Archive for March, 2013

Spring Breakers

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Movie review by Greg Carlson

Hard to believe that Harmony Korine, the puckish provocateur who counts among his influences Cassavetes, Herzog, Lynch, Malick, and von Trier, is already forty years of age. At the time not much older than the members of the doom generation culture he depicted when his screenplay for Larry Clark’s “Kids” was produced in 1995, Korine has pushed buttons and tested limits from “Gummo” to “Trash Humpers,” remaining an eternally youthful agitator whose gift for troublemaking almost eclipses his talents as an auteur. While “Spring Breakers” at first seems like an unorthodox choice for the man whose unreleased projects include a documentary series of self-incited street altercations called “Fight Harm,” closer examination of the weirdly hypnotic new feature feels entirely of a piece with Korine’s oeuvre.

It’s highly unlikely that “Spring Breakers” would have received as much mainstream attention had Korine not persuaded former Disney-affiliated pop princesses Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens to engage in lurid physical displays in part designed to set ablaze existing “good girl” statuses. An obligation to spend nearly every onscreen moment dressed in bikini or less appears to be a contractual prerequisite for the primary quartet (Gomez and Hudgens are joined by Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine), a group of young women almost inexplicably desperate to make the pilgrimage to the sunny beaches of Florida.

Following a night of debauchery that lands our protagonists in jail, James Franco’s Alien (“Look at my shit!”), a posturing hustler whose cornrows compete with his glittering grill for most outrageous affectation, posts bail and forms an unwholesome attachment to the vacationers. Franco’s loopy, wannabe kingpin/pimp reframes the action and the game performer holds little if anything back in an oily tour de force, fellating gun barrels and covering Britney Spears’ “Everytime” with equal diligence and purpose. The individuation of Alien stands in stark contrast to the faceless interchangeability of the protagonists (only Gomez’s Faith, by virtue of her nervous apprehension, is made distinct from the other women).

Alien’s self-constructed identity highlights one of the thorniest issues at play in “Spring Breakers,” and both Richard Brody in “The New Yorker” and Aisha Harris in “Slate” build their challenging critiques around perceptions of Korine’s failure to address race with the same level of skill he applies to the other targets of his mockery. Harris argues that Korine “[reproduces] a racist vision of the world in which black lives matter less than white ones” and Brody invokes Mailer’s “The White Negro” along with suggesting that Korine holds a “stereotypical and reductive view of black life as one of drug dealing and gang violence.”

“Spring Breakers” resembles Korine’s previous work in that the presentation conflates satire and spectacle. The cocktail allows the film to operate like a drug-resistant superbug that resolutely masks the director’s clearest intent. The religious might bristle at Korine’s comfort with Faith’s ability to toggle between devotion and the pursuit of pleasure, but the straightforward presentation of her values, magnified by the character’s later exit from the circus, feels earnest and without condescension. Part of me kept waiting for her to come back.

According to Josh Eells in “Rolling Stone,” Korine uses the term “post-articulation” as a way to describe “Spring Breakers.” The movie’s ambitious editing, photography, score, and mise en scene combine to replicate the discombobulated swoon of a powerful, hallucinatory trip. The jumbled chronology, visual rhymes and repetitions, and looped fragments of dialogue embrace the glitches and abstractions that favor emotion and mood over logic and reason. The director’s ironic application of this strain of metafictive technique shields Korine from a certain kind of judgment, whether “Spring Breakers” merits it or not.

The Call

Monday, March 18th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

Fleet, confident, and cognizant of its genre obligations, “The Call” is a surprisingly effective white-knuckle kidnapping thriller. Showcasing Halle Berry in what seems like her first decent role in ages, director Brad Anderson’s nerve-rattling exercise in split-second decision making owes its most significant debts to Alfred Hitchcock, who might have enjoyed the high-concept series of problems to solve and would probably have excused a few of the film’s lapses in narrative logic. Hitchcock’s own movies often incorporated the kind of unbelievable coincidence dispatched to pump the narrative adrenaline of “The Call.”

Berry’s Jordan Turner is a seasoned LA 911 operator who works in “The Hive,” a sophisticated, high-tech call center that serves as the nexus between all manner of trouble and the first responders routed to assist. While the impressive set design imagines a state-of-the-art mission control, “The Call” economically establishes the stressful climate where highly trained dispatchers are always just one click away from unspeakable mayhem. The Russian roulette nature of emergency services means that some calls will not end well. One day, during a home invasion crisis, Jordan arguably makes a mistake that costs a young woman her life.

