Mike Polizzi – Spring Breakers & Gravity

Written by Mike Lyon on January 9th, 2014

Spring Breakers is a kind of Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio, a play on the rites of Spring tuned through the mythology of the early aughts with Britney and K-Fed styled mythic lovers. What it accomplishes, in all its loopy, repetitive, and dayglo-ness, is a pretty quick excavation of entitlement, class and race around the business of having fun in America. James Franco’s nearly Floridian, almost consistently accented sleazing of the mantra, “Spriiiiing Breeeeeak,” wedges itself deep within the inner ear. Expect it to completely uncoil and leak out into some bikini clad silhouette grease spot on your pillow by the time you’re 82. The movie gets in your head. The structure is rhythmic and supple, hypnotizing and intoxicating. It is spring break, the music video, with all the menace and predation left in, and enough of a brain to keep the camera rolling through to the flip side of the fun, where—depending on your outlook—the fun ends or it really begins.

God bless Gucci Mane—for his name and his ice cream coned face. Franco provides the K-fed, gun-fellating (it happens) skeez and Mane provides the aura of gangsta authenticity, the glimpses into the business of fun. It’s enough to see the strippers working in the club to understand the price of the freedom the college students feel when they flash for the camera. But the movie deals in doubles, archetypes and personas and the girls we’re following are different than the co-eds at the end of the beer bongs. They do that too, but they robbed to get there. They each have their own limit to how far they’ll go. They peel off one by one in layers, like Britney’s morality, dignity, and sanity until only two are left.

In Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader and Martin Scorsese originally wanted Travis Bickle’s final shoot out to happen in an all black brothel. Harvey Keitel was brought in to play the pimp late when they worried the scene might provoke a race riot (hey). That final scene is re-imagined here, as a video game cum rap video mash up in St. Petersburg, FL where machine gun carrying bikini-girls in pink ski masks provide something close to the first person POV (the camera hovers just behind them, their masks glow an eerie black-lit blue) and take out the all black personnel in Gucci Mane’s outfit, then Gucci Mane himself (he has another name in the movie, but why? Gucci Mane!). The girls ride the same wave of entitlement that brought them to spring break and follow the ride all the way through. Their sense of entitlement is up against everyone else’s and the girls win Spring Break. For nerds like me, who never really went to Spring Break and always thought it sounded like an invitation to the douche-Reich beach games, Korrine shows why it is important to pay attention. Spring Break is a rite of passage for a huge number of kids in America and it is so because in offering the opportunity to lose yourself in unbridled fun, it crystalizes all of the stuff of our culture: greed, gluttony, classism, racism, and sexism—it’s what we become when the rite is over.

How? Admittedly, whenever I watch a movie in the theater in 3-D that looks as good as this movie did, I lose a portion of my critical apparatus, but still—unbelievable. Cuarón’s films have impressed me in the past, even The Prisoner of Azkaban sticks out as my favorite of the Potter films, but this was something new. Gravity takes the weightlessness of space as its story, its setting and its main character and articulates lavishly. Sandra Bullock is central and enthralling, but also ballast for our capacity to view what the camera is up to here. Aside from the technical brilliance and breathlessness of the movie’s momentum, Cuarón even manages to fit in references, mostly silent nods, towards filmed weightlessness that preceded—aside from 2001 and Apollo 13, the image above comes from a scene that moves from frantic to sensual with such smoothness, I found myself wondering why I was thinking about Barbarella.

Space babies, physics, ballistics and the excellent recreation of evolution that occurs in the lake, this is what I’ve wanted from movies. For an added slap in the face, the plot revolves around a present-day space mission that goes wrong. The technology presented for space travel and inhabitation is all the humdrum stuff that the evening news rarely shows. Zero G? Ho Hum. It’s a shame it takes a stray Russian rocket to make the plot—I’d be happy hanging around and listening to astro-Clooney talk about the time in the bar with the girl in New Orleans, while Sandy Bullock stifles her nausea for a year as long as the camera keeps winding around. But as an assessment of where the culture of movie making is? I can see Cuarón’s point—why haven’t things moved forward? We have the tools and yet we have spent the last decade watching film impress its physicality on us to try to show its continued relevance. This may be why he chose to keep Sandy as his ballast. Her performance and physical struggle is as difficult and visceral as any heroine from a horror flick. So he’s speaking in part through one of the primary milieus of the past decade but doing so in the hopes of pushing it forward. This is the first confident digital movie I have seen and I can see why he took up the gauntlet here and pushed the envelope. To continue to do interesting things, our culture has to move forward, and our culture is predicated by and large by what we choose to watch.

