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Spring Breakers

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Spring BreakersReviewer: Philip Price

Director: Harmony Korine

Stars: James Franco, Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez and Ashley Benson

Released: April 5th 2013(UK)

Spring Breakers will easily divide audiences who dare to wander into it. Not because it isn’t necessarily what the marketing campaign suggests it to be, but because it is a sensory overload that isn’t afraid to make a statement. In the doldrums of the early months of the year moviegoers are serviced with plenty of distractions and sometimes barren and empty spectacle, so when something comes along that challenges us that has more of a purpose than to purely entertain, but in fact has something to say it grabs your attention and if it is a good film, it won’t let you go. As I walked out of the theater after seeing the latest from director Harmony Korine (Kids) I was stuck with a sense of what an odd piece of cinema I’d just experienced. It had all the makings of a party flick, one that has been crafted to re-enforce the ritual of college kids driving down to St. Petersburg each year for a week and turning into a cess pool of drugs, alcohol, and sex. It is shot to provoke the bright, summer colors that bounce off the beaches and bikinis that are littered throughout the coastline all washed over with a sense of carelessness and no responsibility. This is no party movie in the vein of something like Project X or 21 & Over though, no, this is a film specifically designed and meticulously concocted to expose the dark side of what comes when you throw your inhibitions to the wind and give into the mind set that everything will be fine as long as you know when to stop and can return to the real world. That being easier said than done this group of girls find it hard to re-integrate into that world of order and routine and instead disregard everything they’ve ever learned for that moment of chaos.

Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), Cotty (Rachel Korine) and Faith (Selena Gomez)
get into some trouble in Spring Breakers.

Though I’d heard much about the film before going into it I didn’t really have much of an idea of what exactly it was about or what the story would concern. The trailers have marketed this the right way, advertising the four young leads half naked in brightly colored bathing suits with an extravagantly ridiculous performance from James Franco to boot. It also doesn’t hurt that Korine was able to gather two former Disney stars into this sort of project that will forever defy them being typecast again. Ashley Benson (Pretty Little Liars) and Korine’s wife Rachel round out the group of college girls who will stop at nothing to get down to Florida and have the spring break of their dreams, you know, like the ones they see so easily and carelessly conveyed on MTV every year. Problem is, they are college girls and have no money so they must resort to robbing a local chicken shack to garner the profits needed to get them to where they want to be and provide for what they want to do. Selena Gomez plays Faith, the most conflicted of the four girls. Faith seems younger, maybe more naive, but has a certain connection to her family and to God than any of the others. Faith is tired of the boring routine her life has become though, she is eager to break the mold, have a little fun, and just escape for a few days to “find herself’ as she continues to put it. When surrounded by life long friends such as the trouble-seeking Candy (Vanessa Hudgens) the up for anything Brit (Benson) and the mother hen/craziest role model unafraid of pushing the limits Cotty (Korine) though things are bound to go much further and the girls bound to get in deeper than any of them ever expected. Fulfilling the ideals of some and scaring the others straight.

For the first half of the film Korine keeps it fun while only once dipping into the extremes these girls are willing to go to. This first half is captured with almost a documentary type approach and reminds us all of what the spring break experience is supposed to be about as a continuous shot of young, tan, fit, students jump up and down with alcohol flowing and bathing suits disappearing. It is constant club music and gyrating that you might think would grow tiresome after a while, but these kids are hopped up on too many drugs to know when to stop or when to become tired. To live on the safe side is to not live at all and so the girls throw a party in their rented hotel room where the drugs and alcohol is as free flowing as it is on the beach. This lands them in jail where they are bailed out by a guy they don’t know, but seems to have a certain affection for them. Cue James Franco as a white, corn rowed rapper with a grill overtaking his big smile and white Camaro to cruise around in with the top down so everyone might know that Alien (because he’s from another planet ya’ll) is out and about. when Franco enters the picture the tone shifts from that care free, party escapism to a film that immediately has a darker tone. We can all see what type of person Alien’s society has shaped him to be and we know his intentions are anything but pure. He bails the girls out of jail expecting something in return, yet things don’t go down the way you might expect. Franco portrays Alien as a guy ignorant to anything but what he has learned from his mentor and ex-best friend Archie (Gucci Mane) and has taken those skills to the streets in order to fulfill his extravagant needs. His materials that prove he is as big a baller as he says he is, even if we might crack the facade and see through the act not that Franco is putting on, but Alien himself. Though he is in only about half of the film he is clearly the most engaging character and more developed than the majority of the girls. Franco pulls out all the stops and takes what he did for Saul Silver and elevates them to a whole new level where Alien is as blind as he is goofy and as disturbingly charming and engaging as he is off-putting.

