Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
by Steve Habrat
Last summer, Marvel Studios kicked off Phase 2 of their cinematic universe with Iron Man 3, a film that featured a marketing campaign that hinted that this new set of superhero films would embrace a darker tone. Unfortunately, many were left disappointed, as Iron Man 3 quickly succumbed to the creeping sarcasm and carefree antics that Tony Stark had become known for. The hope for some darker action carried over to November’s Thor: The Dark World, which suggested that things might be getting grittier for the Norse god, but once again the audience got more of Marvel’s winking escapism. To make things worse, Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World implied that Marvel might be producing these films a little too quickly, as they were far from the superhero factory’s best efforts. Somebody should tell Stan Lee that even superheroes need some time off. Now, right on the cusp of the summer movie season, audiences are given the chance to catch up with super soldier Steve Rogers in Captain America: The Winter Solider, which easily ranks as the best solo-Avengers outing yet. Under the direction of Joe and Anthony Russo, Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Marvel getting in touch with their dark side, and opting for a much more plot-driven approach that caters more to adults than to the pint-sized viewer. The result is a heart-pounding political thriller that gives Joss Whedon’s The Avengers a run for its money as the best superhero film from Marvel Studios.
Two years after the battle for New York City, Steve Rogers aka Captain America (played by Chris Evans) has been living in Washington D.C., where he has been attempting to adjust to modern day life and taking on various missions for intelligence agency S.H.I.E.L.D. One day, Rogers is approached by S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (played by Samuel L. Jackson) about leading a rescue mission to help save a S.H.I.E.L.D. ship from a band of vicious Algerian pirates. The rescue mission seems to go as planned, but Rogers is enraged to learn that fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka The Black Widow (played by Scarlett Johansson) nearly compromised the rescue attempt by stopping to collect classified data from the ship’s computer for Fury. Upon returning to Washington D.C., Fury briefs Rogers on Project Insight, which involves three massive gunships that are able to neutralize dangerous threats before they even happen. Rogers is less the pleased to learn about S.H.I.E.L.D.’s new defensive program, but things get worse after Fury is attacked and nearly killed by a mysterious assassin known only as The Winter Soldier (played by Sebastian Stan). With orders from Fury to not trust anyone at S.H.I.E.L.D., including their senior leader, Alexander Pierce (played by Robert Redford), Rogers enlists the help of Romanoff and newly befriended war hero Sam Wilson aka Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie) to help him uncover S.H.I.E.L.D.’s dirty secrets—secrets that could threaten the lives of millions of innocent American citizens.
Unlike usual Marvel fare, Captain America: The Winter Soldier doesn’t focus all of its energy on the CGI battles, explosions, fistfights, showdowns, and whatever else gets the audience’s adrenaline pumping. Sure, there is no shortage of action to be found in The Winter Solider—that I can assure you—but what we have here is something that gets more mileage out of the complex plot and meaty character development. Credit this welcome shift to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who provide a screenplay that reaches back to Cap’s pulpy WWII origins while never forgetting to develop the modern characters that, up until now, have gotten by on name recognition alone from diehard Marvel Universe fanboys. Sure, we knew a bit about Johansson’s The Black Widow thanks to Whendon’s work in The Avengers, but she still acted as more of a pretty face and a fit body filling out a skin-tight jumpsuit than a properly developed member of the eccentric fighting force. She was simply riding a wave of voluptuous sex appeal before this entry came along. And then there is Jackson’s Nick Fury, another member that has acted as the one-dimensional link between Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and Captain America. Here, we finally get a bit of backstory on the trench coat-clad S.H.I.E.L.D. director, and we are even given a chance to peak behind the famous eye patch.
As far as the character of Steve Rogers aka Captain America goes, he’s still a good deal of fun as he tries to bring himself up to our modern times. In between working his way through his list of music to listen to, movies to see, and various other fun facts to brush up on, he wrestles with the post-9/11 world in which we now live. No longer do our enemies wear uniforms or clearly identify themselves. Instead, they lurk in plain sight, acting as an ally before dealing a cataclysmic and calculated blow. Even more perplexing to the Cap is the way S.H.I.E.L.D. now plans on dealing with these emerging threats—neutralizing them before they even occur. “I thought the punishment came after the crime?,” he asks. If only things were that easy! It’s a mature thrill to watch Cap pull back the layers of filth and corruption around him, and it’s an even bigger thrill to hear him remind us that sometimes you need a bit of old fashioned to combat these new threats. And then there is Mackie’s Wilson aka Falcon, a courageous war hero who is willing to stand proudly next to the Cap, no matter how dangerous the situation may be. He may not have the abilities that Rogers has, but when he straps on that wicked jet pack and flies into battle with barely any armor to protect him from the bullets and bombs exploding around him, you want to stand up and cheer.
The most surprising presence in Captain America: The Winter Soldier is none other than Robert Redford as Alexander Pierce, the tough-talking head of S.H.I.E.L.D. It’s best not to reveal too terribly much about his character, but his inclusion here makes the ‘70’s political thriller echoes ring just a little bit louder than they already do. It’s a welcome surprise to see Redford jumping into the realm of escapism, and he seems to be thoroughly enjoying every single second of his role. Probably the most hit-or-miss character here is none other than The Winter Solider, the mysterious bad guy with a buzzing metal arm and dark hair hanging in his face. For those who are only familiar with Captain America through his rollicking cinematic adventures, I won’t ruin the big reveal about his character, but what I will tell you is that his character’s full potential is never fully reached. He’s certainly a formidable villain as he jumps, kicks, and shoots at the Cap and his sidekicks, but we just don’t get enough of the powerful assassin. His relegation to a secondary foe is a bit of a letdown, but rest assured that there is plenty of emotional weight behind his fiery final showdown with Rogers.
