Spring Breakers (2013)

Spring Breakers (2013)

Spring Break. It’s a concept we don’t really have in the UK, at least not in the way that Hollywood tells me is the norm in the US. We don’t head to the beach, strap on bikinis, take half of it off and drink copious amounts of beer and spirits on the beaches and all start making out. If we did that here, it’d probably be as follows: head to the beach, strap on bikinis, put on at least four more layers, feel pretty miserable that the weather’s so awful and drink copious amounts of tea in a local café. That’s not to say we’re not an exciting nation – we are! I assure you! But our little rock isn’t built for beachy hedonism in the Spring. It also most certainly isn’t built for the sort of debauchery and extreme hedonism on show in Spring Breakers, that’s for sure…

Spring Break forever.

Spring Break forever.

Much has been made of the fact that this is written and directed by Harmony Korine – the guy that brought you the controversial Kids many moons ago. Me? I just associate the name Harmony Korine with the awesomely beautiful song by Steven Wilson (The Phonic Phage recommends it: linked here), so I don’t have much attached to this particular director if I’m being honest. Also, if you’ve just listened to that Steven Wilson song, then this film is the complete antithesis of it. Spring Breakers is big, brash and bold, so check your coat at the door.

The film revolves around four girls (Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) and their quest to go on their first Spring Break down in Florida. They’re seeking the teenage American dream: the drugs, the drink and the debauchery. And they get it. But when it all starts to get a bit out of hand, they’re taken under the wing of Alien (James Franco) – a so-called “gangster”, replete with gold teeth and corn-rows. But how far will the girls go to hit the ultimate high?

Spring Breakers (2013)

It all sounds wonderfully superficial doesn’t it? It looks like a very dumb and gaudy premise for a teen drama, as does the trailer. You’d also probably believe this for the first 15 minutes of the film, which has more topless girls than your average adult entertainment convention. It actually made me feel a bit weird to be sitting there watching it, as I contemplated what the film was actually trying to achieve, and whether I’d be watching this for 90+ minutes. But it all changed dramatically when James Franco entered the fray.

I thought Franco was stunning in this film. He plays Kid Rock Alien – the white boy gangster who’s living “the dream”: huge house, more money than sense and a bloody piano outside by his pool, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. What fascinated me with Franco was how convincing he was as the somewhat deplorable Alien. I found his character detestable, but his acting sublime. He’s acting full-tilt crazy and that accent? Perfect southern drawl. Franco gets a bad rep for sometimes “phoning in” a performance and playing the same role again and again, but this certainly isn’t the case here.

Kid Rock + Die Antwoord = James Franco. Clearly!

Kid Rock + Die Antwoord = James Franco. Clearly!

What of the remaining cast? The four girls? I wonder how this was sold to their agents to be honest, as they spend the vast majority of the film in neon bikinis. Much fuss has been made of this being the one to “break the mould” for Hudgens and Gomez who’ve both been associated with “pure” Disney films in the past. I guess its an attempt at rebranding from them both. I found the four of them to be thoroughly convincing in their roles, no doubt about that. They’re far from weak actresses, but I’d be keen to see what they all move onto next in a more “grounded” film that requires more clothes.

What really merits mention here is the cinematography. The film looks sublime. If I had to pigeon-hole it, it’s somewhere between Savages and Drive (but not as poor as the former, or strong as the latter). The colours are bold and beautiful and some of the shots are the type you wish you could frame and mount on your wall; they’re just that good to look at (and no – I’m not referring to the copious shots of topless girls). If nothing else, you’ll be impressed with how the film looks. I feel I also ought to focus on the soundtrack used here too. As some of you know, in a former life I was involved in the music industry (hence The Phonic Phage), so I have an ear for it. When I saw the trailers for Spring Breakers I was ready to dismiss it out of hand, as any film that makes a song and dance of its soundtrack generally isn’t worth watching. I don’t go to the cinema to watch Glee. But I was surprised. Sure, all of the Skrillex (aka Sonny Moore of now defunct metal band From First To Last) tunes were in place, but so too were compositions from Cliff Martinez. Who’s he? Only the guy that made Drive sound so goddamn fantastic. Essentially this clash of aggression and peace, along with the glaring neon and stunning visuals makes this a sensory feast for the eyes and ears.