James Franco creates his most memorable character in Alien.

What Spring Breakers ultimately serves as though is a commentary on the youth of today and the ideas of what youth culture should be like and how they should act without any fear of consequences because it is all for the fun of it and no harm was meant. Korine intends to expose the holes in this train of thought by showing how easy it is to slip into a lifestyle that seems initially easier in terms of instant gratification but will end up killing you in the long run. In that first half of the film where cocaine is snorted from girls bear chests and stomachs and alcohol is consumed as if it is water; where unabashed teenagers strip for the rush of feeling free and grind on one another for the sexual frustration they feel society has shackled them with we see the aura of it all exposed as revolting, disgusting, and downright unsanitary. It may all seem an excuse to show naked women and bongs for no reason, but it has a point and there is a reason it is overlapped with Faith’s discussion with her Grandma. It evokes a reaction, a realization even that despite the fun that single week might provide it doesn’t sustain you for the rest of your life and it doesn’t mean more than a family member, a friend, or anyone else in your life that is important might mean. That might sound a tad bit preachy coming out of a film that is most famous for putting those Disney stars in barely there bikinis, but that is also what makes it so authentic. Much of this is due also to the performance of Gomez. I’ve not seen her in much before this, but I’ve heard her songs on the radio and can guess the image she has created with her target demographic. This will certainly throw some of them for a loop (but let’s be honest, most won’t even see it) but what she does with her role here is provoke the conflicting signals she sees and hears from the world around her. She is lost, searching for something more and there is nothing wrong with that. Where Faith decides to go embodies the lesson Korine seems keen on teaching: that maturity can grow from a place of avidity.

Editor-in-Chief of Movie Marker. Likes: Scorsese, Spielberg and Tarantino Dislikes: The film 'Open Water' I mean, what was that all about?

DVD/Blu-ray

God’s Own Country (DVD/Blu-Ray Review)

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Released: 29th January 2018

Directed By: Francis Lee

Starring: Josh O’Connor, Alec Secareanu

Reviewed By: Barry Levitt

Last year may have been unbearable in many facets, but for queer cinema, 2017 was a landmark year. Starting the year with Moonlight winning Best Picture, a number of LGBT films were released around the world including the critically acclaimed Call Me By Your Name, A Fantastic Woman and Princess Cyd. But perhaps the finest of them all was Francis Lee’s debut feature God’s Own Country, a story of a young farmer in Yorkshire whose way of living is permanently altered when a Romanian worker comes to work at the farm for lambing season. The film is out via Picturehouse Entertainment on DVD, Blu-Ray and VOD on the 29th January.

Johnny (Josh O’Connor) spends his evenings drinking and searching for casual sex with other men in an effort to escape his own mundane existence. He lives and works with his father and grandmother on a quiet Yorkshire farm, though due to his father’s ailing health, Johnny is forced to take care of the day to day operations. As lambing season approaches, the farm is in need of extra help as Johnny’s drinking has prevented him from doing the work necessary to keep the farm afloat. Johnny’s father Martin (Ian Hart) hires a Romanian worker named Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu) during the busy lambing season to help keep the farm going.

