Zac Efron Races Cars, Gangsters Wear Bikinis: Film Review

The main cast of Harmony Korine's movie "Spring Breakers." The film, shown at the Venice Festival 2012, is a girls-and-gangsters movie starring Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens and James Franco. Source: Venice Film Festival via Bloomberg.

Director Brian De Palma gave cinema one of its most memorable male characters when he cast Al Pacino as “Scarface” in 1983.

De Palma’s “Passion” -- which premiered at the Venice Festival -- is unlikely to make the same lasting mark.

It’s admittedly a fine-looking tribute to Alfred Hitchcock, with impeccable costumes and sets. The two calculating women at its core are competently played by Rachel McAdams and Noomi Rapace (“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo”).

Yet the movie, a Franco-German production shot in Berlin, is an awkward Europeanized version of Hitchcock.

“This is basically a sexy murder mystery,” De Palma told reporters, hours after his movie was booed by a few at the press screening. Seated beside him was Rapace, her softly waved hair a change from her jet-black bangs on screen.

“Passion” opens with two women at a laptop watching pilots for a smartphone commercial. Blond Christine (McAdams), looking like Kim Novak in her tweed tailleurs and pulled-up hair, tells underling Isabelle (Rapace) that the demos stink.

By the next scene, they’re at Christine’s, a vast apartment with oil paintings and a baignoire divan. As the two get acquainted, a shifty-looking Englishman named Dirk drops by. Christine invites him to stay -- he’s one of the men she has over to amuse her with sex toys -- and bids Isabelle farewell.

Tight Jeans

The workaholic Isabelle, who sleeps with an open laptop on her knees, comes up with a great concept for the commercial: a girl in tight jeans flaunting a smartphone in her back pocket. Christine promptly passes it off as her idea.

“You have talent: I made the best use of it,” Christine icily explains. Relations between them sour, and Christine turns into a manipulative minx, victimizing the weepy Isabelle --until the tables get turned.

There’s no faulting the movie’s aesthetic. De Palma makes “Passion” the expensive way, with traveling shots, dollies and expert lighting. Occasional screeches from a string section, shadows falling over faces, and an overhead shower scene have homage-to-Hitchcock written all over them.

The problem is the clunky underlying plot -- which De Palma adapted from a 2010 Alain Corneau movie -- and the wooden performances by a mainly German cast. You come away yearning for the De Palma of yore, and wondering what happened. Rating: **.

‘Spring Breakers’

“Scarface” heads for the beach.

Harmony Korine’s “Spring Breakers” is a trashy girls-and-gangsters movie that’s well on its way to achieving cult status. Instead of the girls being pretty accessories, they’re the actual gangsters.

There was a huge Venice buzz around “Spring Breakers” because of its cast: actors Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, and James Franco.

It all starts with four college girls deciding to head to Florida on spring break. Short on cash, they pull on balaclavas to hold up a Chicken Shack restaurant, escaping with its takings.

Florida is heaven. At endless booze-and-bong parties, they get beer poured down their cleavages, and wear only bikinis -- even when hauled into court for partying too hard.

Along comes a silver-toothed Scarface wannabe in dreadlocks (Franco). He bails them out of jail, and invites them into his world: a world of drugs, fast cars, big guns and big money. The girls soon become his remorseless sidekicks, sporting shocking-pink bikinis and matching balaclavas as they go on the rampage.

Parts of “Spring Breakers” are jaw-dropping. Other parts drone on. The dialogue is (deliberately?) lame and repetitive, and Franco, though a good actor, sometimes seems a clown.

Still, Korine’s movie is disturbing enough to get you thinking. It’s bound to turn heads, and not just among college graduates, or drooling middle-aged men. Rating: **.

‘At Any Price’

Zac Efron and Dennis Quaid make a fiery father-son duo in the agriculturally themed drama “At Any Price,” by Iranian-American director Ramin Bahrani.

Lushly filmed on Iowa corn farms overrun by genetically modified seeds, the film is the story of a married, middle-aged seed salesman (Quaid) who fights to preserve the family business. He cuts corners, strikes petty deals, and expects his sons to follow suit.

Only one son has quit town to climb a high Argentinian mountain, and the other, a hot-headed rebel (Efron), prefers Figure 8 car racing, at which he excels.

Bahrani is a name on the festival circuit for small-budget movies like “Man Push Cart” (2005). With this one, he goes large-scale, both budget-wise and cast-wise.

The result somehow misses the mark. The story feels predictable, despite its dramatic denouement and Bahrani’s blurring of the line between good and bad. Maybe smaller-budget projects are more his thing. Rating: **.

What the Stars Mean:
*****      Exceptional
****       Excellent
***        Good
**         Average
*          Poor
(No stars) Worthless

(Farah Nayeri writes for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on arts and Jeremy Gerard on theater.

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