Netflix might just be the best pasture yet for brothers Joel and Ethan Coen. The Oscar-winning filmmakers were reportedly creating a Western series for the online streaming giant but that has turned into an anthology film, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The Coens’ love of the beautiful, the bizarre, the bucolic and the brazen are on full display with their six-part anthology movie that serves as reminder of what wonderfully unique cinematic voices they are. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is uneven, as most anthology films tend to by design, but it reaches that vintage Coen sweet spot of absurdity and profundity.
The best segment is also the one that kicks things off, the titular adventures of Buster Scruggs, a singing Gene Autry-style cowboy who manages to get into all sorts of scrapes. The tonal balancing act on this one is pure Coen, at once inviting an audience to nostalgically recall the Westerns of old while kicking you in the teeth with dark, hilariously violent turns that veer into inspired slapstick. There is a delightful absurdity to the segment thanks to the cheerful sociopath nature of Buster Scruggs, the fastest gun in the West that’s eager to show off at a moment’s notice. He’s a typical Coen creation, a wicked wordsmith finding himself into heaps of trouble, but through his quick wits and sudden bursts of violence, he’s able to rouse an entire saloon full of witnesses to his murder into a swinging, carousing group following him in song. I laughed long and hard throughout much of this segment. I was hooked and wanted to see where it would go next and how depraved it might get. Tim Blake Nelson (O Bother Where Art Thou) is wonderful as Buster Scruggs and perfectly finds the exact wavelength needed for the Coen’s brand of funny and peculiar. He’s like a combo Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny breaking the fourth wall to let the audience in on his merry bravado. The segment ends in a fitting fashion, another song that manages to be hilarious and strangely poignant at the same time. The Coens allow the scene to linger into a full-on duet of metaphysical proportions. I could have watched an entire series following Buster Scruggs but it may have been wise to cut things short and not to overstay its novelty.
The other best segments take very different tonal destinations. “All Gold Canyon” is a slower and more leisurely segment, following Tom Waits as a prospector who systematically works the land in search of a hidden trove of gold he nicknames “Mr. Pocket.” The step-by-step process has a lyrical nature to it, and it reminded me of the opening of There Will Be Blood where we follow Daniel Plainview’s initial success at unearthing the beginning of his fortune. Waits is fantastic and truly deserving of Oscar consideration as the prospector. He’s hardscrabble and resilient, and there’s a late moment where he’s narrating a near escape from death where he’s tearfully thankful, possibly losing himself in the moment, and so grateful that it made me tear up myself. The segment ebbs and flows on the strength of the visual storytelling and Waits. It’s a lovely short with a few hidden punches, which is also another fine way to describe the other best segment, “The Gal Who Got Rattled.” It stars Zoe Kazan (The Big Sick) as a woman making her way to Oregon with a wagon train. She’s heading west for a new life, one she was not prepared for and only doing so at the urging of her pushy brother who dies shortly into the journey. Now she’s on her own and struggling to find her own place in the larger world. There’s a very sweet and hopeful romance between her and Billy Knapp (Bill Heck), one of the wagon train leaders who is thinking of settling down. It’s also a segment that slows down, accounting for the longest running time of the six. It goes to great care to establish the rhythms of life on the road, where many people walked the thousands of miles across the plains. The budding courtship is at a realistic simmer, something with more promise than heat. It’s such an involving story that its downturn of an ending almost feels criminal, albeit even if the tragic setups were well placed. Both of these segments take a break from the signature irony of the Coens and sincerely round out their characters and personal journeys and the dangers that await them.
The remaining three segments aren’t bad by any stretch (I’d rate each from fine to mostly good) but they don’t get close to the entertainment and artistic majesty of the others. The second segment, “Near Algodones,” has some fun moments as James Franco is an inept bank robber who seems to go from bad situation to new bad situation, getting out through miraculous means until his luck runs out. The interaction with a kooky Stephen Root is a highlight but the segment feels more like a series of ideas than any sort of story. Even for an anthology movie, the segment feels too episodic for its own good. The third segment, “Meal Ticket,” is about a traveling sideshow in small dusty towns in the middle of winter. Liam Neeson plays the owner and the main act is a thespian (Henry Melling, best known as Dudley Dursely in the Harry Potter films) with no arms and no legs. The thespian character says nothing else but his prepared oratory. It makes him a bit harder to try and understand internally. I was also confused by their relationship. Are they father/son? Business partners? It’s also the most repetitious short, by nature, with the monologues and stops bleeding into one another, giving the impression of the thankless and hard life of a performer trying to eek out a living. It’s a bit too oblique. The final segment, “The Mortal Remains,” is like an Agatha Christie chamber play. We listen to five characters engage in a philosophical and contentious debate inside a speeding stagecoach that will not slow down. It’s an actors showcase with very specifically written characters, the Coens sharp ear for local color coming through. The conversation takes on a symbolism of passing over to judgment in the afterlife, or maybe it doesn’t and I’m trying to read more into things. You may start to tune out the incessant chatter as I did. It’s a perfunctory finish for the movie.
Being a Coen brothers’ film, the technical merits are mesmerizing. The cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel (Amelie, Inside Llewyn Davis) is sumptuous and often stunning. The use of light and color is a gorgeous tapestry, and some of the visual arrangements could be copied into ready-made scenic postcards, in particular “Meal Ticket” and “All Gold Canyon.” The isolation, hostility, warmth, majesty of the setting is expertly communicated to the viewer. The production design and costuming are consummate as well. The musical score by longtime collaborator Carter Burwell is classic in its use of melancholy strings and motifs. It’s a glorious looking movie made with master craft care.