-Mike Polizzi blogs at Grid Politics; find him on Twitter @mike_polizzi

The Best Films of 2013

Written by Mike Lyon on December 31st, 2013


1. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai, Hong Kong)


2. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater, United States)


3. The Great Beauty (Paolo Sorrentino, Italy)


4. Camille Claudel 1915 (Bruno Dumont, France)


5. Only God Forgives (Nicolas Winding Refn, Denmark)


6. Stranger by the Lake (Alain Guiraudie, France)


7. Paradise: Hope (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)


8. Bastards (Claire Denis, France)


9. Yokomichi Yonosuke (Shuichi Okita, Japan)


10. Side Effects (Steven Soderbergh, United States)

The Best Films of 2012

Written by Mike Lyon on November 30th, 2013


1. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosoda, Japan)


2. Amour (Michael Haneke, Austria)


3. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, United States)


4. Barbara (Christian Petzold, Germany)


5. Vulgaria (Pang Ho-cheung, Hong Kong)


6. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)


7. Killing Them Softly (Andrew Dominik, United States)


8. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)


9. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)


10. Eega (S.S. Rajamouli, India)

The Best Films of 2011

Written by Mike Lyon on January 2nd, 2012


1. The Tree of Life (Terrence Malick, United States)


2. A Separation (Asghar Farhadi, Iran)


3. Midnight in Paris (Woody Allen, United States)


4. We Need to Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay, United Kingdom)


5. Wu Xia (Peter Chan, Hong Kong)


6. Guilty of Romance (Sion Sono, Japan)


7. The Turin Horse (Béla Tarr, Hungary)


8. Pina (Wim Wenders, Germany)


9. Drive (Nicolas Winding Refn, United States)


10. Melancholia (Lars von Trier, Denmark)

The Best Films of 2010

Written by Mike Lyon on January 1st, 2011

Comrades! Once again, the list-making season is upon us, and I must answer the call. As per usual, for a film to be eligible it must have received a theatrical release in its country of origin in 2010. Of course, these lists are never immutable, but here are ten great films that defined 2010 for me.


1. Enter the Void (Gaspar Noé, France)


2. I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, Italy)


3. Carlos (Olivier Assayas, France)


4. White Material (Claire Denis, France)


5. The Social Network (David Fincher, United States)


6. Restrepo (Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger, United States)


7. Hahaha! (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)


8. Outrage (Takeshi Kitano, Japan)


9. Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, United States)


10. Alamar (Pedro González-Rubio, Mexico)

The Best Films of 2009

Written by Mike Lyon on January 22nd, 2010

It’s that time of year again, when I join my cineaste brethren for some list-making goodness! As always, my ground rule: I only listed films that received a theatrical release in their country of origin during 2009. While there are still a few films that I haven’t seen, I’m confident that this list is more representative than my average year-end list. So, without further ado:


1. Two Lovers (James Gray, United States)


2. Summer Wars (Mamoru Hosoda, Japan)


3. Vengeance (Johnnie To, Hong Kong)


4. Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson, United States)


5. Antichrist (Lars von Trier, Denmark)


6. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, United States)


7. Love Exposure (Sion Sono, Japan)


8. Mother (Bong Joon-ho, South Korea)


9. The Limits of Control (Jim Jarmusch, United States)


10. Like You Know It All (Hong Sang-soo, South Korea)

For the second year in a row my results have been tabulated along with a panel of my contemporaries courtesy of Michael Anderson at Ten Best Films; please check it out!

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea (2008)

Written by Mike Lyon on July 10th, 2009

Let me cut straight to the point – Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea is phenomenal. It is a ceaselessly gorgeous showcase for Miyazaki’s unmistakeable cinematic genius. It is potentially his finest film since 1997′s Mononoke Hime, and perhaps the most joyful motion picture to be made by any director since his own My Neighbor Totoro first hit screens in 1988. It has been labelled as a “light” and “simplistic” film, but it is also a powerfully deep (if brief) journey to the core of all of Miyazaki’s key motifs – environmental integrity, social equality and feminist determinism.

