TIFF 2012 Review: Spring Breakers

Bikini clad Disney girls go off the rails in Spring Breakers, a candy-coloured sledgehammer satire from notorious provocateur Harmony Korine. The story of four sexy college girls who rob a fast food outlet to fund their Spring Break vacation, the presence of tween icons Selena Gomez (Wizards of Waverly Place) and Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) belies the film’s seriously twisted approach, albeit one that’s made immediately evident once the movie begins via an extensive slow motion montage of drunken beachside revellers abandoning dignity along with their clothes. But although Spring Breakers is initially compelling – in Korine’s typically perverse and garish kind of way – its repetitious jabs at teenage hedonism and entitlement soon become grating, as the picture lags into a disappointing second half that, for all its explicit content, is actually kind of dull.

Gomez, in a good indication of the level of subtly on which Spring Breakers is operating, plays a devout Christian youth group member named “Faith”, who’s roped into the schemes of her three reckless friends, played by Hudgens, Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) and the directors young wife Rachel (Mister Lonely). After holding up a fried chicken shack the foursome hightail it down to Miami for a chaotic week of drinking, gyrating and drug abusing. But the paradise they seek soon collapses in on itself, as the girls turn to increasingly desperate and more disturbing means to make their Spring Break dreams last forever.

After Korine shot his last film, the aptly named Trash Humpers, on worn VHS tape, Spring Breakers looks like the work of a completely different director. Glossy and gaudy, the film is a slick production lit up by neon pinks, yellows and turquoises that seem to pulsate along with the soundtrack (a skull thumping mix of Skrillex and Cliff Martinez). Even in the early sequences of the film, before things go south, scene changes and edits are accompanied by the sounds of guns being loaded, contributing to an intense, suffocating feeling that violence lurks just around the corner.

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First trailer for Steven Soderbergh’s Magic Mike

The ultimate filmmaking chameleon, in the past five years alone Steven Soderbergh has directed an action infused spy thriller, a globespanning medical disaster movie, a seventies-set comedy about corporate corruption, an experimental drama starring a hard-core pornstar, a four hour Che Guevara biopic, and a documentary about Spalding Gray. What’s the next logical step in that sequence, you ask? Clearly, it’s a comedy about male strippers starring Channing Tatum, Matthew McConaughey and that awful actor from Stormbreaker and I Am Number Four:

Okay so the trailer’s not great…in fact it’s pretty abysmal. Hopefully it goes without saying that I would have no interest in this film if it weren’t for Soderbergh’s involvement. Still, after Haywire and 21 Jump Street, I will admit that I’m starting to find Channing Tatum’s awkward mumbliness kind of endearing. And in Steven we trust…

Thoughts?

Review: A Separation

It’s hard to imagine that I’ll see many other films this year as morally complex or achingly real as Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. Winner of Best Picture Awards at numerous international film festivals including Sydney, Berlin and Fajr in its native Iran, as well as the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, the film is an intimate drama about conflict within and between two families of vastly different social and economic standings. Superbly written, acted and directed, the film is understated, poignant and captivating from scene one, and weaves a tale of sublime tragedy that grips you with the greatest of ease.

To reveal too much about the story would be a disservice to the film, one where the plot is progressively revealed over a series of sombre twists and turns. The film begins with Nadir and Simin (Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami), a married couple arguing furiously in the presence of a judge. The wife wishes to leave Iran and take their daughter (Sarina Farhadi) with her, while the husband, the only caretaker of his invalid father, feels morally obligated to stay. When the judge refuses to grant them a divorce, the wife moves back in with her mother, forcing the husband a hire caretaker maid, a deeply religious woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) who is often at the mercy of her own angry, unemployed husband Hodjat (Shahab Hosseini). Soon afterward, a terrible misfortune strikes, embroiling all parties in a legal battle that threatens to drive both families further apart.

Every aspect of A Separation is perfectly handled by writer/director Asghar Farhadi, who creates family dynamics and scenarios that feel completely true to life. The dialogue rattles back and forth across living rooms and in the offices of over-worked judges, as victims and witnesses tell their own version of what exactly caused the catalysing tragedy. In between these rapid fire exchanges are scenes between husbands and wives, parents and daughters, which brim with restrained, believable emotion and never once push over into melodrama. The cinematography is likewise wonderfully controlled, never obtruding, slowly drawing audiences in to the gradually unfolding drama.