With all of these juicy characters and the riveting plot taking center stage in The Winter Soldier, we almost forget to stop and admire all the gritty action that explodes with hair-raising strength. This time around, we get a nifty, Captain Phillips-esque hostage situation that lashes out with brutal fury as the Cap and his team execute strategic moves to diffuse the situation. There is also my personal favorite, the highway gun battle centerpiece, a sequence that roars with danger and destruction as cars explode, Gatling guns spin to life, and the Cap has his first up-close-and-personal encounter with The Winter Soldier. And then there is the colossal aerial finale that boasts tumbling gunships, even more gunfights, breathtaking fistfights, and a heaping pile of destruction. Trust me, folks, it’s an absolute doozy that leaves you gasping for air. Overall, Captain America: The Winter Soldier marks a new high for Marvel Studios. It’s a brainy superhero adventure that doesn’t even dream of skimping on expert storytelling, captivating character development, or high-stakes action. It’s downright impossible to walk away without wanting more of Captain America.
by Steve Habrat
In 1987, director Paul Verhoeven unveiled RoboCop, a satirical science fiction blockbuster that has been long celebrated by critics and audiences as a classic of the genre. Despite offering gruesome thrills and unrelenting action, this beloved classic has even earned recognition from the prestigious Criterion Collection and was released by the arthouse company on laserdisc and DVD a few years back. It should come as no surprise that a remake of RoboCop was rumored for many years—unsurprisingly, really, considering that Hollywood is running on fumes in the creativity department. After almost ten years of development, America finally has Brazilian director José Padilha’s RoboCop, a buffed and bloodless affair that features a staggering A-list cast. With names like Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L. Jackson, and Jackie Earle Haley filling up the cast list, you’d think that there must be something solid to this blatantly unnecessary remake of a classic. Truthfully, RoboCop 2014 isn’t nearly as bad as you may have expected it to be. It’s far from empty headed and the veteran performances carry plenty of weight, but the film is so concerned with making an intelligent statement that the film nearly forgets to have any fun or offer any adrenaline-pumping set pieces. It also makes the grave mistake of handing over the title role to Joel Kinnaman, a newcomer that works hard but never fully earns our sympathy or respect.
RoboCop picks up in Detroit, 2029, with police officer Alex Murphy (played by Joel Kinnaman) and his partner, Jack Lewis (played by Michael K. Williams), doing some dangerous undercover work in an attempt to bring down crime boss Antoine Vallon (played by Patrick Garrow). In their investigation, they begin to discover that Vallon may have ties to several officers in the Detroit police department. After a nasty confrontation between the undercover officers and Vallon’s men, Jack is left severely wounded and clinging to life. Alex manages to make it through the confrontation unscathed, but Vallon’s men soon track him down and implant an explosive device inside his car. While enjoying a quiet evening at home with his wife, Clara (played by Abbie Cornish), and his young son, David, the device is triggered, leaving Alex with fourth degree burns covering his body. Meanwhile, in Tehran, the United States is waging war with the help of robotic soldiers and hulking droids created by OmniCorp. On American soil, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellers (played by Michael Keaton) is pushing to have these robots and droids patrol American streets, but he is met with resistance from Senator Hubert Dreyfuss (played by Zach Grenier), who claims that the robots and droids lack human emotion. Desperate to make his vision a reality, Sellers enlists the help of Dr. Dennett Norton (played by Gary Oldman) to meld man with machine. After a lengthy search for a proper candidate, Sellers and Norton settle on Alex for the human/robot program, and in the process create a revolutionary new figure of justice—RoboCop.
Where most blockbusters today attempt to mask their lack of intelligence with countless CGI battles, gunfights, fistfights, and miles of devastation, RoboCop begins with heady debates about the use of robots and droids in the thick of war. The battle rages on a nightly news program called The Novak Element, hosted by Pat Novak (played by Samuel L. Jackson). In this sequence, we are treated to some tense urban action sprinkled in between Novak’s bug-eyed stare and his questioning of America’s “robophobia.” Points are made on both sides of the issue, bullets fly, bombs explode, and things seem to be getting off to a strong start even before the credits have rolled. Padilha and his crew are letting us know that they are well aware that the original RoboCop was interested in smarts just as much as it was interested in spilling blood, and you have to commend them for acknowledging this. However, as the seconds tick by in RoboCop 2014, it becomes increasingly clear that the filmmakers seem reluctant to have a little fun. There is a brief rush of giddy excitement when Alex steps into a training session in an abandoned warehouse, but the action feels square and the approach is uninspired as Jackie Earle Hayle’s Rick Maddox taunts the stomping RoboAlex by calling him “Tin Man.” I’m sad to report that the action rarely picks up from here, only really cutting loose during the final showdown in the OmniCorp lobby.
While the action may not exactly take your breath away, a good majority of the performances will keep your eyes glued to the screen. Perhaps the most mediocre of the bunch is Kinnaman, who fails do anything interesting with his screen time. He’s the typical macho cop/mushy family man in the early scenes, and when he’s sentenced to his new RoboArmor, he’s only sporadically pathetic as he realizes that he will never have a normal life again. Still, he can droop his mouth into a proper frown as he aims his machine gun and fires at the bad guys, which is always an action-movie plus. The ever-welcome Oldman is the top dog here as Dennett, the doctor tasked with placing the injured cop inside a machine. Oldman earns more sympathy when he is forced to switch off Alex’s emotions than the actual RoboHero does. Keaton nails his role as Sellers, the ruthless OmniCorp CEO who may not be as upstanding as he seems. Jackie Earle Hayley does a fine job as Maddox considering that the screenwriters have handed him the film’s worst dialogue. Strapped inside his exoskeleton, he looks like something out of Elysium, but he still finds a groove as a certified badass. Jackson is his usual shouting self as Pat Novak, the nightly news host who speaks directly to the audience and acts as a pale moderator to all the heated debates. Abbie Cornish rounds out the main cast as Alex’s suffering wife, Clara, who slowly regrets allowing the suits of OmniCorp to slap her husband inside that black armor.