Spring Breakers (2013)

This actually leads onto the major drawback of the film… what’s the point of it all? It’s an exhilarating ride to be on at times, but afterwards you don’t really know why you’re so excited by what you’ve just seen when you actually think about it. Either the film’s trying to be too clever for its own good and believes it’s delivering a very poignant message to the audience, or there is no message to be taken away from this and it’s pulled the wool over your eyes with all its visual and aural delights. The plot is there, but it’s somewhat hollow and you almost feel bemused with yourself for liking the film as much as you do. Indeed, you might actually walk out of the screening thinking it was the worst way you could have spent a couple of hours… but that’s the joy of Spring Breakers; Spring Break isn’t for everyone!

Spring Breakers is a lot like the wild party it shows on screen. It’s a giddy concoction of noise and visual splendour, but when it’s all over you’re left wondering what you’ve actually achieved from your time spent there. Sure, the memories of that experience are wedged in your head, but you’ve not learnt anything new; you just know you’ve had a good time. That being said, I think praise needs to fall on James Franco, as I’ve not been intrigued by a character in quite some time. For me, he carries this film on his shoulders and runs with it. If you’re a fan of Franco, or my rambling has tempted you into seeing something you’d normally dismiss as “a stupid teen flick” (despite its 18 rating), then I think you should go out there and make your mind up for yourself…

All this film goes to show me is that you can’t do something like this in the UK. Nowhere in our isles could you stay in a bikini all day and night (who hasn’t tried?!). Also, we don’t have those classy red cups that you US folks always seem to have at every frat / sorority party in the history of cinema. Plus, as much as I liked James Franco‘s deep south drawl, I don’t think we could have a character like that over here. For us, the deep south would be a county called Devon. Sure, the accent’s quite slow and meandering, but it doesn’t have that same allure… not by a long shot.

Phage Factor:

3.5 Star

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Welcome To The Punch (2013)

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

It seems that James McAvoy season has definitely begun here in the UK. Every so often it appears as though one actor is in every new film you’re seeing at the cinema. Sometimes it’s great, because they’re fantastic on-screen… other times it’s just jarring as you feel you’re oversaturated by their presence. Back in 2011-12 we had a whole spell where Michael Fassbender seemed to be in absolutely every movie going. We saw a lot of Michael Fassbender. A LOT! The whole package you might say… Anyway, moving away from Fassbender‘s manhood, I’ve never understood why studios decide to schedule all of a certain actor’s movies together. It never works so well for me. Having said all that, how does James McAvoy‘s first movie of 2013 shape up? Well, welcome to Welcome To The Punch

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

The oddly titled Welcome To The Punch is a British cop-thriller. The whole thriller vibe seems to be a pretty popular choice for March, with both Broken City and Side Effects dropping in the two weeks previously. The plot here? Essentially, we have our embittered police officer Max Lewinsky (James McAvoy) – a guy that has had a vendetta to catch a notorious criminal by the name of Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong); owing in no small part to the fact that when they last met some three years ago, Sternwood decided to shoot Lewinsky in the leg. This injury would plague Lewinsky for the rest of his life and really build up the need for vengeance. But Sternwood goes off the map – he’s a ghost. All of this changes when a series of murders occur in London, where one of the victims is Sternwood’s only son. This brings the big guy back out of hiding and onto Lewinsky’s radar once more.

So it sounds rather simplistic doesn’t it? Good cop wants to hunt down bad villain… but the writing and plot is a lot more clever than you may think. Welcome To The Punch goes to great efforts to humanise its protagonists. McAvoy‘s character isn’t your typical loud mouthed police officer that’s full of confidence. In fact, he’s quite reclusive and harbouring many wounds – both physical and mental. Similarly, Strong‘s Sternwood isn’t your cookie-cutter bad guy. He’s incredibly relatable and is made much more human than your typical movie nasty. It’s a really refreshing take on the genre that I enjoyed immensely.

