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This Week at the Movies

'The Call' is an effectively creepy low budget thriller, while the well-received indies 'Spring Breakers' and 'Reality' are a bit of a letdown.

My favorite film of the weekend was neither one of the two favorably reviewed independent movies released on Friday, but a low budget – and skillfully made - B-thriller.

“The Call” is directed by Brad Anderson, whose repertoire includes the eerie “Session 9,” the intense “The Machinist” and the underrated apocalyptic thriller “Vanishing on 7th Street.”

In his latest, Halle Berry plays a 911 operator who is scarred after failing to save a young woman from a serial killer who breaks into her home.

Six months later, she finds herself on the phone with a teenager (Abigail Breslin), who has been kidnapped and stashed in the trunk of a car that is filled with a shovel and other not-so-encouraging items.

Much of the picture takes place on the phone as Berry commands Breslin on how to handle her unfortunate situation. For a movie mostly confined to limited spaces, “The Call” zips along at a rapid clip and is fairly intense.

The picture culminates in a completely improbable – but, honestly, pretty frightening – sequence during which Berry ends up at an abandoned farmhouse searching for the missing girl and the lunatic who has nabbed her.

If anything, “The Call” is proof that Berry, who has made some unfortunate choices – “Catwoman” and, most recently, “Movie 43” – in recent years, can still carry a movie. And despite its resorting to clichéd scenarios in its finale, it’s an effectively creepy, low budget thriller.

I was simultaneously impressed and bewildered by Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers,” which is something of a cross between an experimental art film, a drug war gangster picture and “Girls Gone Wild.”

You have to see this thing to believe it, which is a move that I can’t wholeheartedly endorse.

In the film, four teenage girls (Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine) rob a Chicken Shack in their podunk Southern town to pay for spring break in Florida.

Korine’s early orgiastic montages of youths whooping it up in St. Petersburg are among the most disturbing visions of bacchanalia this side of “Caligula.”

Even more unsettling is the film’s vision of a modern day America in which violence has, for some youths, become a stand-in for the sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll of old.

The girls get busted and spend the night in jail. But the next day they are bailed out by a big bad wolf named Alien, who is played by James Franco in a performance that is the most convincing reason I could give you to see the film.

Alien, covered in tattoos with gold grilles on his teeth and cornrows in his hair, is an aspiring rapper, but mostly just a drug dealer with a house full of semi-automatic weapons and gaudy attire. Franco's performance is the most riveting work I've seen from the actor since "Milk."

The girls soon find themselves in the midst of a gang war between Alien and rival kingpin Archie (rapper Gucci Mane).

Two of the girls think this development is a good time to catch the bus back home, leaving Hudgens and Benson on their own with Alien.

The drug dealer and the two remaining girls embark on a revenge mission against Archie’s crew during a stylishly impressive and completely over-the-top shootout that ends the movie.

The biggest fault with “Spring Breakers” is that it often ambles aimlessly. There are one too many sequences of barely clothed and booze spattered youths behaving badly and Korine goes too heavy on repetition, including poems and phrases that Alien continuously speaks in voice-over throughout the film as if the director were trying to channel Terrence Malick.

The movie has style to spare, a knockout performance by Franco and clever use of music. But, ultimately, it’s too uneven and unfocused for me to recommend it.

Matteo Garrone’s “Reality,” which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last year, is even more surreal than Korine’s latest.

The picture is a satire of reality television that borrows stylistically from Federico Fellini and thematically from Martin Scorsese’s “The King of Comedy.”

In the film, Naples fishmonger Luciano (Aniello Arena) tries out for a spot on an Italian version of “Big Brother” at the insistence of his overbearing family and kids.

At first, Luciano views the tryout as a lark, but becomes increasingly obsessed with landing a spot on the show. He even goes as far as selling his fish stand after being led to believe that the show will be a sure thing.

But once it appears that Luciano will not be a reality television star, his behavior becomes erratic, believing that some homeless people are representatives from the show who have been sent to spy on him and, later, questioning the presence of a cricket in his home.

Garrone’s film starts out convincingly, despite that it takes a while to get to its central conceit.

But, ultimately, the director does not appear willing to give the material the full commitment as Scorsese did in his underrated 1983 satire of stardom. 

Arena offers up some solid work as Luciano and cinematographer Marco Onorato’s camera work is successful at visually capturing Luciano’s declining state of mind. But, otherwise, it’s a bit of a misfire for the director, who was responsible for the captivating 2008 gangster picture “Gomorrah.”


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