Reviews

SXSW Day 3: A Tale of Two Actors

Love him or hate him, James Franco is a conversation starter. His newest, Spring Breakers, might leave you speechless.

Mud

City: Austin, TX
Date: 2013-03-11

Love him or hate him, James Franco is a conversation starter. The man of many activities, if not talents, is cherished by some while loathed by others. I can't help but feel our judgments are based on which of his works comes predominantly to mind. It's your basic Spider-Man vs. the Oscars, or in my case Pineapple Express vs. Your Highness.

On Sunday night, Franco was on hand to tout his newest piece, the sure-to-be controversial Spring Breakers. It's a fitting combination of all things Franco. On the one hand, it's a studio produced party flick about hard-drinking college co-eds getting wasted on the beaches of Florida. On the other, it's a vehement crucifixion of America's indulgent support of a youth culture that will stop at nothing to have a good time.

In real life, this might include things like flunking out of school, building up massive debt, and generally ignoring day-to-day responsibilities. In Spring Breakers, it's a rather rapid progression from wanting money to robbing diners, beach bums, and Florida gangsters, and then it escalates even further.

None of the violence will come as a surprise to anyone familiar with director Harmony Korine's past work, namely his first writing credit, Kids. The Palme d'Or nominee from 1995 will never be forgotten by the few who've seen it, and its reputation as an extremely unsettling picture is well known to anyone who's heard of it.

However, not too many people have heard of it. The name Harmony Korine and his work isn't known by many filmgoers, including myself prior to Sunday's premiere of Spring Breakers. Kids had to be sought out, while his latest will be released in an estimated 550 theaters on March 22.

I don't think people are ready. Even the film-savvy audience at SXSW seemed conflicted based on the scattered, random laughter and ridiculous post-screening questions for Korine, Franco, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine. Both questions were directed towards Franco, and the first wanted to know what his "weapon of choice" was while the second wondered what it was like to have a grill.

Franco's character is the most compelling of an otherwise cookie-cutter lot. After seeing the many alarming images of him in character, I was surprised to find Alien, a dreadlocks-laiden, shades-wearin', rap-spittin' drugs and arm dealer - the only morally redemptive character of Spring Breakers.

Spring Breakers

The girls are mainly soulless clones. Faith (Selena Gomez) is the only one given a background, and it's such an unimportant one, it need not have been included. They're there to represent the girls in the "Girls Gone Wild" videos. Alien, though, is an anomaly (hence the name, I imagine). Not having been to a spring break remotely like what's depicted here, I can't say for sure a white rapper/gangster would feel out of place. He doesn't in the movie, but he's also not the stereotypical representation of the beach dudes who thrive in that social scene.

Alien is all talk. He tells stories of growing up in a black neighborhood and building respect, but he doesn't have the blank stare of the truly hard man who trained him. He gets nervous around his many guns if they're not handled properly. He's hesitant to use what he repeatedly refers to as "his shit" in the ways his girlfriends expect. He's weak, and early on we know these girls are not.

This isn't a flaw in the film, nor in the character. It's refreshing to find any kind of depth packed away in this vile world. In the film's second best scene (behind a Britney Spears moment I won't ruin), Alien jumps up and down on his bed with two machine guns, showing off for the two ladies swooning over him already. Within minutes, though, he's on the verge of tears before swinging the situation back to party-mode in an admittedly crude but cleverly calculated moment of clarity. Franco will certainly draw praise for his outlandish appearance and attitude, but it's these brief flashes of moral confusion that make him shockingly endearing.

The film, however, fails to follow his lead. While it's certainly a condemnation of its characters, it seems to enjoy the sleaze a little too much. Actually, make that WAY too much. A beach party packed with bikini-clad bimbos is cut to again and again. Guys cheer. Women flash the camera. Beer is poured over naked bodies. The camera hangs on the exposed breasts of young women for at least 10 beats too long every time. It does this with every party scene, which just makes the cutaways all the more unnecessary. We get it, Karmin. You're being ironic. But you really don't need to revel in it as much as you do.

