo, on the other hand, has built such a wall of cognitive and spiritual dissonance, that we're led to believe he "cured" himself of his urges until Peer showed back up in his life. The Nature of The Silence is not the bogeyman of climate change or volatile volcanoes; it's Human Nature, a much trickier beast to wrangle--and an almost impossible one to reconcile with.

All that armchair psycho-babble is my long-winded way of saying that you should seek out The Silence at once. You bet it's tough to get through, as is all great, challenging art. It's also a gorgeous movie full of powerhouse performances and big ideas that will haunt you long after the lights come up.

Note: If you're in Chicago this week, you can check out The Silence on the big screen at The Music Box Theatre.

*Seriously, if one more idiot complains to me that subtitles distract them from what's happening on-screen, I'm going to ask about their harrowing struggles with highway billboards and TV commercials.