Before its release, the Coens had talked about how hard it was to make their kind of movies within the traditional studio system, even with their 30 years of hits and classics. Netflix is desperately hungry for prestige content, so it looks like a suitable match. I’d happily welcome more Coen brothers’ movies like The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, a goofy Western that’s equally heart wrenching as it is heart-warming, neither shying away from the cruelty and indifference of the harsh setting nor neglecting to take in its splendor. Just give them whatever money they need Netflix to keep these sort of movies a comin’.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As an avid devotee of The Room, and a connoisseur of crappy cinema, I have been looking forward to this movie for literal years. I’ve been fascinated by Tommy Wiseau’s movie ever since I first saw it in 2009, and I’ve since watched it over 40 times. In my review for the movie, I said if I had to pick only five DVDs to take with me on a desert island, I might just select five copies of The Room. It’s that rare form of bad movie that is a thousand brushstrokes of bad, where you can discover something new with every viewing, and you desperately want to have your friends discover this miracle of filmmaking. It’s become a modern-day cult classic and theaters have been playing rowdy spoon-tossing midnight screenings of Wiseau’s film since its initial 2003 release (humble brag: I’m responsible for it playing on a monthly basis in Columbus, Ohio since 2009, the only regular public screening in all of Ohio). From its successful re-branding as a “quirky new black comedy,” fans had burning questions that needed answering, and that’s where Room actor Greg Sestero co-wrote a behind-the-scenes book, The Disaster Artist. One fan was multi-hyphenate James Franco, who purchased the adaptation rights, attached himself as director and star, transforming into Wiseau and tapping his younger brother to play Sestero. Who would have guessed all those years ago that these beleaguered actors would soon have Hollywood celebrities portraying their astonishment? The Disaster Artist might be one of the best films of the year by chronicling one of the worst films ever made.
Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) is a struggling actor in San Francisco when he meets the Teutonic acting force that is Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Tommy doesn’t behave like anyone else, for good or ill, and it inspires Greg to become friends with him. Tommy says he’s the same age as Greg, though is clearly double, and that he’s from New Orleans, though he definitely sounds more vaguely Eastern European. Tommy also has a lot of money and elects to move to L.A. to make it in the film industry, and he wants his best friend Greg to join him. Greg finds some beginning levels of success but Tommy is rejected at every turn, determined as too weird and off-putting by casting directors. He doesn’t want to play a villain; he sees himself as the hero. Tommy won’t wait for Hollywood and decides to make his own movie. He’ll write it, direct it, and be the star, and Greg can be his onscreen best friend. The Room, Wiseau’s magnum opus, was a stunning document of filmmaking ineptitude that had to be seen to be believed, and many of the people involved were certain it would never be seen at all.
I was worried that the film version would simply be many painstaking recreations of scenes from The Room and watching characters snicker. Thankfully, the recreations are kept to a minimum and The Disaster Artist personalizes the story in the friendship between Tommy and Greg. If anyone has read the book, you’ll know there is a wealth of juicy anecdotes about the bizarre onset antics and about the human enigma himself, Wiseau. The film could have been three hours long and just thoroughly focused on all of the crazier aspects of the behind-the-scenes and I would have been satisfied. However, the ace screenwriters, Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber (The Fault in Our Stars), have elided all of those crazy details into a story about a personal relationship. The most memorable tidbits are still there, like the 60 plus takes needed for Tommy to say one line, but the sharper focus allows the film to resonate as something where you can genuinely feel invested in these people as characters rather than easily mocked send-ups. Greg feels greatly put upon by Tommy but he admires his fearlessness, and deeper down he feels indebted to Tommy for getting him onto the road to his dream. Thanks to Tommy, Greg was able to move to L.A., find a place, become an actor with representation, and book commercial spots. Tommy is also an anchor weighing him down. Greg will routinely have to place his rising career opportunities at the mercy of Tommy’s capricious sense of loyalty. It’s a movie that explores the value of friendship and the lengths people will go.
This is also an extremely funny movie. Part of the allure of The Room is how it feels like a movie made by space aliens who didn’t quite understand human interactions. The head-scratching choices and dropped subplots and redundant, nonsensical plotting are all given examination, allowing the audience to be in on the joke even if they have never seen Wiseau’s actual movie. This is a film completely accessible to people who have never seen The Room; however, if you have seen The Room, this movie is going to be 100 times more fascinating and enjoyable. The sheer bafflement of what transpired is enough to keep you chuckling from start to finish. The Disaster Artist is wonderful fun, and the actors involved are here because they love Wiseau’s movie. The celebrity cameos are another aspect that helps to add to the film’s sense of frivolity, spotting familiar faces in roles such as Casting Agent #2 (Casey Wilson), Actor Friend (Jerrod Carmichael) and Hollywood Producer (Judd Apatow). Watching everyone have a good time can be rather infectious, but The Disaster Artist succeeds beyond the good vibes of its cast.
Rather than lap up the easy, mean-spirited yuks, The Disaster Artist goes further, following a similar point of view with 1994’s terrific Ed Wood by portraying these men as deeply incompetent filmmakers but also as sincere dreamers. Wiseau is clearly overwhelmed by the demands of being, let’s be generous, a traditional filmmaker, but he is also a person who set off to achieve a dream of his own. He was denied other avenues so he took it upon himself, and a mysterious influx of money he doesn’t like to discuss, and this self-made-movie star built a vehicle to shine brightest. Sure, ego is definitely a factor, though one could argue it plays some degree in all creative expression needing an audience. Wiseau didn’t let a little thing like ignorance of storytelling, film production, or how to handle cast and crew as human beings with needs stop him from plowing ahead to prove his doubters wrong. The filmmakers definitely find a certain nobility in this artistic tenacity, as did Tim Burton with Ed Wood. It’s natural to pull for the underdog, even an underdog that is so naïve it might be worrisome. You can laugh freely at Wiseau, and you will, but you may also start to admire his gumption. As the opening barrage of celebrity interviews posits, you could not make something like The Room even if you were the greatest filmmaker on the planet. It is nothing short of an accidental masterpiece. It is a movie that has entertained millions of people and one they feel compelled to share with friends and family, compelled to bring others into this strange, beguiling cult of fandom. While Wiseau may not have made a “good movie,” he has made one for the ages.
