Tuesday, 1 October 2013

Spring Breakers

Where: On the sofa
What: Crime drama
Director: Harmony Korine
Cast: Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco

Until Spring Breakers, director Harmony Korine was best known for writing teensploitation drama Kids. In 1995 the movie about a group of NYC teens “enjoying” a lost day of sex, drugs, violence and theft shocked many adult filmgoers. The youth of the day shrugged while Korine left behind the skate parks to become a director of interesting indie oddities like Gummo.

Nearly two decades later, Korine has come back to where he began with a frenetic rites of passage movie. The plot, such as it is, sees four boisterous high school girls plan a trip to Florida for their spring break. Lacking the money to have the sort of fun they want in the sunshine state, three of the girls snort cocaine and rob a diner with sledgehammers and water pistols to fund the trip.

The four soon settle in to the Florida spring break party scene, which is either paradise or hell, depending on your age and interest in partying. Scantily clad teens, wild drinking and drug-taking figure highly. British teens and early-twenty somethings don’t have a direct comparison and prefer to pursue intoxication all-year round, but the nearest equivalent is the annual summer rush to the Balearic and Canary Islands. Besides, there can’t be too many viewers on this side of the Atlantic who are not familiar with the concept of spring break from MTV or Family Guy/American Dad parodies.

Cops inevitably break up the party and our four anti-heroines played by former Disney TV stars Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens; Ashley Benson, and Harmony’s wife, Rachel Korine are hauled in front of a judge on drug charges. Druglord Alien pays the girls’ bail, but introduces the unruly quartet into a life of gangster squabbles that soon turns sour.

Some viewers will hate Spring Breakers. It’s trashy, slight and ridiculous but could easily become a cult hit. One gets the feeling John Waters would enjoy it, but fair enough. Based on his past work, Korine certainly enjoys Waters’ work, too.

Swathes of the film are little more than a slightly risqué music video. Many scenes are bathed in sleazy red and blue lights, others have acres of bare flesh, moshing jocks and an energetic Skrillex soundtrack. The structure slips around with flashbacks, flashforwards and repeated gunshot sound effects, voiceovers and lines of dialogue. Such cunning narrative trickery and audio-visual stylistic flourishes are disorientating and perhaps Korine’s attempt to make the audience feel they’re on their own woozy spring break.

Acting will not be what the film is remembered for, yet Benson and Hudgens as Brit and Candy are excitingly unafraid and amoral, while James Franco’s Alien is a must-watch. Part Bobby Peru from Wild At Heart, part gangster-rapper turned Tony Montana, his dodgy business dealings help the final act unspool in spectacular fashion.

Those searching for meaning won’t care much for Spring Breakers, but fans of fast, punchy party films like Go, Human Traffic and The Rules of Attraction will find plenty to love here.

Prisoners – film review

Where: Clapham Picture House 
What: Thriller
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello

Film-makers tackling the harrowing topic of child abduction face a series of tough decisions from script to edit suite. A heavy reliance on weeping parents and empty swings can result in sentimental TV movie cliché, while a dependence on violent revenge and bloody action can render the results silly and unbelievable. With Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve avoids many of the subject matter’s pitfalls to deliver a gripping, intelligent thriller replete with generally solid performances and exceptional, if appropriately bleak cinematography from Roger Deakins.

After his six-year-old daughter disappears with her friend on Thanksgiving Day, Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) throws himself into helping a huge police hunt led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Police arrest Alex Jones (Paul Dano in excellent, understated form), but have to release him when no evidence of abduction is found in his mobile home, a vehicle the girls had climbed on before they went missing. An outraged Dover confronts the learning-impaired Jones and assaults him outside the smalltown police station where he had been held and in the fracas, Jones whispers what could be a clue to the girls’ location. Distraught and consumed by anger, Dover soon kidnaps Jones and tortures him in his father’s old home, still in need of a promised renovation years after his father’s death. The film, murky and unrelenting throughout, seems to become a grim race. Will the obsessively dedicated Loki find the girls? Or will Jones reveal where they are hidden?