Undoubtedly the most controversial change in RoboCop 2014 is the PG-13 violence that the studio opted for rather than the gruesome R-rated approach Verhoeven took to the original. Throughout it’s nearly two-hour run time, there is barely a speck of blood, which makes it clear that Columbia intends to turn this new RoboCop into a sanitized series that will sell just as many toys as it does tickets. Despite the lack of bloodshed and carnage, Padilha’s RoboCop is still a well-paced story that builds quite nicely. The only time that the film really drops the ball is with Vallon and his villainous shenanigans. He is quickly bumped off and forgotten so that Padilha can make room for bigger and badder tricks. It also wouldn’t have hurt to include villains that are a bit more colorful than what we are left with. Overall, you can’t fault RoboCop 2014 for attempting to be much more than a mind numbing, popcorn-muncher of a film, but this constant strain to be saying something prevents the audience from receiving the action jolt they are craving. Maybe a different lead would have helped, too. Oh well, as far as remakes go, it could have been much, much worse.
Mini Review: Mud (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Over the years, actor Matthew McConaughey became known as the guy who starred in all those fuzzy romantic comedies that your mother and girlfriend loved. Every so often, he’d jump into a disposable action movie like Reign of Fire or Sahara, or surprise you with his dark turn in the underrated horror movie Frailty, but you couldn’t help but peg him as that romantic comedy dude who was always chasing around Kate Hudson or Sarah Jessica Parker. Recently, McConaughey has broken from his usual roles and started accepting beefier parts that really showcase his talents as an actor. One of these roles would be the title character in director Jeff Nichols’s critically acclaimed drama Mud, which debuted a Cannes in 2012 and then enjoyed a quiet limited release in 2013. Hailed as one of the standouts of 2013, Mud is a surprisingly candid coming-of-age drama that features strong emotional turns from McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, an actress that has kept a relatively low profile since her Academy Award winning role in Walk the Line. While Mud is certainly a down-to-earth Southern tale about love found and love lost, the film feels a bit too familiar in places, something that ultimately holds it back from tru greatness..
Mud introduces us to Ellis (played by Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), two preteens battling boredom in De Witt, Arkansas. One day, Neckbone takes Ellis out to an island on the Mississippi River where he has discovered a rickety boat stuck high up in a tree. Ellis and Neckbone intend to make their discovery a new hangout location, but they are shocked when they discover that there happens to be a man living in the boat. The man introduces himself as Mud (played by Matthew McConaughey), a shaggy drifter who claims to be hiding out on the island and in desperate need of some food. Mud tells the boys that if they’ll bring him so food, he’ll allow the boys to have the boat when he leaves the island. Ellis and Neckbone agree to help the mystery man out, but they soon learn from police department that Mud is, in fact, a fugitive on the run from the law. When the boys return to the island, they learn that Mud killed a man for severely injuring his girlfriend, Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Mud explains that he is waiting to be reunited with Juniper and that he is on the island to avoid a slew of bounty hunters that are looking for him. Fascinated by Mud’s story, the boys decide to help Mud in his quest to be reunited for Juniper, but soon, the bounty hunters arrive looking to make Mud pay for what he has done.
While the tale of the shaggy-haired outlaw waiting for his ladylove is the surface story of Mud, the film’s true story belongs to the kids. A good majority of the film follows Ellis as he experiences his first love and watches his home life fall apart. We catch glimpses of his parents duking it out with each other at the kitchen table as Ellis sneaks away to meet up with Neckbone. He spies on them for only a moment before fleeing off to that island to hide from the world inside that tree boat. In town, he crushes on an older girl, May Pearl (played by Bonnie Sturdivant), who may not be taking their developing relationship as seriously as Ellis takes it. Nichols, who also wrote the film, isn’t shy about telling Ellis’s story in a realistic manner, addressing the fears of change and the sting of heartbreak in a serious tone. Despite not mincing words, this side of Mud is extremely gentle. It’s never cold-hearted or cynical, even when things seem to be at their lowest for poor Ellis and Mud. The darker side of the story manifests in Mud’s looming confrontation with the bounty hunters. They beat Juniper in the hopes of learning Mud’s whereabouts and they strike in a swarm to guarantee that our outlaw hero has absolutely no chance of escape. This certainly ups the sense of dread and it does make us fear for Mud’s safety as the final confrontation nears.
The main attraction of Mud is the undoubtedly performances, especially the ones from McConaughey and Witherspoon. McConaughey is absolutely fantastic as the lovesick outlaw with a heart of gold. The relationship he develops with Ellis is incredibly sweet, sparking hope in the young boys eyes and igniting a sense of adventure that allows him to escape his rocky home life. Witherspoon’s Juniper is a flirty free spirit who questions her affection for the marooned Mud. Sheridan is the film’s heart and soul as Ellis, a seemingly tough teen with a soft center. Lofland plays it even rougher and tougher as Neckbone, a foul-mouthed teen who means well enough. Also present are Sam Shepard as Tom Blankenship, Ellis’s mysterious neighbor who has ties to Mud and ends up being an essential ally in his fight to stay alive. Nichols regular Michael Shannon gives a small but sweet performance as Galen, Neckbone’s scuba-diving uncle. Overall, while it certainly doesn’t reinvent the wheel and it does end up feeling quite a bit like several other rundown dramas of recent memory, Mud is still a sensitive and ultimately optimistic drama bustling with performances that are alive with everyday emotion.