James Franco (11.23.63) deserves an Oscar nomination for playing Tommy Wiseau. I’m serious. He is channeling some Val-Kilmer-as-Jim-Morrison lightning when it comes to simply inhabiting the spirit of another person onscreen. It’s crazy that a movie so bad could inspire another movie that might legitimately compete for legitimate awards. James Franco is entrancing with his performance as he fully channels Wiseau, an almost mythic figure that we have never seen the likes of before. The accent is pitch perfect and impossible not to imitate after leaving the theater. Wiseau can be manipulative and cruel but he can also be generous and selfless. He takes great ownership over his friendship with Greg, so he believes all of his actions are to help their unique bond, even when he’s pushing that same person away. He so desperately wants acceptance but seems incapable of achieving it on anybody’s terms but his own. Wiseau is a fascinating film figure, and the movie does a fine job of neither overly romanticizing him nor vilifying him. Even despite his missteps, you may find yourself feeling sympathy for Wiseau, and that’s a major credit to the screenwriters and James Franco’s magnetic performance.
The other actors, a.k.a. everyone in Franco’s sphere of friends, are committed, enjoyable, and plugged into why exactly audiences have grown to love The Room for years. Dave Franco (Now You See Me 2) is effectively the perspective of the audience, deliberating how much of Tommy to put up with and when to walk away. Seth Rogen (Sausage Party) gets the most sustained comedic run as a script supervisor who is bewildered by Wsieau’s methods. Alison Brie (Netflix’s GLOW) is our chief source of confused expressions as Greg’s girlfriend. Ari Graynor (I’m Dying Up Here) wrings great laughs from her awkwardness with Wiseau as filmmaker and onscreen anatomically-challenged lover. Megan Mullally (Will & Grace) is Greg’s disapproving mother who worries about what kind of relationship her son has with a much older man. Zac Efron (Baywatch) is hilariously excitable as the inexplicable drug dealer, Chris R. Speaking of excitable, Jason Manzoukas (The House) and Hannibal Buress (Spider-Man: Homecoming) are a great team as the film equipment rental guys who can’t believe their luck with Wiseau. Even two-time Oscar nominee Jacki Weaver (Silver Linings Playbook) gets some nice moments as an older actress who justifies in a heartfelt message why exactly everybody on set would go out of their way to work on such an awful movie.
If you’re a fan of The Room, then you’ll absolutely adore The Disaster Artist, and if you’ve never seen The Room, you’ll still find plenty of entertainment in Franco’s film. Wiseau’s 2003 film has to be experienced to be fully believed. The film-about-his-film provides the added extension of a coterie of characters to share in our bemusement and bafflement, providing a chorus of commentary. However, the movie isn’t all jokes at Wiseau’s expense. It evolves into a love letter for the power of art to bring distaff people together with a shared dream. Like Ed Wood, Wiseau might be incompetent by traditional measures of filmmaking but he ignored the naysayers and followed his artistic vision. Under Franco’s direction, he’s a modern-day Don Quixote, or just a really weird guy who lucked into a miraculous alchemy that gave birth to a cult classic. At the end of the movie, Tommy thinks he’s a failure. Greg reminds him to listen to the audience reaction. They are hooting, hollering, applauding, and having the time of their lives. He’s responsible for that and he should be proud of his accomplishment. I unabashedly love The Room. I introduce the theatrical screenings in Columbus. I loved The Disaster Artist book. This movie is everything I was hoping for, and it just so happens to be one of the funniest, most genuinely pleasurable films of the year.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Following the “secret life of” Pixar story model, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s hard-R animated movie about anthropomorphic food literally uses just about every possible joke it can from its premise. I was expecting plenty of puns and easy sexual innuendo, but what I wasn’t expecting was a religious parable that actually has substance and some crazy left field directions the movie takes that made me spit out my popcorn. Sausage Party seems like a one-note joke as we follow Frank, a sausage (voiced by Rogen), and his girlfriend Brenda, a hotdog bun (Kristen Wiig) and their food friends over the course of the Fourth of July weekend. The supermarket items have been told that loving gods will take them to a wonderful promised land. The reality is far worse as the humans consume and “murder” the supermarket products. The messy food massacre sequences are some of the cleverest moments in the movie, which too often relies on a lot of easy profanity and vulgarity and broad ethnic stereotypes (it earns points for pointing out its lazy ethnic stereotypes too). However, when it veers into its religious commentary and the plight of the atheist, the movie becomes far more than the sum of its sex jokes. It’s consistently funny with some hard-throated laughs toward the end, especially in the jubilantly demented third act that takes an extreme leap first into violence and then into food-based sexuality. The concluding five minutes might be some of the most insane images put to film I’ve ever seen. The only equivalent I can even think of is the concluding act of Perfume. I credit Rogen, Goldberg and their team for taking a potentially one-joke premise and finding something more interesting and substantial, while still finding plenty opportunities for crass humor when called for and then some. Sausage Party is not a film for everybody but it’s also a film that is hard to forget, although you might feel guilty about munching on your popcorn at some point.