I don’t throw the word “genius” around lightly. With Ponyo, it becomes clear that not only does Miyazaki appear incapable of making a film that is anything less than revelatory, but that as he approaches the grand old age of 70, he is still making films with the exuberance and passion of a young man. It is an unrelentingly ebullient picture, every second packed with an almost rapturous glee for the boundless potential of humankind.

If that sounds a little excessive, just wait until Ponyo hits American theaters next month; from the the first frame to the last, I guarantee you’ll have a mile-wide smile plastered on your face. In fact, I smiled so much that, in retrospect, it seems difficult to believe that a film that is so fun could be so very profound.

Ostensibly about a young boy and a goldfish, the more left unsaid about the highly compartmentalized plot, the better. Thematically, it borrows liberally from all of Miyazaki’s own films (particularly his screenplay for Whisper of the Heart), but there is a certain undercurrent of Grand Scale science fiction that evokes the works of Osamu Tezuka and Leiji Matsumoto; there is even an unmistakable tip of the hat to Walt Disney’s Pinnochio! It is the first time that Miyazaki has overtly paid tribute to the animators who influenced him, and it seems as if Miyazaki has accepted his place in the pantheon and allowed himself a moment to paint in the broad strokes of his predecessors.

With Ponyo, Miyazaki has tapped into the mainspring of his art and created a film of surpassing power and beauty. It appears difficult for me to express my respect for his work without degenerating into pure uncut enthusiasm; suffice it to say that Miyazaki is forever making exactly the kind of movie I want to see: rejuvenating, optimistic and permeated by a sense of wonder. Time and again, he flawlessly executes the loftiest aspirations of the cinema, and Ponyo is no exception.

★★★★★★★★★☆

 

Note: I have not seen the Disney dub, and don’t intend to, and can only encourage filmgoers to see this (and every) foreign feature in its original language with subtitles.

City Without Baseball (2008)

Written by Mike Lyon on June 13th, 2009

Less about baseball and more about the difficulties inherent in being Chinese and bi/homosexual, City Without Baseball has received no small amount of press in Hong Kong. This is, without question, the most mainstream, high-profile film yet from HK addressing one of China’s great unspoken taboos. It’s also a fascinating exercise in creative casting: all of the actors are non-professionals who are actual members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team, and the story is woven loosely from anecdotes they provided.

On the surface, the plot is about the their battle to win in the Pan-Asian League despite being from Hong Kong, a city that is generally unaware that it even has a baseball team. But the real story is that of a number of players experiencing conflicts of sexual identity. This struggle is graphically illustrated by another of the film’s major talking points: it features a copious amount of male frontal nudity. It is hard to underscore how rare this is in any kind of Chinese film – one can only imagine that the pseudo-documentary nature of the picture allowed the censors to even consider it for release; and it’s not even Cat III!

The movie certainly represents a sea-change in HK’s traditional portrayal of young men. Though a smooth, idol-oriented veneer is applied, these are all young professional athletes at the peak of their physical shape being highly sexualized in the service of humanizing homosexuality in a culture notoriously adverse to the subject. For this alone, it is deserving of a certain amount of scrutiny.

Which is not to say, pun inevitable, that this is a home run of a picture. Lawrence Ah Mon directs, and coming from a lengthy spate of second-string action and triad pictures, he brings his typically glossy, vacuous aesthetic with him. The intersecting plots hang by flimsy threads, and the cinematography is wildly incongruous to the subject matter. Nevertheless, it is almost impossible not to be pulled into this film, thanks to the phenomenal amateur performances from the members of the Hong Kong Baseball Team and the frankly wonderful script by first-time screenwriter Scud.

Even in an industry obsessed with nicknaming its talent, it’s hard not to pay attention to a pseudonym as symbolically potent as Scud. Not only is his maiden film a bit of a tactical blow aimed at a country already obsessed with pretty young men, its overt phallusy (let me invent a word, dammit) is certainly reflected in the film’s frank examination of sexual crisis. All this aside, the important thing is that this boy can write. Many a scene veering dangerously close to traditional, overpoweringly nostalgic Hong Kong melodrama is saved at the last moment by a line of dialogue so revelatory that more than once I was jolted back to attention.

