Spring Breakers, Harmony Korine’s (Trash Humpers, Mister Lonely, Julien Donkey-Boy, Gummo, Kids) latest film, opens with images of pulsating, gyrating male and female twenty-something bodies under an ultra-bright Florida sun to the throbbing, sensory-pummeling sounds of dubstep pioneer Skrillex’s “Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites.” The bodies belong to America’s best and brightest on spring break, a euphemism for the annual ritual and bacchanal (i.e., getting their libido-driven freak on). Seemingly exploitative, the images repeat themselves, video or art installation style. Korine uses the repetition of images and sounds, of scenes and dialogue not just to create a sense of events turning back on and encircling the characters in their respective fates, or even a pervasive sense of amorality, but just as importantly, a critique of the mass culture the characters and, by extension, we inhabit, and how we, as moviegoers, take the cinema’s visual and auditory pleasures for granted without reflection or reservation.
Author Mel Valentin
Even Stephenie Meyer’s worst detractors – of which they are legion – would have to begrudgingly admit that the Twilight series struck a chord, however wrong-headed, however, regressive, initially with her YA (young adult) audience and later with women of all ages. At its core, the Twilight series functioned as escapist, romantic fantasy, albeit with a supernatural twist (vampires and werewolves) and a thinly disguised pro-abstinence, reactionary-conservative viewpoint that Meyer’s readers seemed to find either unobjectionable or simply willfully ignored. The Twilight series’ big-screen incarnation, however, ended last November. Luckily for Meyer’s fans (and unluckily for everyone else), Open Road Films snagged the film rights three-and-a-half years ago to Meyer’s first non- Twilight novel, The Host, a sci-fi action-romance that’s almost as insipid, unimaginative, and uninspired as anything in the Twilight series.
The last two or three years have been busy ones for Nat Faxon and Jim Rash. In addition to working in front of the camera (Ben & Kate for Faxon, Community for Rash), they shared the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay with writer-director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election) for The Descendants. Since then, Faxon and Rash decided to turn their writing talents to an original screenplay, The Way, Way Back, and to make things slightly more interesting, to direct as well. During their brief stopover in San Francisco, we talked everything from Community getting renewed for a fifth, improbable season, to winning the aforementioned Academy Award, to the differences between adapting source material from another medium and writing an original screenplay, to character development, and casting The Way, Way Back with some of the better (if not the best) comedic actors of their (and our) generation.
Winning an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay can get you many things, chief among them the occasional opportunity to write and direct your next film. For the Academy-Award winning writing-directing duo of Nat Faxon and Jim Rash (The Descendants), that opportunity turned into The Way, Way Back, an emotionally resonant, deeply affecting coming-of-age comedy-drama centered around a key summer in the life of a socially maladjusted, misunderstood teen. Despite a modest budget light on spectacular visual effects and stunt-heavy set pieces, The Way, Way Back is every bit as engaging, every bit as engrossing, and every bit as entertaining as anything out this summer with a budget 10 or even 15 times its budget.
It’s a given that every Hollywood studio wants in on the lucrative animation game. With the Pixar-Disney partnership as an example, every major studio has either purchased an established animation company, started one of their own, or signed an exclusive distribution contract like Universal Studios did several years ago when it agreed to distribute Illumination Entertainment’s releases, beginning with Despicable Me in 2010. Made inexpensively by Hollywood standards ($70 million, a 1/3 to a ½ less than typical for stateside-produced animated films), Despicable Me went on to become a critical and, more importantly, commercial hit, netting $540 million worldwide. And thus a potential franchise was born. A sequel was greenlit within hours of Despicable Me’s first weekend grosses. It could have been rushed into movie theaters 18-24 months later, but thankfully wasn’t. The aptly, if unimaginatively named, sequel, Despicable Me 2 delivers a now familiar mix of physical and verbal comedy, top-notch animation, and emotional resonance.
