Wednesday, July 31, 2013

250 Words or Less: Spring Breakers (2013)

Every year there's a film that, for whatever reason (usually the stars), gets mainstream attention even though it's essentially a festival film. So when Harmony Korine's latest caught a wave of notoriety in American theaters after playing Venice, it could almost be taken as a prank: a film that looks like a crime romp where maybe, just maybe, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens will make out, but really is an elliptical, self-reflexive nightmare of warped American values. But as the film entered its second half, two thoughts came to mind. First, the iconography of the all-American spring break doesn't need to be appropriated and exaggerated by provocateurs—actual footage on MTV is far scarier than Korine's film. And second, the intersection of our economic system, popular culture, and moral decrepitude has been examined better by artists subtle enough to not use guns as penises or name the religious character "Faith". But if better writing could help ward off the aire of obviousness, the film's point is made effectively by style: the bright pastels and trance-like editing are intoxicating (history written in neon), and the emphasis on appearances over psychology is a message in and of itself. What I walked away with most is that the Scarface theme is now played out. A more unsettling story, possibly hinted at by Korine, isn't that hard-partying college students who want to continue their materialist dream end up as violent criminals; it's that they end up in white-collar jobs. Now that would be creepy.  

3 out of 5 stars.

Spring Breakers is now out on DVD.  It's really not that shocking.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

250 Words or Less: The East (2013)

My love of scrappy outsiders who break into the American film industry through the back window has led to me following the films of Brit Marling probably out of proportion with their actual quality. For those who don't know, Marling was one of Hollywood's many disregarded aspiring actresses until she got fed up with the lower rungs and decided to create opportunities for herself, writing and starring in a series of indie-budget-friendly sci-fi films (Another Earth, Sound of My Voice) that all have imaginative concepts and problematic third acts. She's a compelling figure in the post-Darko Sundance-scape, and this, her latest film, even attracted the financial backing of Tony and Ridley Scott. But like the rest of her films, it feels both promising and unfinished: key sections near end are tin-earred or overplayed—I'm not sure she realizes how silly some of it is—and she has a habit of throwing in late-movie sex scenes that are neither necessary nor convincing. I'm still waiting for a really good movie from her. For the sake of scrappy outsiders everywhere, I'm sure she has it in her. 

2 out of 5 stars. 

The East is currently playing in select theaters and enjoying a long run at that one arthouse in Palo Alto.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

250 Words or Less: Upstream Color (2013)

No, I didn't really understand the end of Shane Carruth's Primer, but I'll go on record and say that I don't think it needs to be understood—the physical mechanics of its overlapping time-travel narrative (who did what, and when) aren't nearly as important as the dark and delirious feeling of the main character going insane. Essentially, it's a puzzle film where you're intrigued by the gamer as much as the game. Tone and psychology are given even more emphasis—hell, almost all the emphasis—in this, Carruth's long-awaited second film, which conjures a remarkable atmosphere on consumer-grade equipment and resembles nothing so much as a suburban sci-fi geek's version of Eraserhead, Marienbad, or (gulp) Tree of Life. Formally, it's a triumph, edited with such exactitude and uncanny repetition that a detail has just enough time to register before the story moves on then loops back, leaving you wondering how all the details fit. And how do they all fit? Well, it's something about love, and memory, and god, and life, and growing older, and isolation, and other heady hard-sci-fi ideas. It undoubtedly reaches for more than it delivers, and casting himself as the male lead was an inexpressive mistake on the director's part. But this is such an intriguing and well-crafted film—truly "independent" in a way that few notable Sundance films are these days—that I'll still be turning it over in my mind long after cleaner, neater, tighter films have floated away.

4 out of 5 stars.

Upstream Color is now available on Netflix Instant.  Watch it late at night, with headphones.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

250 Words or Less: The Bling Ring (2013)

Befitting its style and attitude, there's an in-joke in The Bling Ring before the opening credits are even over. As the titles roll, the camera pans over a table of tacky, gilded accessories, and Sofia Coppola's credit comes just as a necklace that says "Rich Bitch" is in the center of the screen—a graphical placement that essentially reads, from left to right, "written and directed by rich bitch Sofia Coppola." It's an acknowledgement that Coppola, a lifelong Hollywood insider, is very much a part of the very system she's about to satirize, and this nod to insiderism, especially for a story about outsiders squeezing through the back door, works very much to the film's advantage.  Because while a film like The Social Network can't shake off Aaron Sorkin's "those damn kids" attitude towards the age of digital media, The Bling Ring has sympathy for its lost young people who gaze longingly at fame and access.  That's not to say the film approves of their actions—stories with morals are so old-fashioned—but it understands where they get it from, giving the film an approach where huge photos on nightclub walls and songs playing on the radio rise above props and coloration to become as significant as any "real" person on screen. The chief drawback is that the female ring-members are treated more as fashion icons and butts-of-jokes (miniature Paris Hiltons of their own?) than as psychological human beings, which is at first a potent statement, but becomes more and more of a liability as the story ends on the most obvious note in the whole film.

4 out of 5 stars.

The Bling Ring is now in theaters, having crossed over from limited release to multiplexes.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

250 Words or Less: Behind the Candelabra (2013)

A sequined Santa hat, a slot machine in a living room, pigs-in-a-blanket served on a silver platter, Matt Damon's thong tan-line, Gordon Gekko and Jason Bourne sharing a hot tub—Steven Soderbergh's latest (and reportedly last) film is a sharp vision of American mass culture gone wild, which befits the ironic story of a closeted gay man who spent a career turning his wildest instincts into entertainment for an unwitting hetero audience.  It's a cheeky show biz satire and a very twisted "love story", where genuine love gets so enmeshed with other motives (money, sex, celebrity, emotional codependence) that it's magnificently difficult to gain your bearings, as it should be.  Exhibitionism tangles with privacy, and the heroes (or anti-heroes) seek to recreate the traditional ideal of domestic bliss at the same time they defy it.  Like Soderbergh's earlier and equally coy The Informant!, Candelabra tackles the proceedings with a frequently bemused, empathetic detachment, leaving us unsure about feel about the characters except to marvel that this bizarre story and all its contradictions are part of the American fabric.  But its view of fame is also as creepy as a horror movie.  If you want to know what the Overlook Hotel would look like if it were completely fabulous, Soderbergh has a tracking shot for you.  Unique, tragic, and perversely moving.

4 out of 5 stars.

Behind the Candelabra recently premiered on HBO because it was deemed too risky for theaters.