Mud is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
American Hustle (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Ever since his directorial debut in 1994, David O. Russell is a filmmaker that continues to surprise critics and audiences with the wide range of films that he produces. He’s done indie comedies (Spanking the Monkey, I Heart Huckabees), mainstream comedies (Flirting with Disaster), war thrillers (Three Kings), political comedies (Nailed), sports dramas (The Fighter), romantic comedies (Silver Linings Playbook), and now, just under a year after releasing his celebrated Silver Linings Playbook, he tackles another project that expands his intriguing body of work. Just in time for Oscar season we have American Hustle, a film that has been receiving glowing word of mouth over the past several months for its intoxicating blend of 70’s style, quirky characters, dry humor, and rich story that consistently pulls the rug out from under the viewer at every turn. With expectations at a staggering high, you start to wonder if this tale of a sleazy con man, his gorgeous partner, and a shifty FBI agent could ever live up to such praise. Yet with each passing second, American Hustle hits entertaining levels that are off the charts, and it finds Mr. Russell in full form, radiating a confidence we have yet to see from this talented filmmaker. Russell can also thank his star Christian Bale, who gives the best performance of his career, for making American Hustle such a strutting must-see.
American Hustle introduces us to Irving Rosenfeld (played by Christian Bale), a smooth-talking con man that runs a chain of Laundromats and on the side operates a seedy loan business where he takes $5,000 from desperate clients and gives them nothing in return. Life is pretty good for Irving, but it gets even better when he meets the beautiful Sydney Prosser (played by Amy Adams), who is drifting from job to job. After showing his business off to Sydney, she jumps on board and assumes the identity of Lady Edith Greensly, a British bombshell with overseas banking connections. As Irving and Sydney rob their clients blind, the two strike up a romance that is kept from Irving’s motor-mouthed housewife, Rosalyn Rosenfeld (played by Jennifer Lawrence), who paces around their home like a caged tiger. It doesn’t take long for Irving and Sydney’s operation to be thwarted by Richie DiMaso (played by Bradley Cooper), an eager FBI agent looking to make a name for himself at the bureau. Rather than locking Irving and Sydney up in jail, Richie decides to use the con artists to help him with an operation called Abscam, which would lure Carmine Polito (played by Jeremy Renner), the beloved Mayor of Camden, New Jersey, into taking a bribe. Irving and Sydney reluctantly agree to help Richie, but their plot to take down Politio takes a dangerous turn when several other high level politicians and ruthless mobsters get involved.
With so much style and humor to burn, American Hustle wouldn’t even need its winding and weaving script that finds all of its boldly drawn characters attempting to get over on each other. From the opening retro studio logos, Russell is gleefully smashing open a post-Vietnam and Watergate time capsule, which allows us to glimpse an America that has embraced earth tones, tacky oversized sunglasses, perms, bell bottoms, leisure suits, plunging dress necklines, and disco music. It’s all so loud, excessive, and in your face that it threatens to be cartoonish. It also guarantees that American Hustle is going to be a strong contender in the production design category, costume design category, and make-up and hairstyling category. While the meticulous attention to detail certainly makes the film entertaining, the sense of humor that Russell injects is an absolute wonder. The film opens with Bale’s Irving fussing with his comb over, hilariously gluing strips of hair down over a tuft of fake fuzz. It is guaranteed to have the theater doubled over in laughter, especially when Cooper’s DiMaso decides he is going to mess the eccentric masterpiece of a hairdo up. Also brilliant is the winking trip to a flashing disco club, where Adams and Cooper burn through the dance floor like fiends. It’s wildly hilarious and hot-under-the-collar sexy as they shimmy and shake their way to a dimly lit bathroom stall. American Hustle’s crown jewel of hilarity comes when Irving and Rosalyn have their very first fiery encounter with a microwave, which they continuously refer to as the “science oven.”
Making American Hustle even more irresistible is the A-list cast, who all seem like they are locked in a never-ending battle for the spotlight. While they are all fantastic, none come close to matching the work of the out-of-this-world Christian Bale. We’ve seen Bale immerse himself in his characters before, but none have been quite as charming and alive as Irving, the pudgy con man with the meanest comb over you have ever seen. In front of Sydney, his clients, and even DiMaso, Irving has a silver tongue that really works a room. His confidence practically burns a hole in the screen, but when he’s behind closed doors and facing the wrath of Rosalyn, he’s a fidgeting disaster that clutches at his heart and pops little white pills to calm his weak ticker. Adams is a spitfire as his redheaded partner, Sydney, who throws on a British accent and toys with DiMaso’s heart. Adams and Cooper share two specific moments that could practically set the screen ablaze. Cooper nails his role as the slimy DiMaso, the hotshot FBI agent who wears his perm like a crown. Lawrence is as sexy as ever as Irving’s restless wife Rosalyn, a bored and neglected housewife who threatens the whole operation. Then there is Renner as Polito, the optimistic Mayor who is determined to bring back Atlantic City any way he can. Rounding out the cast is Louis C.K. as Stoddard Thorsen, DiMaso’s perpetually peeved boss who can never seem to get control of his determined agent.
As if the style, humor, and fluid performances weren’t enough to make you fall in love with American Hustle, the film also boasts a firecracker of a script from Eric Warren Singer and Russell. Slightly based on true events, it dares to be unpredictable, sweet, intimate, touching, and intensely character driven as all of these characters that claim to do anything for survival try to play each other any way they can. It’s a thrill not knowing what direction it’s going to veer off in next. All the bickering and scheming builds to a witty final act that springs a double-cross rush that leaves you floating out of the theater. Overall, American Hustle finds Russell at the top of his game as a filmmaker. He is working with an airtight script, capturing brilliant performances that play phenomenally off each other, filling his frames with gorgeous set and costume design, and allowing his sharp sense of humor to fuel its soul. The end result is gold-plated entertainment that is guaranteed to retain its shine for years to come and reward with multiple viewings. By the end of the film, you will respect the hustle.