God’s Own Country has been often described as a British Brokeback Mountain, and while the film’s similarities are worth noting, they are remarkably different in approach. The main romance in question in Francis Lee’s film is warmly embraced. The sex scenes in particular are dealt with beautifully: free of mystery and shame, the scenes are explicit without being pornographic, and bursting with passion. Sure, the resistance is there – Johnny is deeply frustrated sexually, and his sexuality is kept secret from almost everyone, and he does not exactly instantly warm to Gheorghe’s presence. The film’s power comes from Lee’s excellent script and calm, patient direction. As a viewer, Johnny’s loneliness is almost palpable, making his motivations clear and as a result it is easy to empathise with him.

Lee also does a tremendous job bringing the Yorkshire farmlands to life. His camera evokes an almost tactile response, and it is as if you could feel the grass and the mud; this film is simply full of raw and unflinching moments. There is a particularly touching sequence which Gheorghe tends to a newborn lamb that wonderfully evokes everything that God’s Own Country represents, things that seem broken can be reborn and renewed with tender love and care.

The film’s beauty also comes down to tremendous performances from the principal cast. O’Connor and Secareanu bring a wonderful vulnerability that is vital to the film’s beating heart. Ian Hart and Gemma Jones, who plays Johnny’s grandmother, are both utterly exceptional. God’s Own Country is a tender, quiet and moving meditation on love and loneliness, and wouldn’t be half as powerful without these great performances.

The home entertainment release of God’s Own Country comes with a series of deleted and extended scenes. Though it is easy to see why they were cut down or removed entirely, there is some interesting stuff here that fleshes out some of their characters. The film looks and sounds great, but it is a shame that such an excellent film wasn’t given more bonus material. Still, for fans of the film and for those who have yet to see it, one of the best films of 2017 absolutely deserves a home in your collection.

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The Small World Of Sammy Lee – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Ken Hughes

Stars:  Anthony Newley, Julia Foster, Robert Stephens, Wilfrid Brambell, Warren Mitchell, Roy Kinnear

Certificate: 12

Released 14th November 2016

 

In 1958, Ken Hughes’ half hour play, ‘Sammy’ appeared on British television.  It attracted huge acclaim and turned its solidary actor, Anthony Newley, into a star.  Several years later, he returned to the same part, this time in the much-expanded ‘The Small World Of Sammy Lee’, written and directed by Hughes and released in cinemas in 1963.  The response wasn’t so warm.

Now described by some as a lost gem of British cinema, it returned to the big screen in a newly restored version at the London Film Festival and is released on DVD and Blu-Ray this week.  Time for a re-assessment.

The Sammy Lee of the title (Newley) is the compere at a Soho strip joint and a fast talking chancer.  He’s also up to his neck in debt with the local bookie and has just five hours to raise the cash that will prevent paying up in a more painful way.  It’s a race against the clock for him to find the money, through all manner of dodgy deals.  At the same time, he has to cope with a major complication in his life, the young Patsy (Julia Foster) who fell for his showy offer of a job and has left home to pursue him. 

Right from the opening shot, this is a period piece and a large chunk of nostalgia for anybody familiar with the London of the 60s, Soho especially.  The early moments show streets that are empty, except for the bin men collecting the remains of the night before.  Them aside, there’s hardly anybody around, but all that changes as the day progresses.  You find yourself picking out street names and locations – Berwick Street market for one – while the black and white photography introduces the inherent seediness of the area, such as the strip club interior both back stage and front of house, the snooker halls, the pokey bed-sits.  It extends to the characters as well, from Sammy with his stock of hackneyed, vaguely smutty gags straight out of the Archie Rice joke book to the pathetic Harry (Wilfrid Brambell) who runs his errands and, inevitably, falls down on the job.

All of which makes the more law-abiding characters stand out.  There’s a one-scene portrait of Sammy’s family, his hard working brother Lou (Warren Mitchell) who runs a Whitechapel delicatessen and wife Milly (Miriam Karlin), dripping in costume jewellery and lacking any sympathy for Sammy when he arrives on the scrounge.  So much so, that you suspect there may have been something between the two before she settled for his brother.  And there’s the naïve Patsy who sees him for what he is but still adores him and finds promotion from waitress to “dancer” in the club upsetting and humiliating.