Nate’s Grade: B
Well, so maybe you’ve heard something about this little movie, The Interview? Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg (This is the End) weren’t intending to spark an international incident with their comedy about a pair of idiots trying to assassinate North Korea’s glorious leader, but after a few crazy turn of events, this little movie became a quixotic symbol of American patriotism. How dare North Korea get to dictate what Americans can and cannot see! Well, now The Interview is widely available in digital markets and we can agree that the fervor was for naught. The film is most shaky in the beginning, setting up Rogen as a TV producer and James Franco as the obnoxious talk show host. Once the boys get tangled up with the CIA, and especially once Kim Jong-Un comes into the picture (played by a much better looking actor, might I add, North Korean readers) the movie starts to even out and find its comic rhythms. While the ending is a little ho-hum, there are nice payoffs for several jokes and a poison strip has a wild and very funny comic development. I also enjoyed the emerging bromance between Franco and Kim Jong-Un that danced around with being subversive. However, there are two problems with the film. It doesn’t get risky enough (too many penis jokes) and James Franco. He’s been a capable comic actor but always in supporting or as a foil. Franco is not a comic lead, and his performance is much too amped and broad, needing to be dialed down to feel less desperate in overexcitement. It’ll be more a footnote in history than comedy, but The Interview is a fairly innocuous comedy that does get better as it chugs along, though clearly hits a ceiling. It’s certainly not anything worth going to war over.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Paul Haggis is the Oscar-winning writer/director of Crash, so a man not known for subtlety. And that can be fine, but with his latest effort, Haggis wastes his time on a sluggish triptych that doesn’t come together in any satisfying or clever manner. Like Crash, we follow multiple storylines that we expect to intersect or crisscross. Liam Neeson plays an arrogant author checked into a French hotel trying to write his next novel. He engages in a series of cruel and flirty games with his mistress (Olivia Wilde). Adrien Brody plays a fashion spy in Italy who grows a conscience to help an immigrant regain her daughter. Mila Kunis is a New York actress struggling to get her life in order so she can regain some measure of custody for her son. Right away, the characters are rather bland and remote, refusing to provide much depth or development. Then there’s the fact that the plot requires so little of them, falling into a deadly lethargy that it can’t shake free from. You keep waiting for something more significant to take place but the characters just dawdle, spouting dialogue that never feels authentic. I kept waiting for the twist spoiled by the trailer for Third Person, and by the time two hours passed, I had to note that it was not a mid-movie twist spoiled by the trailer, it was the twist ending. Did the marketing department watch their own movie? I’ve never seen that before; late plot developments, yes, but never the twist ending. There is a reason why these characters are so poorly developed but it’s still not a satisfying reason to watch blasé people blunder around with little direction for over two hours, especially when they have no discernible connection to one another beyond heavy-handed linked themes. Hey, at least Third Person has a favorable amount of Olivia Wilde nudity to keep your interest, if you’re like me. After that’s done, though, you can check out just like this array of substandard and morose characters.
Nate’s Grade: C
There are three apocalyptic comedies this year and Seth Rogen’s This Is The End is undoubtedly the biggest in profile. The plot is simple: Rogen and his pals, Jonah Hill, Jay Baruchel, Craig Robinson, and Danny McBride, are holed up in James Franco’s lavish home while the world comes to an end outside. Your enjoyment level for this movie will largely depend on your enjoyment level of the cast since they are playing self-involved, idiotic versions of themselves. While it dithers with the occasional self-indulgent sidetrack, I found Rogen to be savvy about providing enough for an audience to invest in. There’s a slew of Entourage-style cameos, though mostly pre-apocalypse, to ease us into the film. It’s fun seeing Michael Cera and Emma Watson (Perks of Being a Wallflower) play against type, but there’s so many blink-and-you’ll-miss-them figures that it can be tiring. But once it rains fire, demons emerge, and the righteous are Raptured, the movie gets outlandish and even better. For a solid hour it’s a survival tale where egotistical actors are at one another’s throats and it genuinely gets funnier as it goes. The comedy is, as you would expect, completely vulgar but hilarious often enough. A shouting match between Franco and McBride over masturbation habits, complete with angry, enthusiastic miming, is a thing of comic glory. I was not prepared for how well Rogen and his collaborator Evan Goldberg (they wrote and directed the movie) are able to handle suspense, special effects, and a climax that is equal parts silly and heartwarming. There is a rewarding payoff to a character arc amidst all the talk about penises, human and satanic, and cannibalism, and that’s saying something. I only wish the ending had more punch, settling for an extended and mostly lame pop-culture cameo that seems to sap the good times. Still, if you had to spend the apocalypse with a bunch of guys, you could do worse.
Nate’s Grade: B
Harmony Korine is the kind of filmmaker who I typically avoid. I haven’t liked a single one of the movies the man has written or directed. This list includes Kids, Julien Donkey-Boy, Trash Humpers, and the detestable 1997 film, Gummo, possibly one of my most hated films. The man has become an expert on depicting juvenile delinquents and the excesses of youthful folly, so I wasn’t surprised that his latest writing/directing effort, Spring Breakers, followed suit. I was surprised at the names he was able to attract to the film. Former Disney Channel starlets Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, as well as ABC Family’s Ashley Benson, join Rachel Korine as a foursome of gals who long for the pleasures of a spring break getaway. They scrimp and save for months, plus also rob a restaurant, and take their sojourn to the sunny beaches of Florida. The girls run afoul of the law and are bailed out by rapper and wannabe gangster Alien (James Franco). Living large, and with handy access to a plethora of weapons, the girls get involved in the crosshairs of a turf war, but they won’t let anything bring down their good times.
