Tag Archives: Brian De Palma

Spring Breakers – Where the Wild Girls Are

Floozy Riders: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine

“Spring Break for eva, and eva…” – It’s the nonsense chant of a generation of young Americans, who believe that being young and from the Land of the Free they are entitled to their brief weeks of hedonism. Yet we see them in their university classes not paying attention, not caring. Harmony Korine’s dissection of this culture, Spring Breakers, is a clever curiosity, one which strikes with as much satire as it does advertise a lifestyle.

Korine, who wrote 1995’s challenging tale of take-it-all young Americans, Kids, tackles similar concepts here. Four college girls want to go on Spring Break to Florida. They “deserve” it. So when funds are too tight, three of the girls, Candy, Brit and Cotty, rob a local restaurant with a hammer and a toy gun and pool the cash together. Faith, the helpfully monikered Christian of the group, is not as disapproving of their methods as she is excited for the trip, and follows her three less innocent friends to Florida.

In sequences as outlandish as any late ’90s rap music video, we witness the desired atmosphere of Spring Break – bodies and breasts shimmy and shake on the beach, liquids are poured on and drunk off young women. It all looks fun and yet Korine’s assemblage of the footage finds a grotesquery in it. The monstrous faces of Aphex Twin’s ‘Windowlicker’ video are nowhere to be seen, but they’re there, beneath the fresh youthful skin of these deluded partygoers.

Our four heroines fit right in, although a re-enactment by the rebellious three of their illegal escapades does begin to worry Faith, who starts to think it may be time to head for home. Too late; they are soon arrested at a drug-fuelled party, and, broke, are left to rot in jail. Their saviour comes in the form of Alien (James Franco), a drug-dealer, DJ, gangsta poseur of the highest order, who takes the girls in under his wing. He shows them a good time. He shows them what affluence is. He shows them what you can do with real guns.

In typical Korine style Spring Breakers eschews much in the way of narrative in favour of a series of perverse set-pieces. Before the girls go to Florida we see Faith with her Bible group, headed by a pastor played by wrestler Jeff Jarrett, who preaches how awesome God’s forgiving nature is. It feels straight out of Korine’s Julien Donkey-Boy, despite the fact this glossy film could not look any more different to that Dogme venture. Other sequences include the girls getting high at a party where the fractured editing keenly captures drug-induced wildness, Alien listing off all the bling and swag he owns as if on an episode of MTV’s Cribs and, later, a vicious slow-motion robbery and assault accompanied on the score by a sombre Britney Spears song. These are inspired moments in an otherwise one-trick film.

In some ways little more than an update of 1960’s teensploitation morality tale Where the Boys Are, Spring Breakers hits the culture of entitlement hard, but does not do a lot else. The catch is that Korine has cast two former Disney stars, Vanessa Hudgens as Candy and Selena Gomez as Faith, in leading roles, as well as former teen soapstar Ashley Benson as Brit. But after five minutes of the film, once we’ve seen Vanessa Hudgens dragging from a bong, the shock value of the casting is gone. Korine has his young wife, Rachel Korine, playing Cotty, do much of the “heavy lifting”, appearing in the raunchiest scenes that it might have been more shocking to see a High School Musical alumnus perform.

Gangsta Squad: James Franco with Benson and Hudgens

The addition of Franco, enjoying himself intensely in the flamboyant, preposterous role of Alien, helps fuel the condemnation of middle class hero-worship of criminals. Korine pointedly has Alien’s TV at home set up to play Brian De Palma’s Scarface on a loop, a scathing attack on the cult of Tony Montana in American pop culture. What Korine risks is creating a similar cult around the charismatic Alien – sure he’s inviting his targets to worship the fraud, but is this not somehow undermining the criticism?

Still, while the central theme is lacking, and the young starlets do not make much of the material, there remains some excellent filmmaking on display here. The music, mostly by electronic artist Skrillex and Drive composer Cliff Martinez (with a little Britney thrown in), captures the tone throughout. Cinematographer Benoît Debie, best known for shooting Gaspar Noé’s Irreversible, has a remarkable eye for finding the beauty in horror and the horror in beauty, and the slick, sickly gloss of this film’s first half gives away to a neon-lit nighttime of desire and danger. The editing is mostly sharp although there is a tendency to recycle imagery, often patronisingly on cue when characters refer to earlier events or themes.

So who is Korine’s film for? If it’s aimed at the actual Spring Break-going type, then will the satire not fly over their heads? If they don’t walk out, will they enjoy it without irony, wishing they could be Brit or Candy, or worse still, Alien? For the art house crowd who are used to Korine’s repulsive, exploitative but somehow often moving shtick, this is exactly what you might expect, but it is short on ideas and entertainment for long stretches.

Spring Break is over, it’s time for everyone to go back to their lives.