Spring Breakers (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Arthouse writer and director Harmony Korine isn’t the type of filmmaker who releases warm and fuzzy crowd pleaser films. Far from it. Korine made a name for himself with such films as the gritty AIDS tale Kids, the voyeuristic and derelict Gummo, and the schizophrenic Julien Donkey-Boy, all films that have achieved cult status due to their controversial subject matter and off-the-beaten-path approach. Over the years, Korine has managed to keep a relatively low profile, but earlier this year he finally broke into the mainstream with Spring Breakers, a glow-in-the-dark tale of four college girls letting loose on the streets of Florida. Through his camera lens, Korine turns this tale of escaping the mundane and living out your fantasies into a sun-drenched nightmare that leers at you through showers of Natural Light, clouds of cocaine, hovering trails of marijuana smoke, and walls of dubstep noise. And then there is James Franco, who gives an Oscar-worthy performance as Alien, a showy, grill-wearing rapper and wannabe thug who pulls our four beach-bunny heroines down into a neon underworld that is ecstasy to some and a living and breathing Hell to others.
Spring Breakers introduces us to Candy (played by Vanessa Hudgens), Brittany (played by Ashley Benson), Cotty (played by Rachel Korine), and Faith (played by Selena Gomez), four college students who are eager to tag along with their fellow classmates to a spring break celebration in Florida. Unable to scrape enough money together to go, Candy, Brittany, and Cotty decide to rob a local diner in an attempt to come up with enough money to make the trip. The robbery proves successful, and together, the girls board a party bus that will take them to a weeklong celebration in the sun. Upon their arrival, the girls are convinced that they are in paradise and they proceed to indulge in an abundance of reckless and wild behavior. After getting busted by the police for doing cocaine at a party, the girls are taken to a holding cell, where they, along with two hard-partying twins (played by Sidney and Thurman Sewell), are bailed out by Alien (played by James Franco), a small-time rapper and thug who believes the girls can be useful with his criminal empire. After getting to know Alien, the girls believe they have it made, but their endless paradise is threatened when tensions flare between Alien and a dangerous local gangster by the name of Big Arch (played by Gucci Mane).
Korine begins Spring Breakers with a twirling montage of a college kids on a shining beach. There is no sound to accompany this string of images as they shout at the camera from behind Ray-Ban sunglasses. At first, the behavior seems harmless enough, that of college kids who are letting loose after months of hitting the books and hunching over finals. As the sequence picks up, the behavior spirals more and more out of control as girls shed their bikini tops for the audience and the cheering guys douse them in streams of cheap beer. It’s a parent’s worst nightmare, a depiction of animalistic behavior that parents everywhere secretly try to tell themselves that their son or daughter doesn’t engage in. To our four main characters, this is what they consider to be the good life that they daydream about, snorting cocaine off of each other’s stomachs, seducing a room full of meathead guys who throw beer on their quivering bodies, and urinating in the street for the entire world to see. As the film goes on, the girls begin to grapple with this endless paradise, some embracing it without ever looking back and others frightened into the shelter of their normal routine by the arrogant wannabe thug Alien, who claims to take great delight in being as bad as they come.
When evaluating the performances of Spring Breakers, the actor at the head of the class is Franco, who is flawless as the smirking faux-thug Alien. Franco introduces Alien as an overconfident poser who demands that the girls, who circle his feet like dogs, marvel at all of his possessions. He brags about having Scarface on repeat, shows off his high-powered weaponry that hangs over his bed (which he dubs his “spaceship”), and loves gathering the girls around his baby grand piano that sits on his scenic back porch. When he tangles with Gucci Mane’s menacing Big Arch, who spits poisonous threats like a viper, his confidence begins to wobble. With a showdown looming in the distance, Alien’s love for the good life is put to the test, especially when he realizes that he needs to back up all of his boasts. As far as the girls go, Hudgens and Benson are white hot as Candy and Brittany, two girls who love pointing their fingers like guns and making gun shot noises. Rachel Korine is a ball of confliction as Cotty, a pink-haired partier who can’t quite decide if she is as taken with Alien’s lifestyle as her pals are. Gomez surprises as the religious Faith, who grows increasingly concerned about both her current situation and her rebellious friends.
While the subject matter of Spring Breakers sure fits in with the rest of Korine’s homely body of work, the film is a slight shift from his usual ragged, fly-on-the-wall visual style. The party scenes certainly hold on to the vérité approach we have seen in Korine’s previous work, but Spring Breakers finds him applying a gorgeous neon glow to almost every single shot, sometimes leaning towards a glow-in-the-dark surrealism that makes you feel like you’re trapped in a night club. It’s never short of beautiful, even when it’s allowing you to glimpse the worst in human beings. The film also casts a spell with the thumping dubstep score, which almost throws you into a glazed-over trance as partiers scream into the camera. In addition to its neon visuals, Korine’s script builds the suspense quite nicely, working its way to a shattering showdown where the girl’s get to live out their violent fantasies, complete with neon green bikinis and hot pink ski masks. Overall, while it may be a bit too much for some viewers to handle, Spring Breakers is an undeniably shocking and multi-layered meditation on the pros and cons of the good life. It finds Korine at the top of his directorial game and coaxing a wild turn from the ever-colorful James Franco. This is a blissfully edgy and hallucinatory work of mad genius from a man who loves pushing our buttons and making us uncomfortable.
