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.

Advertisements

‘Spider-Man 3’ is a Major Disappointment

Spiderman 3 poster

After the brilliance of “Spider-Man 2” one of the best comic book movies ever made, “Spider-Man 3” proves to be an astonishing disappointment. Even though this sequel has the same actors and directors as its predecessors, they are faced with a screenplay with too many characters, too many subplots which don’t reach a satisfying conclusion, villains who are not very satisfying, and some character choices which feel out of place in a movie like this.

I already had a problem with “Spider-Man 3” before I went in as there were too many villains for one motion picture. It would have been better for it to have just one villain for Spider-Man to face because it allows the filmmakers to give more attention to the characters to where they can become unforgettable. You can get away with two villains sometimes, but you are better off with one as this movie shows.

This ended up being the last “Spider-Man” movie Sam Raimi directed, and my original thought was he knew this would be the case, so he ended up putting in everything but the kitchen sink. In retrospect, I think the studio forced him to add characters who were big comic book fan favorites, and Raimi obliged even though there was little chance of those characters getting enough screen time. In the process of pleasing the fans, “Spider-Man 3” succeeded in alienating them by throwing things at us the filmmakers assumed we would like.

Spider-Man’s first nemesis is the New Goblin, same as the Old Goblin. We all know the New Goblin is actually Harry Osborn, played once again by James Franco, and he ends up giving his best performance in all of the “Spider-Man” movies here. Franco revels in going all over the place as he seethes at Peter Parker whom he is still convinced killed his father. In the process of trying to kill Peter, Harry gets amnesia and forgets about what Peter supposedly did. But this doesn’t keep Harry from messing with Peter’s life or stealing away those closest to him.

Then comes Spidey’s next darn nemesis, Sandman/Flint Marko played by Thomas Haden Church who was on a roll after his Oscar nominated performance in “Sideways.” This is an interesting villain as you can clearly see what drives him: his love for his sick little girl. While Church does what he can with an underwritten part which has him disappearing from the screen for far too long, he is nowhere as compelling as Alfred Molina was as Doc Ock was in “Spider-Man 2.” Flint never gets the chance to revel in his new-found powers, and he doesn’t feel as threatening as a result.

After that, we get yet another antagonist in the form of Eddie Brock who later turns into one of the most famous comic book villains ever, Venom. Now while I can see how Venom is such an immensely popular character in the “Spider-Man” universe, his appearance in “Spider-Man 3” feels like an afterthought. Furthermore, he is portrayed by Topher Grace who, while having given terrific performances in movies like “Traffic,” is completely miscast. Eddie Brock/Venom feels too broad as he is portrayed here, and we don’t get to invest emotionally in this character as much as we would like to.

Tobey Maguire has long since proven to be one of the best Spider-Man’s we have ever seen on the big screen, and the best acting he does here is with his eyes and face. He can get you right in the heart with just one look, and he never gives you a false emotion in any scene. This is especially the case in a pivotal moment between him and Mary Jane Watson which is truly heartbreaking to watch.

“Spider-Man 3” also sees the famous web-slinger exploring his dark side when an alien symbiote lands down on earth in his vicinity and infects him and changes his behavior. But things soon degenerate as Maguire is forced to play Peter as if he is some sort of emo dude to where he is suddenly struck with the urge to dance in public for no particularly special reason. Some of these scenes are amusing to watch, but they belong in a different film.

It also sucks to see the female characters underused here. Kirsten Dunst is back as Mary Jane Watson, and it’s great to see her again as she has been fantastic in this series. But in “Spider-Man 3” she doesn’t have much to do here other than end up in a perilous state and hanging on for dear life. You’d think at this point Mary Jane would realize she’s better off without Peter as her life remains in constant danger while they are together. How many times do you think you could take fighting for your life when your boyfriend is Spider-Man? Well, if you’re Jack Bauer, I guess you could do it quite a bit. This is regardless of the fact Mary Jane Watson is not Jack Bauer’s girlfriend, but anyway…

Bryce Dallas Howard co-stars as Gwen Stacy, a huge fan favorite of the Spider-Man series, but she gets even less to do than Dunst. I think Gwen ended up here because Marvel and Columbia Pictures insisted on her inclusion as they figured the fans were ever so eager to see this character in any “Spider-Man” movie at that point. Howard is a fantastic actress and makes for a very good Gwen Stacy, but this character has little purpose for being in “Spider-Man 3” other than to please the most die-hard fans.

