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Saturday, March 23, 2013

Review: Spring Breakers

The career of Harmony Korine can be summed up for me in the following: "Everything I hate about Requiem for a Dream stretched out over an entire filmography". It generally goes without saying that I find his movies pretentious with little to say, and often times poorly made. His writing debut, Kids, had that same "Requiem/After School Special" vibe that I detest, with messaging that hits you over the head with a frying pan. Everything he's made since, including the deplorable Gummo and Julien Donkey-boy, have been the work of someone who simply attempts shock value over coherent cinema, but his "hipster celebrity" keeps him in the public spotlight for whatever reason. So it's with that said that I was surprisingly entertained with his latest effort, Spring Breakers, what looks to be his biggest hit and most widely-distributed film. It may also be the biggest scale whitesploitation film I've ever seen.

Spring Breakers doesn't really have a complex narrative to speak of, it revolves around four college-age girls  Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson), and Cotty (Rachel Korine) who are desperate to leave their monotonous lives for the paradise that is "Spring Break". When it turns out they don't have enough money saved up to make that dream a reality, three of them sans Faith decide to rob a local diner using water pistols. With their stolen loot, they make their way to St. Petersburg and have a sex and drug-fueled good time. When they get busted for possession they end getting bailed out by local gangster (and terrible rapper) Alien (James Franco), who drives them into even deeper trouble until things spin completely out of control.

The first thing you'll notice about Spring Breakers is that it has a uniquely shot, candy-coated visual style. It feels like some sort of surreal world outside of our own, where Spring Break is made out to be a sexed-up paradise party. Yet, brimming underneath all of the hip-hop and nose powder, there's something deeply buried, something fairly dark and dangerous which is echoed through the personalities of the protagonists. None of these four girls are particularly drawn that well, save perhaps Faith as the religious girl looking to break away, but the remaining three are clearly very bad people. Faith's prayer group friends warn her away from Candy, Brit, and Cotty claiming that they have "the devil inside of them", which elicits some laughter, but they are clearly people of little remorse. For them, it's a case of the ends always justifying the means no matter who has to be stepped over, and a textbook example of sociopathy being disregarded because of the outer appearance. It's a fascinating idea that is explored well in the film.

In a macro-scale, Korine uses this same idea to condemn the shallowness of youth, particularly that of white America. His opening shots, backed by a dub-step composed by Skrillex, pan through shots of half-naked partiers out on the beach, drinking and dancing in slow motion, pouring beer all over each other, etc.. It's almost as if Korine is saying, "here's your dream young people, it's kind of gross". As the girls delve further into where some of the source of their "good times" come from, at least one of them undergoes an about-face as she realizes what kind of trouble she's actually walking into. This character's discomfort is used to reflect back at the intended audience a bit, and is an interesting tool used by Korine to manipulate his viewers into feeling a certain way. There comes a point where too much is too much, and how many people really want to look underneath that hood?

That's not to say Korine doesn't go overboard with the narrative tricks. There's an enormous amount of repetition used throughout. Lines are repeated ad-nauseum, we get quick cuts that flash forward to certain scenes and flash-back at other times. Sometimes it works very well, particularly towards Spring Breakers opening scenes. But at points, the desaturation and the constant sleight of hand begins to grate and starts to feel like a case of a director trying really hard to impress with every tool in his arsenal. I'm somewhat reminded of the utter failure on all levels that was Tony Scott's Domino, luckily Korine is much more capable and avoids the narrative traps of that aforementioned flop. While it's still the most coherent film that Korine has made, it would have been nice if he perhaps didn't trip over himself as much, which begins to make it feel like slightly more of a slog than it should be.

Maybe foremost though, Spring Breakers is strangely funny. Funny, not in your typical situational way, but more of a weird black veil of humor, which gives the whole proceedings a really interesting personality. All of this is solely attributed to Franco. Looking like some kind of mix of Drexel Spivey from True Romance and something that crawled out of a bad white boy hip-hop video, Franco has created a fascinating monster. Playing this gun-toting, corn-rowed, grilled-toothed gangster is playing so far against his own type and utterly nails every single line of dialogue that by the film's conclusion, I began to come around to the idea that Franco's less of a capable leading man and more of one heck of a character actor. It's a performance that really needs to be seen to be believed, but he just oozes suburban trashiness and every other line evokes some pretty good guffaws from the audience. Perhaps the highlight of this bizarre humor is a scene where the girls ask him to play a song on the piano and elects to go for a Britney Spears slow number sing-along, this then transitions into a montage of the group committing crimes to the actual track. The thought of Franco jumping around with his grill flashing in slow motion is still fairly humorous a day after the fact. The rest aren't served anywhere near as well through Korine's technique, Gomez is especially underwritten, though thats more a function of the plot. Hudgens and Benson do some really intense work with what little they're given, but the intensity of their characters really does shine through.

In the hands of someone else, it's easy to see this kind of material becoming a raunchy comedy, or a mindless action romp; but Korine, writing a fairly sparse script and letting his actors semi-improvise with they, his camera, and another great score by Cliff Martinez doing the heavy-lifting of the storytelling, very much impresses here. It's not a perfect film in any way, the slow points feel very slow, almost to the point of mind-numbing, but the strengths mostly outweigh the detractions. It's not a movie for everyone, remaining the purview of the art house set, and I'm certain most general audiences will likely walk away befuddled. Spring Breakers is also not a perfect film, but for once I can actually say I'm looking forward to the next Harmony Korine film, which never in a million years did I think would ever happen.

I give it a B 

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1 comment:

  1. What a bizarre movie, but I really enjoyed the inventiveness of it (visually and narratively). Martinez is quickly becoming one of my favorite composers, and goddamn is Franco funny in this.

    I'd give it a fairly high rating if not for anything else than for the fact that I'm still saying "Look at my shit. I got shorts, every fuckin' color. I got my dark tannin' oil. Look at my shit" at every possible opportunity :D


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