Spring Breakers has enough going on to merit a discussion on its preposterousness among those unfortunate enough to watch it, but I just don't think it's worth it for the untainted masses. It's not focused enough to make an impact on anyone needing its twisted advice, and it's too transparent to be the substantial work of art it aspires to be.

* * *

Mud, on the other hand, is as pure of heart as Spring Breakers is absent one. Telling the story of a young boy fighting with all his might for the survival of three separate romances, the latest addition to Matthew McConaughey's cannon is as worthy as any entry from his historic hot streak of 2012.

McConaughey plays Mud, a man found living in a boat stuck in a tree by 14-year-old Elliot and his friend. Mud is trying to reunite with his girlfriend after an undisclosed incident, and he convinces the boys to help him. Simultaneously, Elliot is trying to cope with his parents' tumultuous marriage and the prospect of his first girlfriend.

All of this makes Mud sound like a quaint little dramedy. It's not. Jeff Nichols' latest is more of a thriller, but exposing those elements would spoil some of the fun. It's best to just trust in the man who made Take Shelter an edge-of-your-seat experience, along with a stellar cast including Michael Shannon and Sam Shepherd.

Mud

Headlining and earning it is McConaughey. Along with the young, convincing Tye Sheridan, McConaughey pulls the movie together with a quietly commanding turn. The character could have been a joke. He could have come off a little nuts. McConaughey keeps him straight. There are eccentricities, of course (everything to do with his lucky shirt is a bonus), but McConaughey manages to keep Mud - and Mud - together.

Now, if you'll allow me to speculate a bit, I don't think this role will be enough to earn McConaughey his first Oscar nomination. It's not flashy enough for the Academy by itself, but if you pare it with his upcoming AIDs drama Dallas Buyers Club and Martin Scorecese's The Wolf of Wall Street, it should be enough to push voters over the edge for one of those two roles. It always helps to have more than one great performance in a year when you're looking for Oscar. Voters usually honor the man and not the role, so McConaughey is in good position early with a solid turn in Mud and the award-baiting movies still to come.

With these three roles, 2013 could be an even bigger year for McConaughey than 2012. And that's saying something

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1. The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932)

Between Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933), director James Whale made this over-the-top lark of a dark and stormy night with stranded travelers and a crazy family. In a wordless performance, Boris Karloff headlines as the deformed butler who inspired The Addams Family's Lurch. Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey, Gloria Stuart, Melvyn Douglas and Ernest Thesiger are among those so vividly present, and Whale has a ball directing them through a series of funny, stylish scenes. This new Cohen edition provides the extras from Kino's old disc, including commentaries by Stuart and Whale biographer James Curtis. The astounding 4K restoration of sound and image blows previous editions away. There's now zero hiss on the soundtrack, all the better to hear Massey starting things off with the first line of dialogue: "Hell!"

(Available from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

2. The Lure (Agnieszka Smoczynska, 2015)

Two mermaid sisters (Marta Mazurek, Michalina Olszanska) can summon legs at will to mingle on shore with the band at a Polish disco, where their siren act is a hit. In this dark reinvention of Hans Christian Andersen's already dark The Little Mermaid, one love-struck sister is tempted to sacrifice her fishy nature for human mortality while her sister indulges moments of bloodlust. Abetted by writer Robert Bolesto and twin sister-musicians Barbara and Zuzanna Wronska, director Agnieszka Smoczynska offers a woman's POV on the fairy tale crossed with her glittery childhood memories of '80s Poland. The result: a bizarre, funy, intuitive genre mash-up with plenty of songs. This Criterion disc offers a making-of and two short films by Smoczynska, also on musical subjects.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Read PopMatters review here.)

3. Personal Shopper (Olivier Assayas, 2016)

In the category of movies that don't explain themselves in favor of leaving some of their mysteries intact, here's Olivier Assayas' follow-up to the luminous Clouds of Sils Maria. Kristen Stewart again plays a celebrity's lackey with a nominally glamorous, actually stupid job, and she's waiting for a sign from her dead twin brother. What about the ghostly presence of a stalker who sends provocative text messages to her phone? The story flows into passages of outright horror complete with ectoplasm, blood, and ooga-booga soundscapes, and finally settles for asking the questions of whether the "other world" is outside or inside us. Assayas has fashioned a slinky, sexy, perplexing ghost story wrapped around a young woman's desire for something more in her life. There's a Cannes press conference and a brief talk from Assayas on his influences and impulses.