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

The film also doesn’t skimp on action. It starts as it means to go on, and bounds along at a frenetic speed. The plot is incredibly well paced and really draws you in to the proceedings. Admittedly, there are some details that are never fully disclosed, such as why Sternwood is seen as the biggest, baddest villain in all of London and how Lewinsky was assigned to his case in the first place, but this can be ignored as it contributes little to the overarching story.

And the calibre of acting? Well, McAvoy‘s off to a good start in “McAvoy Season” here. When he first really appeared on my radar in Wanted, I wasn’t impressed with the guy. Time has changed all this, as I now see him as one of our finest actors. Welcome To The Punch does little to overturn my opinion; he’s on sterling form here and totally sells you his angst, determination and frustrations. This is complimented wonderfully by Mark Strong, a man who’s no stranger to having his “Season” at the box office (appearing in Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass and Robin Hood seemingly at the same time). Strong plays to his strengths here – he’s always an imposing “villain” figure and this is no different. Once again, another engaging performance from one of the leads. As I mentioned earlier, it’s great that these characters have been fully fleshed out and realised so that one can empathise with them at specific moments. I’m a huge fan of this, as it really sets the film apart from the other “police thriller” of the moment, Broken City. In that film, everyone is very one dimensional. Here? Well, that’s definitely not the case.

Welcome To The Punch (2013)

All of the supporting cast, especially Johnny Harris, Peter Mullan and Andrea Riseborough deserve a mention here too. One scene that’s really stuck with me from later on in the film (above), featuring Harris, Mullan, McAvoy and Strong is simply superb. It’s got tension, humour and a huge “what will happen here” hanging over it. THIS is what thrillers are for. More please!

Welcome To The Punch is that rare beast: a stylistically slick-looking British police thriller. It’s shot, directed and written in such a wonderful way that you can’t help but get wrapped up in the film. Couple this with some extremely strong leads and a genuinely thrilling plot and you’ve got one hell of a film on your hands here. It’s certainly head and shoulders above what the US is churning out as of late. It’s simply a film that you cannot afford to miss if you’re a fan of thrillers that are rich in characterisation.

So where does McAvoy season take us? Well, for The Phage, it’ll be seeing him on stage next week as Macbeth before he then warps back into movie land for his star turn in Danny Boyle‘s Trance the week after. I’m on tenderhooks to see how that particular effort turns out. Can his residency on our screens propel McAvoy into the stratosphere, just as Michael Fassbender‘s stay did? Well, I guess it all depends on whether McAvoy feels like whipping his tackle out for all and sundry to see. It certainly didn’t harm Fassbender. I guess that’s what happens when you’re “endowed” with great acting abilities though.

Phage Factor:

4 Star

Gangster Squad (2013)

Gangster Squad (2013)

Have you ever seen a movie poster than thought “oh hell yes, this has X in it… I love X… I bet this film will be great”? Sometimes the gamble pays off as the star in question is someone like Daniel Day-Lewis or Will Smith. Sure, they’ll have the occasional off-film, but overall their hit rate is exceedingly high. On the other hand you have people like Samuel L. Jackson – a self-confessed workaholic, but is as likely to be in a fantastic genre-defining film, as he is a complete dud. It happens. You just hope that you don’t pick the “dud” film in someone’s career – or at least not the one that everyone bemoans as “not his / her best”. So that brings Gangster Squad into the limelight. Its cast has lots of really hot names, but do they meet our expectations?

Gangster Squad is roughly based on the book by Paul Lieberman, which retells the true story of post-World War II Los Angeles. It’s a time of gangsters, where Chicago ruled the United States of America and corruption was rife at every level as the country came to come to terms with post-war life. LA was ruled by Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) – your archetypal gangster: a corrupter and a thoroughly deplorable individual. On the other side of the thin blue line you’ve got the newly established “Gangster Squad” – a secret group of police officers tasked with bringing down Cohen’s Empire. But can they succeed? Therein lies Gangster Squad.