There are other welcome returns in “Spider-Man 3” like Rosemary Harris who plays Aunt May, the Yoda of Peter Parker’s life who gives him the wisdom he needs to hear. J.K. Simmons remains the consummate scene stealer as J. Jonah Jameson, and he had me in hysterics from his first scene where his secretary reminds him to watch out for his high blood pressure. And yes, Bruce Campbell does his usual “Spider-Man” cameo, this time as a waiter desperate to help Peter and Mary Jane have the most wonderful of times at a restaurant. It’s always good to see Campbell in a movie no matter what kind of role he plays.

The climax has the Sandman teaming up with Venom to take down Spider-Man, and while it is an emotionally charged climax, we still come out of this movie very disappointed as it feels like there are so many missed opportunities. Once again, each of these villains are very underdeveloped to where the stakes don’t feel high, and everything ends up feeling far less exciting. Plus, we have seen Mary Jane in danger far too many times to where everything going on begins to feel boring and redundant. I ended up going on a bathroom break during the movie, something I usually never do, but I’m positive I didn’t miss much.

For what it’s worth, I liked how Raimi deals with the futility of revenge and how it destroys the soul, and he also shows how it is better to forgive. This is something I need to remind myself of more often. It makes for a strong moment between Peter and the Sandman as well as with Harry. It’s these moments where you feel the strength and pain of the characters ever so purely, and this movie could have used many more moments like these.

I couldn’t help but come out of “Spider-Man 3” feeling completely let down. “Spider-Man 2” was so good to where I couldn’t help but come into this one with high expectations. The fact everyone involved screwed this motion picture up feels utterly baffling considering what came before, and the disappointment this sequel generates really stings. I’d like to think that “Spider-Man 3” stands as an example of how not to make a comic book movie, but after watching “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” it is still a lesson everyone needs to learn.

* * out of * * * *

Exclusive Interview with Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi on ‘In Dubious Battle’

andrea-and-monika-of-ambi

James Franco steps behind the camera once again for his directorial effort, and adaptation of John Steinbeck’s novel “In Dubious Battle.” This movie takes us back to the 1930’s when a group of migratory workers rose up and began a strike against landowners who informed them their pay was being cut from $3 to $1 a day for their work. In addition to directing, Franco also stars as one of strike’s key leaders, Jim Nolan, who struggles to stay true to his idealism of having the courage never to submit or yield. Also, it features a fantastic cast of actors which include Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio, Bryan Cranston, Ed Harris, Nat Wolff, Selena Gomez, Sam Shepard, Zach Braff and Josh Hutcherson.

I got to speak with the producers of “In Dubious Battle,” Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi, recently at the Redbury Hotel in Hollywood, California. Iervolino is considered one of the most accomplished entrepreneurs in the movie business as he has financed and distributed over 50 films since he was 16 years old. Bacardi is an entrepreneur as well and a successful businesswoman, patron of the arts, philanthropist, and humanitarian. Together, they founded the AMBI Group, a multi-national consortium of vertically integrated film development, production, finance and distribution companies.

in-dubious-battle-movie-poster

Ben Kenber: I thought the movie was really good, and it was surprising to learn that this was one of John Steinbeck’s lesser-known books because, in today’s world, it is so timeless. Is that what really attracted you to producing this movie?

Andrea Iervolino: You know, two years ago, when we decided to produce this movie, we didn’t expect what is now happening in the United States.

