Spring Breakers (Harmony Korine, 2013) – “Spring Break…Spriiiing Breaaaak” Became something of a rallying call for all the hipsters and film nerds this year around…well, spring break. We can all thank the perverted mind of Harmony Korine and the eccentric talents of James Franco for that. Their weirdo collaboration seemed to emerge an instant cult hit and while it’s probably a little too slight and specific to the current cultural bubble to have much of a lasting impact, it sure made for a hell of a good sleazy time in the theaters and is a nice way to play some HD booty shots on your Blu-Ray player with minimal guilty sinking feelings.
By Harmony Korine’s standards, Spring Breakers is practically a mainstream movie. For former Barney & Friends star Selena Gomez, perky High School Musical singer Vanessa Hudgens, and James Franco, there could not have been a more surreally twisted career choice. That’s the odd dichotomy of Spring Breakers, a film that walks a curious line between dark underground cult oddity and a trashy ode to sun soaked (stroked, and stoked) college beach party banality. It’s already the widest watched and most easily accessible of Korine’s work, while still offering something to terrify every parent whose child adores the its bubblegum cast. Somehow Korine managed to wiggle himself into the fringes of the pop movie world and brought his anarchistic ‘n’ alienating ways along with him for a curiously entertaining romp about youthful escapism gone psychotically wrong.
Gomez, Hudgens, daytime soap veteran Ashley Benson, and Korine’s own wife Rachel star as a group of college girls from a boring town who want nothing more than to peel their cloths off, do drugs, and party over spring break. Hudgens is goody two-shoes Christian girl Faith and is the voice of reason for the other three girls who rob a seedy diner to pay for their trip.
Girls Gone Wild antics ensue, eventually landing group in a county jail for an out of control coke party That’s the type of behavior that attracts the attention of local sleazeball criminal/wannabe rapper Alien (James Franco in a twisted, hilarious combination of Southern methhead, gangsta, and white rapper posturing). Alien scares off Gomez instantly, but the other girls are seduced by his dreadlocks, neck tattoos, gun collection, and 24-hour-a-day Scarface-watching ways. Soon they decide to become his bikini-clad henchwomen, robbing cash in ski masks and swimsuits, and sleeping in a nightly orgy. It’s certainly an exciting way to kill a spring break and also quite possibly a way to end that vacation in a hail of gunfire.
The film feels more like Larry Clark’s (for whom Korine wrote Kids and Ken Park) Another Day in Paradise than Korine’s usual trailer trash art projects. It’s a good times crime odyssey shot in blown out vibrant colors that dips in and out of sleazy realism and graphic sexuality. The tragically dejected freak show mentality of Gummo is visible only around the edges, but the provocateur clearly gets his kicks out of ripping apart the squeaky clean images of his actors. Gomez gets off lightest as the girl openly uncomfortable with the nasty behavior, while Hudgens and Benson revel in their machine gun roleplay and threesome sequences with joyful abandon. The stunt casting works in the context of cute corrupted college girls, while Franco was a surprisingly ingenious genius choice as the idiotic gangsta. As proved in Pineapple Express, Franco has a knack for surreal comedic characterization and gleefully disappears into the role of a douchebag with a diamond grill and a gun.
Those performances hold up on second viewing, while Korine’s poetry-in-neon aesthetic pops on Blu-ray. With Gaspar Noe’s cinematographer by his side, Korine crafted a beautiful and sickly explosion of color that pops on Blu-ray. The scale might be small, but the visuals are as arresting as any blockbuster and the film has been given an impressive transfer for spinning blue discs that probably cost as much as the entire production. The special feature section isn’t exactly overflowing, but certainly provides plenty of interest for any one interested enough to pick up a disc. First up is an audio commentary from Korine that’s as every bit as eccentric as you’d hope, taking his bizarre comedy surprisingly seriously and delving in detail into some of his strangest ideas like structuring the film like tape loops in sequenced movie (I’m still not sure what he was going for there, but it’s easy to spot when pointed out). Next up is a 20 minutes making-of documentary that is a step above the usual EPK fluff just because the ideas discussed are so bizarre and some of the Disney-est cast members are so clueless.