The Gangster Squad

But who is the Gangster Squad I hear you ask? Well, that’d be a team led by Sgt. John O’Mara (Josh Brolin), which consists of half dozen of LA’s best, including Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), Conway Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi) and Max Kennard (Robert Patrick). Clearly some big names in that list – even Terminator 2‘s T-1000 is in there. How can they lose!? Throw Emma Stone into the mix as Cohen’s girlfriend / piece of arm candy, which Gosling‘s Wooters wants a piece of, then you have an explosive cocktail that should explode with all the sleaze and excitement of post-war USA… but the machine isn’t as good as the sum of its parts.

That’s not to say that all of its “parts” aren’t well oiled an firing away nicely. The two biggest assets of the film lie with the two leads: Josh Brolin and Sean Penn. Brolin portrays the 1940’s-50’s stoic police officer with remarkable conviction. In fact, if you were to throw Brolin back in time, you’d probably be convinced he belongs there anyway. He’s just cut from the right material to suit the time period – Men in Black 3‘s comparison to Tommy Lee Jones is still very apt. You can’t help but imagine this would be the part Jones would play should this have been shot 20 years ago. However, the real kudos needs to go to Sean Penn who is simply fantastic as Mickey Cohen. He’s vile. He’s offensive. He’s a dislikeable human being. A perfect mob boss. There’s a real conviction behind his acting, but then again, we’d expect no less from Penn considering his back catalogue. The only distracting thing? Those prosthetics. They’re almost as distracting at first as Joseph Gordon-Levitt‘s in Looper. I just couldn’t help but think “what’s Mickey Rourke‘s Marv from Sin City doing in this flick?”. The fact that the film styles itself as a noir, much like Sin City did, only solidified these ideas in my head. It was effective makeup, but a little distracting at times.

Prosthetic twins!

However, the film falls down in many other areas to render it “enjoyable” rather than “great”. The plot, for a start, isn’t anything mind-blowing. As you can see from that description, it’s pretty much a case of good guys v bad guys. But then again, it’s a gangster movie; you were going to get that one way or another. The real let downs for me were Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone. Individually, I think these guys are fantastic actors, but here they just didn’t shine. When I think of Gosling I either think of his powerful performance in Gangster Squad (2013)Drive or his suave showing in Crazy Stupid Love, but this is neither. His part tries to be cool and calm, with an undercurrent of love and malice, but it just doesn’t come across as it should. I’m pretty sure this year’s Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive) written and directed Only God Forgives will set him back on track as the super hot property we know he is. Similarly, I feel that Stone was cast just as a name. Her role as Grace Faraday is quite disposable – any mid-20’s actress could have played the part equally as well. Whether she was cast owing to her past dealings with director Rubin Fleischer in Zombieland, or because her chemistry with Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love was so great, we’ll never know. Regardless, I just wasn’t that impressed with her performance here, which is a shame considering how much talent and charisma she has.

Ultimately, Gangster Squad just failed to ignite for me. It had its moments, and any time Penn was on-screen was fantastic, but it just felt a little too loose and meandering – perhaps 15 minutes longer than it should have been. It also lacked the punch that I expected from the cast. Maybe I should manage my expectations some more, but maybe not, because I know these actors are firing off at nearly the top of their game right now. We should always expect more.

So I guess the lesson here is to “never judge a book by its cover”, or “never judge a film based on a book by its poster credits”, which is nowhere near as catchy. Too much emphasis has been placed on Gosling in the marketing, when they should have really emphasised Penn‘s role, as he’s clearly the don here. A gnarled, prosthetic-ridden don… one that really needs to avenge the death of Goldie, who smelt like angels ought to smell. Oh wait, that’s Sin City‘s Marv again. Simple mistake.

Phage Factor:

3 Star