When you break it down to its trashy molecular core, Spring Breakers is like an exploitation film as directed by Terrence Malick. Allow me to explain, dear reader. Much like that hallowed art house filmmaker, the plot in Spring Breakers is really a wispy, abstract concept, and the film is prone to repetition and redundancy, a triptych for the senses. There’s plenty of overlapping dialogue that circles back and repeats itself, images that bleed into one another, and a plot that generally takes its cues from MC Skat Kat, namely moving two steps forward and then two steps back (is this reference too dated?). The rote dialogue, when not indifferently profane and nonsensical, is usually variations on, “Spring Break. Spring Break forever.” I’ve just given you about a fifth of the entire movie’s dialogue. It may have just been my theater’s sound system, but I found much of the dialogue hard to hear and decipher. Perhaps it was Korine admitting that the things his characters say weren’t worth straining to hear. As expected, this can get rather frustrating to sit through. It’s not so much a movie as an experience meant to wash over the audience. Hence the nonstop dubstep score, provided by Skrillex, and the crashing imagery of tawny exposed flesh, gyrating bodies, neon lighting, fellating gun barrels, and excessive inebriation, all meant to bring the spring break experience to the consumer, that is, if most people’s spring breaks involved lots of illegal activity. If Malick’s movies are meant to serve as religious experiences, then consider Spring Breakers to be the equivalent of ingesting GHB.
Let’s talk about that paucity of characterization. Besides Faith (Gomez), a name a bit too on-the-nose for this sort of enterprise, there is zero I can say about ANY of the other three girls. They are completely interchangeable. They have no defining characteristics beyond their simple geographic placement within the camera frame. That’s it. When Faith ditches the movie at the halfway mark, having the good sense to realize her supposed friends might not be the best influence, I wanted to go with her. I didn’t want to be left with these vacuous and annoying characters. It’s pretty clear the contempt that Korine has for his own female characters, constantly serving them up for ridicule. It makes the whole movie even less appealing. We’re not supposed to like our heroines but it gets uncomfortable when the director seems to be constantly shaming them, rubbing our faces in how awful they are as people. With an absence of characters you care about, and a plot that feels like it keeps circling back, there’s precious little to hold onto before you become anesthetized to Korine’s exploitative navel-gazing.
After Oz the Great and Powerful I didn’t think I would utter these words, but thank God for the presence of James Franco. The man is so fully committed to his gonzo portrayal of a white trash wannabe gangster that you are downright thankful when he takes over the movie halfway in. At least we don’t have to spend as much time with our empty-headed trio of ladies. Franco, perfecting an ominous drawl, is a cartoon of misplaced machismo, living the “gangsta” life he’s seen parroted in pop culture (he has Scarface running on a constant loop on his TVs). He provides a jolt of energy to the movie, a second wind, and thankfully pushes the girls into greater conflict than part-to-party binges. He brings a real sense of danger to the film, and the descent into a criminal path couldn’t have come soon enough for me. It’s such an enjoyably whacked-out performance that I wouldn’t be surprised if Franco may even be considered for some Best Supporting Actor nominations.
There’s something just so tiring and depressing about watching people trying to chase a hedonistic high rather than, you know, live their lives. In this warped sense of thinking, the all-encompassing term of “partying” is meant to be the divine state of being and anything else falls by the wayside of significance. I understand the movie is exposing a shallow and empty way of life but it can still be tiring to watch nonstop. You become numb to the onscreen antics. You become numb to the free-flowing spirits, profanity, and gratuitous nudity (there were literally six topless ladies onscreen before a word was spoken). Watching Spring Breakers, you have two options: give yourself over to the trance-like, self-destructive youthful fever-dream or sit solemnly, objectively observing how the outrageous become routine, and become dead inside.
As much as it pains me to admit, being a non-fan of Korine’s movies, there are a few moments in the movie that are actually surprisingly effective. The first is a hasty robbery of a small restaurant. We stay in the passenger seat of the slow-moving car as it spins around the building, and in the background we see the escalation of events, the girls smashing breakables and terrorizing the few patrons. It’s one of the few visual decisions that felt, and here’s a word you won’t find anywhere else in relation to this movie, artistically restrained. There’s also plenty of forced irony in the movie where a character’s positive words will be counterbalanced by a visual contrast. Faith phones her grandmother and talks about her great time, even promising next year that she wants to take dear old granny along with her. Meanwhile, as the words play out, which will happen again at several redundant points, we see the girls engaging in behavior that would most likely not be granny-approved. Even if forced, and often redundant, it’s still effective, as is Korine’s hypnotic visual sensibilities. If nothing else, Spring Breakers is a good-looking movie with many pleasing visuals.
I think I understand why my critical peers have lavished as much praise upon Korine’s bacchanalia. They see a satire of this empty, nihilistic, party-all-the-time, damn-the-consequences lifestyle, the idiocy of youthful hedonism. The problem is that there’s only a handful of moments in Spring Breakers where I felt that Korine actually achieved satire, one of them being a montage of robberies set to a Britney Spears song (beforehand we saw girls holding guns by the barrel and dancing in a circle). Those moments that struck me as satire were few and far between, because what I mostly left with was just another exploitation film. If this were meant to be satirical, the girls would not get away with it all in the end. Korine may intend to stand back in some ironic judgment of his own movie, providing himself an excuse for the lackluster plotting and characters. Here’s the point: even if it was done intentionally, it still makes for a lackluster plot and characters. Saying, “I meant that all along,” is not an excuse when the rest of the film fails to live up to your stated satirical intents.
Allow me a moment to talk about the somewhat disconcerting treatment of, for lack of a better description, the sluttiest of our gals, Cotty, played by Rachel Korine. When I saw the last name of Korine I thought, “Is that the director’s daughter?” Harmony Korine has been in the film industry for almost 20 years, so it was a possibility, and oh what a disturbing thought that was. Some cursory research proved that Rachel Korine was in fact Harmony’s wife; there’s a thirteen-year age difference. It’s still uncomfortable that Korine would slot his own wife to portray one of the titular spring breakers, the only one from our posse who goes nude onscreen too (sorry skeevy Disney Channel and ABC Family fans). So when he’s slut shaming these girls, mocking them with contempt, directing their gratuitous exploitation, he’s also including his own wife in this distasteful characterization, making sure the camera has multiple opportunities to take in her exposed flesh. It’s like he’s serving up his own wife to the gods of spring break (a.k.a. young male ticket-buyers), and it just seems icky.