Lady Monika Bacardi: A lot of the demonstrations that have happened after the release of the movie. The demonstrations in the film and people fighting for their rights, and now history is repeating itself.

AI: We decided to do this movie because, first of all, we’re big fans of John Steinbeck. He is the best author in American culture, and of course, we love James Franco. When we read the script, me and Monika, we were in two different countries; I was in New York and she was in Monte Carlo. We received the script and we talked for six hours about it.

LMB: And then we decided (to do the movie). It was very fast.

AI: Super-fast. And then we tried to do the maximum we can to promote the movie, and we also went to the Venice Film Festival where it received two awards (for James Franco and Andrea Iervolino). We went to the Toronto Film Festival, the Vail Film Festival, in Capri, etc. So everywhere we went, he received awards for the movie. So, we are proud of the quality in this movie is timeless. We believe today that in 10 years when you watch the movie, for sure a revolution will happen again. A protest will happen again for many individuals so you can think this can be me.

LMB: Yes. When people fight for their rights and they gather together, it’s the hope that they can help them because in their time there were a lot of revolutions that changed things and help the workers get the rights they deserved. So, it’s a message of hope.

BK: It’s interesting how you talk about history repeating itself because it’s a sad fact we can’t seem to escape.

LMB: Yes, it’s sad because we should be learning from history, and the same mistakes should not be made again. There must always be a positive revolution, but unfortunately, we see over and over again that history doesn’t change we make the same mistakes. It repeats itself.

BK: Yes, and that’s why it’s great this movie is being released now. Also, it feels like a miracle this movie got made in today’s world of superhero movies. Was it hard to get the financing for it?

AI: If you do a movie at the right budget, you can do every type of movie you want. The toughest ones to market are the most commercial ones. We believe this movie was made for the right budget and had the right cast, and we believe this movie respects the audience it was meant for.

BK: How much time did you have to shoot this movie in?

AI: The movie was shot in around five weeks.

BK: That sounds like a longer schedule than you like this tend to get these days. Also, it has quite the cast. Was it difficult getting all those actors together?

LMB: James Franco actually has a lot of friends, and he loves John Steinbeck. As a director, he called his friends, and for that reason, this is why he has all the stars together here. He’s a great director and a great actor.

BK: You can tell this is a film people got involved in because of their love and belief in the material, and it really shines through here. Also, you to have been working in the movie business for a while now. How would you say movies have evolved during your time in the business?

AI: You know, I did my first movie was when I was 15, so 14 years ago, I was doing a movie in digital. So, I was the first one in Italy to do a movie in digital because they don’t pay you a lot of money to make your first movie. I financed it by going door to door in my town to collect money, so I was forced to do my movie in digital. But then a few years later I became more powerful because I was the first one with the experience in digital, and I also started to make a movie in Italy with the same technology and distribution point of view, and that was when I was 21. Basically, in my point of view, in the way you can produce a movie there is change, but today I think there are more independent people, young people, with opportunities to produce their movies because the key is that the distribution system has changed. Before you can monetize your movie, you have to go to a local agent to bring your movie to a local cinema or in the local store to someone who can print your DVD, and then you need the agent to go speak with a company. So today, you can run content by yourself. You can do one deal worldwide, and you can add your movie directly to the internet platform. For big managers today, this is a problem because the distribution power is going down, down, down because if you do have good content, you can go for direct distribution, so from who produces and who watches the movie, it is only one step. Before it was 10 or 20 steps which is what managers took advantage of.

LMB: This distribution changed on us.

AI: Yes. And if you think about it, it is like going back. My mentor in Italy, Luciano Martino, he was doing movies in Italy in the 1950’s, 1960’s, and the 1970’s. He was telling me he was producing the movies by himself with his company, and he was going to the cinemas everywhere in Italy to position the movies, and then the movies ran the cinema for six months. So, it was one step production, and today it is again one step. So, it’s like going back. The powers coming back to the producer, not the distribution companies.