Spring Breakers is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Out of the Furnace (2013)
by Steve Habrat
Over the past few years, it seems that it has become routine for Hollywood to release one or two rundown drama-thrillers a year that feature blue collar characters having it out with one another in a gasping American neighborhood on the verge of total collapse. We’ve seen it in films like Winter’s Bone, The Fighter, The Beasts of Southern Wild, and Killing Them Softly, all of which relished immersing audiences in family squabbling, filth, decay, and boarded up structures. This year we have director Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, another downbeat family-drama/revenge-thriller set against a dying industrial town in Pennsylvania. While Out of the Furnace may not necessarily win any points for originality (this is definitely a seen-it-all-before exercise), Cooper’s Rust Belt tale of revenge is comprised of heart pounding backwoods atmosphere, bare-knuckle brutality, and gripping melodrama guaranteed to make that hour and fifty minute runtime fly by in a flash. It also features enough A-list talent to fuel a dozen Oscar bait movies, with stars Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, Willem Dafoe, Casey Affleck, Forest Whitaker, Zoe Saldana, and Sam Shepard all bringing the true grit required to allow a film like this to really take shape.
Out of the Furnace introduces us to Russell Baze (played by Christian Bale), a steel mill worker who slaves away taking double shifts to help out his brother, Rodney (played by Casey Affleck), a war veteran struggling to adapt to normal life after several tours of duty in Iraq. Despite some differences, Russell and Rodney still band together to look after their terminally ill father, who seems to be getting worse by the day. One evening, Russell is driving home from a local bar when he strikes a car and kills the occupants inside. Russell is sent away to prison for some time, but when he emerges, he realizes that his life hasn’t gotten any easier. As he tries to come to terms with the passing of his father and his break-up with his beautiful girlfriend, Lena (played by Zoe Saldana), Russell learns that Rodney has become involved with bare-knuckle boxing. Concerned for his safety, Russell attempts to persuade Rodney to leave bare-knuckle boxing behind and come work with him at the steel mill. Refusing to listen to his brother, Rodney demands that local gangster John Petty (played by Willem Dafoe) get him fights that are run by Harlan DeGroat (played by Woody Harrelson), an extremely dangerous backwoods thug who has a grudge against Petty. After Rodney mysteriously disappears at the hands of DeGroat, Russell takes the law into his own hands and sets out to find his brother before it’s too late.
While there are several elements borrowed from other films and there is a slight predictability to it, Out of the Furnace takes great care in really making both its story and its characters seem as genuine as possible. Russell struggles to find the motivation to pull himself from the comfort of Lena’s arms to work a double at the sweaty steel mill. With circles under his eyes and his dreams smothered under protective gear, he keeps a dignified poise as he tries desperately to keep his brother on the right track. This proves challenging when Rodney retaliates with the horrors he saw in Iraq (some of the stories he shares are deeply disturbing), which really allow us a clear understanding as to why it is so difficult for him to find his place in normal society. Russell’s composure remains in tact when he is involved in that gruesome car accident, which places him behind bars and at the mercy of vicious inmates for some time. When he finally gets out, things have gone from bad to worse, as he grapples with the loss of his father, his break up, and the horrors of that terrible accident. Despite his weary exasperation, when he finally has to confront the demons that claim his brother, there are no exaggerations in the actions taken. The frustration with local authorities and his determination to not loose his brother open a door for careful plotting that leads up to a low-key final showdown with the devil himself that is shockingly convincing.
While Bale makes Russell’s soft-spoken composure, self-assurance, and deteriorating compliance in the face of tragedy and failure electrifying cinema, it is Harrelson’s sadistic Harlan DeGroat that is ultimately in charge of Out of the Furnace. With a crack-rock smile and zero patience, DeGroat relishes his rotten existence, proudly declaring that he “has a problem with everybody.” He pyshically and psychologically bullies anyone and everyone for the smallest things, proudly beating up his girlfriend at a drive-in and then viciously attacking a man who tries to intervene. It’s an unforgettably evil performance from Harrelson, who completely fills out DeGroat’s filthy-dirty skin. Affleck is perfectly suited for Rodney, a haunted soldier who just can’t seem to get his life together. He comes home with his face pounded into oblivion and sips liquor to make the pain go away. He’s on a crash course, and his fate is tragically foreseeable. Dafoe is fantastic as John Petty, a small time thug in over his head with the wrong people. He’s far from a hard-ass gangster, and when the people he has wronged come calling, the quiver in his voice will have your stomach in a knot. Saldana is given a small but pivotal role as Lena, Russell’s one and only escape from his daily grind. Forest Whitaker is present as Chief Wesley Barnes, a gravel-voiced cop who stole Lena away from Russell. His strained relationship with Russell is put to the test when he attempts to get to the bottom of Rodney’s disappearance. Sam Shepard also stops by as Gerald Baze, Russell and Rodney’s uncle who joins Russell in his quest to track down his brother.