Rounding things out on the disc are some outtakes, a single deleted scene, a seven minutes discussion about the film’s music, trailers, and a almost an hour worth of featurettes produced by Vice Magazine that you just kind of have to see to believe. Filled with ironic booze, boobs, and booty filled montages, Spring Breakers is a tongue-in-cheek dark crime comedy at its core that will inevitably be misinterpreted by many, but is worth checking out if only to confirm that a movie this odd was actually produced and released on a fairly large scale. If you missed it in theaters, now is the time to play catch up. If you already know, then this is your chance to play the movie on loop live in spring break forever (although if you’re inclined to do that, please stay away from me). (Phil Brown)
Evil Dead (Fede Alvarez, 2013) – For the Comic-Con crowd, The Evil Dead series almost represents the Star Wars trilogy for horror movies. Once the relentless horror remake trend ran out of 70s classics to repeat and slid into the 80s for source material, Evil Deadheads feared that Ash’s antics would be soiled by CGI for a new generation. It was inevitable that this Evil Dead remake would happen and the thankfully the franchise was far from ruined. Fede Alvarez’s Evil Dead might not be as memorable, insane, or entertaining as the original classics, but it at least doesn’t embarrass the brand name. Raimi, Campbell, and Tapart supervised this remake themselves and ensured that it at least feels like part of the family. Against all odds, the 2013 edition of Evil Dead is actually worth a peak for horror fans with reasonable expectations and as an added bonus, Raimi promised to finally take a break from blockbusters to deliver the endlessly awaited Evil Dead 4 if the remake did well at the box office and it did. So, things worked out about as well as possible.
The main flaws of Evil Dead 2.0 are in the plot and characterization. Sure. the drug-withdrawal concept that got the kids to the cabin is ok and none of the actors embarrass themselves. It’s just unnecessary baggage for a movie that isn’t really about anything other than the ride. The added set up only really serves to slow things down and hammer home how irrelevant any sort of backstory is for this type of movie. It’s just slow, dull, and emo. Fortunately, Alvarez is smart enough to know this and the film seemingly forgets all of that material when the possessions start. Once that happens, the actors really come into their own while playing tormented demons and the practical effects crew go crazy spreading gore around. If there are any CGI enhancements in this movie, I couldn’t see them. Nope, all of the tongue slicing, arm-chopping, flesh-biting, and nail-gun slaughter is done with make up effects instead of CGI and the results are pretty spectacular. Quite simply, this is the hardest R-rated Hollywood horror movie in quite some time and it’s a delightful surprise that the MPAA let it pass uncut. Squeamish viewers will have a hard time sitting through the bloodbath that takes up the bulk of the film, yet it never feels like a vomit-inducing endurance test like a Saw movie. As relentless as Alverez’s movie can be, it’s never mean spirited. It’s a carnival ride that will have willing audiences screaming and applauding along until the sky literally rains blood in the finale. I suppose that slots it in with the rest of the Evil Dead family rather nicely.
The remake/reboot/re-whatever-they-call-it-these days arrives on Blu-ray in a very pretty package for anyone who enjoyed the bloodbath on the big screen. Shot slick and digitally, the film is by far the prettiest in HD of the entire series, with Alverez’s appropriately wild camerawork and the goopy, dripping gore popping off the screen. Those who don’t appreciate this type of relentless horror violence will probably be sickened by all the details, but this movie isn’t for them and they won’t be buying the disc anyways. The special features don’t slack either. First up is a commentary with the director, writer, and lead actors that’s very jovial and packed with fond memories of being tortured in blood rain and making friends. It’s a shame commentary expert Bruce Campbell didn’t get involved to spice things up, but you can’t have everything.