(Available from Criterion Collection / Reader PopMatters review here.

4. The Ghoul (Gareth Tunley, 2016)

The hero (Tom Meeten) tells his therapist that in his dreams, some things are very detailed and others are vague. This movie tells you bluntly what it's up to: a Möbius strip narrative that loops back on itself , as attributed to the diabolical therapists for their cosmic purposes. Then we just wait for the hero to come full circle and commit the crime that, as a cop, he's supposedly investigating. But this doesn't tell us whether he's really an undercover cop pretending to be depressed, or really a depressive imagining he's a cop, so some existential mysteries will never be answered. It's that kind of movie, indebted to David Lynch and other purveyors of nightmarish unreality. Arrow's disc offers a making-of, a commentary from writer-director Gareth Tunley and Meeten along with a producer, and a short film from Tunley and Meeten.

(Available from Arrow Video)

​5. The Illustrated Man (Jack Smight, 1969)

When a young man goes skinny-dipping with a mysterious stranger (Rod Steiger) who's covered with tattoos, the pictures comes to life in a series of odd stories, all created by Ray Bradbury and featuring Steiger and Claire Bloom in multiple roles. Nobody was satisfied with this failure, and it remains condemned to not having reached its potential. So why does Warner Archive grace it with a Blu-ray? Because even its failure has workable elements, including Jerry Goldsmith's score and the cold neatness of the one scene people remember: "The Veldt", which combines primal child/parent hostilities (a common Bradbury theme) with early virtual reality. It answers the question of why the kids spend so much time in their room, and why they're hostile at being pulled away.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

6. The Hidden (Jack Sholder, 1987)


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(Available from Warner Bros.)

7. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (David Lynch, 1992)

Speaking of Twin Peaks, here we have a textbook example of a movie that pleased almost nobody upon its release but has now generated such interest, thanks in large part to this year's Twin Peaks revival, that it arrives on Criterion. A feature-film prequel to David Lynch and Mark Frost's original TV serial that answered none of its questions and tossed in a raft of new ones, the film functions as one of cinema's most downbeat, disruptive and harsh depictions of a middle-class American teenage girl's social context. Sheryl Lee delivers a virtuoso performance that deserved the Oscar there was no way she'd be nominated for, and she wasn't. The extras, including a 90-minute film of deleted and alternate takes assembled by Lynch, have been available on previous sets.

(Available from Criterion Collection)

8. The Green Slime (Kinji Fukasaku, 1968)

Incredibly, Warner Archive upgrades its on-demand DVD of a groovy, brightly colored creature feature with this Blu-ray. As a clever reviewer indicated in this PopMatters review, what director Kinji Fukasaku saw as a Vietnam allegory functions more obviously as a manifestation of sexual tension between alpha-jock spacemen competing for the attention of a foxy female scientist, and this subconsciously creates an explosion of big green tentacled critters who overrun the space station. While we don't believe in "so bad it's good," this falls squarely into the category of things so unfacetiously absurd, they come out cool. There's a sublimely idiotic theme song.

(Available from Warner Bros.)

If the idea is that earth, water, fire, air and space constitute the core elements of life, then these five songs might seem as their equivalents to surviving the complications that come from embracing the good and enduring the ugly of the Christmas season.

Memory will never serve us well when it comes to Christmas and all its surrounding complications. Perhaps worse than the financial and familial pressures, the weather and the mad rush to consume and meet expectations, to exceed what happened the year before, are the floods of lists and pithy observations about Christmas music. We know our favorite carols and guilty pleasures ("O Come All Ye Faithful", "Silent Night"), the Vince Guaraldi Trio's music for 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas that was transcendent then and (for some, anyway) has lost none of its power through the years, and we embrace the rock songs (The Kink's "Father Christmas", Greg Lake's "I Believe In Father Christmas", and The Pretenders' "2000 Miles".) We dismiss the creepy sexual predator nature in any rendition of "Baby, It's Cold Outside", the inanity of Alvin and the Chipmunks, and pop confections like "I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus".

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