Considering that Out of the Furnace draws from other intense works of cinema, the film dishes out plenty of scenes drenched in blood and violence. The bare-knuckle boxing scenes are difficult to watch, as each punch thrown isn’t accompanied with an over-the-top sound effect to embellish the force of the blow. The beatings are savage and the violence is shown in up-close-and-personal detail, especially one character taking a bullet to the head. We also can’t forget Rodney’s war stories, which will certainly repulse and remind us all of the horrors of war. Equally disturbing is a trip to a rundown crack house hidden in the dense hills. We glimpse junkies sprawled across ripped sofas, sucking on crack pipes and shooting heroine in between their toes. Overall, while the lack of originality will hold the film back this awards season, Out of the Furnace is still a riveting, emotional, and uncompromising backwoods drama/thriller. It makes great use of its backdrop, it’s appropriately moody, and it’s comprised of actors who take familiar characters and really give them distinctive life. It’s capped off with an abrupt finale that is welcomingly blunt and haunting.
by Steve Habrat
Among the many sleazy horror subgenres out there, one of the most popular of the late 1970s and ‘80s was the slasher film. Grindhouse theaters and rundown drive-ins were bombarded with masked psychos wielding a number of assorted kitchen utensils or power tools ranging from machetes, cutting knives, chain saws, meat cleavers, and more. While major Hollywood studios were only responsible for a small number of these slasher films, a good majority of them were released through small independent studios looking to capitalize on the popularity of films like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Black Christmas, and Halloween. Many of these films were artless and depraved, riddled with senseless blood, guts, and gratuitous nudity—things that were not heavily present in any of the films that inspired these knockoffs. Today, a large number of these cheap exploitation slashers are lost in the sands of time, but there are still some that have amassed respectable cult followings. One such cult slasher would be director William Lustig’s 1980 exploitation classic Maniac, an urban nightmare that appealed to 42nd Street crowds due to its unflinching violence and gore. While it may not enjoy the popularity of, say, Halloween, Maniac is still popular enough that it finally earned itself a remake makeover. Now we have director Frank Khalfoun’s Maniac, a surprisingly harrowing, disturbing, and frighteningly vicious horror film produced and written by French horror director Alexandre Aja.
Maniac places us in the shoes of Frank Zito (played by Elijah Wood), a soft-spoken loner who manages a mannequin shop that was left to him by his abusive late mother, Angela (played by America Olivio), who also worked as a prostitute on the side. Traumatized by his mother’s treatment towards him, Frank takes to the streets and stalks down beautiful young women who he murders and scalps with a hunting knife. One day, Frank meets a young upcoming photographer named Anna (played by Nora Arnezeder), who is interested in photographing the mannequins inside Frank’s shop. The two immediately strike up a friendship, but soon, Frank takes a liking to the beautiful artist. One evening, Frank and Anna go on a date to the movies, but after the date, Frank is devastated to learn that Anna has a boyfriend. Frank struggles to maintain the friendship, but after humiliating encounters with Anna’s boyfriend, Jason (played by Sammi Rotibi), and her mentor, Rita (played by Jan Broberg), he snaps and looses his tiny grip on reality, which puts Anna in serious danger.
Where most horror remakes refuse to do anything new or inspired with the material they are updating, Khalfoun’s Maniac dares to get creative with its style. The original Maniac was told in a fairly straightforward manner, although, we were asked to root for the bad guy of the story, something that does indeed make the viewer’s skin crawl. Maniac 2013 asks the same thing of the audience, but it takes it a step further and presents the action from the POV of Frank. The idea that we are peering through Frank’s eyes is undeniably creepy, and since we are inside his head, we are unable to escape from his demons. At times, Khalfoun blurs the picture, distorts sound, or descends into the surreal, offering up rattling hallucinations that really do a fine job of showing off Frank’s unstable condition. This POV presentation also gives the violence a razor-sharp edge that really cuts you deep. Each and every time Frank jabs his knife into one of his victims, you’ll desperately want to close your eyes. The violence is shockingly realistic, and it is shown in all of its revolting glory. It’s so graphic that even Frank looses his lunch after murdering one poor girl. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart.
Since the story is presented from Frank’s point of view, you may wonder why a high-profile star like Elijah Wood is involved with this small project. The few glimpses that we get of Frank are in reflections, where we are exposed to the glazed-over trance that he seems to float around in from day to day. His reflection presents a boyish face, drawn in innocence that suggests that he wouldn’t hurt a fly. Obviously, we know better, but armed with those puppy eyes, we know Frank is capable of fooling a lot of people into thinking he is completely harmless. Wood uses his physical appearance to his advantage, but his performance is wounded by his line delivery, which seems very mechanical and staged. The problem could stem from the dialogue, which is embarrassingly clunky and refuses to roll off the tongue in a natural fashion. As far as the other performers go, Arnezeder’s Anna is the ray of hope that Frank is desperately in need of. When she reveals she has a boyfriend, we certainly feel the dagger driven right into Frank’s heart, but we fear for her when he finally falls off into the abyss. Olivio certainly makes you raise an eyebrow as Frank’s prostitute mother, who forces him to hide in the closet while she has a threesome. Rotibi is spot on as the testy Jason, Anna’s boyfriend who takes an immediate disliking to Frank and viscously accuses him of being gay.
In addition to the impressive POV style and unnervingly realistic violence, Maniac 2013 also benefits from an awesome retro soundtrack that is sure to get stuck on repeat inside your head. Composed by French musician Rob, the soundtrack invokes an early ‘80s aura, sounding like a mash up between the dreamy notes of Ruggero Deodato’s Cannibal Holocaust, the triumphant synthesizer blasts of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and the urban beats of Nicholas Winding Refn’s throwback thriller Drive. With the soundtrack transporting you back to 1980, Khalfoun uses it to intensify the film’s urban grit. You almost feel like you’re on the grimy midnight streets with the homeless hiding inside camping tents, club kids drunkenly stumbling out of dance clubs in search of a blackout hook-up, and wandering hoods with their faces suspiciously concealed. All of this is sure to scare you away from wandering darkened city streets ever again. Overall, while the film’s dialogue could have used some major attention, Maniac is still an unexpectedly chilling walk in a madman’s shoes. It’s respectful of the original film while also setting itself apart from what Lustig delivered back in 1980. Maniac is stylish, chilling, and wildly grisly horror remake that is sure to disturb even the most hardened horror fan.