When Spring Breakers came to a merciful close, the college-aged guy behind me remarked, “That’s the weirdest movie I’ve ever seen.” I replied, “Then you haven’t seen a lot of movies, have you?” Korine’s abstract, aimless salute to self-indulgence is a depressing experience that celebrates the worst in human beings, but weird it is not. I’m just tired of Korine’s schtick. He presents trashy characters, prods us to ridicule them, and then gives them a lot of empty space to do dumb things for an hour and half, ultimately going nowhere and accomplishing little. It just so happens that Spring Breakers, his most commercial and accessible film, has attractive, nominally famous actresses partaking in the nastiness this time. I suppose there will be some appeal to a small swath of filmgoers to see former squeaky-clean Disney Channel gals cutting loose, behaving badly, and playing against (manufactured) type. For me, the very casting of these ladies was another sign of Korine’s artistically bare ambitions. If he wanted to hold up the entire escapist spring break pleasure-seeking lifestyle for satire, then he needed to push harder. What’s on the screen is rarely satire. Instead, it’s just another careless exploitation film, replete with moronic characters we don’t care about and a plot that would be charitably described as, well, a plot. Even Franco’s calculated weirdness cannot save this film. Spring Breakers is a trip best avoided.
Nate’s Grade: C-
Usually when I’m watching a bad movie I have to stop and think where did things go so wrong, where did the wheels fall off, what choice lead to the disaster I am watching play out onscreen. In the case of Disney’s Oz the Great and Powerful, a Wizard of Oz prequel that pretty much hovers over the cusp of bad for its entire 130 minutes, I have to stop and think, “How could this movie ever have gone right?” I don’t think it could have, at least not with this script, this cast, and the edict from the Mouse House to keep things safe and homogenized, smothered in CGI gumbo and scrubbed clean of any real sense of venerable movie magic.
In 1905 Kansas, the magician Oz (James Franco) is used to bilking country folk out of their meager earnings. He’s a con man and runs afoul with a strong man in his own traveling circus. He makes a hasty escape in a hot air balloon and, thanks to a coincidental tornado, is whisked away to the Land of Oz. The people have long been told that a wizard would come and rescue them from the tyranny of the wicked witch. Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz), sisters controlling the Emerald City, task Oz with killing the other witch, Glinda (Michelle Williams). If he succeeds, Oz will become king and riches will be his. Along his journey he collects a band of cuddly sidekicks (flying monkey, China doll, munchkin) and learns that he may indeed be the hero that Oz needs to save the day.
Oz the Great and Powerful is really just 2010’s Alice in Wonderland slapped together with a fresh coat of paint and some extra dwarves. I say this because, like Alice, this movie suffers from a plot that feebly sticks to the most generic of all fantasy storylines – the Great prophecy speaks about a Great savior who will save us from the Great evil. Naturally, the so-called chosen one has internal doubts about the burden they face, initially ducking out before finding that inner strength they had all long to prove they were indeed the one prophesized. It even got to the point where I was noticing some of the same plot beats between the two movies, like how last in the second act we spend time with a woman dressed all in white who we’ve been told is the villain but who is really the good guy. Then there’s the now-routine rounding up of magical creatures to combat the evil hordes in a big battle. Considering Alice was billion-dollar hit for Disney, it’s no surprise they would try and apply its formula to another magical universe hoping for the same results. Well I thought Alice was weak but Oz is even weaker. However, at least nobody absurdly starts breakdancing by the end. Small victories, people.
Beyond the formula that dictates the plot, the characters are poorly developed and broach some off-putting gender stereotypes. The character of Oz is portrayed as a scoundrel who eventually learns to be selfless, but I never really bought the major turning points for his character arc. Do all major characters need to be flawed men in need of redemption in magical worlds? I understand what they were doing with his character but I don’t think it ever worked, and certainly Franco’s performance is at fault as well (more on that later). The ladies of Oz, however, just about constitute every female stereotype we can expect in traditional movies. One of them is conniving but given no reason for why this is. One of them is pure and motherly. And then one of them gets lovesick so easily, falling head over heels for a boy in a matter of hours that she’s willing to throw her life away in spite. And all of these witches, who can actually perform magic unlike the charlatan Oz, sure seem like they don’t need a man to run the kingdom for them and tell them what to do. It’s sad that a conflict that involves feudal power grabs should devolve into a misconstrued love triangle. Then there’s the role of the little China Girl (voiced by Joey King) who adds absolutely nothing to the story except as another female in need of assistance and doting, except when she inexplicably behaves like a surly teenager in a tone-breaking head-turning moment. Oz keeps resting the very breakable doll on his shoulder, like a parrot. I suppose it’s better than tucking her in his pants.
The movie is also tonally all over the place. It wants to be scary but not too scary. Personally, I always found the talking trees to be spookier than the flying monkeys but that’s my own cross to bear. It wants to be funny but often stoops to lame slapstick and Zach Braff (Garden State) as a goofy flying monkey sidekick. It wants to be exciting but it never takes a step beyond initial menace. Its big climactic battle is more like a children’s version of something you’d see in the Lord of the Rings. The movie fails to satisfyingly congeal and so every set piece feels like it could be from a different movie.