Writer-director Pedro Almodóvar takes three steps back – actually, three decades worth of steps back – with his 19th feature film, I’m So Excited! (“Los Amantes Pasajeros”), a light, lightweight sex farce. Thirty years ago, Almodóvar made his reputation as a prolific writer-director of transgressive, subversive films, but what was transgressive and subversive then (necessarily so, it should be added), isn’t as transgressive or subversive after three decades of rapidly shifting social, cultural, and political views toward non-heterosexuals. Despite Spain’s status as a Catholic county (with all the conservative values that implies), Spain has moved forward toward recognizing the rights, including marriage equality, for gays and lesbians (and to a lesser extent, transgendered men and women). Progress still needs to be made, however, but there’s seemingly little recognition of those changes in I’m So Excited! There should have been.
Over the better part of two decades, Pixar Animation Studios has become synonymous with quality storytelling, both visually and narratively. Minus one or three misfires (Cars, Cars 2, A Bug’s Life), Pixar has produced a remarkably steady stream of critically acclaimed and commercially successful computer animated films. Last year’s release, Brave, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Film despite a general consensus that it failed to live up to Pixar’s usually exacting standards. With that in mind, a prequel to a well-regarded, twelve-year old film, Monsters, Inc., seemed like another step back for Pixar and parent company (and distributor) Disney Pictures. Thankfully, sometimes – though not always – there’s a difference between perception and reality and in the case of that prequel, Monsters University, the reality is far better than many expected.
Look no further than Superman Returns, Bryan Singer’s (Valkyrie, Apt Pupil, The Usual Suspects) failed attempt to revive Warner Bros. moribund franchise, for a perfect example of how not to reboot a comic book superhero. Tediously reverential and dully respectful of director Richard Donner’s decades-old, over-celebrated contribution to the Superman mythos, Superman Returns was nothing more—or less—than over-long, over-indulgent fan service, albeit fan service with a $200+ million-dollar budget and the full support of Warner Bros. studio executives eager to re-launch one of their most important properties. They, like everyone else who stepped into a movie theater seven years ago, gave Singer—a hot director at the time thanks to X-Men and X-2: X-Men United—the benefit of the doubt. Sadly, Singer squandered all that good will and the result left moviegoers and critics alike frustrated that one of their all-time favorite superheroes had been, once again, ill served.
Rare is the big screen comic book adaptation that begins with the superhero’s literal birth, but that’s exactly what Man of Steel, Zack Snyder’s (Watchmen, 300) reboot of the Superman mythos does, with Superman’s mother, Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer) giving a technology-free birth to Kal-El (Superman’s Kryptonian name) with the able, not to mention sole, assistance of her scientist husband, Jor-El (Russell Crowe). Shot in tight, claustrophobic close-ups, the opening scene in Man of Steel signals Snyder’s attempt to turn the Superman mythos into a personal, intimate story – until, of course, genre demands take over and Man of Steel devolves into a CG-heavy punch-up between super-powered antagonists, first in Smallville, Superman’s adopted hometown, and later in the budget-busting climax set mostly in Metropolis, DC’s fictionalized version of New York City. Before we get to that draining, fatiguing climax, however, Man of Steel more than accomplishes Snyder’s goal of reimaging Superman for the second decade of the 21st century.
Most moviegoers might not recognize French director Louis Leterrier’s name, but chances are, they’ve seen one or more of the films he’s directed. Leterrier initially made his name co-directing Jason Statham’s signature action role, The Transporter for Luc Besson’s production company before soloing on The Transporter 2 and the bizarrely compelling Unleashed (a.k.a., Danny the Dog). On the strength of his work for Besson, Leterrier made the jump to English-language films, directing The Incredible Hulk in 2008 and Clash of the Titans two years later. Notoriously vocal about both films (e.g., unfinished scripts, forced 3D post-conversion on the latter), Leterrier may have talked himself out of directing another big-budget superhero or fantasy film – at least for the immediate future – but he’s back after a three-year hiatus with Now You See Me, a sporadically diverting, ultimately lightweight Ocean’s Eleven-inspired heist thriller.