Maniac is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
Only God Forgives (2013)
by Steve Habrat
In 2011, Danish director Nicholas Winding Refn found mainstream success with his blazing art-house thriller Drive, a film that took me by complete surprise. What I figured would be just another throwaway action movie with growling muscle cars turned out to be an 80s existential gut-punch throwback that wasn’t easy to shake off. Needless to say, it definitely had me eagerly anticipating what Refn would deliver next. Two years later, Refn returns with Only God Forgives, a film that couldn’t be a bigger disappointment. Lit like Dario Argento’s Suspiria, sculpted around one of the laziest plots you could imagine, and weird just for the sake of being, well, weird, Only God Forgives reteams Refn with Drive star Ryan Gosling, an ever-welcome talent that was the head-stomping main-attraction of Drive. With a star like Gosling in front of the camera, you’d think that he would be able to bring something substantial to this snoozefest, but its as if he was sleepwalking through the role, quietly trying to make sense of what exactly Refn was trying to achieve here aside from paying tribute to his idol, Alejandro Jodorowsky, which is what he claimed to be doing with Drive. What we’re left with is a senselessly bloody exercise in style without any purpose or direction. Only God Forgives exists simply to be morose collection of empty neon images that are better suited for a music video.
Only God Forgives introduces us to Julian (played by Ryan Gosling), an American drug dealer running a boxing club that is actually a front for a drug operation in Bangkok. One stormy evening, Julian’s erratic brother, Billy (played by Tom Burke), rapes and kills a young prostitute in a seedy hotel room. The Bangkok police quickly discover what Billy has done, but rather than detaining him and taking him to the station, the police call in retried officer Chang (played by Vithaya Pansringarm), a sword-wielding sadist known as the Angel of Vengeance. Chang encourages the girl’s father, Choi Yan Lee (played by Kovit Wattanakul), to do what he wishes to Billy. In a fit of rage, Choi kills and mutilates Billy’s body. Word of Billy’s death soon reaches Julian and his associates, who track down Choi to question him about Billy’s brutal murder. Meanwhile, Julian’s mother, Crystal (played by Kristin Scott Thomas), arrives in Bangkok to claim Billy’s body and get to take control of the situation. After learning that Julian spared Choi’s life, Crystal demands that he take to the neon streets and exact bloody revenge on the men responsible.
Early on, Only God Forgives shows signs of promise with the swirling sense of dread that lingers over the hypnotic red and blue frames. Refn slowly glides his camera down harshly lit hallways aglow with red lighting that suggest that we have stepped into Hell itself. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as Billy, Julian, their associates, and a boxer stand around in a darkened room declaring “it’s time to meet the devil.” The tension and unease tighten when Billy stumbles off to a futuristic whorehouse in the hopes of finding a young fourteen-year-old girl to have his way with, something that is sure to make any viewer sick to their stomach. It all feels so tremendously evil and it’s about as atmospheric as a film can be. Sadly, the sinister mood of the film is quickly overtaken by Refn’s trudging pace, which gives way to frustrating tedium. Every single scene feels unnecessarily drawn out or glaringly hollow as characters sit around in flashing nightclubs or lavish hotel rooms staring off into space or silently plotting their next vicious move. It’s certainly pretty to look at, that I can’t deny, but it seems that Refn is under the impression that these stretches of meditative silence are thought provoking in all their surreal glory. Instead, they become mind-numbingly boring, further hurt by the lack of an entrancing character.
As far as the characters of Only God Forgives are concerned, almost every single one of them is as wretched as they could possibly be. Gosling’s Julian just sits around sulking, watching blank-faced prostitutes pleasure themselves or staring down at his quivering fists like it’s the first time he has ever seen them. He does show a few hints of compassion, which makes him slightly redeemable, but his constant detachment makes his character a major bore. Things really get weird when his sexpot mother, Crystal, shows up to scold him for not gunning down his brother’s killer when he had the chance. Crystal consistently alludes to having sexual relations with both of her sons, the most awkward coming when she discusses Billy and Julian’s, um, manhood with Mai (played by Rhatha Phongam), a prostitute paid to act as Julian’s girlfriend. Then we have Pansringarm’s Chang, a mysterious man who brings his punishing sword down on any man or woman who has committed an atrocious sin. He encourages Choi to murder Billy, only to return to chop off one of Choi’s arms for turning a blind eye to his daughter’s line of work, and he savagely tortures a gangster responsible for ordering a hit that left several citizens and police officers dead. Pansringarm’s eerily calm demeanor is meant to send chills, especially when he nonchalantly brings bloody vengeance down on his victim’s heads with so much as blinking, but Refn doesn’t write any personality into the character. The most interesting thing about him is that he likes to sing karaoke.
Only God Forgives finds Refn also reteaming with Cliff Martinez, the man who composed the chilling score for the masterpiece that is Drive. Only once or twice does Martinez unleash the retro synths that accompanied Drive and he does incorporate a throbbing organ that compliments the hellish blaze of the winding hallways we wander around, but everything else just falls flat by comparison. One of the stronger aspects of Only God Forgives is the way that Refn pays tribute to Jodorowsky, the man behind such midnight movies like Holy Mountain and El Topo. Several symmetrical shots called to mind certain scenes from Holy Mountain and there was even an echo of Kubrick in a few spots, something that was particularly surprising. Overall, while Drive was certainly going to be a tough act for Refn to follow, Only God Forgives is a disastrous follow-up that consistently allows style to mask the fact that there is very little substance. The artistic freedom is certainly refreshing and the ominous mood is undoubtedly effective, but it becomes increasingly clear that Refn is simply stroking his ego, leaving you disappointed that you didn’t just re-watch your copy of Drive. Plus, it’s a bad sign when Ryan Gosling can’t even save your movie.
Only God Forgives is available on Blu-ray and DVD.