Thankfully Campbell does add some sarcasm and insight to the documentary, which like al behind the scenes docs these days is split up into five 10-minute chunks rather than playing out as a 50-minute documentary. It’s frustrating, but that’s the way of the world these days and old fogeys like myself must learn to adjust. The featurettes are all quite good filled with fond/exhausted memories of the shoot, praise for the original, and some fantastic behind the scenes footage like seeing a camera almost smack an actress in the face after a complex shot. It would have been nice for a little more gooey details on some of the big gore gags, but overall it’s hard to complain. Short of providing an hour long version of the movie that removes all of the unnecessary plot, this is probably the best possible Blu-ray that could have been made for Evil Dead. Provided you don’t expect the remake to be as good as the original flicks and can take it on it’s own sadistic terms, Evil Dead works pretty well and it’s always nice to stumble on a remake worth watching. It would be better if Hollywood just stopped remaking horror classics, but that won’t be happening so well-produced and reverential remakes like this are the best we can ask for. (Phil Brown)
The Gatekeepers (Dror Moreh, 2012) – Of the seemingly countless documentaries to emerge on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, Dror Moreh’s The Gatekeepers instantly emerges as one of the best. The filmmaker’s access was unprecedented and while perhaps predictably the film teeters towards a single side of the debate (specifically the Israelis), it in no way skirts the moral ambiguity that surrounds the issue or the war. Moreh managed to talk six members of Israel’s secret and ruthless intelligence agency Shin Bet (which translate to “in service of safety”) to open on up their history for the first time. Why they all chose now to speak and so candidly remains one of the film’s many mysteries when the credits roll. However, to hear them detail the events of the last 45 years so openly and tinged with fear and regret makes for a riveting experiences. More likely than not you’ll come out of the film just as confused and frustrated by the conflict as going in, but at least some minor comfort can be taken in the fact that those directly involved with the war feel the same way.
When Dror first introduces us to his six subjects (Avraham Shalom, Yaakov Peri, Carmi Gillon, Ami Ayalon, Avi Dichter, and Yuval Diskin) they seem old and quaint, but as they speak their tone and demeanor changes dramatically along with the audience’s perceptions. These are the men who have been in charge of Israel’s major covert operations and attacks for decades. Their hands might not always get dirty, but their minds are battle scarred. Brought in to create peace, they’ve been forced to order out horrific acts of violence to stop or retaliate against equality horrific actions from their terrorist counterparts. They all speak of the toll the war has taken on their psyche and how even in a quest for peace they’ve become desensitized to the violence they’ve seen and been responsible for. When the oldest gatekeeper Avraham Shalom is asked about an instance in which a Palestinian bus hijacker was captured and publicly beaten to death, he squirms and struggles to offer justification, eventually chillingly spitting out that morality must be set aside when dealing with terrorists. Yet even there, the obvious discomfort he feels shows that his conscience can never entirely be clean.
The Shin Bet are not part of the military hierarchy. They report directly to the prime minister and while the group is openly connected to the government they are frequently used as scapegoats by politicians in the media. The subjects themselves are far from violent extremists though. Whatever their actions and mistakes, it’s clear over the course of the film that no decision was made lightly. The weight of their responsibility is clearly suffocating and as much as each man wants peace and equal rights for all sides, they know that for the moment violence is simply part of the job. As each major event of the last few decades is detailed, regret and conflicting truths come out of the subjects’ mouths. At times they even seem to feel like monsters, but elsewhere they know what they’ve done is a necessary evil. Simply hearing the decisions they must make on a daily basis is terrifying. When you know that all the members of a terrorist cell will be in one place, do you take advantage of the situation and drop a two ton bomb that will kill them all at once despite civilian casualties or do you drop a quarter ton bomb that could leave everyone alive and motivated to retaliate. There’s really no right or wrong answer and yet one must be chosen. As Avraham Shalom insightfully states near the film’s conclusion, “We may win every battle but lose the war.”
Throughout it all, Dror Moreh crafts his documentary like an Errol Morris picture. The filmmaker is never seen on camera. His subjects take center stage and for the most part he knows that simply letting them speak is as riveting as the film can get. To provide visual variance, Moreh cuts in chilling archival footage as well as reconstructed missile camera and POV soldier footage throughout. Some might find this technique a bit sensationalistic, but for me it felt like a necessary way of reminding the audience the subjects being discussed aren’t just theoretical.
The Gatekeepers is a film guaranteed to get everyone on all sides of the Israeli/Palestinian debate riled up and that’s as it should be. The war is a mess with no clear heroes or villains to slather with blame or praise. While many films may have walked this line before, few have ever gotten so close to those involved with decision process behind the daily toils and battles. Hearing their stories can feel like deposition and confession. The hardest part of the film might simply be knowing that when the cameras shut down these men and their successors went right back to dealing directly with the conflict they found it so difficult to discuss. The Gatekeepers may further grey a complex issue in the minds of its viewers, yet the insights it provides are invaluable.
