Spring Breakers Review (Paolo Kagaoan)

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Spring Breakers (2012)

Starring Vanessa Hudgens, Rachel Korine, Ashley Benson, Selena Gomez, Heather Morris, James Franco and Gucci Mane

Directed by Harmony Korine

Spring Breakers is a Riefenstahl-esque, Malickian, Skrillex-soundtracked re-imagining of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But instead of ‘uncivilized’ Africa, we have St. Petersburg, Florida, a top destination for our continent’s debt-ridden youth to line themselves up and shake what their gyms have given them. And instead of Marlowe meeting Kurtz it’s four, relatively indistinguishable, infantile coeds going to a beach side concert by Alien (Franco), those five characters serendipitously meeting and re-separating because of the four’s inadvertent self-ingratiation into jail, the marijuana trade, and gang shootings. Spring Breakers benefits from TIFF and SXSW hype, screenings flocked by men who are ‘familiar with arthouse exploitation,’or as Rachel Korine’s character says to sweaty jockstrap-clad fratbros, men who are ‘never gonna get this p***y.’ But can this B-movie indie trash survive mainstream audiences?

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The movie’s notorious for what it shows, half of the critic world already deriding Harmony Korine’s directorial choices. I’m arguing that despite of Korine’s troll-like intentions, the movie intelligently brings up interesting points about contemporary young Western sexual culture. Despite the hype and promises of a poppier movie, this movie still feels as dirty as his earlier stuff. There’s the one-minute t***y montage, this over-stimulation cushioning its supposed sexual impact (but then again I’m not straight so I wouldn’t know). Body parts aren’t the only things that we are bountifully and apathetically bombarded with. Almost every scene begins and ends with a gun cocking or Alien saying the words ‘Sprang brayek,’ the sun sinking down the Gulf of Mexico again and again, every line repeated but reenacted differently. These repetitions aren’t the most enjoyable experience theatrically, but we understand a sense that our four girls want to never forget the longest week of their lives.

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Casting Hudgens, Benson and Gomez is an inspired decision. Maybe I’m talking about their Disney-filled CV’s although that’s not the first conscious thing in my mind. They’re between the ages of 19-24, old enough to go to college, but even if Korine shoots them in an equally exploitative eye, we as the audience still subconsciously feel like they’re dwarfed by everything around them. The three scooter around St. Pete with brazen vulnerability, adding more meaning to a vapid ritual. Korine gives Gomez an easy role as the religiously ambivalent Faith, and as anyone would, she comically evinces discomfort as Alien creepily romances her. Hudgens shows slivers of affection befitting both a cherub and a P***y Riot-masked succubus. Ashley Benson has less to do, since she sometimes looks indistinguishable from Harmony’s non-Disney wife Rachel Korine, but there’s a Central European-esque toughness in her face that hints of a future action starlet if she plays her cards right. And Franco, who played a Disney anti-hero this month, inserts human warmth into a caricature, almost saving the movie when he’s given permission to do so. The five are naturals, letting us have fun watching and listening to them, especially when singing Britney Spears. The singalong almost made me forgive the tedium in between.

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Oz the Great and Powerful Review (Kirk Haviland)

Oz the Great and Powerful Poster

Oz the Great and Powerful 3D (2013)

Starring: James Franco, Mila Kunis, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Zack Braff, Bill Cobbs, Joey King and Tony Cox

Written by Mitchell Kapner and David Lindsay-Abaire based on the works of L. Frank Baum

Directed by Sam Raimi

New in theaters this week from Disney Studios comes the prequel tale based on the legendary Wizard of Oz book and film: Oz the Great and Powerful. The story of how the actual Wizard of Oz ends up in Oz and how he comes to rule is brought to screen by Spider-Man director Sam Raimi complete with his flair for stories grand in scale. So how does Oz the Great and Powerful stack up to the original Wizard of Oz?

When Oscar Diggs (Franco), a travelling circus magician with dubious ethics and results, is hurled away from dusty Kansas to the vibrant Land of Oz, he thinks he’s found his path to fame and fortune. Aboard a hot air balloon Oscar is whisked away in a tornado the same way as Dorothy is after him. After landing in Oz, Oscar meets three witches, Theodora (Kunis), Evanora (Weisz) and Glinda (Williams) who are not convinced he is the great wizard everyone’s been expecting. Reluctantly drawn into the epic problems facing the Land of Oz and its inhabitants, Oscar must find out who is good and who is evil before it is too late. Putting his magical arts to use through illusion, ingenuity and even a bit of wizardry, Oscar transforms himself not only into the great wizard but into a better man as well.