Prisoners grapples extensively with guilt, loss and rage, with Dover shouldering the heaviest burden: a toxic combination of all three. His wife Grace (a torn, depressed Maria Bello) can barely leave her bed, dulled by pills and grief. Meanwhile, his friend Franklin (a measured, calm Terrence Howard) – the father of other abductee child, Joy – becomes complicit in Jones’s torture. Dover doesn’t see himself as a hero, but staunchly believes he must take control of the case himself if the authorities can’t save his daughter.

French-Canadian Villeneuve’s first English film is compellingly complex, punctuated by occasional moments of brutal violence and built on a tense Aaron Guzikowski script. Guzikowski has spoken about his love of The Silence of The Lambs and Se7en and the macabre tone of both seem to influence proceedings. However, it’s a shame that the occasional unlikely twist and gaping plot hole in Prisoners make the film less credible than either those two or Gone Baby Gone, perhaps the best contemporary movie concerning a child abduction story.

In arguably his career-best performance, Jackman provides the acting fireworks in several scenes of (sometimes overcooked) explosive rage and utter despondency, but Gyllenhaal is the film’s stand-out. The archetypal loner-with-a-badge detective who won’t rest until the case is solved is not the most original of roles, but his portrayal is true and resolute.

It’s not based on a startlingly fresh premise but Prisoners proves that careful, smart directing, combined with tough, wily writing and decent performances can comprise an entertaining thriller.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Scum and The Long Good Friday: Why 1979 was a terrific year for film (part 1)

Here's the first post in a two-part look at a terrific year of film...

Arguments about the relative merits of individual cinematic years can drag on longer than The Hobbit. Yet there’s a solid case for 1979 being one of the most exciting years of English-language cinema in the 20th century.

There were auspicious acting triumphs from Ray Winstone (Scum) and Mel Gibson (Mad Max), while Peter Sellers starred in the final film to be released during his lifetime (Being There). There was hallucinatory chaos in the jungle (Apocalypse Now) and at least two pictures that saw the world’s greatest cities on show (The Long Good Friday and Manhattan). Gang culture was captured with varying levels of realism (The Warriors and Quadrophenia), while one religious satire (Monty Python’s Life of Brian) provoked hilarity and controversy in equal measure.

Repeated viewings of Scum have not diminished its power. Bleak and uncompromising, the film is not an easy watch, but Alan Clarke’s unflinching borstal story survived attempts to ban it. From start to finish, the depiction of a youth prison teeming with anger and violence is as primal and savage as any David Attenborough nature documentary. Winstone’s terrifying turn as Carlin in particular has since become a part of pop culture, with the character’s “I’m the daddy,” catchphrase being co-opted by TV adverts. Despite its explicit and relentless brutality, the film has sensitivity and wit – often expressed through the actions of considered, intellectual convict Archer (Mick Ford) – even if viewers have to sit through scenes of assault, rape and suicide to get there.

If any film of 1979 illustrated how tough like could be for the have-nots, it was this one. The Long Good Friday is another memorable early depiction of Thatcherite Britain. A criminal is again the chief protagonist, but Harold Shand is far from the disenfranchised youth of Scum. In his finest performance, Bob Hoskins plays successful East End mobster Shand with the no-nonsense capitalist bravado that would come to epitomise the 80s. His stirring, patriotic speech to a pair of American mobsters towards the film’s finale is so London it should have its own Oyster card. Watching with hindsight, the film is also a fascinating historical document. The plot centres on Shand’s attempts to redevelop then-derelict Docklands. Many scenes show poignant images of empty docks and disused cranes, the consequence of nearly 200 years of trade in the area finally drying up. Three decades and billions of pounds later, bankers have replaced dockers and the Isle of Dogs is again a huge part of London’s economy.

Check back here soon for Part 2...