The Blu-Ray looks and sounds great by documentary standards and comes with a fascinating audio commentary from Moreh, and a supplemental 40 minute Q&A session with the director. (Phil Brown)
The Paperboy (Lee Daniels, 2012) – It’s always better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all, and for what it’s worth, the effort that went into Lee Daniels’ The Paperboy shows all around. A clear attempt to make a heavily stylized piece of late 60s sleaze palatable to a contemporary audience, the film manages a few fleeting moments of success thanks to some great performances, but mostly it fails just by being lifelessly dull for almost the entire middle hour of the film. It’s like switching immediately from a Las Vegas bender to a rainy winter day in the middle of an abandoned field in the prairies.
Teen movie heartthrob Zac Efron takes another spin at acting outside his normal wheelhouse as Jack Jansen, an intensely horny Florida teenager working for his father’s newspaper when his older reporter brother Ward (Matthew McConaughey) comes back to town. With his British accented assistant (David Oyelowo), the three form a Hardy’s Boys styled team that begins looking into the murder of a local sheriff by a local nutjob (John Cusack). Ward isn’t convinced that the man in prison was the guy who iced the lawman, and using the inmate’s sexpot pen pal (Nicole Kidman) as an in to talk to the guy, the crew tried to move one step closer to the truth. Things grow ever more complicated, however, when Jack begins to develop strong sexual desires towards the older woman.
In the first twenty minutes and the last twenty minutes of the film, Daniels really nails the film’s dirty, sweaty, and depraved tone. Watching Efron writhe around in his room in his underwear or Cusack and Kidman engaging in mutual masturbation in a prison in front of a crowd (a far more uncomfortable sequence than the much ballyhooed Kidman urination sequence) are effective ways to acclimate the audience to a film where no one really has any morals left to speak of. Most of the characters are vaguely or openly racist as per the deep south setting, and even the film’s black characters – including Macy Gray as the narrator and the Jansen’s housekeeper – have to put on fronts just to function from day to day in this world. It’s appropriately bleak and button pushing stuff while it lasts.
These are also the sequences that Precious director Daniels seems to get off on. He loves the over the top material and he’s most engaged when he’s acting the naughtiest. The problems here ultimately begin to mount once the film has to actually start talking about the mechanics of the main plot, which is so dull and underdeveloped that’s its hard to care about or discern any significance as that what’s actually going on. The cast and crew don’t really seem to care all that much for this second act, either, making the middle of the film appear somnambulant. The lights are on, but no one’s home. Absolutely nothing that happens in the film plotwise matters or will stick in the viewers mind ten seconds after they watch the film, but no one ever seemed to want to scrap the plot entirely and focus on just making this a character or ensemble piece.
Efron definitely looks to be in over his head here at times, but the casting of pure, virginal looking All American pretty boy had to always be Daniels’ choice from the start regardless of acting talent. His scenes with McConaughey (again giving a solid show in a year full of them for him) hold far more emotional resonance than his work with Kidman, which get carried entirely by the admirably game for anything actress. But even while Efron is somewhat awkward, he’s still better than the unconscionably atonal performance given by Gray, whose narration simply drags the movie kicking and screaming into another level of camp it doesn’t necessarily need. Cusack also comes one step closer to becoming the next Nicolas Cage (following The Raven last year) with a gleefully malicious turn here.
When the film stops caring what people’s moral reactions to the material will be, The Paperboy approaches a level of extremely high camp that works in Daniels’ favour, but it really just stops being interesting early on. Even when Daniels finds ways to inject some subversive and off colour humour into the proceedings, it doesn’t even manage to raise the pulse of the film even slightly despite the best efforts of the cast. There’s a great short film within this one and it’s probably best to remember it as such. Who ever though a movie where Zac Efron gets peed on would be boring? Certainly not everyone involved with this production did.
The video and sound quality are okay, but the film never looked and sounded like a million bucks to begin with. There are some EPK style materials like a making of, a director interview, and some chats with the cast and crew. They don’t really add too much to the package overall. (Andrew Parker)