One of the chief pleasures of “The Call” is the number of refreshingly egalitarian depictions of work and other relationships involving women. The filmmakers credited with the story, Jon Bokenkamp and spouses Richard and Nicole D’Ovidio, deliberately opted for a female lead after Ms. D’Ovidio heard a National Public Radio story on the topic of 911 calls. The movie’s core relationship develops (largely in real time) between Jordan and Abigail Breslin’s Casey Welson, the abducted teenager taken by the same perpetrator involved in Jordan’s fateful earlier call. While “The Call” does subject Breslin’s character to a lurid bondage display, the film’s sensibilities are far less offensive than the casual sexism of the weekend’s other studio release, “The Incredible Burt Wonderstone.”

“The Call” loses much of its momentum once the bad guy arrives at his hideout destination with Casey. The previously taut script abruptly shifts attention to the murderer’s elaborate preparations in a plot device that thieves from “Psycho” and “The Silence of the Lambs.” This misstep is a common variation on the “Fallacy of the Talking Killer,” identified by Roger Ebert as the trope facilitating the rescue of the imperiled by a pokey, unhurried villain who messes around just long enough for help to arrive. Additionally, the audience is asked to believe that level-headed Jordan would fail to contact Officer Paul, her caring, on-the-case boyfriend played by Morris Chestnut, en route to the creepy, isolated location where her gut tells her Casey is imprisoned.

While Jordan’s brand of last act derring-do nearly functions as a kind of stylistic requirement ala “heroine confronts monster all by herself,” the denouement adds a wild rape-revenge comeuppance initiated by traumatized Casey (possible, if not plausible) and participated in by Jordan (logically suspect and wholly out of character). This coda is far and away the movie’s riskiest gambit, and some viewers will reject the farfetched turn of events that functions in practically every way like a violation of tone in the movie’s previously established universe.

Oz the Great and Powerful

Monday, March 11th, 2013

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Movie review by Greg Carlson

While the comparisons are as inevitable as they may or may not be unfair, Sam Raimi’s “Oz the Great and Powerful,” like any Emerald City media post-dating the 1939 musical film, will try and fail to match the transcendent, resplendent sights and sounds of what is surely one of the most beloved motion pictures ever imagined. Plenty of other entries exploring aspects of or paying homage to the Baum canon have come and gone, including the author’s own trio of shorts that appeared in 1914 and 1915. None of them, from “The Wiz” to “Return to Oz” to “Wild at Heart,” has managed to put a dent in the indestructible armor of MGM’s “Technicolor triumph.”

As the title magician of this so-called prequel, James Franco has been both praised and denounced for his performance. Whether you find his womanizing charlatan Oscar Diggs redeemable and endearing or self-conscious and ineffective, one of the glaring losses to the franchise is the lack of a female protagonist. As played by Judy Garland, Dorothy Gale’s richness of character is communicated through a delicate balance of tenacity, courage, and endangered innocence. By comparison, the grown-up Oscar’s parallel odyssey pales. “Oz the Great and Powerful” is not without a trio of outwardly powerful females, but the script’s thudding repetitiveness demolishes any sustained interest in Rachel Weisz’s Evanora (the likely Wicked Witch of the East) and Michelle Williams’ Glinda, whose function as Diggs’ love interest is ill-advised.

Mila Kunis’ physical attractiveness contributes to one of the film’s only operative casting surprises given her not-so-secret metamorphosis, but the performer is given shockingly little of importance to do. By the time the smoke clears, you’ll be pining hard for Garland, Frank Morgan, Margaret Hamilton, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Billie Burke. The human beings in the new movie are overshadowed by the high-gloss polish of the CG environments, suggesting that “Oz the Great and Powerful” is as much an animated movie as it is a live action one. In terms of visual style, though not narrative exposition, the monochrome Academy ratio prologue outstrips any of the saturated baloney that transpires once we arrive in Oz.

One of the insurmountable problems presented by “Oz the Great and Powerful” occurs in the personae of substandard characters who join the future wizard on the Yellow Brick Road. Zach Braff’s Finley, a painfully dull flying monkey who engages in interminable scenes of malfunctioning chitchat, competes with Joey King’s China Girl for the title of least welcome new sidekick. Others, including Bill Cobbs and Tony Cox, are so poorly realized and saddled with such half-witted inanities, you can’t help but feel embarrassed for them as they spit out David Lindsay-Abaire and Mitchell Kapner’s lousy dialogue.

Plot parallels to “Army of Darkness” and especially the science-embracing “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” climax aside, “Oz the Great and Powerful” feels scrubbed free of any of the subversive intelligence that got Raimi noticed in the first place. Sure, being given the keys to a cherished property governed by the strict control of a corporate parent assumes the likelihood of a steam-pressed, machine-tooled entertainment by executive committee, but next to Raimi’s previous feature “Drag Me to Hell,” the sterile, imitation “Oz” is never breathless but always out of breath.