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Oz the Great and Powerful certainly opens brilliantly. As a direct homage to the original Wizard of Oz film, Oz the Great and Powerful opens in a black and white 1:33 format ratio square in the middle of the theater screen (think an old square television that does not feature a widescreen display). The 3D comes into play very nicely here as effects fly off the barriers of the screen and towards the crowd. The opening credit sequence is matched in beauty by the closing sequence, both using and old fashioned puppet show style setting to tread out the names in a brilliant throwback style. Once the film lands in Oz it goes widescreen and color with wondrous results. The effects work is brilliant, the setting  gorgeous and the film as a whole features some the best use of the 3D likely to be seen this year.

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Franco eases into the role of a sleazy con-man/womanizer way too easily, and he seems to be the perfect fit here. His performance marks Oscar as a charming enough rogue that he manages to redeem himself by the end of the film. Mila Kunis is also very good here as Theodora, the younger naive witch sister to  Weisz’s Evanora who falls for Oscar’s charms but when things do not work out the way she hopes she is manipulated and molded into something she is not by her sister. Weisz infuses her character with camp and is clearly acting tongue-in-cheek throughout. Her Evanora comes dangerously close to going too far over the top here as she skates between menacing and laughable. Williams is stuck playing the traditional Glinda the good, and in trying to stay true to the original character’s modest and reserved charm seems to be acting as if she has been constantly slipped a Valium. The majority of the comic relief is left to the very able Zack Braff and newcomer Joey King who both prove to be up to the task.

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The major issue for families, who the film is clearly targeted at, may be the length. At a running time over 2 hours long and with many slower parts to the film devoted to background and character development, the younger set may have a hard time keeping their attention on the screen. Some of the subject matter may be beyond them as well when it comes to the more adult themes presented. The winged henchmen used in the first film are much more menacing and scary this time around as well. That said, older children, especially fans of the Wizard of Oz, should revel in this “Star Wars” prequel trilogy story as the script meticulously sets up all the aspects of the film they have grown up loving.

Filled with brilliant special effects and some effective performances, Oz the Great and Powerful will delight most audiences with its visual excellence. And despite its length being a little overblown with some side stories that can be shortened/excised, the film is a fun trip down the yellow brick road. Oz the Great and Powerful is a recommend.

Till Next Time

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TIFF 2012 – The Iceman Review (Dustin SanVido)

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

The Iceman (2012)

Starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, Chris Evans, David Schwimmer, and James Franco

Written by Morgan Land and Ariel Vromen

Directed by Ariel Vromen


Boy, did I have high expectations for this film. I’m a big fan of true crime stories and I had The Iceman in my festival top ten. The story of Robert Kuklinsky is one that’s interested me for the better part of ten years. Kuklinski was notorious for the killings he carried out over his adult life and lauded by those who worked with him for his innovative ways of disposing of his bodies. His story has a very cinematic quality which I thought could make for an exciting film adaptation if handled by the right filmmaker. As it turns out, Ariel Vromen is as capable as any first time director I’ve seen, but the decisions in the script to abandon certain aspects of his life and over-dramatize others as well as an overall blandness and sterilization of the factual violence that happened in reality severely hinder The Iceman. This coupled with some inexcusably bad performances from actors that have no place in the film leaves this as one of the more disappointing films of the festival.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

The Iceman is the true-life story of Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, one of the most notorious hitmen in the history of the American mafia. The film chronicles the early beginnings of Kuklinski’s adult years, from his time as a sound technician in the adult-film retail distribution business to his rise as a reliable problem-solver for the Gambino crime family, all the while keeping a seemingly squeaky clean image as a loving father who provides for his family as a market trader. I will spare the inclusion of any additional plot breakdown as it would spoil the sole reason to watch this film, and that being the titular character’s story is and remains interesting. Viewers who are unaware of Kuklinski’s history in American crime will find the story interesting and entertaining, but those who know the true story will be frustrated.