LMB: I agree with Andrea always 100%. We cannot speak at the same time, but we have the same opinions on film.

BK: With the changes in distribution, did that help “In Dubious Battle” or take away from it at all?

AI: It actually helped this movie for sure because we were going to go out with the DVD system so we will go out in the principal market, and the same time we will go out in the DVD system. A movie like this cannot make 20 million in one week; it’s too risky. But today, with this new platform, this movie can embrace this distribution concept where you can arrive to your audience and make your audience find the movie all around them without losing your investment.

BK: There is so much money put into advertising movies these days to where it costs more to promote them than to make them.

AI: Yes, sometimes more.

BK: So, it’s nice to see a movie like this can still find its audience while not having a huge budget for advertising.

LMB: Yes, absolutely.

AI: I really believe in three, four or five years, it will become more and more possible to produce a movie with a specific audience because you will know where you can find the audience that likes this movie. Before you needed to spend $10 million dollars in TV advertising in order to get to 300 million people, and in order to reach 3 million people who like your movie.

LMB: (Laughs). It’s absolutely true. Plus, the young people have a different concept that they look a lot of internet, and they go to the movies a lot less than our generation did. It depends on the country, and every country is different

BK: Was there any pressure to modernize this book at all when it came to making this movie?

LMB: We had to keep it as a true story because the message it gives is actually timeless about how history repeats itself. You have to keep it at the time and be true to the book so we cannot change it completely.

AI: Also, the love story component in the movie between Selena Gomez and Nat Wolff and the friendship story between James and Nat, these help the movie be more accessible to young people. Maybe 15, 16 or 18-year-olds, they don’t know or care about John Steinbeck.

LMB: And the love story makes it very human and very touching. It’s about the revolution, but it’s also about the human story and the human aspect.

BK: It almost would have been great to see this movie made in black and white. Was that ever a consideration?

AI: You know, it was in the beginning for about five minutes, but it was too difficult. Black-and-white in a distribution point of view can give you so many limitations. Maybe we can do a black-and-white animation movie someday.

I want to thank Andrea Iervolino and Lady Monika Bacardi for taking the time to talk with me. “In Dubious Battle” premieres in theaters and VOD on February 17, 2017.

Save

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

rise-of-the-planet-of-the-apes-movie-poster

Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a prequel no one I knew of, including myself, was excited about seeing. The memories we have, or whatever’s left of them, of Tim Burton’s surprisingly bland and forgettable remake of “Planet of the Apes” made us not want to have those “damn dirty apes” putting their paws on us ever again. But this prequel proves to be a total surprise and an unexpected delight as it is intelligently written and features a number of interesting characters which many summer movies typically lack.

Actually, there is one real reason why “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is as good as it is: Andy Serkis. You may not know the face, but you most certainly know the name. Serkis brought Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to life, and he inhabited the humongous ape who was in love with Naomi Watts in “King Kong.” Serkis has also done a large number of live action roles, but these are the ones he is best known for. As Caesar, Serkis does an amazing job of creating a multi-dimensional creature who is endlessly fascinating to watch as his intelligence grows exponentially.

What happens is scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a genetically engineered retrovirus which may cure Alzheimer’s Disease (didn’t I just tell you that?) just like Saffron Burrows’ character in ” Deep Blue Sea” tried to accomplish. Will, on the other hand, is doing this because his dad Charles (the great John Lithgow) is in the grips of this dreaded disease, so his goal of getting to a cure is both personal and far more dangerous as a result.

Rodman and his team succeed with one chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, who develops a strong level of human intelligence after being given the retrovirus. However, Bright Eyes ends up getting killed after going on a rampage in the laboratory which is immediately blamed on Will’s experiment. It turns out, however, that Bright Eyes had given birth to a chimp, and both Will and fellow scientist Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) realize the attack came about not because of the retrovirus, but because she was just trying to protect her baby. Since all the other chimps were euthanized after the attack, Robert asks Will to take care of the chimp until a more permanent home can be found. If the baby is discovered, she will be euthanized like the rest of the chimps were.