All of the performances in the film are subtle but memorable; each actor brings to life a character with their own personal motivations, hopes and reasons to be dishonest. Without a clear understanding as to the exact truth of the matter – if there even is such a thing as an objective truth – the audience is forced to draw their own assumptions as to where their sympathies lies; which people they believe and what consequences should befall them. Some viewers may side heavily with one family or the other, while others sill conclude that there are no criminals, only victims, in this heartbreaking and unlucky affair. For Western audiences, the film also documents – without overtly critiquing – the role of religion, and the power dynamics between men and women, in contemporary Iranian society.

Even when an answer and a judgement are eventually delivered, there is no definitive outcome to A Separation, as each character must live on with the guilt and justifications of what they did, did not or may not have done. For audiences, the film is an ethical and emotional drama that will stay with you for days. A masterpiece of intimate, dramatic filmmaking; an absolute must see.

Teaser Trailer: Game of Thrones Season 2

Given that even the worst episode of the first season of Game of Thrones was better than most movies I saw last year, I felt compelled to post this. Having powered through all five of George R.R. Martin’s book during my recent overseas holiday (they’re awesome), it’s going to be interesting to see whether they have the money to convincingly bring to life all the battle scenes of the second book (which takes a huge step up from the first, action-wise). Assuming they pull it off though, we should be in for a pretty great year of TV.

Game of Thrones Season 2 kicks off on HBO on April 1st

Review: Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol

Although far from seminal, there are a few Hollywood franchises I enjoy more than the Mission Impossible series. Laden with spectacular stunts and driven by a Lalo Schifrin’s sensational main theme, each film bears the unique stylistic stamp of the director at the helm – Brian De Palma (Scarface) for the original, John Woo (Face/Off) and J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) for the sequels – while at the same time succeeding as fun, fast paced action movies guaranteed to excite and entertain. Most recently, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol sees another new filmmaker take the reins: The Incredibles director Brad Bird, in his very first live-action film. And while the plot may be slapdash and characterizations frequently feeble, this new mission once again delivers what audiences really want: ambitious, gripping, fantastically conceived action.

Ghost Protocol kicks off with IMF agents Jane Carter (Paula Patton; Precious) and Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg; Paul) breaking team leader Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) out a Russian prison so that the three of them might infiltrate the Kremlin and recover files that will help them identify a criminal known only as Cobalt (Michael Nyqvist; Abduction) who is bent on instigating a nuclear war. But the mission is soon revealed to be a set-up, and after a bomb destroys a large part of the Russian presidential complex, Hunt and his team, as well as the mysterious Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner; The Hurt Locker) find themselves labelled as terrorists, disavowed by their agency, and with no choice but to clear their names by whatever means they can.
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Review: Johnny English Reborn

After foiling a plot to seize the British crown in his first self-titled movie outing, incompetent British secret agent Johnny English is back, and must now prevent the assassination of the Chinese premier, in the expectedly silly but thoroughly entertaining Johnny English Reborn. Treading much the same ground as the 2003 original, the sequel film combines James Bond spoofing with utterly predictable physical humour, yet thanks to the vaudevillian talents of leading man Rowan Atkinson, it does so in a way that translates as amusing rather than gratingly annoying. That there is not a single poo joke, talking animal or cross-dressing celebrity to be found in Johnny English Reborn already sets it apart from a large majority of recent American family comedies. That it is genuinely funny seems almost like an added bonus.

Don’t get me wrong – this film is far from high brow, and in fact, most of the humour involves someone accidentally getting hurt, usually as a direct result of the protagonist’s overconfidence, stupidity, or in most cases both. But while there are crotch-hits aplenty, director Oliver Parker rarely plumbs the ultra-low depths of films like Grown Ups or Zookeeper. Instead, he sets up his visual gags minutes in advance, and let audiences laugh in the knowledge that they know the outcome of the joke long before English even realises how badly he’s stuffed things up.