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It is accomplished

Let the record state that, as of Friday, November 16th, 2012, I have seen the entirety of the Internet Movie Database’s Top 250 films.

Every year I set myself film goals to achieve by that year’s end, and for 2012 the greatest of these was to finish the IMDB Top 250 once and for all. It wasn’t exactly the hardest task – by January my tally was around 220 – but the list is constantly in flux, so keeping up with the new entries, as older ones slid off into popular obscurity, remained a challenge.

“I’m finished!” – Daniel Plainview, ‘There Will Be Blood’ (2007), IMDB Top 250 #177

Along the way there were some great surprises this year; The Intouchables, Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Others, like Chaplin’s The Great Dictator, I could be confident I would enjoy and quietly embarrassed I had taken this long to get around to seeing. There was also a few I had been putting off intentionally for years; The Deer Hunter (troubled but strong), Million Dollar Baby (a genuinely nice surprise), De Palma’s Scarface (hideous, overlong and the wrong kind of camp).

Of course, the nature of the IMDB list is that it is always changing, but having topped it once, I no longer care if my personal score plummets as film tastes change. Within a week from now I may no longer be able to say I have seen every film on the list, but I certainly won’t be checking it with any regularity any more. Not that I ever took much note of it; as a list of great films it is far too populist, given over to emotive or “cool” films rather than genuine cinematic triumphs, eternally topped by The Shawshank Redemption, a truly pleasant but inherently ordinary film.

“It’s gone… it’s done.” – Frodo Baggins, ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (2003), IMDB Top 250 #9

What next? There are many lists to topple. The Sight & Sound Top 100 is appealing, although with films such as Sátántangó (450mins) and Shoah (600mins) still to be tackled there, the question remains, as always, when will I find the time?

It seems only natural that the final film on my IMDB Top 250 checklist, as watched on Friday, was Kim Ki-duk’s deep, metaphysical contemplation on the passage and circular nature of time, Spring, Summer, Autumn, Winter… and Spring. As time passes on, this film critic is eternally aware that more great films are being made each year and further greats are being rediscovered. The quest goes on, and while I beat my own goals year after year, there’s no avoiding the fact that the to-watch list will defeat me in the long run.

Oh well, at least I can wash my hands of IMDB for now.

[Be sure to check out this brilliant fan edit of the complete IMDB Top 250 in 2-and-a-half minutes]


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Case de Mi Padre – Una crítica reseña

In the past decade, film spoofs have all been a bit too obvious – scary movies, superhero movies, disaster movies (which apparently include Juno, go figure). But Will Ferrell has never been one to go for the obvious joke, and his latest, directed by Saturday Night Live alumnus Matt Piedmont, targets a subgenre that much of its audience will not even be aware exists; Spanish-language telenovelas.

Sure there are a handful of gags poking fun at Westerns and grindhouse films (and even hints at Brian de Palma’s Scarface), but Casa de Mi Padre really takes its spoof target by the reins and goes with it… possibly to a fault.

Almost entirely in Spanish with subtitles, and with Ferrell showing an impressive ear for the language, Casa de Mi Padre is either an inspired attempt to get America’s massive Latin population into cinemas, or a linguistic misfire alienating the comedian’s core, Anglophonic audience. Exactly which of these groups it is targeting remains unclear.

Ferrell stars as Armando, a simple Mexican ranch hand and heir to his father’s lands. As the ranch falls into difficulty, Armando’s handsome, successful brother Raúl (Diego Luna) returns home to save the day. Problems arise when Armando falls for Raúl’s beautiful fiancé Sonia (Genesis Rodriguez), and Raúl’s dodgy dealings get the ranch into trouble with local drug baron Onza (Gael García Bernal).

The film milks its melodrama for all it’s worth, with some delightfully over the top performances, but sadly it’s all very predictable. Ferrell’s ad-lib shtick doesn’t translate particularly well, so the film is forced to use cheap visual gags and non sequiturs to earn its laughs. Many of these jokes rely on the low-budget styles of Mexican soap opera; the film is riddled with intentional continuity errors and needlessly cheap special effects. While this does result in the film’s sole superb gag, when the special effects go completely awry, it shows the limitations of the material.

The film’s running gag, that it’s in Spanish, eventually becomes unnoticeable, except when the poor editing causes subtitles to run across cuts and become illegible. There is also a problem with Ferrell’s character, whose competence is so ill-defined that he veers between being a little slow and borderline mentally disabled.

Thankfully the cast are all game, although it’s unfortunate Luna and García Bernal don’t play on their previous roles together – it would have been fun for them to bring to the fore the homoeroticism that lurked under the surface of Y Tu Mamá También. While showing only some promise as an actress, the ravishingly beautiful Genesis Rodriguez makes the sort of first impression that Cameron Diaz made in The Mask; a star is born, no doubt. Fun support is provided by Napoleon Dynamite’s Pedro, Efren Ramirez, and Adrian Martinez as Armando’s ranch hand pals, while fans of Parks & Recreation will be disappointed to see that show’s breakout star Nick Offerman reduced to a grunting drug enforcement agent.

While a few silly musical numbers liven up proceedings (including one frankly bizarre sex scene), the film never lives up to its opening title song, a thrilling Spanish ballad belted over the credits by Christina Aguilera. It’s a very gentle slope downhill from there, but sadly Casa de Mi Padre never manages to clamber back up.


(originally published at http://www.filmireland.net)

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Gomorrah – a new realism

The crime movie genre is one of those genre nomenclatures that doesn’t quite make sense. The more obvious example of this mistaken identity is the western, a genre that seems to be defined by location rather than by rules, styles or themes. Who is going to argue that The Proposition is not a western? And why do I keep finding Hud buried amongst the westerns in video shops – is it because of the hats? Cause that’s not something I want to be defining a genre by.

The crime genre is similar, in that “crime” refers rather to the focus and setting than to the themes – crime films can have elements of comedy, action and thriller. But by and large the best gangster movies are studies of men, generally great men, their rises and their falls. Gomorrah, however, takes a far different approach, viewing the world of organised crime from the very bottom. And it is likely to be counted amongst the great gangster movies.

The film, set in the world of the Neapolitan Camorra, views its utterly alien location with a naturalistic, almost documentary eye. Scenes move between the Italian countryside, which contrary to traditional depictions appears scorched and wild, and a hellish accommodation complex, a series of grey cement slabs that resemble what they represent; a massive staircase to nowhere.

Into this world of modernised and organised biblical sin, director Matteo Garrone places five only slightly interlocking stories that represent different elements of the grunt work that make a crime syndicate. The film is based on the book by journalist and co-writer Roberto Saviano, whose writings have earned him a bounty on his head. But even without this information Gomorrah’s sheer style and courage leave you undoubting that these fictional tales are accurate portrayals of real people and real situations.

The stories are as follows: a nervous moneyman begins to fear he is over his head as the clan goes to war around him; a tailor who produces counterfeit high fashion attempts to make extra cash by training the Chinese immigrant workers of a competitor; a business graduate believes he is finally successful until he becomes disillusioned with the recklessness of his toxic waste-burying boss; a 13-year-old becomes indoctrinated into the Comorra but quickly learns that honour and betrayal go hand-in-hand; two teenaged gangster wannabes do their bests to become respected Mafiosi but haven’t the smarts to pull it off.

Together the stories paint a broad picture of the damage the Comorra does. But there are no Don Corleones, no Tony Montanas. These are the soldiers and their victims, those who are not the focus of your average crime drama. Austin Powers joked that no-one cares for the family of a henchman, and indeed it is easy to forget that there are real minds behind the thugs, heavies and moneymen of the world of organised crime. Toto (Salvatore Abruzzese) finally becomes a member of the clan only to find a friend but family rival must become his first victim. Pasquale (Salvatore Cantalupo) begins to find the unknown world of the Chinese fascinating while hiding the fatal secret of his moonlighting. Marco (Marco Macor) and Ciro (Ciro Petrone) find that guns and robberies do not help them get prestige and women, only the wrong end of a gun barrel.

Of all the notes Gomorrah hits however, one strikes a most noteworthy chord. There is something utterly pretentious about the gangster existence; pathetic, even pitiable. The film’s prelude features a hit at a tanning salon, where a group of Mafiosi beatify themselves as best they can, unaware that the undertakers will take care of the rest. Young Toto, when he is not working for his mother or being hazed by gang members (being shot at point blank range while wearing armour, no less), is seen plucking his eyebrows in the mirror, aspiring to an ideal that involves none of the blood and none of the guilt that will follow. Worst of all, poseurs Marco and Ciro re-enact scenes from Brian De Palma’s Scarface – the position of crime boss has been given a legendary status amongst these hopeless youths.

But there is redemption. Pasquale finds beauty in the work that nearly kills him. Roberto (Carmine Paternoster) leaves his boss, who insults him by saying he should “go make pizza”, though Roberto has realised that a status-less job is better than one that would risk losing your very soul.

Gomorrah is a film that utterly refuses to compromise, and deserves all of the accolades that are still coming its way. It features a style of realism that is discomforting in how utterly real it feels, sometimes too much so – the gloss of Bertolucci and Tornatore has been peeled away to reveal a very different Italy to the one we had previously come to know.

It is often shocking, regularly thought-provoking and occasionally shows a strong sense of humour, most memorably when Marco and Ciro find the firearms they have stolen double as grenade-launchers.

The film’s coda places the effects of these localised events on a global scale, but what came before has already been evidence enough that the damage being done is simply too great. Gomorrah tells stories that deserve to be heard.


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