Now this is where the movie gets really interesting as we watch the baby chimp, which Will names Caesar, grow up and evolve at a rapid pace. The retrovirus ended up being passed on to him from his mother, so he is already imbued with human intelligence. Now I don’t know if any experiment can make chimps or apes that smart as of yet, but considering we came from them (don’t believe otherwise), the concept behind the plot feels very plausible since we know chimps can learn things like sign language (which Will teaches Caesar), and that DNA in chimps and humans is exactly identical.

“Rise of the Planet of The Apes” came out around the same time the documentary “Project Nim” was released, and that one focused on a chimp who was raised alongside a human family where he learned American Sign Language. As a result, Will bringing Caesar into his home for him and his ailing father to watch over never feels far-fetched in the slightest.

Serkis is brilliant in making Caesar appear like a frightened child as he discovers the dangers of the outside world. This is not your typical monster movie where the humans fight animals because they are considered “evil.” Caesar doesn’t start out attacking humans as much as he defends the ones he feels are being harmed. We feel for him as he gets exposed to a cold and hostile environment which treats him as inferior and brutalizes him out of sheer neglect and contempt. Watching Serkis transform Caesar from helpless victim to leader is mesmerizing, and he makes it to where we don’t see him as an animal but as more human than the humans surrounding him.

We’ve seen some movies where humans attack aliens or other species, be it “Cowboys & Aliens” or “Attack The Block,” so it’s kind of refreshing to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” bypass this to where the battle is more complex than it appears to be on the surface. These apes weren’t born evil, but they have evolved (take that Creationists!) to where they are no longer dependent on humans for their survival. You almost find yourself rooting for the apes as you can’t blame them for wanting to get back at their captors. Then again, not all the humans in this movie are cruel to animals.

James Franco is as excellent as scientist Will Rodman who is in the Frankenstein mold of trying to extend life even if it goes beyond scientific boundaries. Franco never makes Will out to be an obsessive genius with delusions of grandeur, but instead a regular guy doing what he feels is best. As he tries the retrovirus on other chimps and his father, even he comes to see there are and should be limits to what science can do. Human life can only last for so long, darn it.

The movie, however, stumbles a little when it comes to other characters. Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays Will’s girlfriend Caroline Aranha, but she’s not given much to do other than be his conscience. Brian Cox plays John Landon, manager of a primate facility who incarcerates Caesar when a court order takes him away from Will. Cox is great as always, but we don’t see enough of him. Then there’s Tom Felton who brings his Draco Malfoy act from the “Harry Potter” franchise to the States with an American accent as Landon’s bully of a son, Dodge. Felton’s not bad, but the character he plays is nothing more than a manipulative device to turn our sympathies towards Caesar which comes to feel unnecessary very quickly.

Directing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is Rupert Wyatt who previously directed the British prison thriller “The Escapist.” He shows a very assured and confident style here and is clearly interested in more than just simple escapist fun with this film. He also gives more attention to the characters to where they are the ones which drive the film. The special effects are great, but they’re not the point. The complexities of the story make for a more emotionally involving cinematic experience than any “Transformers” movie could ever hope to be.

The story is a familiar one of man vs. science and of the moral implications which are heedlessly ignored in the pursuit of a greater good. We should despise Will for violating his own ethics which start off an evolution that soon leads to a revolution. But in the end, the movie implies that the destruction of the human race will not be from the apes but instead from our own willful ignorance. We should know better, and yet history keeps repeating itself.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proved to be one of summer 2011’s best movies, and it makes me look forward to the sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” The downside is Serkis still has yet to get an Oscar nomination for his work in movies like these. Regardless of how it may seem, the special effects did not do all the acting for him. It could have just seemed like a simple setup for a franchise, but it feels very much like a full movie which doesn’t exist solely for that purpose. It will appeal to a wide audience, and not just for those who are against animal testing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *