James Franco Undergoes One Hell of a Transformation in ‘Spring Breakers’

James Franco in Spring Breakers

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2013.

It almost shouldn’t work. James Franco as a Florida-based rapper in Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers?” Just the thought of it sounds utterly laughable as we are so used to him playing such clean-cut characters in the “Spider-Man” trilogy, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and “Oz the Great and Powerful.” But then again, he did play the ultimate stoner in “Pineapple Express,” so there is that. In the end, while Franco does have some laughable moments as the crazy rapper Alien, the role allows him to give his best performance in a movie ever since his Oscar nominated turn in “127 Hours.” There’s no doubt as to how much research Franco did, and this is one of the first great actor transformations of 2013.

After watching “Spring Breakers,” you desperately want to find out what made Franco take on this role as it is so very different from any he has played previously. Clearly, he was drawn to working with Korine who is best known for writing the screenplay to the highly controversial “Kids,” and maybe he has a thing for rap music which we did or did not know about. But in a conversation with Roger Moore of RedeyeChicago.com, Franco discussed one of the main reasons why he chose this particular project.

“None of us had ever experienced spring break, really,” Franco said of himself, Korine and the rest of the cast. “Actors who start their careers early miss some key experiences in life. I didn’t go to prom. Well, I was dating a theater nerd so we went to a theater festival back in Aspen, Oregon instead. I experienced prom, for the first time, on film. Same with spring break. This is my spring break. And I was over 30 when I got around to it.”

Many have said Franco based Alien on the rapper Riff Raff (and this includes Riff Raff himself), but the actor said his main inspiration for the character was another rapper named Dangeruss. Dangeruss is a local Florida rapper who is still relatively unknown, but he lived in the same area of Florida which Alien lives in and has the same kind of lifestyle. Franco ended up writing a long essay which was featured on the MTV website, and in it he explains how big of an influence Dangeruss was on him.

“I met Dangeruss through Harmony,” Franco wrote. “Before I went down to St. Pete to play Alien in ‘Spring Breakers,’ Harmony sent me innumerable videos and photos as references for my character. He drowned me in them. Harmony is a master of online research. Once he chooses a location to shoot, it turns out he is also a master at finding the most interesting and odd local places and characters. One of the last videos Harmony sent me was of a white guy in dreads, sitting in his car, rapping about Dope Boyz. This turned out to be Dangeruss, a local rapper who Harm had met at an audition and knew immediately that he was the real deal.”

“The same day I arrived, Harmony had me visit Danger at his apartment,” Franco continued. “I was surprised when we pulled into a rather nice sprawling housing development, country-club style, with fountains and manicured grass. I think there was even a driving range. When I met Danger, he was tall, thin as a stick, covered in tats and humble as hell. He was willing to help in any way. He told me about growing up in the bad part of town and having poetry as his only recourse when things got ugly. His involvement with the street and his involvement with hip-hop developed simultaneously. ‘While Peter Piper was picking peppers, I was selling yola at the corner store.’ His lyrics are the highly autobiographical chronicle of surviving on the streets of St. Pete.”

Then there’s the question of where Franco got those cornrows done. Looking at someone with cornrows, it makes me think of how painful the process of getting them must be as it involves a lot of hair being twisted around in unusual directions. However, in an interview with GQ, Franco described to Matthew Serba what it was like having them done.

“We had a local artist down in St. Petersburg, Florida do it,” Franco told Serba. “I think it took about five hours total, only because we had to try different cornrow configurations. It doesn’t hurt that much, but it does get very itchy because you can’t get them wet.”

Korine himself has stated in an interview with Joel D. Amos of Movie Fanatic of how impressed he was with Franco’s transformation into Alien. It turns out that the two of them spent a lot of time working on the character even before the cameras began rolling, but once Franco arrived on set, Korine was stunned at what he was witnessing.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Korine told Amos. “I spent a year just sending him images and talking to him, designing the character. I never saw him do it. He didn’t want to rehearse. When he put in the cornrows and the gold teeth and I heard the accent… I was like ‘whoa.’ He was a maniac.”

James Franco’s performance as Alien in “Spring Breakers” is really just another reminder of what an amazing actor he can be when you give him the right material to work with. While he may be getting more attention for the box office blockbuster “Oz the Great and Powerful,” it’s this movie which is bringing him the critical raves he deserves. Watching here makes you excited for what he has in store for us next.

SOURCES:

Roger Moore, “James Franco finally gets his spring break,” RedeyeChicago.com, March 21, 2013.

James Franco, “James Franco: The Inside Story of My ‘Spring Breakers’ Gangster,” MTV.com, February 20, 2013.

Matthew Serba, “Last Night…Talking Cornrows with James Franco,” GQ, May 1, 2012.

Joel D. Amos, “Harmony Korine on James Franco in Spring Breakers: What a Maniac!,” Movie Fanatic, March 21, 2013.

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Jessica Chastain on Portraying an Infinitely Determined CIA Agent in ‘Zero Dark Thirty’

Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

It’s utterly fascinating to watch Jessica Chastain go from playing the embodiment of grace in “The Tree of Life” to portraying a willfully determined CIA agent in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The role of Maya represents a huge change of pace for her as she gives this character a razor-sharp focus as she relentlessly pursues Osama Bin Laden and bring him to justice, and she is riveting to watch throughout the movie’s two and a half hour running time. After watching Chastain in Kathryn Bigelow’s critically acclaimed film, I am convinced she can play any role given to her.

I was lucky enough to go the “Zero Dark Thirty” press conference which was held at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Chastain said she had three months to prepare for this role, and she went through the screenplay with its writer Mark Boal throughout the production. She ended up nicknaming Boal “the professor” as he had spent several years doing research on the Bin Laden manhunt, and he clearly knows as much as anyone should on the subject. But the real challenge Chastain faced in playing Maya was the fact this character was based on a woman she could not meet, and this forced her to get especially creative.

“Because I was never able to meet the real woman my character’s based on because she’s an undercover agent, I had to use my imagination to fill in the blanks where the research couldn’t answer the questions,” Chastain said. “I tried to answer things like why she was recruited out of school. There’s a child’s drawing in Pakistan and other certain things which would be reminders of the life she was becoming a stranger to. I had to create on my own but still stay faithful to the woman I am portraying.”

One of the most talked about elements of “Zero Dark Thirty” are the torture scenes which have given some the impression that Bigelow has made a pro-torture movie (she has not). Acting in those scenes could not have been much fun, and Chastain acknowledged this in an interview with Christine Kearney of Reuters. In talking about her experience, Chastain makes it clear nobody was about glamourize this part of the story and how it made her fully aware of the differences between her and Maya.

“We filmed in a real Jordanian prison, in the middle of nowhere. The environment wasn’t great, especially as a woman,” Chastain told Kearney. “They had a lot of trust between the actors, nothing was dangerous or unsafe. There was a lot of discussion to make sure that we weren’t doing something that was going to be salacious. They just wanted it to be accurate.”

“I know I am playing a character who has trained to be unemotional. But I have spent my entire life allowing myself to be emotional, and allowing myself to feel everything,” Chastain continued. “There was actually one day that we were doing a scene, and I said, ‘I am sorry’ and I just had to walk away, and I just started crying … it was a very intense experience.”

Chastain is a classically trained actress who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Julliard, one of the most prestigious performing arts conservatories in the United States. Now I have heard people say how actors can get trained too much at schools like this one to where they can’t appear natural in film and television. I am always annoyed to hear someone, let alone anyone, say this, so it’s great to see Chastain prove them wrong with her Oscar worthy performance. While at the press conference, she explained how being a student at Julliard prepared her for a movie like “Zero Dark Thirty.”

“I spent four years studying Shakespeare and iambic pentameter and all that, and to be honest this text was more difficult than that,” Chastain said of the screenplay. “Not only has Mark taken the facts of what happened, but he’s also created a subtle character arc within it, and you find the humanity within what he’s created. So Julliard absolutely helped me when preparing to speak very complex language and it gave me the tools for the research I would need to do in order to be believable as a CIA agent.”

What’s beautiful about Chastain’s performance is not just how she takes Maya from being out of her element to becoming an obsessed CIA agent, but also how she imbues the character with such a strong humanity. Chastain also makes us respect not just Maya, but all those who worked diligently alongside her behind the scenes to bring down Bin Laden and continue to fight against terrorists both foreign and domestic. In talking with George Pennacchio of ABC News, Chastain sees her performance as a tribute to the real-life person her character is based on.

“She worked for a decade; she gave up so much. She basically became a servant to her work,” Chastain told Pennacchio. “In a way, making this movie is like acknowledging the sacrifices she’s made and thanking her for what she’s done.”

SOURCES:

Ben Kenber, “Interview with Jessica Chastain, Mark Boal and Kathryn Bigelow On Zero Dark Thirty,” We Got This Covered, December 18, 2012.

Christine Kearney, “A Minute With: Jessica Chastain on ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’” Reuters, December 19, 2012.

George Pennacchio, “Jessica Chastain compares herself to ‘Zero Dark Thirty’ character,” ABC, December 19, 2012.

‘Booksmart’ is an Instant High School Movie Classic

Booksmart movie poster

Looking back at my high school days, I wonder if I got into enough trouble as a kid. I was a good kid for the most part, a pretty good student, and was and still am a firm believer in karma. Still, a lot of my fellow classmates who constantly got into all kinds of mischief, some of which involved police involvement, seem to be doing much better in life than me. The other day, I read an article about how the kids who were really into heavy metal back in the 1980’s have since turned out to be well-adjusted adults. Perhaps if I had discovered Metallica in elementary school instead of high school, I would feel well-adjusted as well. Besides, neither Megadeath nor Motley Crue came even close.

I bring this up because these thoughts went through my head as I watched “Booksmart,” an American coming of age comedy which has at its center two females who have been best friends since childhood and are now one day away from graduating high school. They have been model students, paid far more attention to their studies than partying, and they have since been accepted to some of the best colleges America has to offer. But with one day of high school left, they begin to wonder if they haven’t fooled around enough in the past four years. What results is a film which has been described as a female “Superbad,” and it is one of the best coming-of-age films I have seen in some time.

It is made clear from the start how best friends Molly Davidson (Beanie Feldstein) and Amy Antsler (Kaitlyn Dever) have spent more time studying these past four years than they have getting wasted every other weekend. Molly is the student body president, but she is nowhere as popular as the vice-president, Nick Howland (Mason Gooding), who only went for the position because it involved planning parties. Amy came out as gay two years ago, and she is harboring a huge crush on fellow classmate Ryan (Victoria Ruesga) which could go unrequited. But while they have accomplished so much, these two young women are typically spurned by their fellow classmates as being too pretentious.

Molly ends up convincing Amy to go to Nick’s party, the biggest end-of-the-school party of all, after she makes a shocking discovery. While she and Amy have gotten into good schools, Molly discovers her fellow classmates who looked to have been partying their scholastic years away have also gotten accepted to prestigious institutions as well. How is this possible? Well, Molly isn’t sure, but she sees this party as their last chance to have the fun they somehow denied themselves during their time in high school.

Like many great movies, “Booksmart” isn’t so much about the destination as it is about the journey. Molly and Amy’s determination to get to Nick’s party is quickly thwarted by the fact they have no idea where it is. As a result, they are forced to endure detours to other parties they did not plan on going to, cell phones which are quickly drained of all their energy, and teachers who either have unexpected side jobs or have forever sworn off drinking certain smoothies from Jamba Juice.

“Booksmart” marks the feature directorial debut of Olivia Wilde, an actress as strikingly intelligent as she is fiercely beautiful. She has said “The Breakfast Club,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Dazed and Confused” and “Clueless” served as inspirations for this film, and she has taken the best parts from each of them and created something which feels wonderfully unique. It has many laughs and heartbreaking moments which we can all relate to as, regardless of the advances in technology, our high school years were always emotional battlefields which left us with psychic scars which never fully heal.

Along with a cleverly crafted screenplay by Emily Halpern, Sarah Haskins, Susanna Fogel and Katie Silberman, Wilde takes the time to explore the various personalities high school has to offer, and of the cliques they have long since been consigned to. But as the story goes on, these same individuals get a chance to peel back the façade given to them by their classmates to where we see people trying to survive these rough and tumble years as rumors about their supposed behavior still spread like wildfires which can never be easily put out. It’s moments like these I always cherish in high school movies as no one is ever what they appear to be on the surface, and this is what I think “Booksmart” is truly about; looking past what you think you see to discover what is really there, and making us see we are all the same.

Both Davidson and Antsler are perfectly cast as Molly and Amy to where they make you believe they have been best friends forever. We root for them as they look to live their last night as high schoolers to the fullest, and we feel for them as they eventually realize they may never see each other again for the longest time after this year is over. And yes, the two have a tense confrontation when they reveal truths which should have been confronted ages ago, and Wilde sticks the knife in deeper by muting their conversation as the looks on their faces is enough to illustrate the painful truths and grudges which have now forced their way to the surface.

Another memorable performance comes from Billie Lourd as Gigi, a gleefully blissed-out individual who somehow shows up at every high school party Molly and Amy are at. She is a riot throughout and inhabits her character with such wonderful abandon to where I believe Silberman when she said extra scenes were written for Lourd as everyone was really impressed with her performance.

In addition, there are some nice cameos from Will Forte and Lisa Kudrow who play Amy’s parents and have prepared a dinner with food names which need to be heard to be fully appreciated. Jason Sudeikis has some choice moments as school principal Jordan Brown who shows up unexpectedly throughout the film. And Diana Silvers has some strong scenes as Hope, a seemingly mean school girl who eventually lets her poker face down.

Wilde also has wonderful collaborators in Dan the Automator who composed the energetic film score, and cinematographer Jason McCormack who gives the visuals a reality we can relate to as well as a fantastical quality when our heroines slip into their imaginations to where one dance sequence looks like it was shot by Benoît Debie.

“Booksmart” arrives in theaters one year after “Eighth Grade,” a film about the worst year in our lives. “Booksmart” isn’t quite as brutal as it takes place in a time when the divisions between teenagers begin to disappear as they are all about to advance to another, and more vulnerable, stage in their lives. Still, it proves to be as entertaining, thoughtful and at times as heartbreaking. While it may invite easy comparison with “Superbad,” it is by no means a gender reversed remake of it. I don’t know how many out there think it is, but it is worth pointing this out here.

In a time when summer blockbusters and superhero movies reign supreme at the box office, a movie like this can get buried too easily. Here’s hoping “Booksmart” gets the audience it deserves in one way or another. And after you have watched it, you will agree that panda bears will never, ever be the same.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

‘Vice’ Examines The Most Powerful Vice President of Them All

vice movie poster

“Is it better to be loved or feared?”

“I would rather be feared because fear lasts longer than love.”

-from “A Bronx Tale”

There is a key scene in Adam McKay’s “Vice” which serves as a reminder of how Dick Cheney was the most powerful Vice-President who ever lived. It takes place on September 11, 2001, and Cheney and the key members of George W. Bush’s administration are gathered together in room, but Bush himself is away from the White House. During a conversation with a military general, Cheney orders any suspicious aircraft to be shot down. Another person quickly raises an objection, but Cheney simply raises his hand ever so slightly to silence her. He doesn’t have to yell at or ask her to be quiet; just a simple movement was all that was needed to remind everyone in the room who was the one with all the power. Cheney instilled fear in everyone, even George W.

Christian Bale goes to great lengths in transforming his body into the characters he portrays, and his performance as Cheney will definitely go down as one of his memorable to say the least. There were times where I kept waiting for Bale to raise his voice a little higher as the monotone he was speaking at threatened to be more grating than the voice he gave Batman. But again, Cheney never has to speak up to get his point across. It reminded me of what Henry Hill said about Paulie Cicero in “Goodfellas:”

“Paulie may have moved slow, but it was only because Paulie didn’t have to move for anybody.”

Bale put on 45 pounds for to play Cheney, and he gets the former Vice-President’s mannerisms down perfectly to where you completely forget it is an English actor playing this American politician and one-time CEO of Haliburton. It is such a mesmerizing portrait as he makes us see how slowly but surely Cheney got seduced into the realm of power hungry politicians whether it was serving under his mentor Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) or being manipulated by his wife Lynne (Amy Adams). But even better is the way Bale, as Cheney, subtly worms his way into becoming George W. Bush’s (Sam Rockwell) VP to where he has more control over certain areas of government than Bush, as he is portrayed here, would care to have.

The fact we have any kind of biopic on Dick Cheney is astonishing as he and Lynne remain very secretive about their lives to where McKay employs a disclaimer at the film’s beginning which is as wickedly clever as the one Steven Soderbergh gave “The Informant.” This disclaimer ends with McKay saying he and his fellow collaborators “did our fucking best,” and I guess that’s all we can ask for.

It’s no surprise the director and co-writer of “The Big Short” has chosen an unorthodox approach to making this biopic as it shifts back and forth in time to Cheney’s college days where he spent more time getting drunk than studying or playing football. McKay also has Jesse Plemons playing Kurt, an everyman narrator who says he has a close connection to Cheney, a connection which will eventually be made clear. Throughout, we are shown images from real life which, if they haven’t already, should forever be burned into your conscious memory. Among them is former President Ronald Reagan at the Republican National Convention where he vows to “make America great again.” From here on out, this is a phrase which should forever live in infamy.

One of “Vice’s” most inspired moments comes when McKay begins the end credits midway through the film. What’s especially hilarious about this is how it reflects the conclusion many of us would have preferred Cheney’s to have had in American politics; the kind where he never would have become Vice President. But those familiar with American politics and the Bush Administration cannot and should not expect a happy ending here. Cheney left a lot of damage in his wake, and his political power still remains constant even though he no longer holds public office.

Indeed, Dick Cheney is a tough nut to crack as “Vice” can only get so far under his skin to where you wonder if this man has anything resembling a soul to explore. As the film goes on, he is shown increasingly to be a heartless individual, both figuratively and literally speaking (he did have a heart transplant), and he comes across as such a cold human being to where his muted reactions to the multiple heart attacks shouldn’t be seen as much of a surprise. The fact he even noticed he was having them is more surprising.

Where McKay really succeeds is in showing those closest in Cheney’s inner circle, among which is his wife Lynne. Amy Adams gets the opportunity to play a Lady Macbeth-like character much like the one she played in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” and she is fantastic from start to finish. Adams makes Lynne into the key motivator for Dick’s ascent into American politics to where she fearlessly campaigns for her husband while he is laid up in the hospital. Lynne recognized she lived in a time where she could not do all the things she wanted because of her gender, and she finds immense satisfaction through her husband’s rise to power. Adams is brilliant in portraying Lynne’s fascination with the political world and in showing her quick concerns when anything threatens Dick’s standing in Washington D.C.

Another great performance comes from Steve Carell as former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. Carell makes Rumsfeld into a gleefully cynical politician whose values have long since been corrupted by the quest for power. Just watch when Cheney asks him what they are supposed to be believe in. The gut-busting laugh Rumsfeld gives off speaks volumes as it illustrates exactly where his interests lie, and it is not with working class Americans.

As for Sam Rockwell, his portrayal of George W. Bush feels pitch perfect as he portrays a man whom even Cheney can see is more interested in pleasing his father when it comes to running for President. After watching Will Ferrell’s classic impersonation on “Saturday Night Live” and Josh Brolin’s portrayal of him in Oliver Stone’s “W,” it seemed all too difficult for any other actor to offer a unique interpretation of this unfortunate White House resident. Then again, Rockwell proves once again what a brilliant actor he is as he captures George W.’s mannerisms while humanizing this man in a way I did not expect or was ever in a hurry to see.

I was very much entertained by “Vice,” but I did come out of it feeling like it could have dug deeper into Dick Cheney’s life. Also, the nonlinear storytelling format is at times jarring as we are thrust from one moment in history to another with little warning. Then again, in retrospect, I wonder what more could have been said about Cheney as he seems to be this malignant vessel of a human being who is never has the look of someone who could ever be fully satisfied by anything. The only positive thing I saw of him was his acceptance of his daughter Mary’s (played by Alison Pill) sexuality when she comes out as a lesbian. If only Cheney had treated all Americans like they were Mary, things would have been much different than they ended up being. Of course, when his other daughter Liz runs for public office…

One of the last moments of “Vice” has Bale breaking the fourth wall as Cheney where he looks directly into the camera and tells all those listening he is apologizing for who he is or anything he has done. I’m fairly certain Cheney has not made any statement like this on camera in real life, but the speech Bale gives as him rings frighteningly true. Considering how complicit the former Vice-President was in war crimes which included torture and sending American troops into a war based on false evidence, he has a lot to apologize for, let alone answer to. But let’s face it, he’s never going to apologize. Ever. “Vice” has as many funny moments as it does haunting ones, and this speech is especially haunting because, let’s face it, he will die before he ever considers apologizing. Heck, he almost did.

* * * ½ out of * * * *