The most damning aspect of The Iceman is the script. Important moments in his criminal life are never mentioned. In no single moment is there a sense of terrifying dread that was present in every interview and account of his life I had researched in the past. Aside from one or two total lines of dialogue in the entire film, the subject of the Gambino crime family, even their name, is never mentioned. Characters are the film equivalent of cardboard cut-outs. The murders portrayed are few and far between and are shown in bunches in a series of montages, with the exception of a few. The pacing is severely flawed as any tension that is built dissipates thanks to attempts at creating domestic drama. The filmmakers obviously didn’t care for the family aspect of the story and it’s surprising they went back to it during the one or two times the plot was actually moving smoothly.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

The acting wasn’t as bad, but it was ultimately disappointing and didn’t do the filmmakers any favours. Michael Shannon was an inspired choice to play the titular character, but I feel as though he missed his mark and perhaps just couldn’t fully realize the demands of such a two-sided sociopathic killer. I applaud him for trying because of the appeal of such a role, I just didn’t find him scary at all. For such an imposing character I found his performance rather nonthreatening, however I feel these problems for the most part were due to the script and not the actor. Surprisingly, I really liked Winona Ryder in this film; she plays off of Shannon’s emotions perfectly as his loving wife Deborah Kuklinski. Ray Liotta as Roy Demeo is his usual bad self, doing nothing better or worse than he’s done for the latter part of his career. The rest of the performances are as poorly written as everything else, but what makes them even worse is the inclusion of a group of actors that bring zero to the table and leaves one to wonder why they are even there. First is David Schwimmer as a soldier working under the guidance of Demeo. His performance is awful and is only surpassed in its awfulness by his porn star moustache and the performances of the other two in question. One of those is Chris Evans, who plays Robert Prongue, a fellow killer who befriends Kuklinski. Evans plays his character much like his earlier performance as the dumb jock in Not Another Teen Movie. Lastly we have James Franco, who makes a short cameo, the likes of which have been deservedly chastised by a fellow writer at Entertainment Maven in a review of Aftershock. Portraying Marty the scumbag, his character is only onscreen for a brief time before meeting his end in one of the better moments of this messy film.

Photo from http://www.tiff.net

There isn’t much else to say except that this was a greatly unsatisfying film that had all the elements in hand to tell an interesting and fresh story and were squandered and lost almost solely thanks to poor decisions in the script process. I can only hope the director finds a better script for his next feature, while this is the second straight poor choice for Michael Shannon. I think I just may avoid him until Superman returns to fight him in next year’s The Man of Steel.

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HOT DOCS 2012 (Toronto) – ChickFlicking – Francophrenia (Or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby is) Review (Nadia Sandhu)

HOT DOCS 2012 (Toronto)

Francophrenia (Or: Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby is)

Directed by James Franco and Ian Olds

James Franco.  General Hospital.  James Franco. Three reasons that experimental doc Francophrenia (Or Don’t Kill Me, I Know Where the Baby Is) requires closer examination on ChickFlicking (Full disclosure – I have in fact met James Franco and I have been completely charmed).

Franco is famously busy: film star, soap star, post-graduate student, and artist.  The list goes on and on, so it is no surprise that while filming a stint on General Hospital as the villainous artist and serial killer “Franco”, James Franco thought it would be a great idea to foray into the world of documentary filmmaking.  He hired a three camera crew to follow him on set as he filmed a climactic showdown scene for the soap at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (a setting that was incidentally his own idea).

Everyone has an opinion about James Franco since his memorable stint as Oscar co-host in 2011, and this film goes a long way towards redeeming him in my eyes.  Handing over the raw footage to filmmaker Ian Olds, Franco gave him carte blanche to assemble a story.  Apparently Franco is fascinated by how others perceive and project onto his celebrity persona, whether it is the producers of GH or Ian Olds, and project Olds does.  As Franco stands around looking handsomely intense, Olds creates a narrative using a whispered voice over.  Paranoia. Drugs. Insecurity. Megalomania.  James Franco as Franco as Ian Old’s whispered internal monologue.  It is all here and it is impressive just how far James Franco lets the filmmaker go.

Francophrenia is playing in Toronto as part of Hot Docs, Canadian International Documentary Festival and I counted 11 walk outs before the third chapter had even begun.  This is not a film for everyone, but it is a fascinating look at a  celebrity and marketing genius.

And make no mistake, a marketing machine is what James Franco really is. I have followed his career with great interest, having begun my own foray into showbiz as an entertainment publicist.  Of course James Franco starred in this documentary and of course it is avant garde, and bizarre, and over achieving.

I left the film charmed by James Franco yet again. He can laugh at himself!  He doesn’t take his celebrity seriously!  Another branding coup in a long line of coups that have catapulted James Franco, actor, onto the A-list.

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