Some notable casting misfires also serve to doom the project. I like Franco (Rise of the Planet of the Apes) as an actor, I do, but he is grossly miscast here. He does not have the innate charm to pull off a huckster like Oz. Franco usually has an off kilter vibe to him, one that’s even present in this film, that gives him a certain mysterious draw, but he does not work as an overblown man of theatricality. Combined with lackluster character, it makes for one very bland performance that everyone keeps marveling over. It’s like all the supporting characters, in their fawning praise, are meant to subconsciously convince you that Franco is actually succeeding. Kunis (Friends with Benefits) is also a victim of bad casting. She can do the innocent ingénue stuff but when she (spoiler alert) turns mean and green it just does not work. When she goes bad she looks like Shrek’s daughter and she sounds like a pissy version of her character from Family Guy, which is ineffectual to begin with. Kunis cannot believably portray maniacal evil; sultry evil, a corrupting influence like in Black Swan, most definitely, but not this. There are lines where she screeches at the top of her lungs and it just made me snicker (“CUUUUUURSE YOOOOOOU!”).
I had faith that a director as imaginative as Sam Raimi (Spider-Man, Drag Me to Hell) would be a stolid shepherd for a fantasy-rich project such as Oz. I never got any sense of Raimi in this movie. It felt like he too was smothered completely by the overabundance of special effects. It’s a common complaint that modern movies are buried under an avalanche of soulless computer effects, but usually I find this bromide to be overstated. Having seen Oz, I can think of no more accurate description than “soulless computer effects overload.” At no point in the movie does any special effect come close to feeling real. At no point do you feel immersed in this world, awed by its unique landscapes and inhabitants (it feels often more like the land of Dr. Seuss than Oz). I chose to see the film in good ole standard 2D, though the 3D eye-popping elements are always quite noticeable. At no point do you feel any sense of magic, the most damming charge of all considering the legacy of Oz. The original Wizard of Oz holds a special place in many a heart. We recall feeling that sense of wonder and magic when we watched it as a child, the idea that movies could be limitless and transporting. While watching Raimi’s trip to Oz, I only felt an overwhelming sense of apathy that grew disquieting.
Then there’s the matter of the questionable messages that the movie posits. It celebrates the power of belief, which is admirable, but it’s belief in a lie. Oz is a fake, yet the movie wants to say that faith in false idols is something worth celebrating. Oz and his cohorts put together a deception to fool the denizens of the world into a false sense of security. Everyone believes in the Wizard of Oz so he has power but it’s all a sham. We’re supposed to feel good that these people have been fooled. Didn’t The Dark Knight Rises basically showcase what ultimately happens when a society’s safety is based around a lie and false idols? I understand that as a prequel one of its duties is to set up things for when Dorothy comes knocking, but do I have to be force-fed disingenuous moral messages?
Oz the Great and Powerful is a wannabe franchise-starter that feels like it never really gets started. There’s a generic hero’s journey, some underwritten characters, mixed messages, and poor casting choices, namely Franco and Kunis. The sense of movie magic is absent and replaced with special attention to marketing opportunities and merchandizing (get your own China Girl, kids). It feels more like the movie is following a pre-planned checklist of stops, cribbing from Alice in Wonderland playbook, and trying to exploit any nostalgia we have for this world and its characters. Except we love Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the cowardly Lion, and Toto. I don’t think anyone really had any strong affection for Glinda or the Wizard. Just because we’re in the same land with familiar elements doesn’t mean our interest has been satiated. The Wizard of Oz backstory has already been done and quite well by the Broadway show Wicked, based upon the novels by Gregory Maguire. That show succeeded because it focused on the characters and their relationships (extra points for a complicated and positive female friendship dynamic). We cared. That’s the biggest fault in Raimi’s Oz, that amidst all the swirling special effects and fanciful imagination, you watch it without ever truly engaging with it. You may start to wonder if your childlike sense of wonder is dead. It’s not; it’s just that you’re old enough to see a bad movie for what it is.
Nate’s Grade: C
I owe the makers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes a huge apology. I have been vocally dismissive of a new Apes film from the first moments I heard about the project. I just thought rehashing this material was a stupid move. Then I heard James Franco (127 Hours) was going to be the lead, and I sighed. Then I saw the trailers and verbally impugned them in my theaters. Upon the conclusion of the trailer I yelled, “You can still shoot them!” and my criticism drew applause from those around me. The concept that we suddenly made apes smarter and they could now enter the Bronze Age, brandishing spears, didn’t overwhelm me. Just because the apes suddenly had tools didn’t seem like enough to topple mankind from the top of the evolutionary ladder. So in the months and weeks ahead I sneer, jeered, and overall dismissed Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And then the reviews came out and they weren’t just good, they were ecstatic. I went begrudgingly into the theater, waiting to hurl my own feces at the screen (figuratively, of course). Then I was completely taken aback by how much I unabashedly loved it.
Will Rodman (Franco) is a young scientists working hard at create a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s. His corporate company has been testing their drugs on chimps to mixed results. One day a promising ape, made smarter by a dose of ALZ 112, goes bananas and is put down by security. The lady ape left behind a baby ape that has taken on traits from the ALZ 112. Will takes the little chimp home to care for the “company property.” But then he ends up adopting the chimp, which his ailing father (John Lithgow) names Caesar. Due to the super drug, Caesar shows remarkable intelligence and looks to be getting even stronger. It looks like Will might have found his cure, and his boss (David Oyelowo) will make billions. But then complications ensue, as they always do, and Caesar is taken to an animal preserve facility run by a crooked father/son team (Brian Cox and Harry Potter’s Tom Felton). Caesar is mistreated and distraught to adjust to a life in pens. He makes plans to escape but then decides to rally his fellow imprisoned apes to a greater cause with the help of some of the ALZ 112.