The scenes in the club give away the film’s 30 minute original, there’s one too many scene of Sammy running through the Soho streets and the Patsy love interest feels like padding, but why should a film with so much in the way of character and location fall so flat when it was released?  One reason could be timing.  It didn’t fit with the move towards “kitchen sink dramas” – it came out in the same year as ‘The Loneliness Of The Long Distance Runner’ and ‘This Sporting Life’, while ‘A Kind Of Loving’ had been released in 1962.  Sammy’s story isn’t a thriller either and doesn’t make the most of the dramatic potential of his limited time for raising that money.  Nor is it a comment on society.

But, despite its shortcomings, there is much to enjoy, particularly among the performances.  Newley is suitably nervy to the point of hyper as Sammy, while the oil positively drips off Robert Stephens’ club owner.  And it’s littered with cameos from other familiar faces, like Derek Nimmo, Roy Kinnear and even Linda Baron (Nurse Gladys Emmanuel from ‘Open All Hours’).  The street scenes in Soho are so evocative you can almost smell the garbage and the club interior is always viewed through a fug of cigarette smoke.

It adds up to a film rich in curiosity value for today’s audience, something of a love letter to the Soho of the 60s, but one that misses the dramatic target by a whisker.  Second time round, it seems destined to appeal to a limited audience all over again, one that treasures older, unsung British films.

 

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One Million Years BC – DVD Review

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Reviewer:  Freda Cooper

Director:  Don Chaffey

Stars:  Raquel Welch, John Richardson, Martine Beswick

Certificate: PG

Released: 24th October 2016

 

Cinema history may be littered with bikini moments, but only a few have achieved true iconic status.  Ursula Andress in ‘Dr No’ (1962) for one, followed by numerous other Bond girls who tried to re-create the moment, most notably Halle Berry in ‘Die Another Day’ (2002).  And there was Bo Derek in ‘10’ (1979).  But only one actress had the dubious honour of sporting a fur bikini.  She was the almost-unknown Raquel Welch in ‘One Million Years BC’ (1966) and the garment, with its remarkable adhesive properties, made her an international star. 

The film makes its return in a newly restored version on DVD to mark its 50th anniversary.  And, while Welch in her bikini is easily its best known image, it also overshadows the film’s other achievement.  Not only was it the most successful film ever to come out of Hammer Studios, it was also the big screen’s most famous dinosaur epic until the arrival of ‘Jurassic Park’ some 26 years later.  And much of that was down to the creations of the legendary Ray Harryhausen.  While some of them aren’t up to his usual standard – little more than enlarged versions of a lizard and a turtle – there’s a great dinosaur battle which shows the maestro at his best.

The audiences queuing to see the film in ’66 certainly didn’t go along for the plot.  It’s pretty basic stuff, all about two tribes.  The Stone People are a vicious lot, living in the mountains and regularly knocking seven bells out of each other.  They kick out Tumak (John Richardson), one of their leader’s sons, and he finds his way to the coast where he discovers the Shell People, who show him a different, more peaceful way of life.  It’s not long before the two tribes come into conflict, but then they eventually have to come together in a battle for survival.

Unsurprisingly, the dialogue isn’t up to much – the occasional word and a few grunts – so the demands on the cast are more physical than anything.  And, once director Don Chaffey has exhausted the appeal of Harryhausen’s dinosaurs, he throws the kitchen sink at the film in the shape of the final sequence, a volcanic eruption and earthquake, all of which is pretty spectacular for its day.

The restoration has certainly sharpened up the look of the film and the DVD comes complete with a variety of extras, including interviews with Welch and her co-star, Martine Beswick.  But comparisons with today’s special effects are inevitable and, while Harryhausen’s monsters are seriously impressive for their day, both they and the film are more of a period piece, laden with nostalgia for fans of the 60s.

 

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