Its calculated sexuality is surprising because it focuses on men, and in a brazenly straightforward and even lurid fashion that would never, ever fly even in an America offering. Its script is shockingly competent and oftentimes sincerely wonderful. By all rights, a film by a b-list director from a first-time gay writer with a cast made up entirely of non-actors focused around a sport no Chinese national cares about and featuring a lengthy procession of naked men has no right being this engaging. If not necessarily a triumph of filmmaking, its popularity is certainly a triumph for the visibility of gay rights in China, which is an honor very few other films in the history of queer cinema can share.

Pretty heady for a picture that is ostensibly about how everyone in China hates baseball.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

 

Moon (2009)

Written by Mike Lyon on April 29th, 2009

Moon is an auspicious debut from Duncan Jones (née Zowie Bowie), a talented new director who happens to be the son of David Bowie (let me officially be the first person to predict that every review of this film in the mainstream press will have the tagline “SPACE ODDITY!”). Sam Rockwell gives a truly remarkable performance as Sam Bell, a lunar miner who is nearing the end of his 3-year contract at a single-man mining outpost. His only companion is the station computer, Gertie, a straight-up HAL homage that tantalizingly suggests how a culture informed by decades of watching 2001 might choose to design a companion robot.

To say too much more about the plot would be to spoil its central conceit, and while I’m sure many reviewers will talk openly about it, and Tits & Gore is not a spoiler-free site, I want to preserve the surprise if at all possible at least until the film gets its theatrical release this coming June.

Suffice it to say that Jones admirably mixes together stock genre tropes, paying tribute to a number of classic science fiction features while retaining his own idiosyncratically dark vision. Familiar filmic concepts of the “clean future” and the “dirty future” are mixed together to create a unique atmosphere; the milieu is suitably claustrophobic, the cramped quarters of the mining station serving the film’s conceptual purposes while masking the shoestring budget. In fact, it may be hard to spare a glance at the meticulously designed sets with your eyes glued to Rockwell for the duration of the picture. His performance is utterly mesmerizing, inhabiting the role so completely that it is impossible to imagine any other actor having the chutzpah to pull it off.

Which is not to say that Moon is without its problems; the pacing is hardly consistent and Jones’ reliance on Rockwell tends to undersell his direction. Parts of the film veer dangerously close to identical thematic elements in Steven Soderbergh’s recent adaptation of Solaris, without being as emotionally potent. But what it lacks in originality is mostly compensated for by the sheer audacity of its central performance and the careful economy of its direction.

Moon may be dressed in familiar clothing, but it is a singular experience, a clever, darkly funny and genuinely moving journey into the nature of individuality. Jones is already at work on a second science fiction feature, and it is welcome indeed to see such a promising new talent continue to develop his voice by working in genre filmmaking!

★★★★★★★☆☆☆

 

La Ciénaga (2001)

Written by Mike Lyon on April 24th, 2009

I was blown away by this debut feature from Lucrecia Martel, an Argentine director who had previously worked in television. Translated as “The Swamp” or “The Bog”, La Ciénaga explores the relationship between two cousins: Mecha, a bourgeois alcoholic drinking herself to death in the shadow of the mountains; and Tali, a harried city-dweller looking for a more temporary escape for a few days at Mecha’s house.

The title metaphor steers the film capably; the sweltering summer heat permeates every frame, as the two families wallow and suffer through both the temperature and the travails of their bankrupt existence. But the film’s crucifixion of the Argentine middle-class was, to my mind, secondary to a pervasive, pleasantly nostalgic focus on the burgeoning sexuality of Mecha and Tali’s children.

The roaring sexual tension between the children, not only the second cousins but the brothers and sisters, is beautifully conveyed by fine performances and a camera seemingly fueled by the jittery, horny fire of adolescence. There is nothing perverse or exploitative; sweaty and half clothed, the children can’t help but stare a little too long, to sneak into a shower together or lay sprawled atop a bed in a room filled with shade. It is a powerful and evocative sort of collective Bildungsroman, a confusing, memorable summer. Indeed, the summer’s climax is a rare, true shock; a sharp finale after a tense, meandering wade into the swamp.

★★★★★★★★☆☆