Interview with Hal Hartley

Monday, March 4th, 2013

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Interview by Greg Carlson

Filmmaker Hal Hartley will be in Fargo on Wednesday evening, March 6 to screen his most recent feature “Meanwhile” as well as thirty minutes of additional, specially selected material. Hartley will accept the Ted M. Larson Award from the Fargo Film Festival following the screenings and engage in an on-stage conversation. The event begins at 7pm at the Fargo Theatre and tickets are available at the door.

 

“Meanwhile” places its protagonist in a New York City that appears to be mutating and changing through busy construction and enterprise of all kinds. How does NYC compare to Berlin, where you lived for several years?

It’s about speed. Berlin mutates very slowly, NYC by the day! Part of the irony of Joe’s story is that these brief easy generous encounters he has happen in a city that is perfectly unsentimental. There is no point in becoming fond of a certain street or a cafe or a group of shops. They’ll be gone in a decade.

Even the kinds of people one would, say in Berlin, associate with a certain neighborhood… That happens less and less in New York. It’s in constant flux. But kindness does happen. Easy selfless interaction between strangers. It’s odd.

 

In “Meanwhile,” Joe Fulton seems to spend a great deal of his time helping others, even at his own expense. Is Joe a genuine altruist?

DJ Mendel (who plays Joe) and I never discussed Joe’s altruism. In fact, we found it more helpful to think of his willingness and ability to help others as some kind of “defect.” Some kind of obsessive compulsive disorder.

He’s a can-do guy, a born fixer, but he has trouble prioritizing his efforts. He can’t keep himself from fixing something if it is broken. Anyway, if Joe is an altruist, he doesn’t know it. We knew we were creating a character who is very unusual this way.

 

Where does altruism fit in a society accelerated by and in the grip of the solipsism fostered by handheld electronics, smart-phones and social media?

Again, I don’t know if I can call it altruism if it is, on Joe’s part, unconscious. But we found comedy in the fact that this perfectly honest and forthright man would be (to the police, for instance) suspicious for being forthright, not calculated and perfectly transparent. But Joe would certainly seem to challenge solipsism. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge a boundary between himself and others.

I think it is worth pointing out that I have been taken to task by some younger journalists in the mainstream entertainment press for being “dogmatic” in this film. I find that really interesting. I can only guess they take umbrage with Joe’s impatience with a young girl’s histrionic suicide appeal. Or maybe it is Joe’s never complaining about his own plight?

 

As we spend time with Joe, there is little outward difference between his public and his private behavior. His basic decency raises as many questions as it answers. To what extent is Joe designed to be presented to the viewer as “what you see is what you get”?

Yes, I’m not a big one for subtext. Joe’s complexities are there to be seen for what they are, contradictions, even, that become meaningful, if not perfectly analyzed, as he moves through his day.

 

I understand that at one point, “Meanwhile” might have been an ongoing series. It occurred to me during the movie that so many of the people encountered by Joe – like Danielle Meyer’s Wendy, Chelsea Crowe’s woman on the bridge, and Penelope Lagos’ Tuesday – invite all sorts of intriguing possibilities. Do you think about or construct inner lives for all these characters? Or is the mystery more appealing?

I myself do construct all sorts of inner lives for the characters. And I imagine possible further interaction between the characters. It starts in the writing but once I cast a role the personality and the manner of the actor suggest things too.

For instance, Penelope’s sharp, concise, ultra efficient manner as she first read for Tuesday gave me and her the idea that, though she distrusts Joe, she is intrigued by him too. If I had gone on to make a series there would have been a love affair going on there at some point.

 

Joe never meets Tuesday in person, but the audience is allowed the privilege of seeing that she has taken the time to read his substantial, unpublished book. Books are often present in your work as a very particular mode of communication distinct from face-to-face, interpersonal interaction. What is special to you about the printed word?

People reflect more when they read. More so than when they watch movies, I think. And in most cases more than when they are talking to each other. Though, of course, there are exceptions.

 

Do you spend more time reading books or watching movies?

Reading books.

 

You have often mentioned Terrence Malick as a filmmaker whose work you admire. What recent films and filmmakers earn your recommendation?

I don’t watch films until they have been out for two years and all the silliness and hype are over and forgotten. That said, of course, Malick, the films of Kelly Reichardt: “Old Joy” and “Wendy and Lucy.” Olivier Assayas’ “Carlos” miniseries… Godard’s “Film Socialisme,” a great little film called “Exit Elena,” by a young man from Brooklyn called Nathan Silver…