Much of the films success must be attributed to leading man Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean, Rat Race), whose talent for facial contortionism, over-the-top physicality and comedic line delivery ensures that there is an endearing quality to English’s ineptitude, making him a hero we can root for in spite of – or perhaps, because of – his buffoonery. The rest of the cast don’t really have much to do beyond reacting to English’s latest cock-up, but Gillian Anderson (The X-Files), Dominic West (The Wire) and Rosamund Pike (Die Another Day – once a Bond girl herself, now falling for a very different kind of secret agent) are fun in their mostly straight faced roles. Special mention must also be given to Daniel Kaluuya (Skins), whose performance as English’s bright eyed young sidekick Agent Tucker is filled with charming enthusiasm.

And lest you be mislead, it should be pointed out that there are at least one or two moments in Johnny English Reborn that qualify as legitimately clever. A Hong Kong chase sequence goofily parodies the recent trend seen in films like Casino Royale and The Bourne Ultimatum of utilizing parkour is action scenes, while a hilarious nod to corporate sponsorship and movie product placement sees the British Intelligence Service rechristened as the Toshiba British Intelligence Service.

Ultimately Johnny English Reborn is more “silly” than it is “dumb”. It’s a PG film that doesn’t insult the viewer’s intelligence, but rather credits them for being so much smarter than the bumbling fool they are watching on screen. And sitting in the theatre beforehand, witnessing trailers for the likes of Jack and Jill, Spy Kids 4D and Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (don’t worry, I’d never heard of it either), it seems that in the realm of family comedies, not insulting your audience is becoming an increasingly rare thing.

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

In a bleak and haunting prologue, the once joyful students of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry are marched through the grey courtyard like prisoners in a concentration camp. Darkness has fallen, and the wondrousness and magic of the castle has all but disappeared. Then the title card floats through the clouds, along with a sombre musical cue, as director David Yates draws us back into the world of Harry Potter for the very last time. It is the final act of a final chapter; a magnificently dark and ambitious conclusion to a cultural, literary and cinematic phenomenon. In that regard, despite proving the mistake of splitting the series’ final book in two, this final Harry Potter film is an undeniable success. Who could have predicted that when Joanna Rowling put pen to paper more than fifteen years ago that this would have been the end result? Grand; dark; exciting; heroic – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a spectacular piece of epic fantasy more than worthy of the legacy of its creator and the hopes and expectations of its fans.

The film picks up directly where the last one left off: with Ron, Harry and Hermione on a mission to destroy the remaining fragments of Lord Voldemort’s soul. As such, rewatching Part 1 is essential before viewing Part 2. This is not a standalone film or even a sequel. Rather, it is the second half of a single movie, one that for reasons of running time and profitability was separated into two. Unfortunately, while this decision gave Yates and company the chance to fit more content in, it has come at quite a cost. Deathly Hallows is more heavily steeped in Potter mythology than any of the other films, and as a result less diehard viewers may find themselves confused by the frequent references to earlier events or unseen characters. But beyond that, Hallows Part 2 is also missing a lot of the character nuances that have been the strongest part of the franchise since Yates took over with Order of the Pheonix. In his hands, Ron and Hermione especially have gone from sidekicks to fully fleshed-out human beings. But here, the non-stop action of the film comes primarily at their expense.
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Review: The Tree of Life

[Published with the hope of generating some more discussion on what has generally been an extremely well received film. Please, be gentle]

Five acclaimed films in four long decades ensure that any new movie by reclusive director Terrence Malick is sure to cause a stir on the arthouse circuit. The Tree of Life is his latest effort, a film dominated by images of breathtaking natural beauty on a scale ranging from the intimate to the unfathomably vast. Yet these sumptuous visuals bear no tangible connection whatsoever to what could, at best, be described as the tantalizing hint of a compelling narrative. Simultaneously, over the entire film hangs a murky false profundity; an inescapable pompousness meant to convince audiences that the film is somehow important, and that one day they might get to understand why. But no one can understand The Tree of Life, because it is not a work that is designed to be understood. It is a collection of vacant and unrelated images of no importance as part of a greater whole; a briefly impressive but soon agonizingly dull film that refuses to engage its audience, and is made all the more disappointing by its fleeting flashes of brilliance.

The Tree of Life opens with a biblical quote, a sure fire sign that any film will be just brimming with self-importance. After a brief and promising prologue, the movie launches into an extended and wholly unnecessary sequence that depicts the birth of the universe and planet earth, complete with swelling orchestras, CGI dinosaurs and the hushed voices of various narrators who ask existential questions that the film will make no attempt to address. Shifting temporarily back into semi-lucidity, the film then presents a series of memories, mostly from the perspective of Jack O’Brien, an adolescent boy living in suburban Texas in the 1950s with his domineering father (Brad Pitt), kind hearted mother (Jessica Chastain) and two younger brothers. Scattered throughout these memories are sequences of a now adult Jack (Sean Penn), a man who seems to drift through his modern life without purpose or direction.
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Review: The Hangover Part II

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. That seems to be the philosophy of director Todd Phillips, whose sequel to the box office comedy smash The Hangover doesn’t so much try to replicate the magic of the first film as it does try to replicate everything about the first film. The setting has changed from the neon strip of Las Vegas to the filthy streets of Bangkok, but the premise nonetheless remains ridiculously similar: Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) wake up in a state of dishevelment with no memory of the night before, and are once again forced to piece together the increasingly crazy pieces of their drunkenness and debauchery in order to find a missing friend. Unfortunately but not unexpectedly, be it the because the characters are less likeable, the jokes not as well written, or simply because the very idea of a The Hangover Part II is just so implausible, this darker, dirtier, nastier follow up, although still generally funny, does not hold a candle to its predecessor.

In this day and age it must come as little surprise that The Hangover, a massive success with audiences, critics and studio accountants alike, has been the recipient of the sequel treatment. Likewise, few will be shocked to hear that the film is in many ways an uncreative retread of the first movie, one that tries to give the audiences the same stuff they enjoyed the last time out. This time it’s the mild mannered Stu who’s tying the knot, a plot necessity that takes the form of a beautiful Asian American woman (Jamie Chung) whose father despises Stu and insists on holding the wedding in his native Thailand. A few drinks on a resort beach later and you know the drill: Phil, Alan and Stu wake up in the middle of Bangkok, with only a flamboyant Chinese gangster, a denim wearing monkey and the severed index finger of Teddy, Stu’s sixteen year old soon-to-be-brother-in-law, as clues to what the hell they got up to the night before.
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Martin McDonagh to direct “Seven Psychopaths” with Farrell, Walken, Rockwell & Rourke

The writer/director of In Bruges will reteam with Colin Farrell, along with Sam Rockwell, Mickey Rourke and Christopher Walken for his sophomore film effort, entitled “Seven Psychopaths“.

Martin McDonagh (pictured above), the award winning Irish playwright behind The Pillowman and the Oscar winning shot film Six Shooter, made his feature film debut in 2008 with In Bruges, an extraordinarily black dramedy about two hit-men (played by Brendan Gleeson and Colin Farrell, the latter of whom picked up a Golden Globe for his efforts) on vacation in the medieval Belgian town of Bruges.

His follow-up film will, according to Variety, revolve around “a screenwriter (Farrell) struggling for inspiration for his script, “Seven Psychopaths,” who gets drawn into the dog kidnapping schemes of his oddball friends (Rockwell and Walken). Things take a turn for the worse when a gangster’s (Rourke) mutt goes missing.”

No word on what the tone of the film will be as of yet, although from the sound of things it’ll share quite a bit in common with the rest of his work; a combination of morbid and absurdist comedy with the occasional heavy dramatic element…and plenty of foul language. His most recent play, A Behanding in Spokane, was recently performed on Broadway with Rockwell and Walken in the cast, so like Farrell they’ll be no stranger to delivering the playwrights dialogue. I recently saw Behanding performed at the Melbourne Theatre Company (not with the same cast, unfortunately), and while it wasn’t as emotionally resonant as In Bruges, it was certainly just as funny, and makes me all the more interested in McDonagh’s next film.

Thoughts, anyone? What’d you think of In Bruges? Excited to see such McDonagh working with such a talented cast?