Even through Franco is the headliner he’s really nothing more than a supporting character, a catalyst. The real star of the movie is undoubtedly Caesar the chimp. After about he 45-minute mark, Franco is reduced to making frowny faces while he scowls, trying to ascertain where his favorite monkey is. His dialogue is mostly reduced to different iterations of yelling Caesar’s name in different locations (the guy even manages to smirk in his sleep in one scene). But the major surprise is that Caesar is not only a compelling leading character but also a well-developed one at that. This is a living, breathing character brought to life thanks to top-notch computer wizardry and the talents of Andy Serkis, the leading authority for soulful motion-capture performances. Caesar may be the greatest single special effect of all time, not because of its life-like quality (it’s close, but again the creature’s features seem too waxy). But the reason Caesar is so impressive is because of the depth of emotion that can be read onscreen. This is a textured performance where you can read varying emotions through the looks of eyes, the twitching of facial muscles, the biting of lips. The emotions are genuinely recognizable; he flashes guilt, anger, frustration, heartache, disbelief, betrayal, fear, shame, just about everything in the book. From a DNA standpoint, chimps and humans share 96 percent of the same genes, so it’s understandable that we can relate to the plight of our distant relatives. Serkis is responsible for providing the groundwork for CGI creations like Gollum and King Kong, so he’s the world’s go-to guy when it comes to providing a framework for animators (Robert Zemeckis, why have you never called this guy?). It’s an amazing special effect accomplishment and works side-by-side with the storytelling to make Caesar a complicated, interesting, and deeply empathetic hero. He’s a terrific center for the movie and a figure that you root for, even with the tacit understanding that cheering on the apes’ escape is also tantamount to cheering the decline of the human race. But by God, during the apes-run-amok climactic sequences you are cheering for mankind’s downfall hardcore.
The Planet of the Apes saga (six films) is, let’s be honest here, rather abysmal. Everybody loves the first movie but the quality sharply drops from there, with four sequels in four years each managing to answer the depressing question, “Can this thing really get any worse?” The 2001 Tim Burton “re-imagining” was just embarrassing and filled with loopy logic (how can the apes take over Earth’s past when Marky Mark crashes on a DIFFERENT planet in the FUTURE?). Given that, the filmmakers behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes did not have to achieve much to separate themselves from the monkey-stank of the sci-fi franchise. The film serves as a prequel to the series but it’s easily the best film since the original. Easily. For one, the storytelling is not overwhelmed by the allegory of sci-fi packaging. The world is decidedly our own and the problems the characters grapple with are fairly relatable. Will may be responsible for the annihilation of the human race but his motivation is pure – he wants to save his ailing father. That’s a believable motivating force that would push the character to action over caution, testing his special serum without fully examining all the side effects. You know what they say about the road to Hell (my friend Eric Muller always suspected Franco would be linked to the end of civilization)? But in a Planet of the Apes movie there is a wealth of thoughtful human drama. Animal rights are one of the more obvious messages the movie deals with, but the film takes a character-driven approach following the animal himself. You care about these characters and when one CGI ape was cradling a dying CGI ape, I swear I was getting choked up over those computer pixels. That’s how emotionally involving this new Apes film can be. It’s refreshing to have a Hollywood action film that has more on its mind than blowing stuff up all good like.
But when the action shapes up, mostly during a stirring man vs. apes climax, the film easily delivers. The nimble screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (their first film since 1997’s Relic!) is a terrific example of economical big-budget pacing. Every scene moves the story forward and doesn’t waste a frame. The final running time is only 105 brisk minutes but it squeezes in so much entertainment and emotion. Director Rupert Wyatt keeps the thrills coming on a human-scale, never letting the enormity of the events getting too out of hand. Sure suddenly there are like 500 apes all of a sudden and all of them are super smart, but I can roll with that. The stakes are always clear and the action is easy to follow and easier to get swept up in. There are a few shout-outs to the original film’s iconic lines, which will either come across as fun or ham-handed. And thankfully a plausible scenario is put forth to explain why the humans would be overtaken by the apes. That’s not to say that everything is smartly woven into the narrative. Several of the side characters are but crude renderings. Frieda Pinto’s (Slumdog Millionaire) underdeveloped love interest could be completely taken out with minimal effect on the plot. Likewise the Evil Business Head seems to have nothing but speeches that remind you his sole interest is making lots of moolah.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a Hollywood movie with a soul. Finally late in the summer a major studio movie emerges that has the right balance of brains, brawn, and thrills. It’s an exciting action movie, a poignant drama from an animal’s point of view, a tour de force of special effects that manage to make the film more emotionally involving, and a sci-fi prequel that’s actually worthy of its name. Serkis’ gifts for physical performance are invaluable to the emotional core of the movie. By going back to its DNA, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has given new life to a franchise whose best days were 40 years ago. I don’t see where the series can go from here. A prequel to the prequel seems superfluous. A sequel would only really showcase the waning days of humanity and also seem superfluous. Then again, until the moment I was watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes I would have said this very movie was superfluous too. Instead this is the finest summer spectacle of the year and destined to make my top ten list for the year. If you can’t beat them, join them, damn dirty apes and all.
Nate’s Grade: A
So would you give your right arm for a good movie? 127 Hours is the true-life tale of a man trapped between a rock and a hard place. Hiking in dusty canyons, James Franco gets his arm pinned under a rock. And that’s about it from the plot standpoint. That’s because everything is leading up to the grisly inevitability that he will be forced to cut his own arm off for survival. And director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) does not let you off the hook. You will see every gruesome second of a man hacking away his own arm, slicing nerve-by-nerve, crushing bones, etc. It’s not the uplifting experience that Boyle and the producers mistakenly believe. The film’s true success is that it still manages to be entertaining and exciting, despite having a central character unable to move more than inches. It’s fascinating to watch Franco use the tools at his disposal to survive for five days before, well, you know. Boyle does a terrific job of making an intimate almost claustrophobic plot feel much more open. Nobody probably could have done this movie better than Boyle, taking his kinetic trademark style and allowing us to enter the mind of Franco’s fallen hiker. 127 Hours isn’t so much an inspirational tale as it is a morbid curiosity that entertains in spurts. But all the visual tricks in the world can’t get people to want to pay to see a man cut off his own arm.
Nate’s Grade: B